Friday, 5 October 2012

VASSAL - Six Weeks On

We've being using VASSAL for just over six weeks now and played some fine games online, but how easy was it to set-up and use?

What is VASSAL?
Vassal is a game engine for building and playing online adaptations of board games and card games. You can use Vassal to play in real time over the Internet or by email. Vassal runs on all platforms, and is free, open-source software. (from the VASSAL site)

Setting Up VASSAL
The VASSAL site is fairly straight-forward to use and offers a good set of FAQs for users just starting up. Your first step is to download the VASSAL engine software for the operating system that you're using. This can combine with literally hundreds of different modules which cover many of the war gaming titles available today. Almost 1200 modules are listed and available for download, so there's a good chance that it has the game you're looking for.

The Games (or Modules)

VASL Map and Units

ASL - Modules can vary wildly in terms of quality and usability, but on the whole I've found those that we've tried excellent in their online representation of the games covered. To date I've tried Advanced Squad Leader, using the VASL system (VASSAL began as VASL for ASL players). It's slightly more complicated than most of the VASSAL modules as it has many different maps, units and scenarios to deal with, but the interface is strong and provides a useful online representation of the game.

The module provides counter and map artwork to match the physical game and a shared interface to allow players to track each other's line-of-sight (LOS) checks, dice rolls and counter changes. Set-up and movement are both straight-forward, but the system will not enforce rules, the players need to do that themselves.

FAB Sicily on VASSAL
FAB: Sicily - VASSAL provides a very nice online representation of this popular fast action battles system. I have yet to play the FAB Bulge version, but Sicily is a well put together module with great map and counter quality as well as simple programming to cover the random chit draws and the random untried Italian units. A first class job!

Twilight Struggle on VASSAL
Twilight Struggle - The VASSAL module for Twilight Struggle has a much higher degree of automation than that of either ASL or FAB Sicily. It handles the card shuffling and dealing, the staggering of the early, middle and late war cards, basic turn movement and scoring as well as some card effects. Initially I thought that the partial automation would prove problematic in understand when and where the players had to interact with the game, but this is not the case and it plays through each action and turn logically, taking the pain out of the constant influence movements.

As with FAB Sicily the artwork is excellent and in-line with the proper game art.

File Menu
The Interface (Using Twilight Struggle)
The file menu offers some basic game scenarios to play 
  • "CCW - no optional cards" is the Chinese Civil War with no optional cards included.
  • "CCW - with optional cards" is the Chinese Civil War with optional cards included.
  • "Standard - no optional cards" is the Standard game with no optional cards included.
  • "Standard - with optional cards" is the Standard game with optional cards included.
You also have the option to load, save or close your game, begin and end a logfile, edit some basic preferences or quit the VASSAL program. The logfile is especially useful as it record the game moves and can be loaded and walked through after completing the game.

Standard Button Options in Twilight Struggle Module
The standard toolbar options (above) allow you to control everything from the turn progress to your own hand of cards. As you can see from the screenshot below the American player during their turn can elect to play a card for OPs, the Event or on the Space Race by right clicking on a card and selecting the appropriate option from the menu. The module prevents you from completing an illegal or out-of-turn action.

Your hand of cards pop-up in a separate window

 In fact most things that can be automated in the game are automated and one of the few things that you will need to bookkeep outside of playing your cards is updating the influence on the board. This too is straight-forward and influence can be increased or decreased by right-clicking in the target country. (left)

Obviously the interface varies from game to game, but many of the popular games around today are well supported through their VASSAL module.

Overall, the VASSAL system takes a little getting use to, but after a game or two you'll quickly pick it up and future modules will appear very accessible. They do, from time-to-time, have some connectivity issues, although in the eight or nine games we've played recently, they have only proved to be a mild irritation and not disrupted our game-play for more than a few minutes.

VASSAL is run on a voluntary basis, it's documents and development work done most through community support. That being said the set-up is of a very high quality. Please support them if you can.

What's Up Next?
Probably a go at FAB: The Bulge or Shifting Sands.

FAB: The Bulge on VASSAL


  1. Couldn't agree more Hadik, VASSAL is a wargamers dream, especially if they cannot find local opponents.

  2. Now if they can only get it working on iOS/Android devices it will be perfect.

  3. That got me thinking about the Twilight Struggle PC release ( I wonder what will happen to the VASSAL module then...