Monday, July 28, 2014

Playing Miniature Games Long Distance: Vassal

Miniature-based wargaming is graced with a huge amount of variety, from setting to scope, science fiction to low fantasy, skirmish to total warfare.  But whereas the genre affords players a plethora of different themes to explore, one aspect of the hobby always remains the same. And that is the investment of time that it takes to play a miniature-based wargame. From assembling, painting, reading background material, learning rules, and ultimately meeting up with some friends to push models around on a tabletop, the hobby takes a lot of time.  And if you are anything like me, as you get older, time is more and more at a premium.  No longer in school/college, you are starting a career, a family, or both, and even if you do have some free time a few evenings a week, your gaming friends likely are not just down the hall or across the street.  Because this is a hobby that I love, I still make time to assemble and convert models, read background lore, explore the vast and dedicated miniature gaming blogosphere, and try my best to keep up-to-date on the rule sets of multiple games.  Of these, being knowledgeable about the rules, has probably become the tallest order.  And this is simply because I do not often get the chance to actually play the games.  Although I really enjoy reading and learning new rule systems, just reading them is not the same thing as playing them.  Playing a single game every five months, when I get together with my like-minded friends, is hardly a good way to learn and retain the nuances and complexities of many of these games, let alone experiment with army lists.  This got me to thinking about how it would be wonderful if there was a way that I could play some of these games digitally, such that when I actually got together with my friends, the games we played would be as good as possible, filled with strategy and character, rather than paging through rulebooks and reusing army lists from years ago. This led me to Vassal: the open-source boardgame engine.

The Vassal Engine is a free open-source game engine designed to play board and tabletop games online.  To play different games, you simply install a module designed for the particular game, which includes all of the counters, cards, and dice.  At the time of writing this, there are an impressive 1,460 games with modules available to play though Vassal, most designed by dedicated players, but a few are actually made by the publishers themselves (Wyrd for example).  Some of these modules, while in existence, are not available for download directly from Vassal’s website due to wishes of their respective copyright holders.  The most notable of these being Games Workshop. Despite this, with a little searching, you can find modules for most of their games, including Warhammer 40,000, Battlefleet Gothic, Space Hulk, Necromunda, and their fantasy equivalents. But I really did not come to Vassal to play these games; I wanted to use it to reinforce my tenuous knowledge of some of the skirmish games that I recently started to play, namely Malifaux and Infinity.  The smaller scale of these games proved ideal for learning how to use Vassal, since they put you in command of a few warriors rather than a vast army, allowing one to easily familiarize themselves with the controls.

I had known about Vassal for a while, but had always pushed off trying to use it, thinking it would be cumbersome and unintuitive, but was pleasantly surprised that it is really quite straightforward.  After installing and starting the program, all you need to do is open the module for the game you are interested in.  Conveniently, you can download most of these modules directly from Vassal’s website.  Some publishers, like Wyrd, actually have modules for download on their websites, as well.  In the case of Malifaux, Wyrd’s website currently has a more updated version of the module then what is on Vassal’s site.  Additionally, Wyrd has a very helpful manual, detailing how to use the module, from starting a game to more detailed things such as applying status effects to models.

Through a few easy to navigate menus, you find and create games.

For Malifaux, when the module is open, you select whether you want to start a game online or off.  If choosing to look online, you can either join a game or create one of your own.  To do this, you can select one of over 20 Encounters (different thematic boards/maps) that you want to play on and chose whether you will be the 1st or 2nd player.  At this point, the vast majority of the setup is already done.  There is an Objects button that opens a window that allows you to select all of the models you will be using as well and any markers, blast templates, or additional terrain.  There are also two tape measure buttons, allowing easy measurement during games, as well as a helpful reference card that summarizes a lot of important rule elements.  Beyond this, all you really need is an opponent.  If you have a friend playing with you, they simply need to start up the Malifaux module on Vassal and search for the game you just created and join as the 2nd player.  Although there is a dialog box for typing to one-another and displaying what actions each player is taking, it is far easier (and more fun!) if you also use Skype or some other voice chat service so you can talk to your opponent.

This is what a game of Malifaux looks like though Vassal.  You can see the tool bar at the top with a host of useful buttons, like the tape measure.  There is empty space to the right of the play area which is ideal for displaying the Fate Decks.

Importantly, there are two buttons to display both players Fate Decks in separate windows (you only have control over one, the opponent the other).  Each window has host of buttons allowing you to manipulate the Fate deck throughout a game, allowing you to shuffle the deck, flip and discard cards, and use soulstones.  They also have a space to drag cards from the top of the deck to create your control hand, which remain hidden from the opponent until you reveal them.  Conveniently, all the suits on the cards are replaced with the Malifaux equivalents and little blood drops mark those cards that cause moderate damage.  All of the face cards are Malifaux themed with different character artwork too.  Since the Fate deck is so central to playing the game, I am glad Wyrd put in the extra time to make it so functional and easy to use.

Seamus and his undead ladies advance with the intent of sending Sonia to an early grave.

Controlling your units is a quite simple affair as well.  Just like if you were actually moving models around on a real table, you can use the tape measure to measure out the models’ walk (wk) value and then just drag the model into it new position.  You can also use the arrow keys on your keyboard, with the left and right arrows changing the facing of the model, and the forward and back keys move the model 1” forward or backwards respectively.  Likewise, you use the tape measure to confirm ranges and then use the digital Fate Deck for the subsequent duels.  There is also a robust suite of options allowing you to denote the various conditions a model receives (Burning, Poison, Fast, etc.) and display the models current Wound total, all of which is easily modified with the click of a key.  Conveniently, you can also display Melee, Aura, and Pulse ranges from each model, making it very easy to determine what model can be targeted by an attack or is affected by a spell.

The Malifaux module allows you to easily denote Conditions and display Melee ranges, as seen by this Burning Rotten Belle as she brings her Teeth and Nails to bear against an unfortunate Witchling Stalker.

It should be noted that playing a game using Vassal is not like playing a video game, with built in tutorials and helpful guides.  To play the games you need to have a good understanding of the rules because there is nothing ensure you are playing properly or to prevent you from cheating, other then a dialog box that records what each player is doing.  Furthermore, you need to manually set everything up, from adding terrain to a map to placing each one of your models.  Likewise, you manually adjust wounds and add status effects (there are no flashy animations).  In a similar vein, most modules do not include all of the cards, or will have the text on cards blank (a restriction set by the publishers to ensure you own the game in question).  Malifaux for example, while having all the playing pieces for the different crews, has none of the stat cards included.  I have not really had a problem with this, since I have been using it primarily to practice and get familiar with crews that I have assembled and want to use in games in the future.  Ultimately, each game is essentially playing the physical version of the game, there is still all the same setup: adding terrain and putting models on a play area, getting out the stat cards for each crew member (I have found it is easiest to just get out the actual cards and lay them in front of me during the game for reference since they are not included in the module), and shuffling your Fate Deck.  The only real difference is it is on a computer screen and some of the bookkeeping is easier because it can be displayed on each model directly (and of course that you aren’t playing with the models you spent so much time assembling!).

Provided that you go into Vassal with a clear understanding of what it is, a digital tabletop that requires you to manipulate everything like when playing with actual models, it is an excellent way to play Malifaux (and other miniature games like X-wing and Infinity) on a more frequent basis, allowing one to keep abreast of the rules through actual game experience. And while I do not think that using it could ever replace playing the physical game (I think I speak for most of us when I say that I started this hobby and keep with it because of the miniatures!), it is an excellent supplement and one that makes me feel more involved in the hobby than ever.  And ultimately, if it gets you to spend some time with a friend laughing, albeit through a microphone, and enjoying the games you have already invested so much into, how is that not a good thing?

-Eric Wier

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