Free Online Board Game Vault VASSAL Is the Cat-Proof Tabletop of Tomorrow

In which the steward of the world's biggest open-source, volunteer-run board game simulator puts the coffee table industry on notice.


The universal tabletop game simulator is the Philosopher’s Stone for dice throwers. This virtual flat space was dreamt up far before the technology to create an adequately flexible rules framework arrived and well before open-source code made the creation of that framework a human-sized endeavor. Now it’s here and it’s called the VASSAL Engine and, though it’s far from perfect, it provides a glimpse into a world where someone always wants to play Settlers of Catan or/and Risk or/and Axis and Allies.

VASSAL began as VASL — for Virtual Advanced Squad Leader — in the early ‘90s when designer Rodney Kinney decided he wanted to wargame online. Today, VASSAL has grown beyond Advanced Squad Leader into a hive of user-created game modules. (Game modules aren’t part of the program, but data in the same way that a document is data in a word processor.) VASSAL hosts 1,700 games that span nearly five millennia of design, from Backgammon to Cards Against Humanity to Mage Knight. The scope of the project is determined by VASSAL’s users, but the exact nature of the project is determined by software developer Joel Uckelman, the man who now carries Kinney’s torch, spearheading — in so much as one can — a loose cabal of volunteers.

Currently, there are roughly 400 rooms of players playing Munchkin or Twilight Struggle or Star Wars X-wing at any given moment on VASSAL as well as countless more playing games via email. VASSAL also has a devoted BoardGameGeek fanbase, which is why designers use it to playtest games. The engine has a growing audience, which is all the more impressive because it is, to be totally frank, a bit off putting from a design and interface perspective. Like many good games, it takes a while to figure out. And, like many good games, it makes that time seem well spent.

Inverse chatted with Uckelman about where VASSAL is now and how he hopes to modify it to attract a bigger audience of players and gaming companies.

The board game purist might argue that part of what makes the hobby great is the physicality of it all, the face-to-face interaction and placing chits and flipping cards. Do you see VASSAL complimenting physical board games, or does it ever act as a replacement?

I have a room that has meters and meters of shelving for games. I’m buying games all the time. Personally, it’s definitely not a replacement for the games. It is something that lets me have more game time than I would otherwise. That’s really what it is for me. I know for some other people they may see it as replacing the games, but I don’t think that’s a very common view. What I hear the most is that it gives people more game time than they would get just by playing face to face.

There are also some very long games where you have a rather high counter density. Something like VASSAL lets you plan out moves without completely destroying the setup. That can also be quite nice. It raises the level of play a bit because it means you can consider what you’re doing a little more.

I also have cats. Cats are horrible for jumping across your game board. And I have a four-year-old. It’s kind of like letting a bomb off in the middle of your game.

And do board game publishers care when their games go on VASSAL? Let’s say I put a Magic the Gathering module on VASSAL. What would you do?

We would definitely hear from [Magic the Gathering publishers] Wizards of the Coast about that. If a game company asks us not to host a module, then we don’t. We’re interested in maintaining good relationships with game companies. If everyone told us that we couldn’t host, then there would be nothing to use VASSAL with.

Publishers are all over the place with this. I’m a wargamer, myself. The people I have a lot of contact with are the wargamers and people at the wargame companies. So I can tell you on one end you have publishers like GMT, and Multi-Man Publishing, and others who are extremely supportive. They host VASSAL modules on their own sites. They look for people to make VASSAL modules for new games, and they provide original game art for the modules so the modules look like the published games. All they ask is that if you’re going to use the module that you own a copy of the game, which seems quite reasonable to me. They need to be able to make their money in order to keep producing games.

Way at the other end you have companies completely opposed to people making modules for VASSAL or for any other program. The reasoning that I saw from them was that they essentially thought it meant that people wouldn’t buy their games. I don’t agree with that. I think that’s misguided. I think the companies that have been supportive of this have proved them wrong many times over. That’s not what happens. I have people tell me all the time that they bought some game because there was a VASSAL module for it.

I know that there are people who have made a Warhammer 40K module, for example. That’s one that we don’t host because Games Workshop, many many years ago — almost immediately on it going up — asked us not to. But those guys, the guys who are making that module, they ended up hosting it themselves. Well, you know, it’s the internet. People can do that. It’s not up to us.

That makes sense.

In a two-player game, both players don’t have to own a copy, it just takes one copy.

Right. It’s not like we both bring copies of Twilight Struggle to the table.

Exactly. And that seems like a reasonable thing to ask, to me. Certain game companies have more complicated conditions. A lot of the modules for Fantasy Flight Games, they want the text to not be on the cards, or want charts to not be available. So to really play it you kind of have to have your physical copy handy.

To the newcomer, VASSAL looks a little intimidating. There are tutorials and threads on board game forums explaining how to use it. How do you try to make VASSAL a little friendlier?

We’re in the planning stages of VASSAL 4, the next major version. It’s going to be a rewrite. It was never intended to support generic boardgaming. There were a lot of things having accreted over time, which is one of the reasons why we’re planning a rewrite for the next version to make things a bit more sane.

From the point of view of the user, we’re finally going to have a view of the map that you can move around, you can very smoothly rotate, you can very smoothly zoom in and out of. We’re going to be able to take advantage of the 3D hardware that everything has at this point, and wasn’t really easy to take advantage of using Java. (We’re not going to be using Java any more.) Because we won’t be using Java any more, we should be able to produce versions that run not just on computers but on tablets, and possibly some of the larger phones as well. Redoing everything from the ground up, my expectation is like we’ll have 20 percent of the code now.

I should say, I must be one of the only people in the world who VASSAL has caused me to spend less time playing games. But that may one day change as well. I can see a light at the end of the tunnel. There will be a time when all of us will be doing less coding and more game-playing.

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