I am currently in the process of teaching myself the rules for the Band of Heroes game from Lock N Load Publishing. The game is a standard WWII board game with mounted mapboards, counters, rulebook and game aid sheets.
For some time I have had a scenario set up on the table in the game room waiting for me to go down and play it but I haven’t found, or made, the time to do so. It was then that I realized that all of the online videos I was watching were made using the Band of Heroes VASSAL module. So I grabbed a copy of VASSAL, one of the few Java apps to run on my Mac, got the module and started working through the scenario on my laptop.
The VASSAL module is, for all intents and purposes, the same game as BoH but without the rules and play aids. All the counters are available, the map boards and it also helpfully has dice and a piece of virtual string to help measure line of sight. VASSAL is apparently quite popular with wargame publishers like Lock N Load and even Multi-man Publishing as they often provide official artwork for people to use in modules. Some publishers, like GMT with their Panzer game series, provide both rules and scenario books in PDF format.
And why not. Its a great value-added feature for their games and gives games a potentially wider audience and longer life. If your local friends don’t want to play the new version of Panzerblitz then you can find an opponent on VASSAL to game with. You can set up a game and take it with you on your laptop and play wherever you go. And it is currently a digital system that has the ultimate in DRM systems: you need to core game to play because none of the other game components are provided. I have a scenario card from band of Heroes upstairs next to my laptop so I can read the reinforcement schedule and victory conditions. With that data I can’t start a game since the module only provides counters and maps.
But this physical DRM system is based on a gentlemen’s agreement between the companies and the module producers. They get official art, or permission to provide the module, with the understanding that they don’t provide any electronic duplication of the rules, game aids and scenarios. There is really nothing to stop someone from providing scans or photocopies of game components to a friend to allow them to play the game. It only works if the gamers are willing to play along. And they must since the number of official VASSAL packages is increasing and not decreasing.
What I find curious is that these companies don’t offer VASSAL only packages for their games. Maybe they don’t see a market for them or perhaps VASSAL isn’t that big a market but since almost all of the printed documents are easily reproduced into PDF format it seems to me that offering a full game as an electronic only purchase and bundling it with the VASSAL module would be an easy sale and could lead to more sales of their printed board game.
VASSAL would also make an easy way to provide demo versions of board games by providing a single scenario and a slimmed down VASSAL module with a limited number of counters and perhaps a single map. And this might actually be a first step towards an eventual system of distributing full games via VASSAL.
The one major drawback to the entire system is that VASSAL is really a horrible mess to use. Especially on the Mac where the totally nonstandard UI looks even worse than it does under Windows. VASSAL also has a fairly significant learning curve but it also has the benefit of being available on Windows, Mac and Linux with a system that allows for cross-platform games and modules.
It is an interesting system that currently seems to work on trust and it will be equally interesting to see how support for it expands and if it can eventually become a valid market for publishers.