Why I love VASSAL

There’s been a bit of discussion about VASSAL in the ASL community, started by this blog post (warning: auto-play music). The central hypothesis of this is that ASL is a social game (to which I agree) and that VASSAL gets in the way of that (to which I disagree very strongly).

I am a digital native. I have been on the internet for about ten years now, I used Twitter before it was cool and IRC greatly helped me overcome my social anxieties.  Some of the people I consider my best friends are people I only know from the Internet.

As my blog might tell you, I don’t only play wargames. I am also a video game afficionado, and I play a lot of World of Tanks, an online game. Back when I still spent more time with that game, I often played with other people I mostly knew from a forum. Whoever claims there is no social interaction, no “having fun with friends”, in such games is clearly playing them wrong or simply ignoring them.

It’s the same with VASSAL/VASL. Playing a game of Advanced Squad Leader online is a social activity to exactly the same extent playing ASL at the table is a social activity. I have gotten to know people I would never have met otherwise through playing VASL with them. If meeting new people via VASL does not make VASL a “gioco di società”, I do not know how any game could possibly qualify.

The social bounds formed on VASL might be less strong than those formed in face-to-face play. I don’t blame anybody for preferring F2F if they have the option. But claiming VASL is simply an alternative to F2F play for loners is just silly. And not everybody even has the possibiltiy to play F2F on a regular basis.

ASL is not the only board game I have played via computer, I’ve played BattleTech (via MegaMek), Dominion, Battlestar Galactica and several other board games online. And never once have I missed social interaction. There was always enough of that, in every single of these games.

The internet is, first and foremost, a tool to facilitate communication between people. To bring people together who would never have met without it. If it makes you feel alone, you’re probably not using it the right way.

How to tell your Customer Service sucks

Today, I got a phishing e-mail.

I hope you have never been subject to such a shocking event for yourself, and apologize if the horror of my tale gave you a heart attack.

Well, this one looked a bit more legit than most of them, and it was certainly audacious: A mail claiming to be from Yahoo and sent by a Yahoo user. It somehow passed my spam filter, so I decided I might as well tell Yahoo about it, so they might unleash their mighty rage upon the morally bankrupt offender. For sure, there would be an “abuse” e-mail account, to which I could forward the mail with an appropriate one-liner.

In case you have never been to the Internet before, or you work in Customer Service for a big company, I feel the need to explain something to you: There is this thing we call “E-Mail”. You use it to send other people messages via the Internet.

Because, somehow, the existence of this awesome tool of communication seems to have been completely forgotten by every customer service department ever created ever. Instead, we now have customer support websites, which try to dazzle the angry customer with colorful icons, complicated forms and buttons with labels like “Contact Customer Support” that somehow lead you to the Tourist Information of Sorrento, Italy instead of a direct way to contact the customer support.

So I went to Facebook and located Yahoo’s page there. The page contained a link to another page operated by Yahoo’s customer service.

I have seen excellent customer service happening on Facebook. There is one company that gets it right: Deutsche Bahn (German Railways). They allow users to write on their page, and have a dedicated team that will respond to questions within minutes, that will try to answer them instead of just sending the customer to another department, and they try to keep the page alive with quizzes, news and things like that.

Yahoo’s facebook pages (as far as I could tell, both of them are identical) are simply a way for Yahoo of telling everybody how awesome they are. Communication is completely one-sided. There’s no way of contacting them besides of commenting on completely unrelated posts – in which case you will simply be ignored forever, but at least have managed to make Yahoo look incompetent. By the way, the same thing happens over at Twitter. No communication with customers there. At all.

Social Networks are a powerful way of directly communicating with your customers. If you are unwilling to use that, please do not have a social network page. Facebook’s servers have feelings, too, and I can see them crying when they have to put up with stuff like this.

Then I vented my frustration into IRC, and got presented a link to a page hidden deep within the bellies of Yahoo’s website where I could just copy-paste the infringing e-mail, enter a captcha and report it as spam without any further steps, without entering my Yahoo ID, real name, birth date, insurance ID, blood type and favourite food of my grandmother’s best friend’s third-oldest cat and then filing my report in exactly the right cabinet within two hectars of virtual storage buildings.

Turns out this page was really, really easy to find. All my friend had to do was to google for it. He then followed a dead link, continued to search a bit on the Yahoo page, googled again, then found a post on a forum leading to a page that linked to the reporting page. And probably, that last link was hidden in a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying “Beware of the Leopard”.

That’s not the first time I found it surprisingly hard to even reach customer service. It’s just an especially clear example with what’s going wrong with customer support on the web these days. I’ve had cases where I quickly received competent help (Amazon) and I’ve had cases of mediocre-to-bad support (Wargaming.net and Conrad Electronics, looking at you), but usually I at least managed to reach customer support without help from other people.

In case anybody from Yahoo reads this (yeah, that’s likely): You failed. You failed really hard. Reporting misuse of online systems should be really simple – that’s why the abuse@… e-mail address was invented. If you insist on making me use your fancy web interface instead of sending you a simple e-mail (which would save me a lot of time), at least give me a button that leads me to the relevant page quickly, don’t make me search through a three-tiered category system and don’t make me fill out a form that makes me feel like I got teleported to the planet Vogsphere. I’m just trying to help you in the War against Phishing. Don’t make it so hard.

And by the way – I’m not bitching about this because I hate Yahoo. I have about five other e-mail providers these days, thanks to Microsoft’s and Google’s policy of giving everybody one, no matter if he wants it or not. I’m bitching about this because pretty much every company these days tries making contacting them as hard as possible for the customer. Don’t do that. Thank you very much.


You should definitely get today’s Humble Bundle.

Just as a heads-up for those of you who do not keep an eye on the Humble Bundle page all the time: The new offer (valid for two weeks from now) is really worth its money.

You can get the whole BioShock series, SpecOps: The Line, XCom Enemy Unknown and XCom Declassified, Mafia II and The Darkness II if you pay 20$ or more, and if you pay more than the average customer (which would mean about 6$ right now), you get everything minus XCom: EU and BioShock Infinite.

In my humble opinion, SpecOps: The Line alone is worth getting this bundle. In case you missed the praise it got in shows like Zero Punctuation and Extra Credits, I’d like to gush a bit about its great, fascinating storytelling, but that would probably spoil the entire thing. Let’s just say what might at first look like a generic Modern Warfare knockoff develops into deep, psychological horror that deconstructs the current video gaming scene, jingoism and current US foreign policies, while still being entertaining to play. Unfortunately, it got some bad reviews due to the bad multiplayer mode (which the devs didn’t really want to put into the game). But it’s a game that really, really deserves to be played.

Get it here.

The best Video Game there is?

It doesn’t shy away from asking important questions.

2014-07-07 12.09.29 2014-07-07 12.09.34It is highly educational.

2014-07-05 16.04.03It has well-written dialogs.

2014-07-06 21.34.52And it’s as incomprehensible as Metal Gear Solid 2.

2014-07-05 16.02.31You might have guessed it – it’s a Pokémon bootleg, one that’s usually known as Pokémon Vietnamese Crystal. And it is probably the most entertaining video game I ever encountered, thanks to its weird, dadaist charme. Some things are barely comprehensible, some are just plain wrong, there are about five hundred items called “POLE”, about 50% of the attacks are completely misnamed (“FLAME”? It’s Water Gun, what did you think!), but every second line in the game will make you laugh so hard it hurts. There are a couple of Let’s Plays of the thing, the most famous one was done by Delicious Cinnamon, who also have some other Pokémon bootleg games in their library. You should totally go watch it right now.

It’s simply my favourite video game ever, and it was created only by accident (automatic translation, probably).


Trains in Watercolour

During a recent stay at the hospital, I had the opportunity to experiment a bit with watercolour. Never really having painted before, it turned out to be much fun and also yielded some results that I can show without being ashamed. They are already buried in the deep, dark tunnels of DeviantART, but now I have my own personal blog, I believe they deserve to be on it. 🙂

CD This here was my first attempt to paint one of my railway photos, and it shows. Colour’s too thick in most places and many things lack structure (like the tracks, for example). By the way, the station shown is Usti n. L. (Czech Republic), and shows my first sighting of a class 380 multi-current engine.

fsNumber Two I like better. It shows a E.444R (“Tartaruga”) in Roma Termini station. I like the FS colouring scheme quite a bit, and the tracks turned out better this time around.

Tatra-fertigGoing back to Czechia, this scene is based on a photo taken in Prague. I don’t really like it, but apparently some other people do. Man, people are hard to paint.

Praghln-fertigAnd last but not least, there’s this scene at Praha hl.n., which unfortunately my scanner didn’t really like. I think I overcompensated for my earlier over-colouring and used too much water this time around in many places.

What I want to try next is a more naturalistic style, compared to the rather cartoonish style I’ve been doing so far. I have my own set of watercolours now, so nothing can get in my way.

Broforce Impressions

Violence – is there anything it can’t fix? Well, history would teach us that there is indeed, but nobody likes history and it never gets invited to any LAN parties.

Broforce (subtitled “Freedom Simulator”) is a very ironic indie side scroller about solving problems the only way worth the effort: by making lots of stuff explode. The gameplay is highly focused on co-op, so the only component I really tried out was the campaign because everything else appears to need other players. Because the game is one of these Early Access things that are all the rage these days on Steam, nobody in my peer group seems to own it.


You know what’s annoying?

This is.


My regular opponent and me sat down to play S13 Priority Target, and then we played it again with reversed sides. I lost twice, which confirms the ASL Scenario Archive’s claim of perfect balance. My opponent wrote AARs for both games, which are pretty good and are really detailed in their analysis of how I managed to screw up so much.


S28 Out of Ideas!

I just finished playing S28 Out of Luck, which you can get for free at MMP’s wobsite. I lost so badly that not even blaming it on the dice makes it any better. Was it the scenario’s fault? Probably not.

As most of the times, I completely screwed up my setup, leaving a large blind spot on the hard-to-defend hills in the northwest corner and concentrating on the open ground in the northeast and the city in the southwest, near the exits. My opponent, of course, used this weak spot to utterly destroy me. I didn’t even need bad luck to lose.

Of course, I still had a metric ton of that. First turn, the crew of my 122mm ART gets a NMC during Advancing Fire and, of course, rolls boxcarts. They were the keystone of the way too weak defense in the hills, too. Then, one of my three IS-2s rolls boxcarts for an attack. A bit later, it gets shocked and UK’d, but recovers, fortunately. While trying to outflank a Hetzer in the city with its MA still malf’d, it gets shocked and UK’d again. This time, it has no luck. Meanwhile, my MG crews try to take out some of the Hetzers in the city – with their 3 points of side armor, that’s actually a viable strategy. Of course, my first two TH MG attacks ever both malf the respective MGs, and one of these gets taken out of the equation by a 6 on the repair roll. The other one recovers and even gets to destroy a Hetzer!

Meanwhile, my second IS gets stuck on the meadow by a SSR requiring a DR < 11 to be taken on every vehicular movement in Open Ground to avoid getting immobilized. My third one was dug in by SSR in the most inconvenient of all places.

My opponent tries to rush his tanks through the city to quickly achieve his victory conditions, but my experienced tank-punchers move into Close Combat against a Hetzer and a Panther. The Panther survives, the Hetzer does not.

At this point, my opponent had two thirds of the necessary victory points after just half the game and I resigned because the result of the game was becoming so obvious it wasn’t worth sacrificing another session of playtime for.

Lessons learned: Vehicular Close Combat is a viable strategy, even more so against tank destroyers. I need to think more about my setups (well, Captain Obvious is obvious). And the IS-2 only gets 2 out of 5 stars in my personal rating, because when it hits it’s devastating, but most of the time it does not.

The game was still fun, because it was the first time I saw the Nahverteidigungswaffe, ATRs and MGs in an AT role in action. I’d say I like the scenario.

Next up is S13 Priority Target.

Where to start?

This question gets asked a lot on the various ASL-related fora: “I want to get into ASL, where do I start?”. Let me offer my personal viewpoint, speaking as a guy who is just starting to play real ASL.

So you think this ASL thing could be interesting for you. But there are so many ASL products out there, where is the right place to start? Well, with the Starter Kits, obviously! But by now, even the product range of these things can be a bit confusing.

There are, as of now, five games in the Starter Kit series, and every one of them is a standalone product you can simply buy and play without worrying about dependencies. These five products are the Starter Kit 1 (Infantry only), Starter Kit 2 (Infantry + Guns), Starter Kit 3 (Infantry + Guns + Tanks), the Starter Kit Expansion Pack (scenarios of all three levels), and Decision at Elst, a campaign game which I can’t tell you anything about as of now, unfortunately 😦

So, which of these things should an aspiring newbie buy? It doesn’t matter too much, actually. I would recommend the Starter Kit Expansion Pack, because it has some really neat scenarios and covers all levels of play, but every Starter Kit product has at least one infantry-only scenario that allows to get into the rules step by step. Note that some of the aforementioned products are pretty hard to find because they’re temporarily out of print, but if you can get your hand on any of these, you’re covered.

An opponent with some experience is invaluable to actually learn the rules, because the Starter Kit rulebook (about 30 pages in its latest incarnation) can be really confusing at times. If you haven’t got one, Jay Richardson created some excellent tutorials.

Keep in mind you’re not buying a very expensive tutorial, but a full game that will give you months to years of fun. Maybe you’ll just continue to play Starter Kit instead of switching to Full ASL because Starter Kit has everything you want but is cheaper and simpler – and that’s fine.

If you decide to switch to Full ASL eventually, you’ll find it’s a lot simpler than without the Starter Kit preparation. You probably can play Full ASL from the very beginning, but I personally think that is not a good idea and will likely be very frustrating. YMMV of course.

Some other things to mention:

* You can play ASL (full or Starter Kit) online, via a platform called VASL. You’ll still need the game and an opponent, but it’s a viable option if you haven’t got an experienced player who could mentor you in your local area.

* A small but interesting forum for ASL exists at BoardGameGeek, where you can also find lots of play aids, et cetera. There’s also a Facebook group.

You are not convinced ASL is the right game for you and just want to get some impressions? Then best have a look at some After Action Reports in one of the aforementioned forum.

I hope this helps some people to get into the game, roll low and have fun!

S48 Confusing Renaults (or something like that)

So my regular Starter Kit opponent and me sat down to play our first match of 2014, “Converging Assaults” (Starter Kit Expansion Pack #1, S48), which was probably the weirdest match I’ve ever played.

What’s it about? US troops advance into a city in Sicily from the West and meet Italian troops advancing from the West. A firefight ensues. For added fun, some Italian tanks are added into the mix and fall into the back of the US infantry.

And I use the words “fun” and “tanks” quite wrongly. We are talking about the Renault 35, this tin can:

(Image courtesy of Bukvoed on Wikipedia, CC-by 2.5)

(Image courtesy of Bukvoed on Wikipedia, CC-by 2.5)

In game terms, they have a 37* main gun in a one-man turret, a 2FP sort-of-coax-but-sort-of-AAMG thing and [4][4] armor. We’re talking late-war here, with the US fielding a 57mm gun (normally useless against anything, able to kill the Renault 35 with anything but boxcarts) and bazookas! But at least there are many of them – eight, to be precise, in a single-board scenario.

So, what happened when we played is this: My opponent (playing the Italian side because tanks) parked four of his tanks and most of his infantry around a stone building in the north, while the other four tanks tried to encircle my units. That plan was quickly prevented by my HIP 57 AT gun, which took out two tanks in short order, moved a bit and took out a third one, and some infantry which decided to go punch some metal in Close Combat. A fifth tank got recalled because the MA broke down, but the commander of that one had already taken a bullet. Tank Number 6 tried to move in a more offensive position, came into the line of sight of the AT gun, which fired with a TH of 4, penetrated the hull, retained RoF and proceeded to harass some Infantry just for shit and giggles. The two remaining tanks remained undamaged, partly because they were parked in a stone building and partly because I had stopped giving a damn about them.

Meanwhile, my Infantry tried their hand at this “fulfilling victory conditions” business. The scenario demands that no Italian Good Order squad (or two Good Order Half-Squads) are in any single building hex. Well, turns out this isn’t half as unfair as it sounded at first. The Italian squads break really fast, and once they’re broken, they stay broken thanks to their reduced broken side morale. In my last turn, there were two unbroken Italian squads left on-board, one of which broke during Prep Fire. I put down as much firepower as I could on the last stack, but only got a 8+2 attack, unfortunately, because of some quite effective Defensive Fire. On the last roll of the match, I rolled… boxkarts, and lost.

All in all, I would say this scenario is pretty balanced despite looking really unfair on first glance, but it is also really really frustrating to play for both sides. The US player is confronted with a victory condition that’ demands of him to be everywhere at once, and that can be prevented by a single bad die roll on the last turn. On the other hand, the Italian player can’t do much except hoping for some good morale rolls buying him time, because of his low firepower and lack of leadership on the infantry side and the completely useless tanks that broke one squad and pinned another one in the course of our game. I’d say the whole thing lacks lot of structure, and, say, N-463 or Cooks Clerks And Bazookas are all more interesting AFV scenarios, with more interesting things happening and more options for both sides. But YMMV, of course.

Next up: Out of Luck (S28, available on the MMP website). IS-2s and 122mm artillery against Panthers and Hetzers – looks like loads and loads of fun.