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.

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!