Transcript of our podcast from 1 February 2010

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A Short Overview About Playing Wargames Online

by Moritz Eggert

Hello, fellow boardgamers.

This comes live from the legendary Roundhouse - one of the most famous concert halls in London, where the Doors played their first gigs in the UK. I am sitting in a very noisy dressing room, so please excuse the background noise!

Apart from the obvious - commercial computer conversions of board wargames like Axis and Allies or games with Computer AI or email supported play - the wargame scene has actually a huge selection of free programs that enable players to play all kinds of wargames via the internet - either live or per email.

It all started with Aide de Camp - a nowadays little used and costly program that used modules to convert popular board wargames into files that could be exchanged. Aide de Camp didn't have an AI, instead it mainly was a help to track the board position of pieces and which cards had been played, along with the possibility to do dice rolling. Aide de Camp didn't always enforce the rules - this was too much too ask for a program that was developed to enable internet play of games like ASL - but it at least ensured that both players had the same game in front of them, not in danger of being destroyed by the housecat or your siblings because it was setup on the ping-pong table of your garage.

But very quickly wargamers became dissatisfied with the graphic possibilities of Aide de Camp. Independently of each other 2 projects arose that nowadays basically dominate the online wargaming scene: Vassal and Cyberboard.

Cyberboard is a free program that enables even a layman to quickly convert any kind of game into a Cyberboard module. You can either use scans of board and counters or create your own graphics - it's easy and relatively quick. Cyberboard does not enforce rules at all. It is nothing more than a template of the game - you move around pieces, and the program can track and record where and when you moved them, but it doesn't tell you if the move was legal or not. Cyberboard also gives you the possibility to roll dice or track cards, but this is cumbersome and makes cheating possible.

You may ask why? It's because of this: Once you do a move you create a file that you send to your opponent. He now starts the gaming engine and loads the file to play his turn. But of course there is no limit to how often he can do this - he can load the file again and again until the rolls and card draws are right - a problem that often appears in games where you send files.

It is an ongoing joke by Joe Steadman that Tom is in some way involved in Vassal, but in fact Vassal is a modified version of Jasl, a program that was originally designed to play ASL via email or internet with most of the rules enforced. Vassal does not enforce the rules and is therefore quite similar to Cyberboard, but both programs have a very different feel about them. Vassal might be the one more advanced, as it is more adapted to direct online play. Also it features many gimmicks, for example you can right-click on objects on the map to change ownership while the gameboard automatically updates the Victory Points, something that cannot be done with Cyberboard. With these gimmicks also come some problems - more advanced Vassal modules are quite slow to load because they are heavy on memory, and sometimes the modules need special handbooks to actually understand them.

In short: Cyberboard is the simpler and blander of these programs, but it is also easy to get into. Vassal caters for the more advanced gamer, but can be more confusing.

Both programs are only as good as the fanmade modules created for them - some of them are miserable, some of them are absolutely fantastic.

Both of these programs are nothing without a third program though, and that is called ACTS, Automated Card Tracking Server . ACTS is actually not a program, but a wargame-dedicated website, and if you are into card-driven wargames like me using ACTS every day will become second nature to you.

I was talking about possible cheating with file exchanges - ACTS prevents just that, by making all the random elements of a game accessible to both players on a dedicated third-party server. This means that both players will draw cards from the same virtual deck, roll dice with the same virtual randomizer and so on. Most important are the game logs at ACTS - every time you create a game you also create an ongoing log that shows what each player has done at what time. Every time anybody does something - like rolling dice or drawing a card - there is an instant email-message to anybody involved. This means you can't cheat, as rolling dice twice will create 2 messages, each of them clearly dated. The logs can also trace how long each player needs to do the next move, something that becomes important when playing a BPA sanctioned tournament and there is also the possibility of a time loss, like in chess.

ACTS is also free, and is visually not more advanced than old assembler programs, but it is used by a growing crowd.

You wouldn't believe how many mistakes can happen even when both players are using the same log, this is where Cyberboard or Vassal can become important again, as both programs can be used to either track the current board position or to exchange move files along with your written commands. As the written commands are the only way GM's can track a game it is absolutely necessary to always take care of doing both.

If you want a quick online game you probably best use Vassal along with a third-party-server or additional tools like Ventrilo voice server or Skype. Another excellent possibility is the site, where you can download dedicated modules that enable you to play a lot of classic games live WITH rules enforced. This means that the game will know where units can go, what certain cards do, etc. This creates a very different, much faster gaming experience, and pros can play games like Paths of Glory in 3-4 hours when they would take 8-9 hours face to face, simply because so many fiddly things are handled by the program.

Anyway, for the modern wargamer there are really no bounds when it comes to online gaming anymore, so come on and join the growing community!

Moritz over and out.

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