He's probably right. But you'd never guess it from the Web.

Just Hanging On(line)
Isolated hobbyists inevitably converge online. Wargamers hang out on BoardGameGeek, the Consimworld forums, WarOnline.net, The Gamers Network and elsewhere. They maintain reference sites like Web-Grognards.com. Strategy & Tactics magazine is still around at its fifth publisher - it's up to issue #228! - and there's another game-in-every-issue magazine, Against the Odds. Each August, a thousand hardened grognards journey to Lancaster, Pennsylvania for the Boardgame Players Association's grandly misnamed World Boardgaming Championships.

Some wired wargamers create modules. They scan a game's maps and counters as JPEG or PNG files, and then import them into a game engine. They laboriously create charts, organize the counters in folders, and give individual pieces custom right-click menus. Then they upload the module, or "gamebox," to fan sites. If any force anywhere in the world can recruit new players to the senescent wargame scene, it is these fan-created modules.

To play a game, both (or all) players need the same game engine and the same module. The engine uses the module to render the map and pieces for that game. Players drag and drop counters onscreen. The engine may either record each turn's moves in a small file to e-mail to the opponent, or may permit direct online play, with communication via chat or VoIP. The engine rolls dice, checks line-of-sight and handles administrative minutiae, but otherwise doesn't validate moves or automate anything. Even with a module, you still need the original board game, or at least the rulebook.

Active communities have gathered around three engines:

  • Dale Larson's freeware Cyberboard, for Windows only, supports only e-mail play, not live, direct connections. Cyberboard has the largest selection of free gameboxes, available on fan sites like Limey Yank Games and Yankee Air Pirates.
  • Aide de Camp II by HPS Sims is the only commercial engine here (US$49.95, Windows only). ADC supports over 350 games, including approved commercial modules not legally available elsewhere. Nick Bell's site Die Hauptkampflinie (German, "main combat line") has many ADC modules.
  • Rodney Kinney created a set of Java libraries, VASL (Virtual Advanced Squad Leader), to play ASL online. Now generalized as the VASSAL Engine, the free open-source program supports many board and card games. The cross-platform VASSAL is the only engine that supports direct play over a live connection; it can also record moves for e-mailing or later replay. Ten developers maintain VASSAL on SourceForge. The VASSAL Engine Yahoo group draws 150-200 posts a month. There's a large selection of modules, though many are works in progress; as you might expect, the ASL modules work best.

Some publishers have persuaded fan sites to take down modules based on their games. This is certainly understandable; every wargame publisher is already in a precarious position without having to worry about piracy. Understandable - but wise? You'd think they'd try anything, everything, to publicize their games. If they give away the gamebox, wouldn't their hardcopy sales go up? Low-profile bands distribute their music free online and make money selling T-shirts at concerts; why not a similar business model for wargames? There's so little money on the table anyway, it seems worthwhile to experiment.

It would take a miracle to pull the wargame community back from imminent oblivion. But you know, military history is full of unlikely last-ditch victories. Wargamers should try for one of their own.

Allen Varney designed the PARANOIA paper-and-dice roleplaying game (2004 edition) and has contributed to computer games from Sony Online, Origin, Interplay, and Looking Glass.

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