Vassal, Cyberboard & Computergames: Tools for Tabletop Campaigning?

Now that I after 4 years finally have a few bigger 15mm and 6mm armies (Ancient, Renaissance, Napoleonic and a WW2-army in the making) I’m looking to find a tool for linked battles. A campaign. I researched the possibilities of several wargame campaign manager tools.

Fellow players from Utrecht have organized an inspiring Saga campaign with linked battles. I’m not into Saga. I’m not into Utrecht (a dark, chaotic town with the third worst football club in the world – the worst criminals are Feijenoord Rotterdam and PSV Eindhoven, btw). But the idea is great. I often lose my first battle at a club day. If best of three counts, or best of five, or best of eleven if I lose the first five, then I have more chance (or should I say chances) to be a strategic genius – in the end.

I felt also inspired by the Dux Brittannarium rules – another era I might start somewhere in de grimdark future. I haven’t played the game yet, I know Delft players who regularly play a game, but according to Sigur Skwarls review the campaign is pretty much at the core of Dux Britanniarum, rather than being bolted on in the back of the book or released as a supplement: 

“running a campaign is the best thing in the world and the thing we all aspire to in our wargaming. In theory. In practice they often just stop because someone loses interest or it looks horrible for them (with weaker campaign systems bolted to more tournament-y sets of rules, I find) or they just stop because interests go in another direction (“hobby butterflies”!) or nobody wants to bother being the umpire/bookkeeper. With this in mind Dux Britanniarum’s campaign system is extremely robust and requires minimal amounts of book keeping.

But as I understand from his review the ‘campaign’ is mainly in terms of financial gains and replacing losses and growing stronger, like the Total War-computer games that I used to play. A good tabletop campaign manager should have

fog of war: miscommunication between commanders:

surprise and hidden movement: not knowing what your opponent or allies will do

forced marches toward strategic cities on an unknown map: getting there before your opponent grabs them

victory points: as easy way to determine who wins the campaign

intercepted orders: intelligence about your opponents

importance of good scouting: to direct your armies

multiplayer: so that different generals can work together: and PBEM or Dropbox modus, so that we can play it online

automatic resolution of minor battles or battles that can’t be played by the table top commanders

something that is detailed enough for army composition, but not tied to a certain rulesystem. I like Blücher for instance, but maybe I will fight this time a Blücher battle and next time a Black Powder battle, depending on my opponent(s) or the time or miniatures that I have.

It must be a board game or computer game that easily converts into a tabletop game when needed, and can be played in advance of the tabletop battle via the internet.

What I want is replaying a campaign on a grand tactical map (France, Germany, Spain, Russia) with independent corps commanders who communicate with the general staff. With a fellow club member I have plans to run a campaign with distant friends from an Aberdeen wargame club. What are the options?

Berthier Campaign Manager

The Berthier Campaign Manager is a free program from Anthony de Lyall which is useful as internet 1vs1 campaign game or as referee tool, for computer assisted wargame campaigning.

It’s a kind of excel database with a grid map. You define your units in the database. And you define the grid, yourself, and plan the movement of your units. The program keeps track where your units are (which hex number) and generates intel reports about units in your line or sight. The reports can be incomplete or wrong, depending on the settings. The opponents can’t see each other units, unless they are within line of sight or make contact.

The underlying functions are great: Berthier creates ‘fog of war’ by concealing the movement of the two opposing forces: automated movements. tracking of unit positions: 27 campaign units per side.

When opposing units enter the same square, Berthier indicates that contact has been made. Contacts can then be gamed out on the wargames table or with Berthier’s combat resolution function. Units can scout nearby squares. The campaign can be saved at any time and re-commenced later.

The big downside is the interface. The gridmap is ugly, it has a very oldfashioned MS-DOS/Win 3.1 look and feel, and you have to fill interlocking tables with data. As user I prefer predefined units, and a point-and-click interface on a 2D map. Berthier movement is with a cursor and hexes: unit will move “from hex 331 to hex 558” and a corps reports “contact with the enemy” in hex 226. It’s VERY basic. Generals can send messages to other allied generals so this two player free campaign manager can be used as campaign assistant for a referee. But it’s not intuitive. I can’t recommend it.

Blücher via Vassal

The Sam Mustafa Napoleonic tabletop wargame Blücher has a campaign chapter, Scharnhorst. Scharnhorst is a chessboard system with counters with a hidden stack of units moving across the map. You can play it as a simple campaign game in 20 minutes in preparation of a tabletop campaign. Niall Taylor designed a Vassal module for Scharnhorst. Basically it’s a 1vs1 player campaign with victory points and different possible strategies to win the campaign. The moving and grooving will result in at least one decisive battle. It’s not a long campaign, but excellent as try-out.

Waterloo 20

My future Aberdeen opponent (Bill Ray) advised to try the GMT game Fading Glory, aka known as Waterloo 20. As you see, the idea is more or less the same as the Scharnhorst/Blücher board, stacked counters moving at a map. Waterloo 20 has a Vassal board. The simple rules can be found here. If players have no time to play a battle, they can roll dice online. We will probably try this first.

I found an online review. The writer played it with his wargaming newbie wife and blogged:

“One of the reasons I love the Napoleonic 20 games is the level of narrative generated from such a simple system, with only 20 unit counters on the board. I’ve been trying to play as historically as possible to give my wife a better reference as she reads. This is her first time trying a hex-and-counter game. She’s picking up the rules quickly and I think getting a decent basic understanding of Napoleonic warfare.”

I also considered Richard Borgs Command & Colors, but that is more a battlefield game and not a campaign. ‘Campaigns of Marlborough’, another option, is a simple campaign game with a Cyberboard. But for now Vassal is enough.

More complex Napoleonic campaign boardgames; Zucker, Vol de l’Aigle, Tomb for an Empire

The Kevin Zucker Napoleonic games were on Facebook recommended to me as a good simple skeleton games but with blind sides. Zucker is a well-known Napoleonic expert who published for the – for boardwargamers famous – companies OSG and SPI.

In his games you don’t know where the opponent is. Scouting is imperative. Vassal modules can be found here and rules online. The rules are simple but the game is apparently complex. A BGG reviewer

As it plays out, the game initially resembles a type of ‘shell game’ with leaders and dummy units being moved around with the opposing player generally unsure as to what is a real force, where the main leaders are and just where the main thrust will be delivered. All of this promotes a very realistic ‘fog of war’ and until forces come into contact for the first time, a player can never be quite sure as to what he is up against. While this may be anathema to many players, it in fact promotes the correct mindset of a commander of the era. You must look to keep your forces concentrated for the battle and consider where is the best terrain to fight battles.

I found Vassal modules for 1807, 1809, 1813 or 1815 campaign with his system. He has no Vassal online Spanish campaign board, sadly (yet). Again, this are 1vs1 games, sometimes 3-player games.The Heretical Wargamer featured a blog about his 6mm-Peninsular campaign using the game A Tomb for an Empire, Vassal module here:

Although there has been the odd tricky moment, I have throroughly enjoyed this campaign. I have fought 25 tabletop battles with wins and losses for both sides. The Tomb for an Empire boardgame has given a very successful framework, all there have been a few minor issues to iron out in terms of the translation of the boardgame situation onto the tabletop and vice-versa.

Vol de l’Aigle

Le Vol d’Aigle is a fantastic PBEM grand campaign system with different commanders who try to communicate with each other and try to coordinate their movements. A Vassal referee aid is available. It’s a campaign system in optima forma:

To start the campaign, the umpire gives each player a copy of the appropriate 19th century period map for the fight that is about to unfold. These maps are provided in the game and lend great authenticity to the Kriegspiel. Players will need this map to plan out their routes of march and coordinate maneuvers. The game is well-suited to team play with one player being assigned the commander-in-chief and other players taking the role of his subordinate corps commanders. Each commanding officer, other than the commander-in-chief, will be assigned a corps. Each corps has several divisions or maneuver elements (..)

Players will need paper and pencil to plan out there March orders for the day and write messages to fellow commanders and their commander-in-chief (…)

The umpire plots out each side’s movement on a master map depicting both enemy and friendly forces. He also sends back reports from player patrols and scouts (…)

Fog of war is paramount since communication between players is strictly limited to written messages and reports dispatched by aid-de-camps (…) 

Players will find they are dealing with extremely fragmentary information as to the enemy’s location, where their own forces might be and what outcome their actions had on the overall campaign. This is absolutely the strongest element of the game conferring extreme challenges and excitement for the participants. Common sense and personal initiative are paramount in directing your forces to a successful conclusion. In short, players feel as if they are actually in the role of a 19th century commander trying to follow orders with incomplete information. This type of angst from fog of war simply cannot be re-created in typical hex and counter board war games.

However, his campaign lasted a full year and was quite intensive, communicating results to players, maintaining deadlines etc. Another reviewer who umpired a game sighed:

It was also a LOT of work. The most assiduous of the players went to the lengths of building a spreadsheet for fatigue losses and was tracking his divisional roster down to the individual trooper. I spent many hours prepping for the day – copying maps, making roster sheets, sending out instructions, briefing players, buying stationery and the like – but that paled into insignificance compared to the umpiring effort on the day. I was exhausted by the end.

The Vassal module might facilitate the umpiring, but what I want is a computer program that automates all umpiring. If I have to plot all patrols and scouts and need to do this for a year, I’ll suffer a wargame burnout. So I’ll keep this module in mind. If have nothing else to do, I might try to teach myself Vassal and make a module that has deadlines inbuilt

Grand Campaign/Diplomatic games

Interesting simple multiplayer boardgames that are apparently convertible to tabletop miniature battles are Age of Napoleon, La Guerre de l’Empereur and the Marlborough campaign game Nine Years War/Not Without Spain. These are more like ‘advanced Risk’, or Twilight Struggle. The multiplayer aspect is nice, but I have been only interested in the military side so far, not in resource management.

Computerized Tabletop Games

By accident I stumbled upon two wargamers who design computerized wargames. As I understand it, the concept is that a quite complex rulebook with tables and subtables is converted to a computer program. C&GII from wargamer Nigel Marsh (interview here) has a system with checkboxes. You check the appropriate boxes which accurately describe the situation of the shooting unit and the target, press enter and then the computer automatically calculates the number of hits.

More or less the same idea at first glance are the Computer Moderated Wargame Rules from Australian Clinton Reilly, 

The basic idea for both systems is that the computer does the dice rolling and reports the results while the commanders on the tabletop concentrate on the battle. It’s a diceless rulebook. The commanders only take care of the data input. Based on the description, it’s the 21st century version of the written battlefield order which is put in an advanced database that gives exact combat results, based on fatigue, ammo use and morale and the results of preceding battle rounds. Marsh himself writes:

“Obviously C&GII is unlike other traditional rule sets where even the simplest formats require a minimum of accounting, charts and die rolls. In those the players have a literal eye to the mechanics of the system – this is a +1, that is a -2 etc. (…) Some gamers need dice, and that’s fine too, they need to balance their generalship with a healthy dose of chance, ‘I lost because I rolled badly’ or ’I won because the dice were with me’. (…) But it’s never a simple comparison of numbers balanced to chance. Morale and fatigue play an incredibly important role in the mechanics of the system.
The gamers place their miniatures on the tabletop and move them, just like standard dice wargames. But the computer calculates the firing and combat results, and the relative cohesion of the unit. “The issue for the attacker is to be in the right spot at the right time to affect the charge on the ‘halted’ unit, and the issue for the defender is to ensure that he has no potential ‘halted’ units in positions where an attacker can take advantage of the situation”.


“I made mention of the interesting reports [by C&C2] generated about officers and their misbehaviour or in some instances where they were suddenly offering great encouragement to their men. As you will see this is not just ‘chrome’ in the system accompanied by the period pictures that flash up on screen and are attached to this post but actually part of the moving feast of events generated during play and that if acted upon can influence subsequent outcomes (…) 

Of course as the senior Allied commander I was aware of these aspects but also caught up in the ‘big picture’ command decisions that require looking ahead by at least a couple of turns (half an hour in battle time) to try and assess where everyone needed to be then.”

Marsh is busy with a campaign game, expected in autumn 2018. Instead I bought Clinton Reilly’s Renaissance set because Magister Militum sells it for just 10 poundsand CR has already a campaign modus. No PBEM or Dropbox but he’s working on an upgrade. I’m curious how these computer rules work and if the campaign modus can somehow give me a framework for a tabletop campaign. Reilly informed me that fog of war and intelligence gathering are already part of his rules

I’ll buy C&G2 later this year. I want to compare these electronic rulebooks.

This is part I: I will buy one or more of the campaign/boardgames above in the upcoming year and in the end report what the best multiplayer campaign solution is.


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