I've passed that on, at least partially, to a long time friend of mine and fellow Star Wars nut named Ben. After hearing me go on and on about how awesome X-Wing Miniatures is, he took the plunge back around Christmas and picked up some ships. I posited that it would be possible, as so much of the game is nailed down by templates, that the game could be played in kind of a remote chessboard style setup via Google Hangout. Once he had some minis of his own, we decided to give it a whirl.
It worked well enough, holding our dice apps up to our webcams and pointing the cameras at the tables when we differed on positions of ships, but there were definitely a few kinks- it was hard to convey over Hangout where your ships ended up after a Barrel Roll. It was also hard to convey the location of the irregular shaped asteroids at the start of the game. To be completely honest, many of the games we played via Hangout, we didn't even use asteroids. It was just too much of a pain in the ass.
At some point, one of us suggested (him, I think) that if we played on a grid, we could nail down some of these variables and tighten up the tolerance between our boards, so to speak. I recalled a thread on the FFG X-Wing Forums where people were having gaming mats made with custom graphics, and the idea suddenly became completely feasible.
I'm sure there are better ways to generate an image with a grid overlay, but if you're curious as to how I did it exactly, I'm lucky enough to use AutoCAD at my work. I drew up a large grid precisely spaced with letters on one axis and numbers on the other. As I couldn't really control the output directly not being the person actually printing the final product and knowing the mat printer probably wouldn't be able to do anything with an AutoCAD drawing natively, I just made sure that I had a lot of squares on there- it didn't really matter that they were any particular size, just that they were all 100% equal. Again, I'm sure there's probably some simple way to do this in Photoshop or something, but I've never had any formal training with Photoshop, and no real experience to speak of, whereas with AutoCAD, I've got about 10 years of experience and a working copy accessible to me at work on my desktop.
After I had my perfect little grid, I stopped by HubbleSite.org and found a suitably cool looking image for the background, pulled that image into AutoCAD, and set my grid on top of it, cropping it to be as square as possible.
This is where things got a little more tricky, but long story short, in order to upload to the mat printer's website, I had to generate an image. I had trouble getting AutoCAD to export my drawing as an image file, so I had to resort to exporting as a PDF, then taking a screenshot, and cropping the screenshot down into a square image which I could then upload. I invoked some pixelation, but it's not horrible and the grid is still true which is the main thing, really.
After just a few days, the box with our X-Wing mats arrived in the mail, neatly rolled, in a square box. I opened it up and unrolled the mat to see how things looked. I'm pretty happy with the results.
The site I ordered from, BannersOnTheCheap.com, adds a white border to your image by default, which finishes it off rather nicely if you ask me.
I ordered a 3' x 3' mat, regulation X-Wing size. When I saw that border, the first thing that went through my mind was, "So, how wide is this thing?" I broke out the tape measure and found that my image itself is 3' x 3', the border is additional to the size. Whew!
Edge to edge length
All in all I'm pleased with the result. With shipping, the mats ended up being about $17 a piece. All told, I ordered three mats total, one for myself, one for Ben, and one for another old friend of mine who also doesn't live where I live just learning the game named Sean, so your mileage may vary on the final price based on how they calculate shipping. In any case, it's not terribly expensive and the product is nice.
The vinyl itself is fairly thin, fairly heavy, but also pliable. The best way I can describe it, having no real frame of reference for describing vinyl sheeting, is think of a vinyl tablecloth in a restaurant like Pizza Hut back in the day. It's kinda like that.
From what I understand, you can have another image printed on the backside. I honestly don't remember if I just skimmed over that part or if it added to the cost and I wasn't interested. Recall that I didn't really know exactly how clear this image was going to come out.
So there ya go. Want to play X-Wing with a buddy who no longer lives in your neck of the woods? If you've both got decent sized collections of ships, consider giving it a go over Google Hangout sometime. It's good times!
Lastly, yes, I'm aware of Vassal. I'm not a fan, to be honest. I have nothing against it, it just isn't for me. I like my miniatures games to involve actual miniatures. Again- not hating on it, just not interested in it.