Before lockdown, I participated in two board gaming groups. One was every Monday at Dave and Pinguino’s apartment and the other was every Tuesday fortnight at work (an intentionally pretentious time period). That last one has been going for seven years so far. Now that our movement has been restricted we’ve been exploring other ways to play and it’s been a bit rough. I wanted to share some of the options out there and what we’ve been using.
First up is Board Game Arena, my favorite of the bunch. Early on it experienced hiccups from a massive influx of new users. It has many licensed games and I almost immediately paid for an inexpensive membership ($24/year) to gain access to all of them. BGA uses 2D assets from the original games (Takenoko pictured above) and has built in scripting to guide each player’s turn and enforce rules. It can be played both realtime or turnbased over the course of several days. It’s completely browser based. The built in rules make it easy to play games that you haven’t touched in a while or even learn new games. The scripted nature also makes the games you’re used to playing in real life move incredibly quick.
We’ve also tried dedicated apps for particular games (e.g. Small World 2). The state of board games on tablets is very mature. The animations and graphics used now really elevate the game above just having an image of the board. The downside is that everyone has to own a copy of the virtual game. I have 60+ games in my physical collection and one of the benefits is that I can share them with people without everyone needing to pay for a copy. The everyone pays model might make sense when it’s random players playing online, but I’m trying to play with just my friends I normally would IRL.
The next option for online board gaming is sandbox systems. These platforms render all the game pieces in 3D with added physics just like real life! Oof. It’s such a mess. I’ve known these existed ever since their debut 5 years ago, and more recently with their popularity in VR, but I really expected more. And by more, I mean computer enforced rules. Computers as a time saving device this is not; they give you all the pieces, make it harder to read the instructions, and pair that with having to learn how to navigate virtual 3D space. The two platforms I’m talking about are Tabletop Simulator and Tabletopia. I’ve watched several good videos on the topic lately and I’ll share those here. (Aside: always watch YouTube videos at 2x speed)
This is a really solid comparison of the platforms and points out a strong difference between the two: Tabletop Simulator’s games are mostly unlicensed user generated content. There are multiples of every game, including forks, and the quality is entirely dependant on the skills of the single maintainer. After watching that video again it really makes me want to spend more time with Tabletopia.
This next video covers some of the leaps you have to take to use Tabletop Simulator and highlights some of the better work that’s been done in the realm of scripting.
If you want to play any of those games, follow the links in the video description since searching for them on Steam Workshop will probably land you on a different version of the game.
This final video is a great tutorial on what playing TTS is really like and has lots of tips for how to manage it. The creators of that tutorial are also crowdsourcing a best of the best Tabletop Simulator games list to make it easier to find mods worth playing.
We played Burgle Bros. on TTS last night. This is one of the first games we’ve played simulated that we haven’t played IRL. I read the rules PDF in advance and kept it available on a second screen while I taught other people to play this cooperative game (I usually do this on my iPad when playing physical games too). TTS doesn’t really have a way to split screen things like the rules or pin them as a 2D object to the UI. Designers usually just scan the rules and leave them as a stack of cards in the game world. TTS also has weird ways of dealing with multi-selections. My main frustration is that clicking a single item in a group doesn’t deselect all the other items, my expected behaviour from using file managers, CAD software, Adobe, etc. Little interface frustrations like this add a certain bit of stress when playing games and I definitely don’t enjoy it. You’re picking up pieces with your mouse cursor and then dropping them from a fixed height to the board. Oh, is it sort of laying on a different card? REPEAT. In reality, you’d just give it a little nudge with your finger. We’re still fairly early in our online play so maybe this will eventually become background noise. Right now I think it actually makes the gameplay feel more like work. Even our interactions during turns feels more stilted than it would in real life. It’s not the usual friends hanging out on a Monday doing something fun.
Much like Hacker Drinkup, there is one huge benefit to going online: we can hangout with people across the country. I very rarely get to game with our friend Moon in NYC, but now I have the option of doing it every week.
New board games are still showing up on Kickstarter and one of the cool uses of these sandbox platforms is to do game previews. Companies often offered print-and-play versions of their games or at the very least, the rulebook. Now they can use all of the art assets they’ve already developed to entice people to play. Here is Frosthaven, the sequel to the smash hit Gloomhaven, on TTS so you can get a feel for new mechanics. It raised almost $13MM on Kickstarter. Tabletopia has Tales From the Loop, a game based on an Amazon series, based on an art book. The art looks cool but having a chance to play it would definitely go a long way towards me wanting to back a project.
I’ve got a lot of virtual board gaming in my future. I backed the Tilt Five AR headset which will deliver this summer with Tabletopia support. The immersive nature of it might make manipulating pieces more natural. I looked at their SDK preview recently and I’m excited to try making my own content for it.
I don’t have to play online. Shut Up & Sit Down recently did a whirlwind tour of a bunch of excellent solo print and play games embedded above. Many of my physical games come with “solo variants” in the rulebook and even cards that drive robot you’re playing against. Doing all of the “bookkeeping” doesn’t really appeal to me though; I’d rather play a video game.
Finally, the services I’ve mentioned aren’t the only ones out there. Many people have developed their own one-off online versions of popular games. These are usually lighter weight, no-frills, browser only versions of games. They get the job done though. Here’s a list of many games you can play online.
I hope you found this post useful. As a board gamer suddenly thrust into playing online, I really appreciate the people who put together the videos and lists I embedded above. If you’re wondering what I’d be playing if I could see my friends in real life again, it’s Clank! Legacy: Acquisitions Incorporated. It’s an absolute blast and a light-hearted break from gritty dungeon crawls.
Finally, here’s a picture of my new BoardGameTables.com Jasper table that I can’t wait to use; my previous apartment was so small that I only hosted games maybe three times in the five years I lived there.