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On Something

On Board Games: Tabletopia

“On Something” is a series of posts in which I tackle various topics, this time board games. You’ll find full archives here.

You’d think that one of the gaming hobbies most affected by the current outbreak would be board games — and it’s certainly an activity that I enjoy in good part because I like the social aspect of sitting around a table and playing something together with friends. And yes, as I look at my shelves filled with games (although most of my collection is located at work, since that’s where I play them the most, I had started bringing some back from the studio in the weeks prior to our new work-from-home reality), it does make me a bit sad that I’m not playing at lunch time as I normally would.

Enter virtual online-based board games.

Sure, they’re not new, but I had never really had any interest in exploring these services/apps — because of what I just mentioned above — but the current situation has me thankful they exist. The three best options that I know of (if you don’t count board games that have specific video game adaptations) are Board Game Arena, Tabletop Simulator, and Tabletopia — this last one the service I’ve been using for the sessions I’ve played. The browser-based Board Game Arena doesn’t look as good as the other services, but it has the advantage of having “programmed rules” set in place to run games — the other two are simply virtual worlds filled with the components, and so you need to know how to play, and move everything yourself. I did want to try Board Game Arena, but the few times I tried their site was either having difficulties dealing with the load of users, or the games I wanted to play were locked behind a “premium” paywall.

(You can understand the chicken-or-the-egg situation here of not wanting to subscribe to a service that I can’t try and doesn’t seem to be accessible at all times.)

Tabletop Simulator is an app that you buy through Steam, and gives you access to all the pieces in a game, that you then need to manipulate yourself. I haven’t actually played it, but what is interesting here is that on top of the licensed games that you need buy separately to play, you also have access to a vast library of free user-created games — and that doesn’t mean user-designed, but just that users have taken existing games and scanned/uploaded them for use with the app.

Playing a session of 6-player Gorus Maximus on Tabletopia.

The service I’ve been using is Tabletopia (playing through my browser, but there are also PC and iOS apps that you can use), which plays similarly to Tabletop Simulator (from the videos I’ve seen), except that it is run as a subscription service, with every game on the service properly licensed. There are tons of games to play for free though, and some games that are premium do let you play for free with a certain number of players. So far I’ve played a few sessions of 6-player Dice Throne and 6-player Gorus Maximus (a lunch-time favorite), and despite the fussiness that comes with trying to come to terms with the cameras and the interactions with the objects, I’ve had a great time playing. We’ve been using Discord for the voice chat, although at first we did it over Microsoft Teams.

Does all this beat playing traditional board games around a table? Fuck no, but I’m glad that it exists an option. And one very interesting aspect of these services is that it does give you a chance to try out a game, to see if you’d really like it. I’ve become a big fan of Dice Throne, and plan on buying a physical copy eventually, but I’ve also noticed that a lot of Kickstarted-games are available through Tabletopia, as a way to try the game before backing it.

By Jean Snow

Senior Manager, Esports at Ubisoft. Before that, half a life spent in Tokyo.