Staying sane in this new isolated world we currently find ourselves living in is tricky. The need to interact with others can be strong for some. The problem is finding a vehicle that will take us there. Board games can be the perfect thing to do. They can give a focus for a gathering, but how do you play a board game when everyone is sitting at home?
There are many solutions to this problem, some more successful than others. First we need to establish what is needed to have a successful experience. Communication and gaming are the two components that must work together in a frustration free way so everyone can enjoy. Sometimes these components overlap, but they both need equal attention.
This is a very crowded and possibly overwhelming space. It helps to have some criteria to narrow our choices. We need to get the most buy-in from our friends that may not be used to this kind of technology.
- Simple and Easy - If it isn’t easy our friends may give up.
- Works well and is resilient - Some friends may not have quality internet access.
- Cross platform support - Can’t assume everyone has the same kind of device.
- Video is nice, voice is vital - Video eats up bandwidth, while voice is much lighter.
Based on this criteria the platform I usually go to is Discord. It is probably the most popular choice for gamers and for good reason. It has cross platform support, and is very resilient for voice chat. They have added video, but we typically don’t use it. Overall it is pretty simple. Install an app (or use the browser app), create an account, and then add your friends.
To maximize our usage of Discord we have created our own server where we can hang out together. The benefit of this is creating Text and Voice channels. If a lot of people show up, we can split up into different channels for multiple games being played.
Another benefit is being able to add bots. These are little bits of customization that you can add that give some benefit or service. The biggest one being background music. Just add one of the many music bots like Octave, FredBoat or Rythm and enjoy a shared listening experience. And if you are looking for a good playlist for your chosen game, check out this amazing list of game playlists put together by user Qeester on Board Game Geek.
This may be too much for you and your group. One of these other solutions might already be familiar to you: Zoom, Slack, Skype, Google Meet/Hangouts, Facetime. Whatever works the best to make it easy is what you should start with.
The solutions here can vary greatly depending on what works best for you and your friends. I would again start with a similar set of criteria for narrowing down your options:
- Simple and Easy - Should not be a frustrating experience.
- Works well and is resilient - Should not require a powerful device nor be glitchy.
- Cross platform support - Again, good for maximizing player counts.
- Game selection - Players may want a broad selection or a specific title.
Once you figure out your criteria there are three main categories of gaming platforms.
- Multi-game applications
- Single-game applications
- Video share of a physical game
There are several services that offer a single platform to play multiple games. The content and display of the games can vary greatly depending on the service. There are 3 main contenders in this space.
Board Game Arena
Board Game Arena is a web based application, and as such is cross-platform capable. There are almost 200 titles. The biggest benefit over some of the other services I will mention later, is each game knows and enforces the rules. Because of this there is a lot of automation that happens. You just select your move and that is it, the system takes care of the rest.
You can create an account and try out many games for free. If one of your friends has a paid membership, which is $24 per year, they can host any paid game and all your friends can join.
This is by far my favorite solution. Board Game Arena is free to inexpensive and has some really great games. The reason I select this service over the competition is it has the cleanest, easiest to use interface for playing a game.
Tabletopia is a combined web/stand-alone application that is more of a physics engine. It is a 3d virtual environment with an astounding 800+ titles. You can use their software for free and there are many games that do not require a paid account to play. Actualol has put together a really great list of the top 10 free games to play on Tabletopia.
There are some really good games you can play if you pay for a premium account. It is $5 per month for “silver” which allows you to play these premium games with other premium users. There is also $10 per month for “gold” which allows you to play these premium games with all users.
My issue with Tabletopia are the controls. The games do not know the rules. So this platform is a very nice 3D physics engine. The selecting and moving of components can be tedious and frustrating. While this is very flexible, it also makes things much more difficult to play.
Tabletop Simulator is a stand-alone application you can get via Steam (no web based version). There is an initial cost of $19 and is a 3D physics engine. Tabletop Simulator is more of a building platform which anyone can create games on. Some much more successfully than others. There are about 50 or so “official” titles that can be purchased as DLC that were produced by the publishers.
The power here is the community created content. There are thousands of “mods” created by fans. These mods can range from amazing with scripts to automate tedious parts of the game, to games that don’t work at all. It can be overwhelming trying to find good content. Actualol has put together another really good top 10 free games to play on Tabletop Simulator.
While there is a ton of content and some of the scripting helps, I still find it a little fiddly. On top of that there is the $19 cost for everyone playing. My final issue is that it is only available for windows or mac computers.
Single Game Applications
There are several board games that have their own applications to play them. Since these are purpose build applications they are usually, but not always, great interfaces with multiple ways to play. The problem here is that they can get expensive if you need to keep buying one-off games. Plus if everyone has to buy the game it can be a barrier of entry for many.
Many of these games can be purchased via Steam, Apple Store, Google Play, Amazon, and various other platforms. They run about $10 per game. However, if you can find them on sale or via deals like this one from Humble Bundle they are definitely worth it!
Video Share of a Physical Game
This could be the most complicated or the easiest solution depending on the type of game being played. Any game that has; easy to see state, no secret information for a subset of players, and no player feedback. What do I mean by these? Let’s take a look at a couple of examples that show the ease vs complication of this solution.
“Welcome To…” published by Deep Water Games, is a yahtzee style game that has 3 decks of cards that flip every turn and everyone can see them. There are three more cards that are also face-up that anyone can “complete”. What is different is how players use the flipped cards to build their own “neighborhood”. This means all the information is in the open and shared while each player records their selections locally. The other benefit of this game is it could technically play with a hundred people.
In “The Settlers of Catan”, there is a single shared board state (that is good). One deck of cards with a finite set of resources that players draw from and is secret to them (secret information is not good). Then there is feedback that needs to happen when a player “builds” something and has to place it on the board (feedback makes it hard). How do they relay this information in an effective way?
With “Welcome To…”, anyone with a camera could lay out the cards and flip them. They are easy to see and people can record their usage of them locally (players just need to print their own score sheets). With Catan, there is a whole new set of problems to solve for.
If you are going to go this route, make sure the game you select is easy to implement. If you want to handle the complicated games, make sure you take the time to figure out how to best handle it to make it easy on everyone (well… everyone but you).
There is nothing like playing these games in person, but until that can happen find the easiest answer for your group. If you are at a loss, I recommend using Discord along with Board Game Arena. They are both easy to set up and have great potential for making a successful virtual game night for you and your friends. Once you get some experience under your belt, going with one of the other platforms might be a great way to open up your group to even more games they may want to dive into.