Gaming in the Era of Social Distancing

Well, unless you’ve be living under a rock for the past few months, you’re aware of the new normal in the world of Covid-19…  Everyone is asked to stay at home when possible, schools are essentially closed for in-person learning, groups of 100 or more are illegal in my state.  I have already had two gaming conventions be canceled on me in March and April…  

I have been shown some articles which show that the Covid-19 virus might be able to live on boardgame materials for awhile.  Which begs the question – should my game group still meet regularly to play games? I was thinking about what my other options might be…  What games could be played over email/webcam/etc?

Over the years, I’ve played a few games PBEM (play by email) and a few PBM (play by mail). I have also dabbled in some gaming via the computer on Brettspielwelt and Yucata.de.  

Acquire – this is the game that got me started in distance gaming.  Back in the days when emails were only on my mainframe account (though, there is at least one Opinionated Gamer that still lives in that era!) – we played Acquire on an ASCII map that we sent via email.   In order to play, you need someone to be the moderator – someone to distribute the tiles; but we had a loyal group of gamers who would play (and usually the winner of the previous game served as the moderator for the next).  We played with open share holdings, and we had a blast!

(If anyone wants this, let me know and I can send the whole email to you). essentially, you took your turn, updated the ascii chart and sent it on to all the players to await the next turn. The moderator would follow along and send a separate email just to the previous player to give him/her their next tile.

That got me thinking about what other games I had played.

Carcassonne – I once played a game with a friend over email.  As you only hold one tile at a time, it is easy for someone to draw the tile and let you know what you get.  As long as players have their own set, it’s easy enough to keep your own board

Adventure games – these new story based games from Kosmos would be ideal.  WIth the new Kosmos App, players could listen to the story on their own, and then join in a group chat or skype session to discuss what to do next.  The player who owned the game would have to keep track of what cards were available, but any changes in status could be easily conveyed by picture.

Puzzle games – you could just decide to play things on your own.  For me, that would likely be a return to doing puzzle games/books.  Most likely the graphic novels from Van Ryder Games and a well deserved return to the Maze of Games (which is on social distancing sale right now – https://shop.lonesharkgames.com/products/the-maze-of-games

Other suggestions from the Opinionated Gamers

Fraser:  I find that play by email works well. If you arrange to all be on-line at the same time you can play quite quickly, not as quickly as in person but finish a game in hours as opposed to weeks or months as can often be the case for PBeM!  The four sites I have predominantly used are:

http://www.boiteajeux.net/index.php

http://www.spielbyweb.com/

http://www.mabiweb.com/index.php

https://www.yucata.de/en

The last time I checked they were all free, although some do offer premium features (which is normally along the lines of being able to record notes, being able to play more games at once and higher frequency of notifications).

Currently I have a few games going on boiteajeux and it also offers in-game public messaging.  It’s not the same as sitting around a table for sure, but it does allow some chat if you wish. PBeM games are also a good way to be able to play games with people on other continents.

Tery: I am married to a gamer, so I expect to still get my in-person gaming in while social distancing. We still haven’t played Pandemic Legacy, and this does seem like the perfect time to do so.

I play Alhambra, Castles of Burgundy and Concordia with friends on http://www.boiteajeux.net/index.php; I have primarily used it to play games with friends who I don’t see regularly (interestingly it seems to be a large contingent of my friends who live in Texas),, although I do play some “random” games as well. The free version of the site allows you to play a fairly large number of games and allows for chat within the game. I have always used this more as a “take your turn whenever you feel like it” option, but I think it would work well in real time as well.

I also play both Star Realms and Ascension via the mobile apps (both idevices and android), and they both work very well. It’s a great way to stay in touch with people I don’t see enough of; the apps themselves don’t have much in the way of chat or conversation options, but we make good use of texting and Google Hangouts to trash talk and interact.

Speaking of Google Hangouts, it’s a way to play games with friends. 

(Ed note – Tery and I did play a really fun series of games of Destination X a few years ago! – DPY)

Mark Jackson: While I occasionally play online (most recently Ticket to Ride using the iOS app), I’ve been doing more solo gaming – even prior to the outbreak. The following games get my Solo Seal of Endorsement:

  • Nemo’s War
    • Specifically designed for solo play… it’s really good
  • The Pursuit of Happiness
    • It’s a puzzle-y game anyway… and it tells a great story. (Note: just got the Experiences and Thug Life expansions for it, thanks to KS)
  • Friday
    • Another specifically designed for solo play – I used to be better at it but my mojo is gone
  • Roll Player
    • With the expansion, another enjoyable puzzle + dice
  • Cartographers
    • The roll (well, flip) and write I like the best… which works as a solo game
  • Dice Settlers
    • Trying to fine-tune the scoring to make the “robot” competitive… but I like the variability and the multiple paths to win
  • Roll for Adventure
    • Dice-chunking cooperative that works nicely as a solo game (playing multiple characters) as it doesn’t have a big footprint

And, although my spouse isn’t a gamer, my boys are. Plenty of two-player games in the Jackson collection! (We just started a Memoir ‘44 campaign.)

Jonathan F.: I regularly play Black Vienna and Deduce or Die online asynchronously.

Black Vienna: http://www.aleknevicus.com/bv/index.php

Deduce or Die: http://www.aleknevicus.com/bv/index.php

I will likely return to playing Through the Ages here http://www.boardgaming-online.com/

I am fortunate to have family quarantined with me who like games, so I don’t think I will be looking for synchronous online gaming at this time.

Jeff L.: One narrative I hear repeatedly during self-quarantine is its difficulty but also the chance it has given people to explore hobbies. In gaming, I see self-quarantine as a chance to take a game design and explore it deeply, in a way that social gaming doesn’t allow. Taking one design and engaging online or AI play repeatedly allows the game space to be learned in a way that, at least for me, is impossible in face to face or social gaming, as there are simply too many games to play and not enough time. Games like Agricola or Through the Ages, which despite having been played many times over the years, still have areas to be explore, are a welcome companion for time alone.

Brandon K: In the past I’ve done a lot of online gaming via the online websites already mentioned previously, with Board Game Arena being the most modern of the bunch (even as I type this they are down due to high amounts of traffic). They all work really well and most allow for asynchronous play where you don’t have to play live, but it’s usually more fun that way. We’ve created groups in Hangouts or via Skype and hung out and had a couple drinks and played games of 6 Nimmt or Takenoko. It’s usually more fun to do this kind of thing live as that’s what board gaming is for me, a social outlet. Luckily though more recently I haven’t relied on the online resources, we’ve had plenty of opportunities to game face to face, but that is changing it seems. 

Another thing we have done in the past is online RPGs via Hangouts and Roll20. We’ve played everything from campaigns of D&D online or World Wide Wrestling, to one shot games like Fiasco. If you can dream it, there is probably an RPG written for you. We’ve also even ran LCGs like Arkham Horror The Card Game or Lord of the Rings The Card Game via Hangouts. It takes a bit of work and one person to kind of be the leader, but any game where you have your own deck will work well.  Just a note, I’ve also had fun with the BoardGameGeek online play initiatives, where you play RPGs via the forums, it’s slower moving at times but can still be a good way to play when you don’t have a group always ready, or even able, to join you. 

Board Games are also taking up a lot of space on our gaming devices, our Switch, PS4, PC and even phones have numerous games on them that can be played at any time, with the push of a button. More and more board games are getting ported to consoles and PCs, and they keep getting better and better. Family games like Carcassonne or Ticket to Ride can be played on your video gaming weapon of choice. Let’s also not forget that there are more and more video games being designed with board games serving as inspiration, Slay the Spire being my recent obsession. It combines deck building into a Rogue like style game that is challenging and interesting to play. Also, don’t forget the JackBox games for your party gaming fix. 

Matt C: 

I’ve played far more than my share of digital boardgames.  The idea of a ready opponent that I can go up against, with the option to quit or set aside the game at any time, is a perfect fit for much of my free time.  I have to admit I’m very loath to play against strangers, so I don’t play too many games against “real people”. I feel pressure to provide a good game experience to my unknown opponent, so I want to be able to set the game aside if real life (ie. kids/family) or some such thing intervenes.  I particularly enjoy playing boardgames against the AI if the game provides different “scenarios” to try. Digital games play so fast, I get “bored” of the game much quicker and scenarios provide the chance to mix things up and force me to try new strategies. I’ve played digital games on my PC, iPad, and even my PS4 and Nintendo Switch.  Most of my gaming comes through my iPad, especially if it is “pass and play” with a friend locally. PC gaming is my preferred method for playing with friends online, as we can more easily set up a voice or video chat at the same time. Using a controller on the PS4 to play a boardgame is fairly painful, due to the kludgy interface. The Switch is better, since it has a touch screen, and is also portable – the easy use of multiple controllers is a bonus.  As for my digital gaming, specific games I play the most include Small World, Star Realms, Ganz schön clever, and whichever title is my favorite flavor of the week.  Put me down as a fan of Roll20 as well.  I’ve been playing several games (5th Edition D&D mostly) with a friend and his son who live in the middle of the Pacific while we’re sitting in Paris.  I’ve tried some forum RPG playing on RPGGeek and DndBeyond, but while they’re fun, they do go slowly and I have had bad luck with them trailing off from other players’ disinterest.

Not mentioned above, but I’d point people to the Tabletop Simulator program on Steam (the PC game clearinghouse.) It provides a virtual “physical” table in 3D complete with all the pieces rendered, which can be picked up and moved around.   Cards can be put on the table for all to see or held in one’s “hand” to be hidden. There is DLC (downloaded expansions you purchase) for many specific games that include automation to help setup, takedown, and interact with the game during play.  The program is also set up with a scripting language so that anyone can design their own plugins to play games of their choice. With literally thousands (10’s of thousands…) of things people have designed, there’s probably a version for any game of interest.  Since these are the work of volunteers, they are not all of the same quality, but some of the best have as much automation as the DLC ones. I’ve used the program to play Pixel Tactics (all the expansions are available) as well as Spirit Island. There is a learning curve in how to interact with the table – how to draw a card, flip a card over, etc… but I enjoy the whole aspect of the “virtual table.”  Just like a game on your kitchen table, everything is there to view and set up how you would see the typical game, so moving your point of view around the table is easy to do.

————————————————

Matt C:

I’ve always struggled to find enough folks to play games face-to-face.  I see videogames as a primary way to pursue that “gaming” itch. This was useful when I was young and less mobile, and became less in college and beyond, when I could get to where I wanted to be.  However, once parenting came into the picture it slowed down immensely so now I lean towards videogames again to get my gaming fix. (I tend towards boardgame ports or strategy titles as they activate the same sorts of endorphins as physical boardgames in my brain.)  Digital boardgames have two big advantages – speed of play and ready (AI) opponents. The AI opponents are the big thing. I’m not a fan of playing with random people online – I feel too much pressure to make sure the other player has a good experience – but do like playing with people I know.  So having an AI that I can play against and drop the game at any moment if a parenting crisis arises. The speed of play, however, should not be overlooked. Even if playing with a local friend, there are some games where I’m very loath to bring out the actual board. I’ve played a fair bit of “face to face” Small World over the past decade but almost all of those were using the app on my iPad.  Not having to worry about setting up hexes, pulling out individual race markers, etc… greatly speeds up the game. I can play a 2 or 3 player game of Small World in under 20 minutes (even more impressive as it includes “setup” and “breakdown”.) For example, while I admit it isn’t all the gripping now, back in the day Risk became completely ruined for me after playing it on an old Mac. Playing a 5 minute game against a computer (or a friend locally) makes even the thought of a multiple hour slog of the game (even against good friends) just not worth thinking about.  One final thought about playing digital implementations of actual boardgames vs other strategy games is the pure “concentration” of strategy found in boardgames rather than what I feel is a more “spread out” experience of typical strategy videogames. I could play a game of Civilization on my computer that takes 2 or 3 hours, or play a 20 to 30 minute game of Through the Ages and get a very similar style of enjoyment. Another fun thing about digital boardgames is the ability to fully understand all the mechanics and being able to keep them all in your head. In a game like Fantasy General, Civilization, X-Com, etc.. there are lots of little details taken care of by the computer.  This is great to allow more complexity, but when the ruleset is reduced to the requirements of a boardgame one can at least make the attempt to find (or judge) an optimal solution for each turn. I would argue that the biggest detriment to playing digital boardgames with friends is the limitation of information displayed. Any game of reasonable complexity will probably not be able to display the entire game table of information. This makes it harder for players (me at least) to keep the entire board state in mind all the time and means I may overlook some of the things my opponents are doing. I want to give a final nod to the best digital boardgame implementations. They take advantage of the medium to provide new ways to explore the game space by providing limitations. This does the dual duty of “changing things up” to keep the game fresh, and also can give the AI a bit of a boost since one is not just going for a straight-up maximum number of points.

Let’s summarize what I see is pros and cons of digital boardgames:

Pros:

  • Speed of play.  With no setup or breakdown games can get up and running quickly and all the fiddly bits are taken care of by the computer.  This is particularly nice for deckbuilders as shuffling is done automatically.
  • An AI with tutorial options in order to learn how to play a game (a good tutorial and in-game reference will make sure you learn the rules correctly.
  • AI opponents with which explore different strategies in a game.  One can try out crazy ideas that you wouldn’t want to do in a game where you risk giving other players (or yourself) a bad experience 
  • Portability – When boardgames first started appearing on iOS tablets, I quickly realized I could fit dozens and dozens of boardgames on my tablet and take them with me anywhere I could bring a sheaf of paper.
  • Cost – If one is willing to put up with a digital edition, most digital boardgames (especially on tablets and phones) are far cheaper than their physical version.  I would argue that if I used $1000 to buy a (fairly) new iPad and some digital games, I would end up with more boardgame options than if I just used the money to buy the actual copies.  (Yes, one can argue about resell value, but just go with me here.)
  • Distance – It is not too hard to get together with one or more friends for an online game (trivial for an asynchronous game) whereas playing with a physical copy can be very challenging
  • Variability – it’s (relatively) simple for designers to include expansions into their games.  I particularly like it if programmers include special scenarios with additional challenges (sometimes so far as to make it a storyline) as it allows me to explore strategies I might not otherwise employ

Cons:

  • Game State – as I mentioned, a table has a lot of visual space, a digital implementation is limited by the size of the screen.  Until one gets a table-sized screen (either on the table or displayed on the wall,) players will need to spend extra effort to keep track of what everyone else is doing.  This gets worse as the games get more complex. Things like Age of Steam or Terra Mystica just aren’t the same
  • Less social interaction – Unless players make an effort to link up through social media (facetime, google hangouts, Skype, etc…) there will be very little banter at the table, and even if people get together online, there will be less interpersonal interaction than at a face to face game.  Either because people are looking more closely at the board, or even may feel less likely to chat with each other while another player is taking their turn.
  • Bugs – with everything but very polished games, there is always the danger of some software bug causing problems.  This is rarely the case for games played within a dedicated app, but becomes more common when playing games on the various multi-game servers.

Until your next appointment,

The Gaming Doctor

About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
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8 Responses to Gaming in the Era of Social Distancing

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  3. Larry R says:

    Been doing a fair bit of gaming over Tabletop Simulator with my friends with whom I normally would game. So far, that’s mainly consisted of several games of Wingspan, Patchwork, Eldritch Horror, The Crew: Search for Planet 9, and Imperial Assault. Its worked pretty well although I prefer FtF interaction but the ability to still gather round the same (albeit virtual) table and still be able to chat has been good for all of us.

  4. william sargent says:

    Boardgames are all hard materials that will transfer the virus exactly the same as a tube station handle. Yes, they are card inside, but 99% plastic surfaces on top of this. ie perfect for transmission and long hold times. ie really bad to do in a mixed group right now.

    I would recommend people do a lot less screen time and solo or just ‘real’ game with people in their house. Avoiding email, read books, do some meditation, and you will get through this much better and much calmer. Watch wildlife out your window. Do NOT put your kids on the internet to learn stuff. Do it on paper, do it for real in front of them. Social media and much of the internet is a noisy mess of half truths and gossip. Sure it’s fun for 10 minutes a day, but more than that is definitely harmful for mental health.

    Get back to buying a newspaper if possible and relax, read slowly, take time between doing things to practice mindfulness, and REALLY slow things down. This is going to be a long, long haul, and although I very much doubt it, I dearly hope some discussion about how we’re wrecking the planet through selfish actions such as over farming (bat shit in pig pens from de-forested malaysian areas created SARS and covid in the first place), over travel and over population and over consumerism is discussed at some level in the coming years.In fact, I’m sure it won’t be, but we can all help get that conversation going and seriously cut down out carbon in 2020+ and beyond. In fact, start by cutting down on buying crap such as more unneccessary board games – I’ve got 125 in my collection (40 of which are small card games) and I certainly don’t need any more. One in, one out from now on.

    • Dale Yu says:

      william, your suggestions are great.
      unfortunately, in my house, i currently have no one else who plays games.
      thus, i have been forced to either play solo games, play computer games, or try once a week to get a session in online

      thus far, our games over Zoom or Google Hangouts have been great. I have been playing a scenario of Andor The Last Hope weekly. IT has also been great as I have had a chance to “game” with two gamers who live out of town, and we had never thought of doing this prior to the coronavirus. as much as the gaming is great, it’s honestly nice to have time during our 2 hour window to chat and catch up with friends that normally I would not have been able to do that with.

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