22 November 2020
by: Simmy Peerutin
Living at the tip of Africa has its advantages, but getting one’s hands on the latest cardboard hotness is not one of them. If I want a game from an American or European publisher I have to wait between 2 and 5 months for delivery, and postage is exorbitant. I am one of the lucky few from this continent that makes the annual pilgrimage to Essen, but this year that did not happen, and instead we had Spiel Digital, one of the better digital incarnations of the game fairs but certainly a far cry from the real thing.
I tried to make the experience as much like the past experiences as possible by setting aside the time, and browsing and playing games like I was at the fair. I wrote some time ago on my post-fair impressions, but with greater distance comes a further insight – the intense 4-day experience left me much more adept at navigating digital exhibitions and playing games on Tabletopia and Tabletop Simulator. It also further cemented my friendships with gamer friends from all around the world.
A recent discussion amongst the committee of the International Gamers Awards set me thinking about the online world of analog gaming. In previous years I was amongst the judges who, by the distance from the distribution centers of the gaming distributors, could not play all the games on the long list for the awards. Now, even though the online platforms have their limitations and may somewhat color one’s perception of the game by the fiddly nature of the controls, there is unlikely to be a shortlisted game I could not play.
And that is the silver lining to the cloud of Covid. My gaming week has expanded from 1 to 2 face to face sessions to an additional 2 to 3 online sessions! One weekly session consists of friends in Canada, the US and the UK! With all this online gaming across multiple platforms taking place I thought it would be helpful to some if I set down some of my experiences.
Boardgamearena is probably the best of the lot because of the level of automation of game functions. It utilizes a top-down view common to most platforms and has useful links to the rules. The graphic layout is somewhat strange but usable and I have only found one game – Keyflower – whose resolution quality and size gave me a headache. There are some great games available for all levels of gamer but it’s not clear how the games are picked and there are some strange and obscure choices (to me at least). The cost for a Premium account is very reasonable. Games I have loved here are: Yokohama, Russian Railroads, La Granja, Polis, Signorie, Nippon, Rallyman GT and In the Year of the Dragon. Some light fillers were new to me: Haiclue, Lucky Numbers and Color Pop.
Yucata is very similar but the interface looks older and some games graphics are not like the original game and very utilitarian. A game I love – Attika – is a case in point, but that does not stop me playing it. Setting up and entering a game is not that simple but once its learned, it’s done. Games I have loved here are: Pandoria, Attika (but brace for the visuals) Castles of Burgundy, Pax Profiriana, Forum Trajanum and Rajas of the Ganges
I used to play on Brettspielwelt many years ago but I think they have slipped down somewhat in the selection of games. I also don’t understand the appeal of the metagame with guilds and the like, but the interface has had a makeover and there are some good new games there.
Spiel Digital gave me a great opportunity to learn the controls of Tabletopia and I think it is heading in the right direction to becoming the number one gaming platform, if they manage to sort out some controls issues (stacking cards and sliding cards UNDER other cards in some games) and figure out a better system for views. (How about small thumbnails for 4 or more of the main views selected?) But during Spiel Digital and since I got better and better at the interface, so if you find it clunky don’t give up. A highlight was playing the new Kramer Kiesling – Paris and some of the other games played are: Anno 1800, Castles of Tuscany, Polynesia, Dwergar, Renature and Whistle Mountain.
Its direct competitor – Tabletop Simulator – is a rougher creation altogether. Because fans build the mods the quality can vary but if a mod has enough positive feedback you can be pretty sure it works well. The range of games is staggering but you need to find the ones you are looking for in the workshop and then subscribe to them. The front/home interface is a graphic abomination but don’t let that put you off. If the game isn’t on Tabletopia you are bound to find it on TTS. I’ve enjoyed Barrage, Louis XIV and Watergate to name a few.
If you are into 18xx games you can’t go wrong with the site 18xx.games. Not the prettiest home screen but clean and functional. I’ve only played 1846 there but the automation makes the game so enjoyable! And you can stop at any point and continue later, or stop the game session and continue individually as it notifies you when it’s your turn.
A small niche site called Boardgamecore.net has some very good games – Antiquity, Food Chain Magnate, The Great Zimbabwe and Wir Sind Das Volk. I haven’t had a chance to play there but I intend to do so in the near future. Anyone care to join me?
I think I am in the minority here but I really enjoy playing on Vassal. I believe it was originally created for Advanced Squad Leader, and indeed playing that game here reveals the depths of care lavished on this most special wargame, but it functions very well for a huge number of games. Like TTS you have to download the engine and then download modules of the games you want to play. What I like about the interface is the clean top-down look of the board and the way the cards and dice are handled. I’ve recently played Pax Pamir Second Edition and have not so long ago played Imperial Struggle, Breakout Normandy, Combat Commander and Advanced Squad Leader. But when you scroll down the modules you will be surprised by the variety you will find there.
And finally, not to be forgotten, are the many boardgame ports to digital available on various platforms but my preference is Steam. Generally, these digital versions are very cheap compared to their analog counterparts and some are extremely well implemented with a decent AI. I have many but I think the best ones are: Roll for the Galaxy, Labyrinth, War on Terror, Fort Sumter, Terraforming Mars, Root, Wingspan and Twilight Struggle.
When I play boardgames I am generally looking for a deep strategic game, but equally or perhaps even more important is the social aspect. To that end I am a great fan of the platforms that allow us to run a video call throughout the game. The one that’s functioned very smoothly and has been easiest to initiate is Facebook Messenger. I still find Discord quite difficult to navigate but I am learning fast and that looks like becoming the go-to platform for chat, speech and video.
This article was prompted by comments from various boardgamers about their experiences online during this crazy period. It is hoped that people add their own comments and opinions and, by doing so, we not only build up a base of knowledge of what is great out there but also, we influence and encourage the direction in which this increasingly important offshoot of our hobby is heading.
If anyone fancies a game or some help in navigating any of these interfaces I am happy to oblige.
THOUGHTS FROM OTHER OPINIONATED GAMERS
Erik Arneson: I wholeheartedly agree that BoardGameArena is the top choice here. The automated interface makes it quicker to play many games on BGA than in real life; for many other services, the opposite is true. Among the many games available at BGA are Spiel des Jahres winners Kingdom Builder, Colt Express, Hanabi, Elfenland, Kingdomino, Niagara, and Carcassonne — along with some of my personal favorites: Downforce, The Crew: The Quest for Planet Nine, Can’t Stop, Incan Gold, Butterfly, and 7 Wonders Duel. (Which leaves unmentioned greats like For Sale, Mr. Jack, Lost Cities, Saboteur and so many more.) There are some “strange and obscure” games, as Simmy described them, but there are plenty of well-known titles as well. And I view the strange and obscure titles as potential hidden gems just waiting to be discovered.
Joe Huber: As a practical matter, I’d only used Yucata before 2020, since given the choice I’d always rather game in person. That not being a choice, I’ve used most of the systems Simmy notes – not BSW or Vassal, so far. (I’ve also used Board18 for 18xx games online, and greatly prefer it to 18xx.games because it feels more like the experience of playing in person to me, but I have no doubt that 18xx.games is a better choice for most folks.) I have had more problems with Tabletop Simulator than with all other systems combined, and at this point will only consider it for short games or for playtesting. And in spite of Simmy’s praise, I’ve found Tabletopia fair at best – the games I’ve played there have taken far longer than they should. In my opinion, a physics engine is simply poorly suited to board games. BGA and Yucata, on the other hand, feel a lot more like playing in person to me, at least when combined with audio (whether on Discord or elsewhere), in no small part because the pace of play is correct, and players don’t get distracted by what should be automated actions such as scoring. I’ve only played Food Chain Magnate on Boardgamecore, but found it a very good implementation. Easily my most frequent platform used, however, is BridgeBaseOnline. It might only offer a single game – but what a game…
Mark Jackson: I’ve primarily used BoardGameArena for online gaming… with Discord or Facebook Chat as the preferred “live” conversation method. I’d point out that there are some excellent implementations of some personal favorites on BGA, including Tash-Kalar, Eminent Domain, and both Race & Roll for the Galaxy.
Nathan Beeler: I have a friend in my gaming group that will venture outside of BGA for up to a single game a week and no more. I’m not that far behind him in preferring that platform to all others. That’s how much better the experience is there. The only real downside it has is the clunkiness of setting up a game: you can’t start one from the game list page for some reason, and you can’t change a game’s settings after players have accepted. The latter issue often led to a comedy of errors: “Don’t accept the invitation yet!”; “Crap, I have to boot you all because I had the wrong number of players set”. Eventually, I learned to start a game without inviting friends at the same time and mostly solved that. Even still, some of the games there have a little wonkiness of their own. We have a mantra when starting Race For the Galaxy for instance: “Click to discard. Click to discard.” This is because that’s not intuitive and it’s different at the beginning to how it is when doing the explore phase. Minor nits, on the whole.
The real main advantage to BGA over something like Yucata.de is that it’s set up to handle simultaneous play, whereas a lot of the other non-physics engine based platforms are set up for the world of turn-based gaming. This makes play on BGA run so much more smoothly. Yucata*, specifically, has some fun games that we can’t play elsewhere (e.g. Hadara, Glen More). But because all of what would be simultaneous play of the board is serialized, and because of the ubiquitous and often hidden confirmation buttons often confuse a player into thinking they’ve completed their turn when they haven’t, a game can easily take twice as long as it should there.
Boiteajeux.net is another platform that we’ve tried a few times to play games like Agricola. The graphics are natively in French, which is a problem for me and my friends, but the hover text is in English so we can make it work enough to get through. It’s still a bit more painful than it should be. Desperate times call for desperate measures.
One place that I’m not desperate enough to go back to is Brettspielwelt. Back in the mid-to-early 2000s it was a viable way to play occasional games with friends far away. Of course, that involved learning BSW’s arcane and poorly implemented system to get around. I usually relied on other friends to set up the games and then just hooked in to where they were to play. I tried it again recently and was blown away by how little has changed in over a decade. It felt older than that, like something from the 1990s, and not in a fun nostalgic way. We tried to play Princes of Florence, probably my favorite game, and only made it through a round and a half before giving up.
I am personally not a fan of the physics engine based gaming platforms. I get why publishers like them — it’s so much easier to create a few assets and throw them in a package instead of programming all the rules of the game and working out bugs in all the little edge cases. I get it, but I don’t like it. To me using Tabletopia feels like trying to play a game from a distance with only trash picker tools to interact with the pieces. And TTS feels like that but with the added benefit of having it crush my computer at the same time. Lots of good and new titles out there that many will enjoy on these platforms. For me, as a cult of the great member, I’m happy to keep playing from the smaller pool of fun games on other sites.
Generally speaking, I’m looking forward to going back to normal. But I can imagine keeping virtual sessions on BGA in the quiver for those friends that I otherwise wouldn’t get to play with often. One little silver lining of these trying times.
*Does anyone know how to pronounce Yucata? Is it YOO or YUH? Is the accent on the first or second syllable? Everyone seems to have a different approach.
Larry: I, too, am new to online gaming, having played very little of it BC (Before COVID). It’s not nearly as much fun as playing FTF, but it’s still much better than nothing. Yucata is probably my favorite and we’ve done quite a bit of turn-based gaming there. I’ve also done some real-time games on BGA and most of those have worked fairly well.
My tastes may not be the same as other gamers when it comes to an online interface. I’m a big proponent of having the game interface fit the needs of the specific device. If that means that the look isn’t a mirror image of the physical version of the game, that’s fine, as long as it works. For example, we’ve played many turn-based games of Castles of Burgundy on Yucata. You can’t see every aspect of play at all times, but by clicking or hovering your mouse, you can see everything you need. As a result, the images are clear and easy to view and it works excellently. In contrast, the interface for Teotihuacan on BGA is a replica of the physical version. I find it very difficult to make things out and it makes the game almost unplayable for me (at least, in real time). This emphasizes the importance of how the games are implemented; a little out-of-the-box thinking and a realization of how the game will play on the intended device goes a long way.
My latest forays into online gaming are with Tabletopia and Tabletop Simulator. These normally would not be my first choices; they are physics-based platforms, which tends to make manipulation of objects awkward, and most of them include no coding for game rules. However, this is where the new games live and as a card-carrying member of the Cult of the New, I’m willing to put up with the inconvenience. However, neither of them really provides a pleasant game-playing experience. Of the two of them, Tabletopia is much better. At least the zoom and panning tools are easily performed by using the mouse, as God intended. It’s quite intuitive. Of course, there’s still the issue that the lack of game coding adds a whole bunch of time to playing the game, since the players have to do everything and the platform does nothing. Still, at least the interface is an intelligent one. TTS, OTOH, is extremely unintuitive (at least it is to me; my video game playing brethren might feel differently). I thought using the keyboard to scroll around went out with the 90’s, but I guess I was wrong. I find it extremely frustrating and right now, it’s my absolute last resort. But some games require it, so if my desire to play those games is great enough, I’ll deal with the TTS interface, however reluctantly.
Matt C: As a father of younger kids, I have played online fairly extensively even before COVID came knocking. I also enjoy quite a few digital adaptations of boardgames as they provide a handy opponent when none is around. (I greatly dislike playing strangers online as it adds yet another stress level – am I providing a good game environment for my mystery opponent? Am I going to have to bug out early due to a kid interruption? Where’s the fun in losing if I can mock the winner to their face?) Most of the online sites have been well covered so I’ll put in just a few words on each:
- BoardgameArena – my 1st choice if the game is available. Nice, clean interface that works well.
- Tabletopia – Also decent but there seems to be more stuff behind a paywall gate than is found at other sites.
- Yucata – I’ve tried it out and it is OK, but I’m not interested in most of the games.
- BrettSpielWelt – No. Just No. Every five years or so I go back to the site to try and play a game. I’m fairly internet/computer savvy but I do not think I’ve ever successfully played a game on BSW.
- Vassal – I’m not into wargames as much as other games and this one specializes in wargames so haven’t tried to get through the overhead of running games. (A mild negative here as many vassal downloads charge for their use… at least they used to be…)
- TableTop Simulator – I always describe this as “playing boardgames while wearing gloves.” A bit of a learning curve to get the interface down and even afterwards it isn’t as smooth as other sites. Most games don’t have much in the way of automation (some have a little) so this is typically my last choice for a game format. It costs $$, but it’s a one-time purchase rather than a subscription. (Some game implementations by the publishers cost $$, but have more & better automation.) TTS also requires real-time play although game states can be “saved” from one session to the next. The one BIG, BIG advantage of TTS is that anyone can make their own mod. (I was even able to implement a prototype of my game with few problems.) As a result , pretty much any game you can think of is on there somewhere. (Popular games unfortunately will have several implementations which may make it hard to find the best one.) Many of the best games on TTS are ones with lots of minis or other effects. One can run an entire campaign for Pandemic Legacy, Gloomhaven, Descent (either edition), Imperial Assault, Heroscape, etc… that include access to every possible expansion. The save and restore feature means you can come back and play the next session later. Oh, and you can’t deny the pleasure of pressing the “flip the table” button when things go south. It is very pleasing to see those pieces go flying all over the place. (Yes, there is an “undo” button, so it isn’t a permanent loss…)
- Steam & Tablets – While boardgame implementations were scarce back in the day (Days of Wonder’s Ticket to Ride & Small World led the way and benefited greatly by being the “first” but now there are plenty to choose from. I keep meaning to write up a rundown of my favorites but good implementations include the aforementioned Small World and Ticket to Ride, Roll through the Galaxy, Root, and various roll & write options. My favorites are ones that include a solo-campaign mode of story or puzzles. Galaxy Trucker has an amazing story mode, Evolution has you unlocking achievements, Suburbia has a great series of challenges as does Through the Ages, Wingspan implements the correct bird calls (I think), Charterstone takes care of all of the Legacy components for you, and Agricola has a nice solo mode. Digital implementations do have their limits. Particularly complex games like Terra Mystica and Steam are nearly impossible to play well unless you are very familiar with the physical game. This is particularly a problem for games where an opponents’ pieces are important. With automation it is easy to glide over opponents’ moves when one should really be paying attention (and the screen layout may hide some of the other players’ game states behind several clicks.) Things like Sentinels of the Galaxy or Spirit Island have a lot of pieces flying around so automation is a blessing, but I find it more difficult to keep track of the entire game state if everything is visual.
On that note, one thing I like about all the virtual options are the fast setup and take down. In the extreme, a 3 hour game of Risk can be played in about 8 minutes (not that you necessarily want to…) In particular, games that have open information (Small World, Pandemic (mostly), Galaxy Trucker, Carcassonne, 7 Wonders Duel, Kingdom Builder, Suburbia, etc…) can be put on a big tablet (or, even better projected up on a big screen TV) and played in person with all the bits and pieces take care of… With the price of digital implementations far less than the physical games, I am able to carry dozens of my favorite games around with me, giving me a $150 collection of digital games that would cost around $1000 for physical versions – and the digital ones on my iPad weigh less than a pound (or 450 g.)
Alan H: I’ve played many of my online games with Simmy and I’d agree with his assessment of the different options. For me, the main issue is the interface, but partly that’s experience of using a system. In any system if you have a person who knows how to help that is an enormous advantage. But all these issues are dwarfed by one thing – I need to see each person’s face and my preference is to use Messenger. I’ve tried other solutions, including just audio, but if that’s the case I might as well play with people that I don’t know. With seeing my friends faces, the laughter flows and so the interface is of lower importance as we joint;y overcome its challenges.
Jonathan F.: There is not much more to say coming to this thread a bit late, but as someone who likes card games and trick taking games in particular, I have spent quite a bit of time on playingcards.io ( http://playingcards.io ) There are lots of card and card-adjacent games there with the challenge that you need to upload the game you want to play. Many are listed on this geeklist – Games implemented on playingcards.io – https://boardgamegeek.com/geeklist/272690/games-implemented-playingcardsio It is much less technologically demanding than Tabletopia or TTS while still having cards on the table, in hand, face up, face down, auto-deal, and basic things needed to play a game like The Crew. It also appears quite easy to prototype in. I would encourage those who like card games to check it out.