Online board gaming sucks

Table presence is part of the board game experience.

Sorry in advance for the clickbait title. But now that I’ve got your attention let’s talk about the state of online board gaming, one year into the pandemic. A year ago I wrote about the different ways to play online. The lockdown was new, and no one was likely to see anyone outside of their immediate household any time soon. One year on, we are in a similar place, with some hope on the horizon as vaccines roll out to a broad population. But for the most part, we are stuck with the solutions that we had then, and after more time with each method I have come away with a preferred method of gaming online, but all of them have major downsides which I want to highlight here.

But first, before I beat up on the services too much, there have been some upsides. For one, as the only way to play games for the most part things like Board Game Arena, Tabletop Simulator and online implementations of games elsewhere have been essential to keeping the hobby alive. We are fortunate to have entered lockdown when so many services already existed to make this happen compared to a decade prior when such things were in their infancy. Second, this has forced folks to revisit a lot of old games or the same games repeatedly. With fewer options and largely older titles implemented online the cult of the new or flavor of the week factor in board games was much reduced. I have had friends come to me blown away by games that came out 5-10 years ago because they finally had the chance to play them repeatedly on BoardGameArena. This is a nice side effect of a limited menu, it forces more in depth exploration of each game that is available.

Other than these two factors, I will be very happy to have online board gaming in the rearview mirror. I want to start by analyzing what I think is the worst way to play these games: Tabletop Simulator. Early on in the lockdown this option looked promising. Just about every board game was represented, although the legality of creating a tabletop simulator mod was up in the air, it was open season in terms of selection. You could virtually shuffle cards, roll dice, and even flick pieces, just like in real life. I have had the “pleasure” over the last week or two of playing both Greenland and Hansa Teutonica, two favorites of mine that aren’t available anywhere else. What’s not to love? Well, just about everything about the experience frankly. Tabletop simulator games on average take about twice as long as the same game would in real life. Both of the aforementioned games should clock in at around 90 minutes, but took something more like 3 hours to complete. But secondly, and more important than the time commitment, the simulation of tabletop play lacks a lot of the joy of actual board gaming in person.

Tabletop simulator lets you play games virtually, but the simulation is ultimately kind of hollow

Gone are the cross table death stares when someone makes an aggressive move, or eye contact of any type really. Even with a zoom or something combined with the game, the face to face of zoom and the on screen play don’t really mesh in even remotely the same way. Instead you are a disembodied camera with a hand in this virtual space. You can pan over to the other players pieces and play area, pick them up to look at them closely without them even knowing it. You can see everything, but ultimately you actually pay attention to less as a result of not being there in person. Other than occasionally watching players to make sure they are following the rules given there is no programmatic logic I would vaguely ignore my opponents turns in Tabletop Simulator because if my camera was not looking at the right place I might miss them entirely. In Hansa Teutonica my friend nabbed up a few critical bonus points on the board before I even noticed. I cannot imagine this happening in real life as I would have been sitting at my chair at the table watching him  take those moves versus panning around the board like a discovery nature documentary. 

Additionally any action you take in a virtual space is not as fun as in real life. Virtual dice rolls are anti-climactic, especially if no one is really watching or anticipating the results. Placing cubes on a board, while admittedly not the most scintillating activity even in meatspace, has no gravity on a screen. The illusion of a game, which creates something out of cardboard, wood and cards just boils down to a virtual collection of art assets that you move about on a screen. Board games have a toy factor because they are physical. It drives the minis craze on kickstarter and all the blinged out components like the berries in Everdell or the beautiful Totems in Iwari. But if they are just art this toy factor evaporates. I will play games that are not available elsewhere on Tabletop Simulator but I always withhold judgement if I play a new game there as I know it is only a shadow of the true experience.

Tobago is full of beautiful toy-like pieces

So then let’s visit more automated app-like board games. Board Game Arena has done tremendous work over the last year to improve the platform. It has the most official games of any similar website and the interface is top of the line and very intuitive. BGA takes advantage of being digital and makes many games shorter to play because the setup, score calculation and options on a turn are all taken care of by the program itself. So already this is much less of a headache than moving virtual pieces around. What’s not to love? While I will admit I prefer this method if given a choice, it is still not the same thing for much the same reason. Interaction is different through a digital interface and the physical nature of the games is gone. We had a day of online games last week, and while I had a good time and it was wonderful to catch up with those friends, I left the experience feeling a bit hollow and sad at the end of it. A perfect example of the toy factor being missing was Tobago. This is a favorite of mine, it captures a spirit of adventure as players play cards to slowly whittle down where a treasure is buried on the island while driving their jeeps around to be the first to dig it up. The physical game has beautifully modeled palm trees, huts, jeeps and Moai statues that feel and weigh like they are made out of stone. The BGA implementation might have been a bit old, but the

The digital implementation, while streamlined, loses all of the table presence

graphics were drab and everything was just a flat 2d image. The gameplay held up, but it just wasn’t the same. A frustrating but different experience was with Beyond the Sun, a new 2020 game that just hit the service. I need to give this one another try in person because at some point you are clicking so many times that each turn felt more like a flow chart than a game. Everything also felt small and reduced to fit on a single screen, and even on a larger monitor it was hard to make out. The real game has these neat custom dice that are not rolled but used to represent the different pieces in the game. In an online implementation this aspect is completely lost. One of the reasons I dedicate a whole shelf to these space hogging games is because they give back equally to the space of the table when they are set up and here that is not the case.

So what’s the verdict? Well, unless your covid bubble happens to contain a whole board gaming group we are still stuck with these tools for a while longer. I will keep gaming online because it is the best way to play these things with friends at the moment. But you better believe that I will swap it out for the real thing as soon as it makes sense to get out there in person again. Give me all the messy setup and clean up, all the rules mistakes, dirty looks and table banter, all the dice rolls and chunky pieces I can handle. To me there is nothing better than the real thing; accept no substitutes.

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