How to Play Board Games Online

One of the biggest joys of board games comes from the social component. When my days are often spent in front of a computer screen, interacting with people in a physical space feels like a novelty. I’ll take every chance I can get to revel in the company of others by playing an interactive, engaging game. But there are some instances where I’m forced playing board games online. It’s not ideal, but sometimes, I have no other options.

As of this writing, the world has more or less shut down from a strain of coronavirus called COVID-19. Its contagiousness has forced people to social distance and, in more extreme cases, quarantine themselves in their homes. Needless to say, my ability to meet friends and game with them at the office or at home has been severely curtailed.

But that might not be the only reason you haven’t been able to play games in person. If you’re new to a city and haven’t found yourself a board game group, playing games in person might not be an option. You might have to resort to playing board games online, which has some benefits, but also some drawbacks.

Pros of playing games online:

  • Access to more opponents: While meetup groups can connect you to more players, online board gaming can connect you to hundreds or even thousands of gamers around the world. If you’re good at a game or can’t find someone to play your all-time favorite game, access to a bigger player pool can help you find someone to play with.
  • Access to more games: Unless you’ve somehow gone and built up a big gaming collection or have lots of friends who, collectively, have access to a large collection, you’ll be limited in what you can play. Online board game sites have a large number of titles from which to choose, allowing you to play to your heart’s content.
  • Trying out new games: When I look at new games, typically, reviews allow me to figure out whether I want to play that game. But if I’m still not sure, online board game sites gives me a way to try out a given game. It’s even better when board game Kickstarters are putting their games online for people to try before they buy. That’s a huge plus, especially when backing something on Kickstarter can be risky.
  • Having the system handle the upkeep/accounting: For games like Through the Ages or Innovation, handling some of the manual tasks like moving discs up some tracks or counting a certain number of symbols can be annoying. On a lot of game sites, they automate this all for you, making gameplay flow faster.

Downsides of online board gaming:

Unfortunately, online board games aren’t a panacea. There are enough downsides that make me eager to continue in-person gaming once the social distancing guidelines are lifted.

  • Missing the opportunity to socialize with others: As much as voice chat can serve as a means to stay connected with others, it’s no replacement for the socialization that comes with in-person gaming. The spontaneity of conversations that pop up in person is one reason I would never give up playing in person.
  • Teaching new games is a pain online: Unless people are willing to watch how-to-play videos before playing, teaching people a new game online is difficult. I find that people more readily absorb information when they have physical objects to manipulate and can follow what you’re doing in-person than when they’re on a screen. They can also ask better questions, leading to a better understanding of how to play.
  • Some online implementations have terrible UI/UX: It can be hard to understand what’s happening within a game sometimes. I’ve seen games where information is subdivided into many different windows. When that happens, trying to scroll through all the windows to keep track of information obscures what is going on in the game.
  • Some online implementations don’t allow take-backs: Sometimes you make mistakes. In real life, you can politely ask your opponents to let you take a move back. And barring extreme instances of that, most people will let you. Most online implementations of board games don’t take that into account and you’re stuck with whatever move you’ve made. And that can lead to a sour experience when you know you can play better or when you’ve only won because you beat someone who made a silly mistake.

Where to play board games online

If you’ve the desire to maintain your gaming hobby in conditions where you can’t play in person, online board gaming is the way to go. Naturally, the question will be where you can play. For that, I’ve found the following online locales to be useful.

Tabletop Simulator is a great way to play board games online

Tabletop Simulator

Of the options that are available, I prefer Tabletop Simulator most. That’s because the board games community is pretty active on that site. If you go through the Steam Workshop you’ll find that someone will have made a mod of a game you’ve wanted to play.

Now most of the games available on Tabletop Simulator require that you manually run it. It won’t do anything for you beyond provide you with a platform with which to play. In other words, you’ll have to do the heavy lifting by keeping up with the rules and making sure everyone else is following them.

There are a few game implementations that use TTS’s scripting tools to automate the upkeep-heavy parts of the game. They’ll do things like update the board with resources, help you to score, or set up the game for you. Cherish those scripted mods and their creators for making it much easier to run the game.

To play Tabletop Simulator, you need to get the game from Steam. Then head over to the Steam Workshop to search for games. Once you find a game you’re interested in playing, find a scripted mod if any are available and click subscribe. When you subscribe, you’ll be able to access the game when you open Tabletop Simulator.

Games I’ve played on Tabletop Simulator include:

Other websites to play online

Tabletop Simulator isn’t the only way to play. A few of my friends use websites that have games implemented on them. These are usually scripted so that it takes all the rules into account. You won’t need to do much heavy lifting if you’re to play using these sites. However, they’re really only good if everyone knows how to play. Learning games on these sites can be even more challenging.

Still, if these sites are what you’re looking for, here are a few that are worth checking out along with the games I think are notable:

Boardgamearena – They have a premium version which offers more features like voice chat and more access to games.

  • 7 Wonders
  • Hanabi
  • Race for the Galaxy
  • Through the Ages: A New Story

  • Castles of Burgundy
  • El Grande
  • Targi
  • Terra Mystica
Playing El Grande on

Boite a jeux – A strong contender if you’re a fan of abstract games from the Gipf family, including Dvonn and Exxit.

  • Concordia
  • Gipf
  • Trajan
  • Tzolkin

Boardgamecore – These guys are great if you’re looking for Splotter titles.

  • Food Chain Magnate
  • Antiquity
  • The Great Zimbabwe.
Playing Food Chain Magnate on BoardGameCore

What other sites do you all use? Are there other ways I haven’t listed that work for you to get your board game fix?

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