Tabletop gaming is at heart a social experience. The stereotype may be is of the sad socially awkward gamer that bands together with like minded individuals, but the truth is that games are played to send a few minutes or hours with our friends on a shared social experience. However, thanks to the internet, we have started to see the growth of the hobby into new ways of playing that may forego the need for your friends to be in the same room, or even in the same country. I welcome you to the world of the virtual tabletop.
Playing board games on a computer is not a new phenomenon, as my memories of my family playing Cluedo and Scrabble on our old Amstrad CPC can attest to. However, the internet has allowed the practice to spread to new areas. My own first experience of remove board game play comes from the FUMBBL website – a free to play Java version of the classic Games Workshop Fantasy Football game Blood Bowl, reproduced in what I consider a very charming fashion (as charming as an Orc in an American football helmet trying to stomp an Elf to death can be).
However much I enjoy FUMBBL and Blood Bowl, this article isn’t about a computerised game reproduction. FUMBBL is not a true virtually tabletop, as it simulates the game and the rules almost perfectly. A virtual tabletop gives you the framework to play the game, but implements little or none of the mechanics. Your mouse cursor becomes your hand and you manipulate cards, dice or playing pieces as they are represented before you. Basically the display you have in front of you is a virtual representation of what you would physically have had you opened a boxed copy of the game. The rules of the game are for the players themselves to know, understand and follow; therefore without a copy of the game manual itself, you cannot play.
My own experience of virtual tabletops has been a positive one. Being friends with several gamers up and down the country, I have been able play games with them irrespective of our location. It also gives me an opportunity to play games that some of my regular gaming group are disinterested in, but which I really like.
Furthermore, I am able to expand my play experience to other people, who may show me different ways of playing a game or in a competitive or duel style of game, different tactics that I may attempt to replicate or build upon for my own play. With deck building card game, I can use these programs to test out my decks and see how they match up when playing against others.
However, virtual tabletops are by no means perfect. Communication between players can be a problem. A chat box provided with the program can cover certain parts, but depending on how fast and accurate your typing, can result in the game being much more dragged out that it needs to be. If you are friends with the people involved, you can Skype or Google Hangouts to avoid this, but personally I don’t feel like handing out my Skype ID to anyone I play a pick-up game against. And no matter how good the graphics may be or how intuitive the interface, it still cannot replace the reality of playing the physical game. There is a presence to a physical copy of the game that a virtual tabletop cannot replace.
So it is by no means for everyone. But if the opportunity presents itself and you want to give it a go, here are some systems that I would point you in the direction of.
VASSAL is a piece of free software that allows you to run representations of various board, card and miniatures wargames. From my own personal experience, it appears to be at its best for miniature wargames and I have seen games of Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game and Malifaux being played pretty easily and intuitively.
It can be fairly intimidating to set up and the number of windows that popped up when I first tried it was troubling. However, there are a lot of useful set up guides out there and the community tend to be pretty patient of newer players.
When I first mentioned to my friends my plans for this article, one of the first things said to me was ‘So you’ll be speaking about OCTGN then.’ And far be it from me to disappoint them.
OCTGN is free (although you can subscribe for extra perks) and when downloaded comes with files for more classic board games, such as backgammon and draughts, as well as basic playing cards. However, where it really shines is its implementation of deck building games.
I frequently use OCTGN to play Magic: The Gathering; The Lord of The Rings Living Card Game and A Game Of Thrones Living Card Game. It is very easy to set up that’s to a great guide about how to access the game feeds for these. Furthermore, any updates to these games are done automatically rather than by you every time an expansion is released.
If you like your card games, this may well be the virtual tabletop for you.
Tabletop Simulator (TTS) is a product by Beserk Games that essentially creates a sand-box environment for you and your friends to create and play your own board games. Unlike the two previous programs, this is not free and can be bought from Steam.
TTS is physics based, so items can be picked up, dropped and thrown as required. It also has the capacity built into it roll dice and to hide items from other players (such as cards). Most importantly, the ability to flip the table is built into the engine itself – something which is a much more popular action than it should be.
The games library is fan created and many can be downloaded from Steam Workshop. However, some of these files are unlicensed copies of existing games. However, there is licensed DLC being released for it – with the card game Mistfall making its official way to the game.
Tabletopia describes itself as a Kindle for boardgames and is available on PC, Mac, iOS and Android. It is currently under development having been Kickstarted last year and a few people have early access as a result (regrettably not myself … but I know a couple of people who did).
The same situation applies with other sandboxes, that knowledge of the game rules are required. But the initial impressions of the demos are showing some impressive graphics. There are also a fair number of games coming to the system, as well as a system that allows publishers to release their games for the program.
There are subscription based sign ups at different levels, but anyone who has used Xbox Live has probably worked with a similar model. It’s certainly one to watch and I will be keeping an eye on its performance.