Now, that many of us no longer meet in person, many face-to-face games groups have stopped meeting and have gone online. Of course, online isn't the same as "in real life", so I want to use this article to look at how my virtual board gaming experience compares to playing with people sitting around a real table.
First of all, let me say that I'm very lucky. My regular games group still meets online, which isn't true for everyone. I also have my wife to play games with regularly, so I can directly compare how online gaming is different from meeting people face-to-face.
Let me get some of the more technical bits out of the way first. There are many different online gaming platforms (see also my article "Distant Friends" for more details) that give you a different experience. Some simply simulate physical components, while others are designed to making playing the game easier, enforcing rules, doing the housekeeping, etc.
All platforms will have the game set up for you, which means you can save a fair bit of time, depending on the game you play, when you use an online system. Also, when you play online, you don't need to travel. So overall, a virtual games night saves you a lot of time and allows you to play more or longer games. That's actually one big benefit I've noticed and is what has allowed us to tackle more complex games like Brass: Birmingham or play a couple of average length games.
However, those online platforms that simulate the components that you then have to pick up and move around yourself with your mouse do slow things down a fair bit, so the time you saved from not having to set up the game is quickly swallowed up again.
So using platforms that do all the housekeeping for you are quicker, and easier, to play. Yet, and even though I love that nobody has to remember whether they paid the cost or got the benefit, removing the need for takebacks, I think it is still actually nicer when you do have to draw cards yourself or take coins when you play a physical game. It's not just the tactility of it, but also an element that encourages players to pay attention to the game and be there with you, rather than just do their own thing.
There is one more technical drawback of online games. Unless you have a giant screen, but even then, you can never quite see the whole game board and you endless have to scroll around and zoom in and out, and you still never quite get a full picture. A physical game is much better in that respect and it usually only takes a few seconds to see the whole game state in front of you.
Mind you, it's much harder to read card text across a table and having to ask other players to read out their faction abilities for example is annoying. In an online game you can often just quickly get a full view of a card and read it yourself, while everyone else can carry on with the game.
So there are technical pros and cons to consider, but ultimately no virtual game can ever replace the things that we get from seeing someone sitting across the table from us. Even a video call is unable to convey all the nuances our brains automatically pick up when we see someone in real life.
Even in the driest euro game, there are moments when you need to read another player's body language or facial expression. It's not just about getting knowledge about the other player's hidden information, but much more about seeing them annoyed that you played such a great turn or watching them smile just before they execute an amazing combo that means they not only catch up after being hopelessly behind, but actually win the game. It's great to see everyone laugh and look at each other when these great board game moments take place. Voice and video calls never quite replace that feeling.
The physicality of components is another thing that virtual games can't emulate. I already mentioned the tactility of drawing cards or clinking metal coins on top of each other, but there is something else. Drawing actual cards from an actual deck is much more exciting than right-clicking the virtual version to quickly draw the number of cards you need. Slowly revealing one card after another increases the suspense and sometimes it's the last card that you draw that will turn the game around - and you will remember that much more than when you do the same online.
End game scoring is another thing that feels more amazing in a real game. Digital platforms try to emulate it by slowly racking up points at the end and you watch the animation as if it was the 100m sprint final in the Olympics - and you jump for joy when you win with a handful of points at the end.
Yet, counting your points in a physical game is still better in my view. As you go through your deck of cards to count victory points, sift through your wooden cubes and convert them to more points and then finally tally your coins to get your total score, you wonder whether it's enough to win. At the end, everyone reveals their score one by one and yours isn't beaten, until one of you comes out with a new personal best, and you can't believe that you came second. The time it takes for everyone to count is what increases the suspense and the tension is released in that final moment.
Of course, something that online platforms will also never be able to replace is opening a new game box and playing a game for the first time. Sure, the online world offers us a multitude of games at often lower prices than the physical copies and tutorial modes allows us to learn new games. Yet, that's not the same as seeing someone bring a new game, opening it and setting it up, probably asking you to help with shuffling cards or putting out components, then teach everyone how to play it, before you all start on the journey of discovering this new game together. It's something very special indeed.
Most importantly though, seeing people and talking to them directly, as they sit there, next to you or opposite you, is the best part. You talk about what you've been up to, you might even wander into the kitchen to make drinks as you continue to chat or you bring over your latest purchase for everyone to gawp at or laugh about. All of these interactions, big and small, are so much richer and more intense when they happen in person.
So, as I say, I'm still very pleased that we were able to keep our games nights going by moving online, and they have helped me a lot to get through some tough times, but I still can't wait to see everyone again face to face. After all, there are so many new games we have got in the meantime, that we all want to enjoy and discover together.
So what are your experiences with online platforms? What online setup works best for you? Have you been able to continue to play with people in person? What do you like about online versus real? How do they compare? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.