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Distant Friends - Remote Board Gaming

O Updated
(Photo by Bruno Wolff on Unsplash)
There Will Be Games

I previously shared my experiences of games nights with friends who are all in different places, briefly touching on the different platforms available, but focussing more on the experience and what to do to make it feel as close to being together as possible. Now I want to look at the different ways I have played games remotely with others in more detail. I hope it will help you find a solution to your situation.

Let me start by saying that learning a game you have never played before through any online platform is going to be difficult. There is usually no tutorial mode or guide, so make sure that one in your games group knows the game already and is able to teach it to the rest of you. It is possible to learn the game yourself, but it is probably going to take you a lot longer than if you had the physical game in front of you.

Next, let me give you a brief introduction into the different types of platforms and what they're trying to offer. You can basically divide the various options into two offerings: a full 3D experience where you can move pieces around, which is trying to emulate a real board game, and a simpler version which is focussing on the gameplay.

 

3D platforms

Tabletopia and Tabletop Simulator are the two main platforms that are trying to give you as close to a real board game experience as possible. They show all the board game components in 3D and you change your camera angle or zoom in and out to see what you need to see. Your mouse cursor works as your virtual hand, with which you pick up, move and drop the relevant components where they need to be.

It's a lot harder to play a game this way, because what your hands can do in seconds takes your mouse and keyboard several times longer. However, even though it feels a bit unnatural and takes some time getting used to, once you know the keyboard shortcuts and got used to the platform's quirks, it amazingly does feel very close to playing a real game. Just bear in mind that a game that normally takes you an hour and a half to play, will take probably about two hours, but if everyone helps out and moves components around on your turn to speed things up, it's not bad.

You might still want to choose games with not too many moving parts though, or the experience will become tiring very quickly. Personally, I found playing something like Clans of Caledonia by Karma Games absolutely fine, but trying to move a mech and a bunch of workers and resources around in Scythe by Stonemaier Games is rather frustrating.

One useful thing to remember is to make sure there is a pool of resources near every player, so things can be grabbed and put back quickly. Nothing is worse than wanting to quickly grab ten food, but having to zoom across the whole screen to get them and then all the way back again to put them on your player mat.

 

Simpler platforms

If you aren't too concerned with realism and 3D renderings, then simpler platforms like Yucata, Happy Meeple and Board Game Arena are for you. They don't offer 3D graphics, but they do have all the original artwork and even though they are usually a top-down view of a game, their advantage is that you don't have to drag things around.

These platforms know the games' rules, so that they can do all the housekeeping for you. On your turn, you choose one of the possible options you have by clicking on the relevant highlighted area and the platform will pay your money and resources, move your meeples or shuffle your discard pile into a new draw deck for you. In fact, it won't allow you to take an action, if you don't have the necessary resources or aren't allowed to do that action for other reasons.

It is really easy to play games on these platforms and often they also offer a little bit of animation showing you how components are moved around, so it's actually quite pretty. What's great about these simpler platforms though is that they allow you to focus on the game and leave you thinking space to have a chat with your friends while you play.

 

Halfway houses

There is something in between though. Steam offers the ease of simpler platforms, allowing you to simply click an option on your turn and not having to worry about the housekeeping and rules, as well as the visual appeal of 3D platforms. Games on Steam are often displayed in some sort of 3D way, often an isometric view, and they have animations with components flying around, as well as sound effects and background music, which makes them very attractive.

Some games on Steam also offer AI opponents, which means you can play a game solo, if you want.

There are, of course, also app conversions of games and web-based versions, which are dedicated to a single game. If you check on a publisher's website, you will probably find more information. I can't list them all here, but chances are your favourite game will either come as an app or in another digital format.

So, with this brief introduction out of the way, let me give you more details about each of these platforms.

 

Tabletopia

 

Pros Cons
- gives you as close to a real game experience as possible
- many games can be played for free, at least if you play solo or with two players
- can be played in your web browser or via Steam
- requires you to drag components around
- requires a recent computer with enough RAM, but isn't as intensive as other 3D platforms, especially if you play through your browser
Cost Games List
Many games are free, but some require you to sign up for either the Silver plan at USD 4.99 a month, or the Gold plan at USD 9.99 a month, which you can cancel at any time. You will find a large selection of recent games here. There are many Kickstarter projects and a lot of other well-known games. The list is very large and continuously growing.

 

I really like Tabletopia, because it has a huge list of games on it that I know and like. We've used it a lot for our weekly games nights now. Like all 3D platforms, it takes a while to get used to the controls and there are still things that I find frustrating, but if you make sure people help each other with moving components around, it's not too bad.

I recommend that one of your games group signs up for the Gold plan, which allows them to play all premium games and invite others to play, even if those people only have a free Tabletopia account themselves. That's what we're doing and it works really well.

 

Tabletop Simulator

 

Pros Cons
- gives you as close to a real game experience as possible
- allows you to make your own games, which is wonderful for playtesting
- requires you to drag components around
- requires Steam
- requires a relatively powerful computer to work well
- can be a bit hard to understand
- people share commercially available games on the platform for free, without the copyright holder's consent, effectively creating pirate copies
Cost Games List
Even though Steam itself is free, Tabletop Simulator costs money, but there are regular offers which can save you a bit. The actual games are often free, but beware of the pirate copies. Even though many publishers are currently tolerating the situation so that everyone can play games easily and freely, that may change in the future. You will find a large selection of recent games here. New games are added all the time, as per my proviso above.

 

I have only used Tabletop Simulator once and the game was given to me by the publisher. It is easier to control the game and move pieces around than it is on Tabletopia, but you will need someone to show you how the platform works, because it's not immediately clear how you load a game and invite others to play with you remotely.

 

Yucata

 

Pros Cons
- does all the housekeeping for you
- really easy to use, even though there are a couple of quirks in some games
- browser-based doesn't require a powerful computer
- is completely free
- doesn't give the feeling of moving actual components around
Cost Games List
Yucata is completely free to sign up for and all games on it are free to play. You will find a large selection of older games here, but there are a few newer ones too. New games are added quite regularly.

 

The platform was created as a hobby project and is completely free, but there is an option to donate of course, which I strongly recommend you do, if you use the site - certainly if you use it as much as I do.

Yucata is more aimed at asynchronous play, meaning everyone takes their turn when they have time. That means games can take days or even weeks, when they would normally only take an hour. However, you can all play at the same time of course, and when you set up a new game, you can indicate what speed you'd like to play at and whether you want to create a public or private game.

There is a huge community on the platform, so it's easy to find others to play with. It's also rare that people abandon games. In fact, you're forced to continue games in order of when that last turn was made. So you can't just leave twenty games open and only play one of them. If it's your turn on another game, you'll have to play that first before you can go onto another.

It is probably my favourite platform and I usually have a dozen or so games on the go at the same time. It is quite easy to see what everyone has done and remind yourself of your strategy, so there is no worry about forgetting what you were doing between turns.

 

Happy Meeple

 

Pros Cons
- does all the housekeeping for you
- really easy to use, even though there are a couple of quirks in some games
- browser-based doesn't require a powerful computer
- is completely free
- doesn't give the feeling of moving actual components around
Cost Games List
It is completely free to sign up for and all the games are free to play. You will find a large selection of games here, ranging from older to newer titles. New games are added quite regularly as well.

 

I don't have a lot of experience with Happy Meeple, but it's certainly quite busy and you should find a good selection of games. It offers a sort of metagame, where you get bonus points for achieving certain tasks, such as playing your first game, and those bonuses are in the form of buildings that you add to your little village.

It's definitely worth checking out, as you might find games on there that you don't find on other platforms.

 

Board Game Arena

 

Pros Cons
- does all the housekeeping for you
- really easy to use, even though there are a couple of quirks in some games
- browser-based doesn't require a powerful computer
- is completely free
- doesn't give the feeling of moving actual components around
Cost Games List
It is completely free to sign up for and all the games are free to play. You will find a large selection of board games here, both old and new, and new ones get added quite regularly.

 

I have used Board Game Arena very little, but it is certainly very popular and you will find a huge community of gamers there that will be happy to play with you. It offers asynchronous play, just like Yucata, but of course you can play in real-time too, if you prefer.

I found it a bit confusing to use sometimes and had problems with people abandoning games quite frequently, which is frustrating. So maybe make sure you only play with people you know, so that you don't get disappointed.

 

Steam

 

Pros Cons
- does all the housekeeping for you
- really easy to use
- gives you realistic gameplay with 3D animations and sound effects
- requires you to install software
- requires a relatively powerful computer
- if you want to play with people on different computers, everyone needs to buy a copy of the game
Cost Games List
Steam itself is free to download and use, but the majority of games cost money. There are regular offers though, so keep an eye out for those. There is an immense list of games on Steam. You should find pretty much everything on there that you can think of.

 

I really like this compromise between simplicity and realism. It's easy to play games on Steam and you get a lovely visual experience. You don't need to drag components around the screen, but you still see the game state. Many games also have a tutorial mode and offer an AI, so you can play solo, which is amazing.

Games on the platform usually aren't hugely expensive, and certainly a lot cheaper than a physical copy, but if you want to play with friends who are in different locations, then all of you need to buy your own copy, making it a lot less affordable all of a sudden. That's a shame, but then there are regular offers on games, so you might get a good deal that makes playing with friends remotely much more affordable.

That really completes my list of online board game platforms. I have not spoken about voice or video chat solutions, but if you look at DiscordSkype and similar, you will find something that works for you. Personally, I stick with voice chat only, because video tends to use up a good chunk of internet bandwidth or you get a very blurry picture - but you might feel otherwise of course.

Please let me know how you manage to play games with other people remotely. What platforms have you used? Do you use different platforms for different games or different games groups? Do you use video or voice-only chat? What tools do you use for that? It would be great to hear what experiences you have had and share with us what worked and what didn't.

There Will Be Games
Oliver Kinne
Oliver Kinne
Associate Writer

Oliver Kinne aims to publish two new articles every week on his blog, Tabletop Games Blog, and also release both in podcast form. He reviews board games and writes about tabletop games related topics.

Oliver is also the co-host of the Tabletop Inquisition podcast, which releases a new episode every three to four weeks and tackles different issues facing board games, the people who play them and maybe their industry.

Articles by Oliver Kinne

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dysjunct's Avatar
dysjunct replied the topic: #310915 03 Jun 2020 18:43
Re: Board Game Arena. All games are free to play, but there are some games that you cannot create a table for unless you have a premium account. So if you want to play, e.g. Love Letter, but you don't have a premium account, you'll have to wait for someone else to start a table for you to join.
oliverkinne's Avatar
oliverkinne replied the topic: #310919 04 Jun 2020 07:38
Hello @dysjunct, thank you for the clarification. I never knew that. I thought they were all free.