Tabletop Simulator, online board game emulator

Often, the largest obstacle to enjoying board games is being able to meet in person. It should be no surprise, then, that there’s a growing demand for ways to play online, with more and more games making the jump from cardboard to our screens.

Tabletop Simulator is a powerful tool that allows us to play thousands of different boardgames online. It’s also a flawed, somewhat painful experience that could be greatly improved.

SIMULATION

Tabletop Simulator is best described as a sandbox. It’s a digital environment in which we can load cards, pieces and boards and move them around to play. If we want to advance a pawn, we can just drag it from one space to another. If we want to shuffle, we take the deck and press R to do it. It’s closer to playing in real life than it is to the average digital implementation.

This is what gives Tabletop Simulator the capacity to simulate all kinds of games. As long as we have the pieces and a picture of the board, it works. But it’s also what makes it awkward to use. Users of the program joke that it’s like playing a game with chopsticks. Given enough practise, you can do it quite well, but it’s clearly not ideal.

In order to use the program we must first download mods, which are available for free on Steam’s Workshop. Unlike Board Game Arena and other digital platforms, most games on Tabletop Simulator do not have the support of their publishers. Mods are fan-made and vary greatly in quality. We might enjoy a high degree of automatization or be forced to stare at a blurry, barebones mod with only the basics.

It’s safe to say I wouldn’t have been able to play anywhere as much without Tabletop Simulator. It’s the only reason I’ve managed to log ten plays of Brass: Birmingham in a week and review Wealth of Nations. It doesn’t matter if we want to play something as complex as Magic Realm or as obscure as Throne and the Grail. As long as there’s a mod, we can.

Tabletop Simulator does not have matchmaking. If we want to play with others, we must ask them in advance. We might be able to find a group through the global chatbox, but it’s a fool’s errand. This means that, in order to get the most out of the program, we must meet others first and then ask them to play online with their own copy.

Similarly, Tabletop Simulator does not allow for asynchronous play. Being able to take your turn at your own leisure and play over a few days is very helpful so I miss this feature. It would not be difficult to implement and it would make playing heavy games much easier.

PROGRAMMERS

Tabletop Simulator is one of those tools made with a programmer mindset. That is, it prioritizes features over ease of use. But its main flaw was the choice to use a 3D environment. Board games, by nature, lay flat. They don’t benefit by being able to move the camera around. A more traditional, fixed camera would have been easier to use.

I’ve also found many boardgamers struggle with it. First-person controls may be second nature to those of us who have spent thousands of hours on PC shooters but they are difficult for those who haven’t. They also mean Tabletop Simulator doesn’t play well with a trackpad, which is what some only have available.

Even then, Tabletop Simulator is not usable with just a mouse. In order to do most basic actions we need to memorize hotkeys. R is used to shuffle, Q and E to rotate tiles and F to flip them over. Cards are not automatically drawn to our hands nor played by clicking on them, so we must drag them over the table.

Menus are burdened with a large number of options that are not necessary to play. There are extensive “flicking” tools, modding options and draw accessories that could be hidden unless their use was required. You cannot exit directly to desktop, but the developers made sure the button for flipping the table had a privileged spot on the interface.

Given the choice, Tabletop Simulator wouldn’t be the platform I play on. But there are few alternatives. Most games do not have digital implementations and previous simulators such as VASSAL were even more cumbersome. For most games, be them Cosmic Encounter, Tragedy Looper or Age of Industry this is the only way to play.

WORTH

For all its flaws, I’m glad Tabletop Simulator exists. It’s a marked improvement on previous programs and much more reliable. It may be awkward to use, but you don’t need to jump through hoops to get a game running. It works well enough to be worth spending the time on.

For me the biggest issue is that its flaws make games slower. Normally, games are faster on digital platforms than they are in real life. After all, you don’t need to shuffle or set up the game. But since Tabletop Simulator does, it’s not unusual for a game to take an hour longer than it should.

At the end of the day, the benefits of online play outweigh its shortcomings. Being able to organize a match, try out new games or even play them on your own is incredibly valuable. The fact that the table you play on floats on the void of space may be a defect, but not a dealbreaker.

Sadly, some games just don’t work well in a digital environment. Negotiation, one of my favourite mechanics, is not great when you are not in person. It’s hard to talk without stepping on each other’s toes and the constant screeching into your ear gets tiring. So keep it in mind before thinking it’s the best way to bring Battlestar Galactica to the table.

Still, at the 10 or 20€ it costs, it’s hard not to recommend Tabletop Simulator. Its massive list of games make it an invaluable tool in a gamer’s arsenal. I can’t imagine anyone trying it and not getting their money’s worth, even if they only use it occasionally or when they have no other choice.

TABLETOP SIMULATOR (2015)
DESIGN Jason Henry DEVELOPMENT
Berserk Games

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