Playing Board Games Online

Playing board games online with Tabletop Simulator

Playing board games online is a bit of a contradiction. Board games are popular because they bring friends and family together. They get people talking and interacting in ways a video game doesn’t. But right now we can’t all get together. We do have the Internet. Which has been invaluable for staying in touch across social distancing. So it makes sense to turn to that tool and see if we can’t scratch our board game itch with online play. Just don’t call it a video game, even if using video to show your game.

Playing board games online with Tabletop Simulator

Tabletop Simulator
Source: Steam

There are two routes you can explore with your gaming group.

The simplest and cheapest is playing the board games you own over video chat. This won’t work well for a lot of games. But you can likely find something that lends itself to the limits of viewing the game via video.

There are also several options for playing tabletop games in a digital space. All support online play and look great on paper. But there are costs involved with most. And each has a learning curve for dealing with a physical game in a virtual space.

Or consider hosting a remote LAN party. Trying out some video games made for Internet multiplayer.


The coronavirus outbreak has pushed a lot of people to work from home, many for the first time. Even more people are practicing social distancing. Don’t panic. At the end of the day you’re doing the same job. And you can still reach out to friends and family. But you’ll need to do so with a different toolset. This site is here to help you make the changes needed to make the most of the situation.


Traditional Board Games Over Video Chat

The first thing that comes to mind for playing board games online would be to setup a video chat. Setup the game board, point a camera at it, and away you go. This is a simpler option which can work with the right types of games. But has its downsides, too.

Pick a Video Chat App

There are lots of free video chat apps available to use, if you and your friends don’t already have a favorite.

  • Facebook Messenger – Easy if everyone is on (and likes) Facebook
  • FaceTime – Good if everyone has an iPhone or Mac
  • Google Duo – Good if everyone has an Android, but also works with iPhone and web
  • Houseparty – Allows others to join a group call without invite (must be on someone’s friends list)
  • Skype – Internet standard for voice and video chat
  • WhatsApp – Good if most of you already use it for texting

As they are all free you can try as many as you like. Test them out before game night. The most important thing is to go with something everyone will use.

Webcam Alternatives for Conferences and Chat

Pick a Board Game

The easiest option is to have one person host the game. They setup the board and move all the pieces. Their camera needs to be focused on the board rather than themselves. Everyone else plays along watching their screens. And telling the host what moves they are making.

As such the game needs to have no secret information, as everyone is seeing the same thing. You also can’t each use copies of the same deck of cards, especially with unique cards. Avoid small text that will be hard to read. The fewer moving parts for the host to deal with the better. In general avoid large and complicated board games.

Go through your game libraries. The same person doesn’t have to host every session. Split the duty and use games available within your group.

Bad Games For Video Chat Play

  • Clue, secret information you have to share secretly
  • Monopoly, too many moving parts
  • Wingspan, cards with small text

Good Games For Video Chat Play

  • Sorry, host can draw and move pieces while players make easy decisions
  • Pandemic and other co-op games where you share all information
  • Dungeons and Dragons, time to finally put your party together

More Options For Two Players

With only two players you can play more complicated games. You can also play games with secret info if you both own a copy. Or build you own.

  • Battleship works great even over voice calls. You can print out a game sheet if you don’t own the game board.
  • Guess Who also works well. Hasbro has character sheets you can print out.
  • Chess and checkers works with either one shared board or two separate boards.
  • Connect 4 is ideal for the camera as a 2D playing space

Tabletop Simulator

Steam | DLC | Steam Workshop

Playing board games online with Tabletop Simulator

Tabletop Simulator

Tabletop Simulator is what it says on the box. A virtual simulation of a gaming tabletop, allowing you to play many board games online. You load a game (included, available as DLC, or community created) and the board and pieces appear on the table. From there the rest is up to you and the other players. You have to setup the board and pieces. Deal out the cards. Basically play the game exactly as you would in the real world. There is no AI governing the rules.

There is a learning curve for the controls. Video game players will have an easier start. You can control the camera, allowing many different points-of-view. You can also manipulate most pieces on the board. More complicated games will require different actions to enable various actions. You’ll want to start with a game you all know how to play. It’ll be hard enough getting use to the virtual environment and controls without also having to read how the game is played.

Tabletop Simulator supports text chat. The Steam client also supports voice chat. But I suggest using another app for voice or video chat with your group.

Cost – $20 per person or $60 for a 4-player bundle

Tabletop Simulator is available through Steam for Mac (not compatible with Mac OS X 10.15 at this time) and Windows.

Everyone in your group needs to buy a copy. Or one person buys the 4-pack you can share (and split the cost). If you look online you may find Steam keys available for less from time to time.

It includes about 20 games, but nothing you’re after for a serious board game night. The publisher sells official games as DLC. Most cost $5-8. Only one person needs to own the DLC. Everyone else can play as long as they are the host.

There is an active community which offers hundreds of unofficial games for free through Steam’s Workshop. The quality level of these varies. Beggars can’t be choosers.

Getting Started

Before you get together everyone should run through the tutorial. Again, start with a game you already know how to setup and play.

You’ll need to have Steam downloaded and installed. And then buy and install Tabletop Simulator through Steam.

The officially sold games are listed on the Steam page for Tabletop Simulator as DLC. You can see the whole list and buy what you want through Steam. Once bought and installed they will appear within Tabletop Simulator.

To get the unofficial, but free games you’ll need to visit the Steam Workshop. Use the Search Tabletop Simulator box to search for games. Doing a general search in Steam will not produce the result you want. Click on the game you’re interested in. Then click the Subscribe button. That will prompt Steam to download and make the game available within Tabletop Simulator.

Once running Tabletop Simulator the host clicks Create, then Multiplayer. Enter a server name and password.

Select your game. Classic is default games. DLC are games you’ve purchased. Workshop are the community freebies you subscribed to.

Everyone else clicks Join, then Multiplayer. Type the server name in the search bar. Then enter the password when prompted.

The table will have an initial setup. From there you’ll need to setup the board for play.


Tabletopia

Website | List of Games

Playing board games online with Tabletopia

Tabletopia new game setup

Tabletopia works much like Tabletop Simulator. A virtual simulation of a gaming tabletop. No AI to assist with setup or govern gameplay. And a similar learning curve for the camera and interaction controls.

It offers a lot more licensed games (over 800). But some of those are behind a paywall. At least one of your group will need to sign up for a paid subscription if you want access to “premium” games or game modes.

Tabletopia relies on Discord for its chat functions. The Steam client (if using the app on Mac or Windows) supports voice chat. But I suggest using another app for voice or video chat with your group.

Cost – Free for non-premium games or $10/month for one Gold account (30 day free trial at signup)

Tabletopia can be played in a web browser. They also offer apps for iPhone and Android, and for Mac and Windows through Steam.

Everyone in your group needs to sign up for an account. If everything plays for free you can play any game not marked as “premium.” But some games not marked as premium do have premium restrictions for game modes. This usually involved restrictions on the number of players allowed.

If you want unfettered access to the game library one of your party needs to sign up for a Gold account ($10/month). That allows them access to premium games. And they can invite free accounts into their premium game. The alternative is everyone paying $5/month for a Silver account. Which grants everyone access to premium, but no guest invite privileges.

Getting Started

Create an account (free or paid) and go to All Games. The host should add everyone to their friends list.

Filter your options using age, number of players, and more.

Once you’ve picked a game click the host clicks Play Online and the room will be created.

The host can invite everyone from their friends list. Or they can share the room number and everyone else enters that in the search bar. The room is private by default.

The table will have an initial setup. From there you’ll need to setup the board for play.


Board Game Arena

Website | List of Games

Playing board games online with Board Game Arena

Board Game Arena new game setup

Board Game Arena allows for playing board games online in more a 2D video game space. Your view of the board is fixed as top down. The ability to control game pieces is limited. There is AI rule enforcement, and even some AI players.

It offers around 175 games. Some behind a pay wall. It is possibly for everyone to play for free. But server limitations may push you to subscribe for a premium account.

BGA has no voice chat functions. Use another app for voice or video chat with your group.

Cost – Free for non-premium games and service or $4/month for premium

Board Game Arena only runs through a web browser. It also offers email turn-based gameplay.

Everyone in your group needs to sign up for an account. You can get away with everyone having a free account. But if one person hosts with a premium account you’ll have a better time. Players living together will also need to get premium accounts.

Free Account

  • Access to most, but not all games
  • Ads at the start of your game
  • Cannot have two players on the same Internet connection

Premium Account

  • Access to all games
  • No ads
  • Can have multiple players on the same Internet connection, or share the same computer
  • Integrated voice or video chat

If the server gets too busy they will restrict access to premium members only. This is going to be a more regular occurrence while so many of us are staying inside to practice social distancing.

Getting Started

Have the designated host friend everyone.

Go to Play Now and set the top three options to: Simple Game, Real-Time, and Manual.

Next find the game you want to play. Or click on a game from the full game list, then click Play. Create a new table.

In the configuring a new game table window click restrict table access. Set it to friends online.

Invite a friend, as usually one other player is required to start.


Vassal

Website | List of Games

Playing board games online with Vassal

Vassal new game setup

Vassal is an old school game engine for playing digital adaptations of tabletop games. It allows for live play online. Or turn based play via email. It is open source, with all modules (the games) being created by volunteers and the community. All complete for free. But…

It has a complicated user interface and game setup. The UI is not intuitive. The technology feels like it is from the 1990s. I had to get into its user manual just to learn how to create an online game. Only to be stumped again when it came to setting up the loaded game board. I have decades of experience with video games and professional IT.

If you want quick and easy gaming experience this is not the system for you. It is a classic case of having more time than money. Your entire group will need to read the user manual. Watching some YouTube videos wouldn’t hurt, either.

Cost – Free

Vassal has a Mac and Windows app. No web browser or mobile support. No account registration.

Getting Started

Everyone in your group will need to download and install Vassal. That could end up being a hurtle in and of itself. On my Mac it prompted me to install Java. But it sent me to Adobe Flash, which didn’t work. I had to go directly to Oracle myself. From there you click Java, then Java (JRE) for Consumers. Continue to download the installer and then run it. After that Vassal started up normally.

Then have everyone download the game modules you wish to play.

Open Vassel. Any modules you’ve played will be listed in the window. You can double click to run it again. For a new module go to File, then Open Module.

For online play with your group select look for a game online.

The host goes to Active Games to the right enter a name for your game room, then hit Return. You will be moved into the new room.

Everyone else needs to also open Vassel and the same game module. Then select look for game online. Once connected they should see your created room. They can join it by double clicking. Once joined have everyone right click on the host’s name, then select Synchronize.

Once in the game you’ll need to setup the board. This varies by module. Go into the help menu to get instructions.


Best Option for Playing Board Games Online

Playing board games online is never going to be ideal. They are called tabletop games for a reason. But until we can safely gather again this lets the gaming continue. While giving us another way to reach out to friends and family.

A traditional board game over video chat is the easiest thing to try. Be mindful of which games to try. If you play with a group of advance players you may not be able to try the latest addition to someone library. But once everyone is engaged it’ll be less about the game and more about interacting with one another. Especially in the middle of a shelter-in-place order.

For more advance games I would take a look at Tabletop Simulator or Tabletopia. Both were popular choices for online play before coronavirus. Neither is really free. But you get what you pay for. Tabletop Simulator is the better long term investment. No subscription to keep up with (and cancel when done). Worth considering if sometimes playing online would be of interest to you later on.