GAMES ON THE TABLETOP (SIMULATOR)
by Chris Kovac
Tabletop Simulator is a computer game system designed to bring the tabletop boardgame experience into the online world. In these times of social distancing and lockdowns, we might not be able to game the usual way and this computer assisted gaming system might be one way for board gamers to continue the board gaming experience while we wait for some normalization of the situation.
Tabletop Simulator was a 2014 Kickstarter project that was designed by Jason Henry and Kimiko under the Berserk Games name. It was placed in the immensely popular Steam computer game system where it resides today. In order to play tabletop simulator, you must first have the Steam computer gaming system on your computer. Steam handles the logon procedures, game set storage (more on this later) and game communication aspects of the game system. You then buy tabletop simulator through steam and download it on your machine as with any other computer game from steam. You are then ready to play.
So, what do you get when you start up? Well first you will wait a few minutes while it loads since it does require a fair bit of computer system power to run the program. Once it loads, you are presented with a small menu which lets you decide if you are going to create a game: single player, hot “desking” (more than one player on a computer) or multiplayer. You also decide if you wish to play against other players in either a public or private game with a select number of gamers. These game spaces are called servers and allow the owner of a server to control how it loads and, to some degree, plays. A nice feature is that you can use the friend game system from Steam to invite people to play your games. So, let’s say you are going to create a game. Tabletop simulator comes with a series of classic games such as solitaire, chess, checkers, Go, etc. However the strength of this game program is that you can also subscribe to a vast number of free game sets designed by users (available in their “workshops”) of Tabletop Simulator. The number and quality of these game sets can vary with some popular game sets having multiple versions. Each game set is essentially a set of boards and pieces for a game, mostly without the rules (some though do have PDF scans of the rules). So, you or one of your players have to have a set of the rules in order to play the game. These are called workshop games. There are also some so-called DLC game sets which are essentially boardgame company sponsored version of there game which usually have some computer scripting assistance making for easier game play and nice scans of components. A nice thing about these game sets is that you can save them at any time so you play a game over the course of a few weeks rather than having to take them down or store them as you would a board game.
Once you have chosen a boardgame, the computer will then load up all the pieces for you from their various servers. A simple game like Big Points (Summer 2009 Gamers Alliance Report) might only take a minute or so while a game with lots of decks or graphics like Terraforming Mars (Summer 2017 GA Report) might take a few minutes.
Once a game is loaded, you choose a color on the board and now have control of those colored pieces. At this point, you have to familiarize yourself with a whole bunch of various keyboard shortcuts and sub-menus which allow you to tailor your environment and game play ranging from things like how to view the game to various physics modules on game components (i.e. shuffling and dealing decks, rolling dice, moving one or more game pieces). To further complicate things, there are usually more sub-menus across the top and side of the screen though many of those are for the actual construction of game sets rather than game play. You can also access sub-menus for each piece by right clicking on the particular deck, pieces or board. Pieces can also be found in various bags which group a player’s pieces together and can even include alternate boards/pieces for scenarios or expansions. This can often mean setting up a boardgame can take some work as you figure out where various pieces are located often with little guidance from the original creator (sometimes they do include some instruction cards) and deleting excess cards or pieces from a game set if you are not playing with a particular expansion or with fewer than the maximum number of players.
Once you start playing a game, you will find it takes somewhat longer than playing the board version as you have to have to use the various game commands to do various game actions from moving pieces to playing cards as well as flipping around various views of the board and/or your home area with your pieces. However, the games do feel a lot like the board versions even if your communications are limited to voice/text chats through various communications software including Steam chat, Twitter, Facebook and Discord. At the end of a game if you wish, you can even kick over the table watching the board and the bits spin off into space.
Overall, Tabletop Simulator is a collection of boardgame physic modules (card module, piece module, dice module, etc.) which allow you to play virtual boardgames with a fair degree of realism. It relies heavily on gamers/game companies taking the time and effort to make gaming modules which result in boardgame modules varying from pretty basic to very high quality. On the whole, more recent games will have better modules; over time, some modules become unplayable as components no longer load properly or designers no longer maintain their modules.
Another issue is that Tabletop Simulator is very heavy in using computer processing on your machine so under powered or older machines might have some issues using the software in terms of lag during loading and, on occasion, moving pieces or rolling dice. This is balanced by a very large set of game modules for almost any card, board or miniature game imaginable with more being produced constantly.
So, if you are willing to take the time to learn the commands and have a few friends who wish to due likewise Tabletop Simulator can be a good substitute until we can get to boardgames on a regular basis. – – – – – – – – – Chris Kovac
Have feedback? We’d love to hear from you.
Other Summer 2020 GA Report articles