STORE COMMUNITY ABOUT SUPPORT
Login Store Community Support
View desktop website
© Valve Corporation. All rights reserved. All trademarks are property of their respective owners in the US and other countries.
Kerberos Productions – creators of the Sword of the Stars 4X strategy series – may have a slightly patchy track record, but they’re a studio that’s never short on heart. This month, they’ve been Kickstarting funds to start a board games division, adapting their universes into dice-and-cardboard form. Possibly hedging their bets, they also released a prototype of their upcoming Sword of The Stars: The Pit board game as a mod for Tabletop Simulator today, letting folks try it for free.
The biggest issue with board gaming has always been finding other players. Even when you do track down some potential opponents, pinning them to an agreed time and place can still be tricky.
As a result, there have been services to co-ordinate online play since the earliest days of the internet. Nowadays they’ve proliferated and become much more polished and usable. If there’s a game you want to play, you’re almost certain to find some software that lets you, often free or for a pittance.
Here are five of our favourites.
Best for: Real-time games on the internet
Speed: Real-time only
Rules: Not enforced
Top Titles: Star Wars Destiny, Cosmic Encounter
This looks more like a physics engine than a board game client. Your view shows a game table, and you use the mouse to manipulate game components, draw cards, roll dice. It feels odd at first, but it's a stroke of genius. It allows the client to simulate pretty much any tabletop game. Throw in text and voice chat, a busy community and a dazzling cascade of fan-made modules and you've got the world's current favourite game client. It's even got VR support.
You pay upfront for the software then, in theory, you pay for premium game modules, of which there are currently 34 on Steam. In practice there are a huge number of homemade ones in the Steam Workshop. Many are a bit rough and ready, but they work well enough. You’ll need your own copy of the rules, though.
Of course, while it's useful for trying out a new game you might be interested in picking up, using a free module means the original game creator isn't getting paid.
Best for: Hotseat play around one screen
Speed: Real-time only
Rules: Not enforced
Top Titles: Santorini, Race to the Rhine
Following in the footsteps of TTS, this is another physics-based platform with a smaller library and a bit more polish than its competitor. It's free to download, and gives you access to a limited library of solid titles. If you want the full range to play, you'll have to stump up on a subscription-based model.
Almost everything that's good or bad about Tabletopia runs off that subscription model. On the plus side, the interface on most games is slick and professional. And, of course, paying a subscription means game creators get paid. On the downside, subscribers are scarce, so finding opponents for premium-only games can take a long time.
It is, however, great for hotseat play where all the players sit round the same screen. Not least because you can play a lot of otherwise premium titles this way. That's not a great way to play games with hidden information. But for everything else, Tabletopia offers a pleasing and accessible package.
Best for: Dedicated gamers who want a lot of options
Speed: Real-time and play by email
Rules: Not enforced
Top Titles: Mage Knight, X-Wing
Want access to a colossal library of tabletop games, many of which aren't available on any other digital platform? You can get it through Vassal, but you'll need to put in some work. It's Java-based, for starters, so you'll find the Vassal installer adds that you your PC if it's not already there. You'll have to download and configure the modules you want to play. It's all a bit of a faff, frankly, but it's worth it in the end.
What Vassal costs in effort it makes up for in flexibility. Its library of games is huge. They're all free, but you're asked to only download and use ones for games you own. You can play live, although there's no real lobby system, so it’s wiser to arrange games with friends or on forums. But you can also play games by email, sending log files back and forth.
Vassal's original purpose was to facilitate the play of monster wargames. The sort of things that have hundreds of counters and play-hours. There's still plenty of them among its modules library. Nowadays, however, users have created modules for all sorts of games. Plus, wargames themselves have become far more accessible. Try something like Commands & Colors: you might be pleasantly surprised.
Best for: Slow burning strategy by email
Speed: Real-time and asynchronous
Top Titles: Through the Ages, Hanabi
If you wander into BGA's website, you'll find it a barebones affair. Register and start playing, though, and you'll discover a service full of impressive features and boasting a big list of games. According to the site's creator, he has licences to offer all of them online. The majority are free, although there's a premium subscription service to unlock a few more and support the site.
There are a lot of websites that let you play games online, but BGA is unusual in offering real-time play alongside asynchronous games. Action unfolds as you watch in your browser, and icons keep everyone informed of each other’s status. You choose which mode you want before selecting or starting a game.
The site even enforces the rules of the game you're playing, although the quality of the interface varies a lot. It can be hard to work out what's going on in some of the more complex games. As you might imagine for a free service that works in your browser, BGA has a solid user base, making it easy to find opponents.
Best for: Long term players who like ranks and stats
Speed: Asynchronous only
Top Titles: A Few Acres of Snow, Jaipur
There are plenty of places to play asynchronous board games. What distinguishes this German site is the range of games and features on offer. There are over 100 titles to play, a ranking system, and a replay feature you can use to study strategies. Chrome users even have a browser plugin available to track their games.
Playing games by email can take a long time: potentially months depending on the speed of your opponents. On the plus side, it does give you plenty of time to think about your moves. And there are some gems among the games on offer, including out-of-print and hard-to-find titles unavailable elsewhere.
Yucata started out purely as a hobby project. It’s still free to use and free of adverts, and is supported entirely through player donations.
While those five are the top picks for online play, there are plenty of other competitors to consider. The best known is probably BrettSpielWelt, a German community that offers free real-time play via its Java client. It's old, though, and it shows. And it can be hard for English speakers to get to grips with the interface and to communicate in game.
Another venerable program is Cyberboard, which lets you record log files for play by email games. It's free and doesn't need any third-party software. But its user base and range of available modules is small. ZunTzu and newcomer BattleGrounds Games clients are also worth checking out.
Other websites worth checking out for browser play includes SpielByWeb, Boite a Jeux and For Whom The Web Rocks. ACTS is a limited-feature site that tracks card decks and dice rolls for multi-player games.
The granddaddy of all space-empire sims, Twilight Imperium retails for over $100 and is delivered to your house in a cardboard coffin. It is huge, meticulous, stocked to the gills with itty bitty rules, and it takes a solid eight hours to finish a single game. Twilight Imperium sessions begin when you invite your friends over for breakfast, and end when you've ordered pizza for the second time. Nothing in the tabletop games industry is more unreasonable, and nothing is more fun. If you think board games are boring, you've never watched in horror as a former mate gleefully goes back on their word then conquers and colonizes your home planet. This happens in hour number six, and you react by swearing vengeance til the day you die.
Shattered Ascension was originally a set of house rules invented by a Twilight Imperium fan named PsiComa. He loved the game, but identified some nagging imbalances in the design, and started work on a remix. Soon enough, PsiComa's pet project emerged as a full-time hobby: he Photoshopped new cards, theorycrafted new mechanics, and dreamed up a brand new rulebook. His variant (originally called Ascendency) proved popular, and he found a small contingency of adherents who were similarly disillusioned with the base game. Together they continued to work out the kinks of PsiComa's design, and by 2011 they had a fully working module.
The problem with Shattered Ascension is that it was difficult to play. Sure, it used a ton of the components packed in with the Twilight Imperium box, but as a homebrew variant you also had to print out reams of PsiComa's updated components on cardstock. Tabletop Simulator was a godsend. The moddable board game physics sandbox meant that the Shattered Ascension playset could be available to anyone with a PC.
"How cool would it to be play the game seamlessly with friends, and perhaps more importantly with the online community that had discussed and theorycrafted the game for so many years?" PsiComa says over Discord. "How cool would it be to have a definitive, fully updated digital version anybody could play, without spending dozens of hours cutting and gluing new replacement Shattered Ascension components?"
PsiComa and the rest of the Shattered Ascension community had to import literally hundreds of assets into the Tabletop Simulator infrastructure. Some of that was fairly straightforward—he already had high-quality jpegs of the custom cards, which scanned into the game with ease—but the other stuff, like the plastic miniature ships, required a defter touch. That didn't matter, because PsiComa was dedicated. He learned the 3D modeling application Blender, and spent endless weekends prototyping his spaceships. The results were beautiful. He managed to render a suite of miniatures that were even crisper than what you find in the physical game.
PsiComa ran into a similar issue with the planetary tiles that make up the Twilight Imperium board. Originally, he planned on importing them with a high-quality scanner, but he couldn't quite get it to work without annoying pixel interference patterns. So PsiComa resolved to build his own tiles from scratch. Decisions like that are what he thrives on: rather than recreating the art from the base game faithfully, he took inspiration from the flavor text associated with each of the planets and created in his own take on the existing fiction.
"I wanted to make each of the planets unique and distinct, with enough details to capture the concept described on each planet card," says PsiComa. "The redux tile project felt like a task with no end to it—working night after night making a few more tiles, and looking back at it now, I can hardly believe I managed to find the time and energy to pull it off."
This also helps with any potential questions of copyright infringement. Shattered Ascension has its own unique look to go with its updated rules, which PsiComa believes distinguishes his product as its own unique entity.
Shattered Ascension will always be PsiComa's baby, but there have been plenty of quality-of-life improvements thanks to the community at large. One of the programmers, who calls himself Cyrusa, tells me that the project comes equipped with 1,100 lines of custom code, including DNA for automatic dice rollers, pre-set map generators, and a specialized script that cuts through Twilight Imperium's set-up phase with ease.
"The hardest part about developing the scripts, besides the technical aspects, is that due to the way it is designed, Tabletop Simulator itself knows essentially nothing about what happens from the point of view of the game," he explains. "For example, it knows that object number 123456 was moved to position one, two, or three, while what really happened is that the Sol player activated his Home System. This makes it challenging to design scripts to assist the players."
One of the key perks to playing Shattered Ascension on a PC is the fact that you don't have to dedicate an entire day to playing a single game. Tabletop Simulator allows players to effectively freeze their board states in carbonite, which means you and a group of friends could play for two hours a night over the course of a month without being forced to leave the game unpacked on some kitchen table.
Honestly, even the most dedicated Twilight Imperium fans usually only get in one or two plays a year, because it's difficult to conquer a galaxy while remaining gainfully employed. That's different now. The Shattered Ascension Discord is home to multiple sessions every week, with newcomers stopping by all the time. In 2018, you can play the world's heaviest board game casually, and that's a genuine revolution for this hobby.
You can learn more about Twilight Imperium by watching SU&SD's great documentary on it.
"This mod has definitely given legs to the community by attracting newcomers to the scene and allowing members to play the game with old and new contenders with no hassle to it." says PsiComa. "It made the game easy and accessible. Because of this it has indeed made the Twilight Imperium scene flourish, and we hope for it to become even bigger in time."
Last year, Fantasy Flight released the fourth edition of Twilight Imperium, which introduced some smart refinements to their 20-year-old design. PsiComa tells me that right now, the community doesn't have any plans to adapt the company's new concepts to Tabletop Simulator, though he won't rule it out. "Any worthwhile aspect of fourth edition will be considered and potentially incorporated into Shattered Ascension in some way, shape or form," he says.
After all, the work is never finished. Shattered Ascension was amorphous and modular back in 2007 when it was a series of verbose PDFs on a lonely homespun website, and as a mod it's evolving faster than ever thanks to the steady pulse of the Discord channel. The obsession necessary to get knee-deep in a homemade rule-set for a classic board game is being rewarded by technology, and the creation of a cult of print 'n play fanatics has found a second life.