Of the many events we miss from the pre-pandemic days, board game nights might not get as much attention as visiting the bar or going to a movie theater. However, they are relatively easy to replicate online. You can include all your friends without breaking quarantine and still have (nearly) as much fun as you had before. Here’s how.
Any decent board game night has a few key traits that make it fun. Enough people to play most games, a wide variety of games to choose from, and something other than Cards Against Humanity for once, please. With that in mind, we’re looking for an option to play games online that are flexible enough to let you and your friends play whatever games you might want. Depending on the setup you want, there are a few options.
Option 1: Discord and Webcams
We’ve already discussed how Discord gaming parties can be used to play things like Jackbox, but the same principle can be used to play physical board games, with the right setup. If you have a collection of games already in your home that you want to keep playing with your remote friends, this might be the best way to do it.
The trick is to use one person’s camera to point at the table. As long as other players can see the board, and the host can move pieces, many games are just as playable (with a little bit of extra work on the part of the host) as they were before. If you want the host to still be visible on camera, try using a second dummy account.
The major downside to this method is that it doesn’t work very well for games where players need to keep materials from the game secret. You can get around this in some cases—for example, in Clue, players can write info down separately where they are—but any game where you have to deal cards to a player and they keep those cards to themselves might not be possible with the Discord method. Fortunately, there are more alternatives.
Option 2: Tabletop Simulator
Tabletop Simulator is a game on Steam that you can use to play other games. It features robust tools that let you and up to nine other players control virtual versions of physical objects like game pieces, cards, boards, and even the table itself. If you so choose, you can even flip the virtual table, throwing all the pieces everywhere. The game aims to emulate the experience of sitting around a table as authentically as possible.
It comes with a collection of preset board games built in, but you can also find a wide array of community mods that can add custom versions of board games and tables for thousands of games. If the game you want to play is among the ones in this mod list, then you can load it up into Tabletop Simulator, invite your friends, and start playing. It even comes with built-in text and voice chat (though you can also just as easily use a separate app like Discord to make things simpler).
Tabletop Simulator is one of the best recreations of in-person board gaming, but its one major downside is that if the game you want to play isn’t already out there, it can be a bit of work to make your own. It’s not unfeasible if you want to put in a little elbow grease, but it’s not the kind of thing you’ll want to do when your friends are already in the voice chat waiting for the game to start. At the very least, make sure you browse the library for games before you get your party started.
Option 3: Roll20
If your tabletop gaming is more Dungeons & Dragons than Carcassonne, Roll20 might be more your speed. This online tool lets you customize maps, automate dice rolls, and create a vault of characters and all the other tools you might need to play a game fully online.
Along with the free assets built into the program, Roll20 has a marketplace that features rule books and resources you can buy from a variety of publishers. Much like in-person tabletop RPGs, Roll20 can become something of an investment if you want to keep buying more assets to use in your game. Alternatively, if you’re a DM, you can subscribe to the service for $100 a year and create custom character sheet templates, plus more tools to build your own games.
It’s worth noting that Roll20 has some overlap with the official D&D Beyond service, which serves as an online character repository and encyclopedia, although it doesn’t provide a virtual tabletop to play on. Depending on your needs you might want to use one or the other (or both!), but explore both to see which one works best to augment your existing setup.