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For geeks like me, nothing beats getting some friends together for a good old-fashioned game night. Unfortunately, these days, it’s not as easy to hang out in person with friends, what with all the pandemic risks keeping us apart.
That doesn’t mean you need to give up on the idea entirely. Things may be a little more complex now, but if you’re willing to put in a little effort, you can easily host a virtual game night with everyone playing from the safety of their own homes.
Here are several ways you can play board games online with friends, including video options and non-video options.
1. Over Video Chat
In some ways, just calling up your friends over Zoom and video chatting while playing a game and calling out your moves is the simplest solution. Most group video chat apps are good enough for this so feel free to use the one your group is most familiar with. (Most people have Zoom now, so that’s always a solid fallback option.)
There are two ways to do this, each with its own pros and cons.
The first method
One person acts as the host and sets up the physical board game, and everyone else plays by calling out their actions. Only the host gets the tactile sensation of actually handling game pieces, though, which can result in a disconnected experience for everyone else.
The second method
Everyone has their own copy of the game and keeps the game state synced as each player acts. This can get pretty complicated with advanced games, though, and it’s really only feasible if everyone is a board game fanatic. (How often is everyone going to have their own copy of the game in play?)
Not to mention the biggest drawback that exists with both methods and has no workaround: video chat just doesn’t work for any board game where players have their own hidden hands that are drawn from a shared pool. A game like 7 Wonders or Sushi Go would be a nightmare to play this way.
2. Digital Versions
The easiest way to play board games online with friends is to play the digital versions of board games. This addresses all of the extra complexity that comes with playing over video chat, making the process as simple as logging in together at the same time.
This is our recommended method—as long as a digital version exists.
While most board game publishers are starting to put out digital versions of their best hits, the sad truth is that most multiplayer board games don’t have online digital versions. And to make things even odder, some multiplayer board games only have single-player digital versions. (What the?)
3. Tabletop Simulator
Tabletop Simulator is a digital board game simulator that uses a shared physics sandbox to replicate the tactile experience of board games. All game pieces, including cards, are represented by actual 3D models that you can move, flip, hide, etc. There’s no actual game logic; players are in control of when to move things, bring things on, take things out, etc.
This is our runner-up recommended method—as long as everyone in the group have past experience playing PC games or VR games.
Tabletop Simulator has a bit of a learning curve, so it’s not a viable option for players who’ve never gamed with a keyboard and mouse. (There’s a VR edition of Tabletop Simulator that’s easier to use, but obviously you’d need access to a VR system.)
And every player needs to buy their own copy of Tabletop Simulator. It comes with several basic games (or, more accurately, the 3D assets for several games) but you’ll need to buy paid add-ons for additional 3D assets to play some of the more modern and/or popular board games. Fortunately, only the host needs to buy the paid add-on!
4. Board Game Arena
If you want to play digitally but your friends are somewhat averse to board games, try Board Game Arena. This site advertises itself as the “largest boardgame table in the world.”
You can play versions of games like Carcassone, 7 Wonders, Terra Mystica, and others, all within your browser. Board Game Arena is also available as an app on smartphones and video game consoles, so everyone you know should have some way to play.
While Board Game Arena is techniaclly free, some board games are only available to Premium subscribers. (But when a premium game is hosted by a Premium player, anyone can join, even non-Premium players.)
5. Video Game Clones
Now we’re at the bottom of the barrel, but sometimes you’ve got to take what you can get.
If your friends don’t want to play over Zoom and your game of choice isn’t on Board Game Arena and doesn’t have a digital version or assets on Tabletop Simulator, you may be able to find a knock-off digital clone that’s somewhat close. Some of these board game clones are free, possibly even open source.
But keep your expectations low. If a board game isn’t popular enough to warrant an official digital version or inclusion on Tabletop Simulator, it may not be popular enough to clone. And even if a clone exists, it may be quite rough.
Can’t Get Friends to Play? Go Solo!
Of course, one of the biggest killers of game nights is that you can’t get everyone to agree on a time to get together. Even if you’re playing together virtually online, you still need to find times that work for everyone, and sometimes busy schedules just don’t allow this.
You can still get some game time in, though… if you’re OK playing by yourself. Take a look at our roundup of the best solo board games!