Tabletop Simulator—A Self-Quarantine God-Send

I’m fast approaching middle-age like I approach freeway on-ramps—both happen at high speed and involve some discomfort in the organs. Like most folks my age, we usually stumble onto some “great discovery” only to find that just about everyone else seems to already know about it. So I know that I am not unearthing anything new in discovering the joys of Tabletop Simulator, especially during these usual times of social-distancing and self-quarantine. However, I wouldn’t at all be surprised if legions of boardgames nerds like myself have also just recently discovered it as a way to get their boardgames-fix.

At first glance Tabletop Simulator (herein referred to as “TTS”) doesn’t appear to have a ton of DLC. Fortunately what they do have is pretty good. I recently played a round of The Captain is Dead which played pretty much like the physical board-game. It seemed useful but limited until I discovered there was more in the so-called “workshops”, and here is where the real magic of TTS lies.

If you go diving into the workshops you can find mods for just about any game you can imagine. This past December my brother-in-law brought over his copy of the Kickstarter juggernaut, Nemesis, to play over the holidays. I fell in love with the game and have tried to find a copy in vain since then. But the game is impossible to find anywhere in stores and only available online from price-gougers. Pfft. No thanks.

The sea of virtual colors pretty much matches the real-life experience

One quick search in the TTS workshops yielded a highly-rated hit for Nemesis. Note that these mods are all community-created and supported. As far as I know, this workshop isn’t officially supported by Awaken Realms, but it’s a damn fine one. The game-piece assets looks top-notch and pretty much like the real game. My one beef is the 2D version of the miniatures, but that is a very very small gripe.

The actual game-play was pretty much a note-for-note simulation of the real thing. The mod even included a scanned copy of the rules and all of the quick-reference charts. While I’m happy to support publishers, I’m quite content to play Nemesis on TTS for now.

The game-board is one thing, but I also want some interactivity in the game. Honestly, half the fun of board-games is getting in a room (virtual or otherwise) to BS, talk smack and generally joke around. TTS does support some level in-game audio, but we eschewed that in favor of using Discord. Discord has its own UI/UX issues, but it does work well for audio once you get it set up. That said, it’s completely separate from playing the game. If you want to use any other system (Skype, Zoom, Slack, FaceTime, etc.) you can absolutely do so.

TTS proved its worth in spades this weekend by allowing a group of us to play our giant Twilight Imperium game that was scheduled over four months ago. Without TTS we would have just had to cancel, forgoing the crunchy/nerdy goodness we all desperately need these days.

If the Nemesis mod was good, the TI mod was outstanding (aside from a few oddball issues). This appears to be one of the most popular workshops and clearly has had a lot of love and attention put into it. It also appears to be the the de facto way people play online, even going so far as to host entire tournaments with it.

Keep in mind that TTS is primarily a physics-engine with some scriptability. By and large, the games in TTS don’t enforce any rules. It’s simply a simulation of a real table. So you’re (mostly) free to pickup and move/flip/destroy/shuffle whatever you like. In a handful of cases one of us would drop an item off of the table accidentally, falling into the “Infinite Pit of Despair”. Eventually some components would re-appear in the middle of the board, but some were simply lost to undetectable dark-matter. What we lost in productivity we gained in comic gold, so at least there was that.

TTS is deep enough that it rewards those who take the time to learn the controls. As is true with all computer-related things, the hotkeys are your friends. Learning the keys to quickly save and shift camera views, shuffle decks, draw cards and so on really speeds up the experience and helps reduce the level of indirection you feel when playing a boardgames via a simulator. The core application has plenty of controls and the workshops themselves (particularly the “scripted” ones) offer plenty of additional tools and shortcuts.

This discovery has been an absolute god-send for me during the period of self-imposed lockdown. There are plenty of other great ways to plays games online with friends, but you can’t find a first-class way to play the game of your choice, take a look at Tabletop Simulator.

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