When board games go virtual

Illustration of a computer screen showing a group playing a virtual drawing board game, with an illustration of Oski
Lucy Yang/File

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The board game Diplomacy was released more than 60 years ago. While it’s appreciated for its strategic nature and backstabbing gameplay, it faces a fundamental problem: The game is extremely long. Playing can take up a full day, and that poses a major challenge for those who simply don’t have the time to discuss whether or not the English Channel can be made into a demilitarized zone.

Diplomacy players quickly found a solution by playing games by mail through pamphlets and zines. These allowed for the game to simply be a matter of writing down a few moves and sending them to a game master in the mail. The zines often had strategy guides and game summaries, and cultivated a community of avid players and strategists.

Now, board game aficionados are as distant as ever. To sit down and physically play a board game is a luxury few expected would disappear overnight. But board games have found a new medium since the ’60s, and taking board games online may be the hobby’s next best move amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Board games have been adapted into video games for almost as long as the latter has existed. From Monopoly on the Commodore 64 to Scrabble on the PlayStation, electronic versions of popular board games sell with the promise of repackaging familiar family games. These video games require little to no technical expertise — there are no reticles or platforms to challenge the player, just flimsy artificial intelligence and local players crowding around a screen.

Playing these games with other players had long been a challenge. Board games are beautiful in that they’re simply something to do while chatting with friends. They’re a simple activity based around socializing and entertainment, and online platforms of the early 2000s, such as Chess.com, didn’t have the sophisticated level of conversation that casual gameplay enjoyment derives from.

The Jackbox Party Pack is perhaps the best example of the board game formula adapted to online, communal play. A collection of party games similar to Charades or Apples to Apples, Jackbox Party Pack is played online, often with a mobile device. Streamers can play the game on Twitch and connect with massive audiences to play as a community, but these platforms don’t provide the intimacy of sitting down at a table with friends.

That intimacy is best replicated through websites that have essentially copied popular board games such as Catan, Pictionary and Secret Hitler. These websites, often using .io domains popular for their accessibility, are similar to their video game console predecessors. They take the rules and format of board games and transfer them, with minimal adaptation, to the internet. Here, they can be played across the country, and the intimacy of playing in a living room or board game cafe can be recreated with a video call or voice chat.

And these websites continue to add to the board game community. Sites such as BoardGameGeek are loaded with reviews and discussions. A number of Diplomacy archives maintain the game’s tradition of strategic articles and gameplay tips.

With in-person gameplay reduced significantly, these websites provide an alternative — but, is it the same? The cards are pixels on a screen rather than tangible objects in the player’s hand. It’s harder to tell if someone is lying about their secret vote over voice chat, and sudden Wi-Fi failure can ruin a game nearing completion.

Online board games do significantly reduce the financial barrier to entry. Many of these websites are free, even if they offer additional content for a fee. Board game sandboxes such as Tabletop Simulator have large modding communities that adapt hundreds of board games to the screen for a relatively low initial cost. But board game cafes such as Berkeley’s own Victory Point Cafe do this, too, offering an impressive selection for an entry fee. These locations are no longer accessible to the extent they once were. Going over to a friend’s house to play Gloomhaven, Terraforming Mars or any other huge, expensive game just isn’t in the cards anymore.

Not all games can even be played online. Sure, Jenga World Tour can be played on the Wii, but the gameplay is nowhere near the same as actually dismantling and reconstructing a wooden tower. Standing over a Risk board is like overseeing an actual global military conflict, and knocking an opponent’s piece over in Sorry! is much more satisfying than simply watching it blip back to its starting point. Electronic board games can replicate the rules and mechanics of traditional board games, but they can never elicit the same emotions found sitting down at the table.

The reality of the situation is an unfortunate one. It seems that, until the game Pandemic can be played in person, it’ll have to be played online. For now, that’s an acceptable, even enjoyable, alternative. But as soon as things open up, if they ever do, Jenga can finally reemerge.

Crew Bittner covers video games. Contact him at [email protected]. Tweet him at @weakandrewwk.