One of my favourite features in Tabletop Simulator is the cheating. No, not the cheat codes with sequences of button inputs that would yield infinite lives or uncensored avatars. I mean grabbing my opponent’s card out of their hand and revealing it to the table. My second favourite feature is the consequential flipping of said table.
I would never consider grabbing a card from my friend’s hand during one of our routine board game nights. I just never expected Tabletop Simulator to allow this amount of interactivity. That’s the best rule about the sim. Poker chips, face-down cards, figurines, dungeon master notes—if it’s literally on the table, it’s up for grabs. Of course, that doesn’t have to be the case. Players can set rules like touching your own cards only, snap-points for figures to lock into the right board tiles, turn timers, or whatever is needed to best recreate your favourite IRL board game. Personally, I prefer to have the freedom to throw my poker chips at whomever I please. After a week of self-quarantining, I need to let loose.
Tabletop Simulator is, as the name would imply, a game wherein players can meet up online to play their favourite board games and card games. Classic games like chess, poker, and backgammon are available straight away, but so are more modern games like Cards Against Humanity, Codenames, Coup, and the atrocious staple of society since 1935, Monopoly. The library of available board games, card games, and custom Dungeons & Dragons campaigns is boundless, thanks to a passionate community of modders. Within two minutes of my friends and I downloaded the game, we had found and loaded a popular build of Settlers of Catan, turned on our webcams, and suddenly it was another Sunday night of board games.
My friends and I have been making use of Discord and other online chat software for years, so loading into a game and chatting online was familiar. What we don’t get from a typical night of Overwatch or Apex Legends, however, is physicality. In Tabletop Simulator, everything has its own heft and physics. Cards can be individually flung across the table. Chess pieces can be picked up, knocked over, or tossed aside. You can neatly stack a pool of poker chips to be handed over to the victor, or you can flick each one individually across the virtual room. This physicality adds a layer of playfulness on top of whatever game we might be playing, a playfulness that is essential to our routine Sunday game night.
Depending on the server you join, there can be a lot of freedom given to players. For my friends and me, we kept everything wide open. While I was conjuring up a smart tablet from which to play YouTube videos, my friend was causing a ruckus by taking a sharpie to the board and drawing profanities all over my claimed Catan tiles. Meanwhile, my other friend felt inclined to changing the size of the dice to be as big as the table, which knocked over all of our pieces when rolled.
That absurd physicality helped fill a gap that has been created by social distancing. Before going into heavy self-quarantine, my friend and I took a couple of walks together, maintaining six feet of separation all the while. We’re not ones for hugs and kisses, but it was difficult keeping such a distance from my friend. It created a proverbial gap between us. But when we played Carcassonne later that week on Tabletop Simulator, being able to grab his figurines from his side of the board and throw them back at him somehow helped close that gap.
Tabletop Simulator is currently only available on PC and Mac (though Catalina currently cannot run it, being a 32bit program). If you’re lacking friends that can play on PC, there’s a great community of Tabletop Simulator players looking to meet up on the Discord server. You can also find many great suggestions for available board games and troubleshooting on the subreddit r/tabletopsimulator.