In college, I wasn't particularly huge on video games. I'd cop the occasional big game, and I had one summer consumed by Spelunky, but on average my hours played shrank to make room for classwork and extracurriculars. Tabletop was a bigger deal for a while; better to have beers (or on one memorably messy night, absinthe) around a game of Catan or Dominion than to wrangle enough controllers for a party game.
Since graduating and moving to New York City, tabletop has become a regular fixture for my friends from college who also came here. As for me, though, I've felt a bit left out of the tabletop loop. For a while, that was fine—I would still get in some games every couple months, and we'd hang out all the time in other settings anyway.
It's now been about a month since I've actually seen any of these friends face to face. Most of us are still here in the city, but right now the situation in NYC is so dire that it's impossible for us to meet. Enter Tabletop Simulator, Berserk Games' online sandbox experience for playing board games, deck builders, roleplaying sessions, and the like. My friends have been booting it up every couple days in lieu of a regular game night; in fact, sessions are actually happening a bit more often than they have in the past.
Here's the question, though: Will this last?
If You Dab in VR, and Nobody Was Watching, Did You Dab at All?
Looming over the digital table, I appear to my friends as a ghostly VR headset and two flailing controllers. To me, everyone else is just a hand-shaped cursor gliding across the table's surface. Having my first experience in Tabletop Simulator as the only player using VR was both fun for a laugh and a practical solution (I actually didn't have a keyboard I could use at that moment), but it also exposed something about using the sim in place of an IRL game night: you lose a lot of personality.
Tabletop Simulator is, basically, a networked room running in Unity where physics is enabled on all the objects. Anyone can pick up and move an item—cards, tokens, figures, and other tabletop necessities—for the purposes of playing games. For most games, you're handling actions with clicks and keystrokes. There aren't detailed virtual representations of other players; just their cursors, their Steam avatar, and their voice.
One of the biggest hurdles arises from the simple limitations of digital communication. For as many people as something like Discord or Zoom can support, they don't work when multiple people are talking at once. The audio gets messy, even harsh—nobody can really have a brief aside with another person while another conversation is going on; not without opening an entirely separate call instance, or a clandestine chat window. In Tabletop Simulator, that makes it harder to strategize and to pass the time during slow turns. Even in keeping up with friends, it can make a happy hour start to feel like a stressful stand-up meeting.
What's more, a big part of tabletop gaming is actually seeing my friends. Even when we're deep in a game and not really hanging out per se, there's so much vital body language: the shifty eyes of someone scoping out other players' tableaus; the meaning hidden behind the lip twitch at a newly-drawn hand; ceaseless fidgeting with victory point counters.
You can get goofy with physics in Tabletop Simulator, but it's hard to make a play with flourish, and there's no way to glare at a player for making a move that screws you over. Even playing in VR, my friends had to fill in the gaps of what I was doing. After winning a round of Antoine Bauza's 7 Wonders, I did the only motion I thought might translate to a headset and two floating controllers: I hit a dab. My friends sort of got it, but a dab with no arms or torso is sadder than the already sad real thing—it's 2020, dabbing is dead now, right?
Then again, while it's hard not to notice the constraints on personal expression in Tabletop Simulator, the big reason behind our online play lurks on the periphery. This is not our preferred way to play 7 Wonders, but it's just about the only way that makes sense at the moment. Plus, Tabletop Simulator has its upsides, too.
Instant Set Up and a No-Mess Table Flip on Command—Beat That, Reality
This past weekend, a group of my friends got together for Fantasy Flight Games' Twilight Imperium on Tabletop Simulator. The physical game retails for $149.99, and the optimistic estimate from its makers says it takes about four to eight hours to finish a game. With a lunch break in there, it took my friends about 11.
If you're doing a real-life session of Twilight Imperium or a similarly demanding game, even experienced players are going to spend a lot of time setting up boards and dealing out cards. Tabletop Simulator can streamline a lot of this, and so long as everyone is focused on the game, you can theoretically get through it much quicker. At the very least, as my friend Harry points out, it was easier to get this Twilight Imperium game together than a real-life session. For those, someone has to own the game, someone has to host, you have to plan far enough ahead (a month, usually) so that people don't cancel, and so on.
There's also the benefit Tabletop Simulator provides in terms of variety. Just about every popular tabletop game, along with their expansions, has a Tabletop Simulator version; official or otherwise. Before you even wade into the world of high-end dice and hand-carved game tables, tabletop is a pricey hobby. Tabletop Simulator lowers the barrier to entry on new games, at a small cost of it being a better fit for some than others.
In our group, Harry's one of the chief explainers—someone who's willing to take on the sometimes arduous task of running through a game's ruleset for a newcomer. On my end, using regular mouse and keyboard controls for my first game of Thomas Lehmann's Race for the Galaxy, following Harry's explanation was a bit cumbersome. I had to pan across the game table and zoom in and out on certain tokens, actions which got in the way of the overall experience. On the other hand, so long as his cursor was in view, I had no trouble at all following Harry's intent. In real life, Harry would hold up a card or point to a place on the board with his hand; in Tabletop Simulator, green pointer arrows served the same purpose just as clearly.
Tabletop Simulator is, in some respects, hyper-optimized for the kinds of expression needed for playing tabletop games. There are shortcuts and features that don't just make it easier to play games in its sandbox, but that actually feel like they capture the real-life experience of play, even if it's somewhat abstracted. It's the same kind of subconscious immersion at play when you stop thinking of an action in a video game as a series of button presses, but as the action itself.
This is where Tabletop Simulator excels in my mind. For Harry, he thinks Tabletop Simulator is better for explaining games than other online tabletop tools he's used. He also noticed that people often arrange tableaus the same ways they do in person—it all works well enough that human quirks do sneak their way in. It'd be nice if pure functionality was all we needed.
What Comes Next?
One of the regular tabletop players in our friend group actually doesn't live in New York City anymore. A while ago he and his partner moved upstate. He's close enough that work commuting and weekend day trips are feasible, but a weeknight game of, say, Jamey Stegmaier's Scythe is usually not. During the pandemic, Tabletop Simulator games are as easy for him to join in as it is for any of us in Brooklyn or Queens.
In many respects, this is a relief. I welcome more video calls and virtual tabletop nights for the weeks to come, especially if I get to see more of folks who already live far away. My worry is more about what comes after, once things have settled into whatever passes for "normal." It feels to me like the time in New York is ticking down at different rates across this friend group, and after seeing how COVID-19 has affected this city, I couldn't begrudge anyone who decides to move away.
New York City is already an expensive place to live. Its transit infrastructure is in dire shape. Though the city and state offer some protections in short supply elsewhere in the U.S., the pandemic has pushed our health system close to its breaking point. Recently, when I haven't been able to sleep at night, my mind has drifted to events like Hurricane Sandy. How would the city handle another crisis like that if it happened right now? We're currently weeks away from the start of hurricane season, which some forecasters predict will be a particularly active one.
I wonder if what we're doing now is a preview of things to come when New York's no longer our nexus. I'm extremely lucky to have made living in this city work for as long as I have, and to have had a sense of continuity with this bunch of college friends. Trouble is, I am a big sap. I fear that it'll be different, and harder, to keep up what we have when we inevitably spread out.
Thankfully, I do know one thing: In the moment, playing Tabletop Simulator, it is considerably easier to avoid letting my mind drift to the uncertainties of the future. I can even have a bit of clarity, assuring myself that I know good friendships can accomodate what change throws at them. It's no fault of Berserk Games, the tabletop game designers, or Discord, that my anxieties flare back up as soon as game night's done. I've found a good way to quell those thoughts afterwards is to remember that we will get back together for an IRL tabletop night. It just might take a while.