The Settlers of Catan on Tabletop Simulator
A version of The Settlers of Catan created for Tabletop Simulator on Steam.
Huffel/Steam
By Alex Lauer / March 30, 2020 9:30 am

There are two times when people break out board games en masse: family gatherings and storms. 

Whether it’s winter break or a week at the cabin with your relatives, that amount of time together inevitably leads to boredom, which leads to cracking open the game cabinet. And when the power goes out or heavy rain keeps you cooped up for a few days, there’s something soothing about lighting a candle and dealing out those pastel Monopoly bills. 

The coronavirus pandemic, at least in the U.S., has proven to be an odd combination of these situations. While Americans can’t physically gather, there’s a good chance you’ve been in contact with your friends and family more than ever, checking in on people who live in other cities on FaceTime or Zoom, and giving daily updates to your parents or children. As for the storm, well, we’re all hunkered down for the foreseeable future, and that’s created a void currently being filled by so much Netflix and YouTube that providers are cutting down on video quality.

But once you’ve finished Tiger King and finally run out of things to talk about with your friends — we’re for the most part all living in our own personal Groundhog Day, after all — the board games will be there for you. In fact, they may be the unlikely savior that gets us all through quarantine. 

While traditional video games may seem to be the obvious choice for social gaming during a time of self-isolation, especially as people panic bought the Nintendo Switch and its perfectly timed Animal Crossing release, the board game is special because, when it comes down to it, it’s not about the game. It’s not about collecting coins or tallying headshots. It’s about the face-to-face interaction, inside jokes, that one friend who always tries to cheat, subsequently ganging up on that friend, and imposing your own secondary drinking game with whatever booze is left in your home bar.

Sure, that camaraderie may seem like a problem in a time when we’re all forced to stay in our own abodes. But if your board game knowledge, as is the case with most Americans, only extends to Catan and maybe some niche variation on Risk, you’ve missed out on a lot. The gaming world has made huge technological advances in the last decade, and now’s the time for the rest of us reap the benefits.

There is, of course, the easy way to play board games with people across the country, or just across the street: set up your video call of choice (like Zoom or Google Hangouts), then break out the box and set it up identically on your separate tables. But that requires both parties to have copies, so for most people, that will be a no go. (On the other hand, I’m pretty sure every single one of my relatives has at least Monopoly and Scrabble.)

As it turns out, that relatively low-tech option isn’t even close to the best avenue available to you. There are three main categories of long-distance board gaming that replicate your weekly game night even better, including the computer gaming platform Steam, dedicated board-game websites and standalone games that only require a web browser.

Steam

  • What is it? The dominant computer gaming platform, available to download for free on Windows, Mac and Linux. For most people, it’s a place to play video games like DOOM Eternal or Half-Life, but it also works as a replacement for old-school board games.
  • What’s the best game? Tabletop Simulator, hands down. As the name suggests, it replicates the board-game experience by letting you and your friends sit around a virtual but satisfyingly realistic table and play thousands of games — so realistic, in fact, that you can even flip the table if things get heated. It comes preloaded with 15 classics like backgammon, chess and poker, but you can also download almost any more advanced game you can think of, from Secret Hitler to Dungeons & Dragons. If you want a simpler option, Steam does have some standalone games like Catan. Also, some of the most popular downloads on Steam are from Jackbox, which admittedly are more party-style games, but it’s the same idea and the creators will even walk you through setting it up.
  • What do you need? The Steam software and one of the aforementioned video call services, or Discord, a text, voice and video service that’s free and also allows you to screen share. 

Board Game Platforms

  • What is it? Websites that host board games you can play directly from your browser, such as Board Game Arena or Tabletopia
  • What’s the best game? Some of the most popular choices on BGA that I also like in real life are 7 Wonders, Sushi Go! and Coup. As for Tabletopia, Santorini is a simple option for starters, while Terra Mystica incorporates strategy once you’ve got the keys all dialed in and stop dropping people from your video calls.
  • What do you need? Your computer’s web browser and your text, voice or video chat service of choice. Both Board Game Arena and Tabletopia are available on other platforms as well, including Steam, and more traditional video game consoles like Playstation and Xbox.

Standalone Games

  • What is it? Even easier than the web browser platforms, there are certain online board games that have their own dedicated sites, so all you need to do is log in on a web browser, invite friends and start playing.
  • What’s the best game? Colonist is a spot-on rip-off of Catan, just make sure that when you create a game, you set it to “private” so random users don’t join in. The popular medieval card game Dominion also has its own dedicated online portal. For the simplest of simple, there’s Playing Cards, which features checkers, Go Fish and Cards Against Humanity.
  • What do you need? Your computer’s web browser and your text, voice or video chat service of choice.

Like regular board and party games, you’ll have to spend some time learning the ropes before you start rolling dice or drawing cards. That includes both reading any rules as well as downloading any apps and figuring out the computer controls, which vary in difficulty depending on your platform. So like any game night, it helps to have a (nerdy and/or tech savvy) friend who’s willing to guide everyone else through the process.

If this all seems a little overwhelming, especially for the computer illiterate, don’t worry. Hundreds, even thousands of new players have been able to get the hang of these digital versions of game-closet favorites in recent weeks. How do I know? Both Board Game Arena and Tabletopia reported a huge influx of users, which necessitated some server bolstering on their end. As for Tabletop Simulator, the peak number of players online at once during any given month have vacillated between 2,000 and 5,000 since December 2015. But in the last 30 days, the peak went over 26,000.

You can expect that number to grow in the coming weeks. If they can do it, you can too. Just don’t flip the table too many times, or your friends will go back to Netflix.