I love board games. There, I’ve said it. So you can imagine my excitement when I’m asked to review a piece of software called “Tabletop Simulator.” Unfortunately, I got my hopes up a bit too high, because it is not what I was expecting at all.
Frankly, I don’t know what I was actually expecting. It could have been an organizer for your roleplaying campaigns. Or even a way to pretend being a guest on Wil Wheaton’s popular board game webseries on the Geek & Sundry YouTube channel for all I knew. But regardless, it is a tool that allows you to play popular classic games in a total sandbox environment.
For a lot of gamers, this might not sound immediately appealing. In order for a game to be a game, it has got to have rules. Otherwise, you won’t know who has won or lost, or even when to call another player a low-down dirty rotten cheater. Without rules, we descend into chaos. But this can be a good thing once in a while.
When you start Tabletop Simulator, you are given the option of several types of virtual tables, as well as the boards and pieces of many classic games such as Chess, Checkers, Go, “Chinese” Checkers and Backgammon. There are also card games and other options like an RPG table (more on this one later). There is a quick little tutorial on how to pick up a piece, rotate it, pick up multiple pieces, or randomize things like dice and card decks. Once you have done these thing a few times it becomes like second nature.
If you put a checker down on a checkerboard, or a stone on a Go board, the program will auto-correct it to the nearest square or intersection as appropriate. But that is as far as it goes to police anything you do. If you want to move your rook diagonally or put a checker on a red square, that is your prerogative. Go right ahead – Tabletop Simulator won’t stop you.
You can play any of these games in single player mode, or you can connect to other players by finding them on Steam or hosting your own table.
One interesting aspect of this program is its potential use as a role-playing game aid. The table for this is rather large, and you can even upload your own background for the pieces to sit upon. Unfortunately, the animations of all the available monster miniatures might use up more resources than you might expect a board game simulator to need. Also, constructing the layout takes some practice and is time-consuming even then. Just to construct a couple 4-square by 4-square rooms and a connecting hallway took upwards of 30 minutes, which is about 30 times as long as it took me to do the same thing with pen-and-paper. But, if you want to spend the time and effort, you can make some decently visual dungeons.
What truly sets Tabletop Simulator from any other board game program is, not only is it a complete sandbox when playing, you are free to add any pieces to any of them. Every scenario you load is like a developer’s kit for creating new games. If you want to put some marbles in a chess game, you can go right ahead. Most of the time this won’t lead to much more than a big mess, but you never know – you could invent the next “Double Cranko.”
If you do invent something fun, you can upload it to Tabletop Simulator’s area of the Steam Workshop. While you’re there you can also see what other people have done with this program. There are component sets for popular eurogames like Carcassone and St. Petersburg. People have even invented new ones like Portal Chess and a Walking Dead trivia game. Be sure to check them out.
There are a gazillion sites out there that will let you play chess or checkers according to the rules. Some might even be a decent opponent. But, if you are looking for a place to experiment with those games or maybe even make a few of your own, the you should give Tabletop Simulator a whirl. For me it earns a respectable 3 GiN Gems our of 5.