I don’t think any video game exists with a more apt title. For your $15 you get a table and a big chest full of physics objects to move around. These physics objects can be manipulated by any player at the table, and can take any shape or size in whatever quantity and configuration you need. If you need, say, 52 flat, rectangular objects with suits and numbers on them, you’re good to go. Or 64 chips with white and black sides. Or isometric dice and a beholder.
The game — to be more accurate, the sandbox — makes no attempt to inflict or enforce any rules. It just supplies the pieces. It has a few old classics built in, Chess and Poker and Parcheesi and the like, which you can play as-is or modify however you want. Play Chess with all bishops or Poker with all aces, or just sit there throwing Parcheesi pawns at each other. When you get tired of that, you can use the in-game editor to design your own games either using the supplied chits and dice or crafting your own.
Or, if you’re like us, you’ll prefer to browse the Steam Workshop for mods other people have created. Most every board game you have in your cabinet right now has already been ported over, from Monopoly to Arkham Horror to Nicolas Cage Guess Who. (I hope this is the only board game night I ever have that involves the question, “Is your Nicolas Cage on fire?”)
The real magic of Tabletop Simulator, of course, is the ability to play all of these games with people who aren’t able to sit down at your real-life table with you. For some reason the board game industry has not been very diligent in offering virtual versions of their products, and so Tabletop Simulator has stepped in to fill the gap. The multiplayer aspect of the game is surprisingly seamless: one player creates a lobby, then everyone else joins. Your lobby can be password-protected to ensure random people don’t drop in. Or you scroll down the list of publically-available lobbies to see if any strangers are playing your game of choice. Everyone can play even if only one person has the game, which eliminates all that annoying “wait a minute, so-and-so needs to install the mod” downtime. There is an in-game text chat so players can communicate and/or heckle one another.
Since Tabletop Simulator doesn’t actually know what game you’re playing, it can’t enforce any of the game’s rules. In theory, this means players can move each other’s pieces or otherwise attempt to ruin the game by cheating or trolling. Points against, sure, but these same behaviors are part and parcel with the physical board game experience, and you deal with them the same way: by kicking the player out and continuing to play without them. There is also strength in such lawlessness: rules are as easy to invent as they are to break, opening the door for any number of house rules your little heart desires.
The sandbox’s movement and camera controls are a little cumbersome, and the physics can act in odd ways sometimes, but this is a small price to pay to be able to play board games with people who, until now, I’ve only been able to talk about board games with. The tagline we kept repeating in my Twitch stream was, “For $15 you get every board game ever.” That’s not strictly true — more physically demanding board games like Jenga or Mouse Trap are impossible in the current sandbox — but it’s true enough to keep us amused into the foreseeable future.
I thought it was an eyebrow-raising decision for David Sirlin to initially release his sequel to Chess as an OUYA exclusive, because who even has one of those? But now that the game is available on Steam (and I think iOS?) I’m actually dying to try it out. I love Chess, but I’m a bottom-feeding novice, and I have absolutely no desire to memorize endless variations of game openers or to play against opponents who have done that. Chess 2‘s promise of asymmetrical gameplay and alternate win conditions got me really excited.
But not excited enough to spend $25 on it. That price is outrageously high for a virtual copy of a board game.
I’m sure Sirlin would say that $25 (really only $21, thanks to the launch sale) is a drop in the bucket compared to how much competitive fun I will get out of the game, and he may very well be right, but we don’t live in a world where video games are priced in terms of dollars-per-fun-unit. We live in a world where I could take that $25 and buy Shovel Knight or Freedom Planet or Crypt of the Necrodancer plus a footlong sub sandwich.
Or I could just wait for someone to make a Chess 2 mod for Tabletop Simulator. Oh look, someone already has.