For a long time, Berserk Games' Tabletop Simulator has been a go-to for tabletop junkies. It provides a fantastic means for users to virtually be in the same room and play some of their favourite board games, card games and even wargames - perfect for those long-distance friendships/rivalries.
So, what is it? And how does it work? I hear you ask.
Tabletop Simulator is a physics-based table for playing traditional-style games on. Because it utilises many 3D models being manipulated in a free space you will need a PC with some decent power, but it doesn't need to be a gaming rig. You can scan in or create whatever components you wish to or find an existing mod of a game you love. The Tabletop Simulator devs have partnered with board game publishers to bring big names to the virtual table such as Cosmic Encounters, Zombicide and Wingspan, among others.
Aside from the official DLC, you will also find that fans have developed their own versions of some of their favourite games. These range in quality but also raise an ethical question - should you play them? Many of these games have official releases for Tabletop Simulator that by paying for, you will have a better user experience and support the creators. However, as an amateur board game developer myself, it isn't the big names on Tabletop Simulator that are exciting to me, it's the small guys, the unpublished heroes forging out their own space in the market and developing their fanbases.
Tabletop game developers soon cottoned on to the advantages of Tabletop Simulator for the purposes of playtesting. Suddenly there are potential play-testers all around the world, not just those in your local pub or gaming café. It sounds like a designer's Shangri-la, right? Well nearly, but not quite. It isn't without its bugs and difficulties. Putting together a game on Tabletop Simulator is not an intuitive process. Creating that first game will be difficult, require a significant amount of trial and error, a graphics program, and a lot of googling, but the results are worth it. When you see your board game in dazzling 3D you will find yourself overcome with a sudden sense of pride and accomplishment.
Aside from the troubles you will have when setting up your game, memorising the controls may require an academic qualification. Because it is an open simulator that lends itself to any type of component and the three-dimensional manipulating of those components, just as you would in the real world, the controls are near endless. There are hotkeys to rotate cards, to lift them, flip them, stack them and shuffle them, and when you start hitting the wrong commands, that is when you will need Tabletop Simulator's most important command: flip the table!
A skilled or experienced user of Tabletop Simulator can employ scripts to control functions in their games and to set some limits on actions, such as making certain information only available to designated players. Unless you are very adept with the controls, like me you will probably find it somewhat overwhelming at first, but persevere and you will find a great and adaptable tool for playing board games with your friends.
To Tabletop or Not?
My intention isn't to provide you with a guide on how to develop your games in Tabletop Simulator, there are hundreds of those, no, I wish to pose the question, should you be using Tabletop Simulator?
For those early adopters (and I say that being aware that Tabletop Simulator has been around since 2015), those who walked the trial by fire that was adapting their print files to 3D models, digitising components and formatting artwork correctly had it all figured out when the world fell still under a global pandemic. Suddenly the only way to playtest a new game with anyone outside your household or bubble was on Tabletop Simulator - and let me tell you, my wife was very bored by the 11th iteration of my treasure hunting game.
Tabletop Simulator has opened up a whole new world of collaboration between developer and consumer. If you are not a game developer, but you are a huge fan of tabletop games, this is your opportunity to get your feet under the table as it were, and make a contribution to your favourite designer's new game. Designers can receive feedback on their yet to be published games on a scale never seen before. Find those bugs before being published, or just figure out if it is actually fun.
Even though many designers had their hands forced into adopting Tabletop Simulator as a means of playtesting in these strange and unusual times, I believe that for the majority this is a tool that they are glad they have learned to wield, and one that will remain in their toolbox for years to come. If you are a tabletop game developer or a hardcore gamer this simulator has never been more important, and I urge you to take a closer look.