Playtesting board games electronically (Tabletop Simulator, Tabletopia)

Someone asked recently on reddit.com/r/tabletopgamedesign about using Tabletop Simulator to playtest their board game prototypes. Coming from the world of video games, where we patch twice a day, this is something I was very excited about trying in board games. I’m certainly no luddite.

Tabletop Simulator and its newer more sleek offspring Tabletopia don’t simulate game rules: they simply are a vehicle for displaying boards, cards and pieces in a multiplayer environment. Players are expected to know the rules and enforce them, just the way they would around if they were sitting around a table. This is what I’ve learned so far using Tabletop Simulator (I haven’t tried importing into Tabletopia yet).

It’s relatively straightforward to import your artwork, although the formatting is different enough from printing that it will require you to have a separate layout file in InDesign. In the long-term maybe this isn’t a huge deal, over dozens or hundreds of iterations, but in the short-term it certainly is hours of extra work to create and maintain and definitely gets in the way of the spirit of prototyping and testing quickly.

TTS blog print layout

I was hoping there would be some organic discovery through Tabletop Simulator and the Steam Workshop, but I haven’t seen much of that yet. I think this is largely due to the fact that you can’t just download and play a TTS game: you need to find and read the rules first. This is a huge difference from the world of video game mods and modded content. There isn’t an easy way to display rules or videos inside Tabletop Simulator, although you certainly can make movies on the store page. I’ve done that, but with rules changing so quickly, it means I have to make a video every time I change the rules.

Also, actually playing a board game in Tabletop Simulator is quite different than sitting around an actual table with friends. Not everyone has a mic set up, and for those that do they won’t know how to use it, or it won’t work properly for them. Anyone that’s every teleconferenced knows this: somehow, no matter what software you use, there will be SOMEONE with a microphone that doesn’t work, isn’t loud enough or isn’t clear enough. And when you’re playtesting a game with 3-5 people, having one person that can’t talk means everyone waits until they get their mic working.

Finally, because it’s a simulator, there are physics. Players are tempted to throw pieces around, flip the table, etc. Not only that, but just the mechanics of something as simple as a “bank” filled with counters can end up a jittering unsolvable physics problem. Even just the mechanics and skill needed to flip cards properly, move counters, stack cards, etc. gets in the way. All of this is so fiddly that it’s hard to keep your head in game-space.

To me that’s the most important point: board games are fundamentally analog, social, non-technological and designed around human interaction. To playtest a game’s human factors electronically defeats the point to me. You can certainly test the game economy, difficulty of rules and many more practical elements, but I don’t see it as a good way to leverage the internet to build an audience, or make a game that crackles with human energy.

There are many hundreds or thousands of board games coming out every year. It’s almost impossible to make one that stands out in the market, that gives players an incredible experience, that makes them want to play again and again. So I can’t help but think it’s better off focusing completely on the human elements, the way that 99% of your players (thousands if you’re lucky) will see it.

I still believe in the potential of electronic board games, but perhaps they are better suited to more finished games instead of prototyping.