Game Design

3 time zones, 1 board game: gaming together in a time of social distancing

My first thought about playing a board game online was that it was never going to work.

Nowadays, getting a group of friends together is almost impossible without weeks of notice, and even then, at least one person is bound to be unable to make it.  Layer on top of that 3 time zones in 3 countries, and players who had just been introduced online a week before, and I probably would have given up before I started, if not for one thing: the global “shelter-in-place” rules during the COVID-19 pandemic.

This strange time of isolation is having an unexpected impact on me.  I thought that being required to stay at home would result in enjoying more time watching movies alone, reading alone, and yes, playing video games alone.  To my surprise, that single-player Steam downloads list has gone untouched so far.

Instead, I find myself reaching out and trying to make connections.  I’ve spoken to more than one person whom I haven’t been in contact with for years.  I’ve hung out over video chat with friends from different social groups, but with similar interests, who otherwise would not have met each other.

In times like these, gathering around a table to play a board game is out of the question.  Image from: Cloudfall Studios. Used with permission.

Without the lockdown, I’m not sure I would have made the introduction between my game developer friends (in the USA and Canada) and my content creator friends (in the UK).  Even so, maybe the lead-up to what was an extraordinarily fun game session would have been weeks, or months.  We all would have been too busy with something else.

I want to share some lessons and observations from a successful remote board game play session, in the hope that it will help others out in what can be a very isolating time.  This post will cover:

  1. Practical tips and technologies used for a successful online board game session,
  2. Game choice, observations on online interaction, and finally
  3. Why this is important for the future of online gaming

Setting up the tech for an online board game session

While video games are naturally set up for remote play, board games are typically played in-person.  Playing a board game online requires some technology to set up, but it’s all very doable on an ordinary laptop; you don’t need a fancy gaming rig.

These are the three basic tech things you’ll need:

1. An online board game simulator that allows for multiple players

  • We used Tabletop Simulator, which is available on Steam for download on PC or Mac.  Developers can create their own games and players can join or start games within Tabletop Simulator.  On top of the regular price of $19.99 for the simulator, 40-odd more official versions of popular board and card games like Zombicide and Superfight are available in Tabletop Simulator versions for extra ($4.99 – $14.99 depending on the game).  My friends had uploaded a simplified version of their game, and aside from some glitches creating and joining rooms, the play experience was pretty smooth.
  • A free option is Board Game Arena, which boasts 175 games including big names like Carcassonne and Coup, and classics like Chess and Yahtzee.  It’s available through a web browser, so no download is necessary.  They also have an ELO ranking system, which I’m not sure board games need or should have, but that’s a topic for another time.
  • For roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons, there’s Roll20, which several of my friends have consistently used for their campaigns.  It’s free and includes Zoom-like features like online video and text chat, which is more suited for roleplaying games than board games.
Getting ready for the game in Tabletop Simulator.

2. A voice chat app to talk with your friends

  • Discord is probably front-of-mind as it is widely used from amateur to pro level, and is often seen being used by streamers on Twitch or YouTube.  It’s free and features like channels for different groups or subgroups make it simple to use, and it’s also available via browser.  This is what we used.
  • Another option is the in-game chat, which is available in Tabletop Simulator.  In my experience, however, most gamers prefer an external app for voice or video communications as it isn’t tied to the current game.  This feels more natural because the chat will continue to work if you decide to hop into another game, if you need to take a break, or if there are problems in the game server.
  • Due to our current lockdown, we’ve been getting familiar with video conferencing apps like Zoom, which can be good to have open on the side if you do want the additional video chat.  We didn’t find that necessary in our playthrough, and it probably would have been overkill.  After all, the lack of video can allow you to feel more comfortable hanging with your friends while playing in pyjamas from your couch.

3. A mouse

  • Playing a physical board game with your hands is easy, but a virtual board game on one of these simulators has lots of finicky, tiny parts that you’re going to have to move.  I highly recommend using a mouse (whichever one you have) to enhance your virtual board game experience.  Picking up a counter, placing a piece, or flipping a card is suddenly a much harder task, and doing it with just a touchpad for your hours-long play session is a nightmare.
An overview of Roll20‘s online social game system for tabletop roleplaying games such as D&D.  Image from: Roll20.

Other practical tips for coordinating with friends

Iago, one of the characters in Captain’s Gambit, has a secret goal to achieve during the game. Image from: Cloudfall Studios. Used with permission.

1. Learning new games takes time

  • Just like with any board game, it takes a while to learn how to play it, so don’t expect to jump in right away.  Block off your schedule realistically and give yourself a whole afternoon or a whole day to learn and get a good chunk of game time in as well.  And be patient with yourself and your friends, because it can be tougher to learn over a screen than face-to-face.

2. Get your time differences right

  • This sounds obvious, but if you are coordinating between different time zones, double check and then triple check the time that you’ve agreed to meet.  Daylight savings can mess with a meeting, and your AMs and PMs are more important when planning across the ocean.  By the time we got started, our poor Torontonian had been waiting for more than an hour, and by the time we ended, it was well past 2AM for those in the UK.

3. Patience is key

  • Technical issues will inevitably happen – we had a couple of computer restarts, a point where our friend’s Twitch stream wasn’t working, an incident where no one could find the game room in Tabletop Simulator.  And don’t forget, real life is happening, people do need to grab dinner, make bathroom breaks, and let the dog out.

Can player interaction be translated effectively online?

The board game we played online was Captain’s Gambit by Cloudfall Studios, which was developed in part by the two devs that were playing.  They wanted to playtest their Tabletop Simulator version of the game, and my friends in the UK had expressed an interest.  It seemed like the perfect match.

Captain’s Gambit’s main mechanic is social deception, which I was worried would not translate well into the online version. Image from: Cloudfall Studios. Used with permission.

What I thought would be challenging about playing Captain’s Gambit online is that it is a social deception game.  The whole point is to bluff your way to victory, lying about the cards you have in your hand to get ahead to accomplish your character’s secret goal.  Having only played Captain’s Gambit in person, it occurred to me that translating the little winks and gestures you use in a game of this sort might be tricky or worse, make the online game unplayable.

I was wrong, big time.

Even without the video chat, my friends managed to play the game well, although the game’s main focus is on bluffing and deception.  It was really cool to watch them having a laugh  in the same way we would have had we met up in person to play.


I had a chance to have a quick chat with AC Atienza, one of Captain’s Gambit‘s creators, before the game started that evening.  He voiced similar concerns that he’d had while adapting the game to be played online, that it would be difficult to lie and manipulate other players without the in-person contact.  Astonishingly, this hadn’t been the case at all in the online version; he noted, “it’s amazing how much personality is in a mouse movement.”

While AC decided to take out some of the more complicated mechanics, like the start of the game where everyone closes their eyes as roles are assigned in secret, the online version feels like Captain’s Gambit, and albeit a bit simpler, plays out just like it too.

My notion that the board game, when played online, would be less “real” than real life, was completely incorrect.  This gives me hope for other similar games that include deception as a core mechanic, like Coup, to be played remotely.

Online board games are a great means for “social connecting” in a time of “social distancing”

The other interesting part about this particular board game session was that it was connecting people who had never met before in person.  While this has become increasingly common with video games, board games are often presented in a more intimate setting, for example at the dinner table at a friend’s house.

I was nervous at first – my friends are from different countries, different backgrounds and different parts of my life, so what if they didn’t get along?  My fears were quelled quickly as everyone clicked and bonded over the shared experience of playing the board game together.  It struck me that playing games might be the ideal activity for meeting new people, since you’re focused on an activity rather than making small talk, putting less pressure on the conversation and thus allowing the chat to flow freely.

A screenshot from the game livestream on Twitch.  Image from: GeekyN8. Used with permission.

What’s more, my friend GeekyN8 had decided to stream the board game playthrough on his Twitch channel.  I’m not a regular Twitch viewer, and I usually put streams on in the background rather than watch them full-on.  My impression of Twitch streams is largely informed by the idea of big gamer personalities with hundreds or thousands of fans watching and a chat that scrolls too fast to keep up.

But this Twitch stream was different, because it was personal.  I realised after a while that I was not even really watching the game, but watching my friends make new friendships and enjoy playing together.  I was watching people connecting online, and that fed my socially-deprived brain.  I think this feeling of companionship is why we’re drawn to livestreams especially right now – more than content, we are looking for the comfort of human interaction.

Predictions for the future of connecting online through games

I don’t think my experience is rare in a time of crisis like the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.  I think many people are discovering how they can continue to build relationships remotely while stuck at home.  As we approach a new post-COVID-19 normal, here are some predictions of what we can look forward to.

  • More people will recognise that games are a wonderful way to spend time together when they can’t be together in person, and gaming becomes as popular as video chats for extended “hangouts” online
  • It will become common to be introduced to new friends and meet people through an online board game session
  • There will be a diversification in the types of multiplayer games available to play online and the demographics of people playing time, such that the idea of “playing online together” does not call up stereotypes of nerdy guys raiding in World of Warcraft
Capturing the feeling of playing together while apart.  Image from: GeekyN8. Used with permission.

There is one catch, however.  As soon as “shelter-at-home” is over, I’m afraid that we’re going to rush back to how things were.  I fear that everyone is going to become “too busy” again.

It would be a pity if all the insights we gained about playing games remotely were left in the time of coronavirus.  We’ve proved to ourselves that it’s not that difficult to play a board game together online from around the world.  Along the way we’ve also learned that playing board games online is fun, even the ones that rely heavily on face-to-face interaction.

Gaming has always brought us together, and I hope we don’t forget what this experience of social distancing has taught us about that.  I don’t want to go back to a world where my first thought when trying to plan a board games night is that it’s simply not going to work.



Special thanks to GeekyN8, and Cloudfall Studio’s AC Atienza and Ethan Li, for an awesome gaming session, which can be viewed hereCaptain’s Gambit, a Shakespeare-inspired, space-themed social deception game, is available on Kickstarter until April 8th.