Running Board Games Using Teleconferencing
by Scott Rutter and Cheryl Orosz
The era of social distancing we find ourselves in has made many of us much more familiar with teleconferencing. The opportunity to play a favorite game can feel closer to the analog experience through the warmth of vocal quality and ability to see each others’ facial expressions. We’ve learned there is more to choose from than Zoom when it comes to teleconference platforms. We’d like to share what we’ve learned and what you might want to consider when running games over the internet. These tools will be vital for the brave new experience of Virtual UCon 2020. They can also help you bring the fun of gaming to your friends and family, regardless of distance, all year long.
Teleconferencing Software Options
Each of the different teleconferencing software options have strengths and weaknesses. Google Meet is free to use and to host. Also Google’s built in automatic captioning option can be helpful, hilarious, or both. Discord requires setting up a server or having a channel available on an existing server. Discord’s video resolution is somewhat lower at the unpaid level, which is likely fine for purely social interaction, but may be an issue for a game run purely via teleconference. UCon .may. offer Discord options on our server, depending on technical considerations and other limitations, but it might be wise to have a backup plan or your own server. Zoom and BlueJeans require at least the host to have a paid account. Zoom does allow short meetings for free last we knew, but we expect the time limitation will be too short for game purposes. BlueJeans currently offers a one week free trial. Our test team’s preferences for which system to use varied. There was no consensus winner. Use the system you favor; it’s your game. Make sure to familiarize yourself with controls and settings before game day. Your players will thank you.
Online Game Mediation Options
Some options for software specifically for running tabletop board and card games over the internet include:
- Board Game Arena (BGA) (boardgamearena.com)
- Free with a premium tier (~$25 for a year)
- Well over a hundred games available with new ones added regularly, some can only be started by premium members, but all are free to play even without a premium membership
- Players will need a BGA account
- yucata.de (https://www.yucata.de/en)
- Free; accepts donations
- A smaller games list of mostly German/Euro genre
- Players will need a Yucata account
- Tabletop Simulator (tabletopsimulator.com)
- Available for purchase through Steam and other distributors (~$20)
- Lots of free game implementations available in the Workshop, some with more rules support than others
- Players will also need TTS software
- Tabletopia (Tabletopia.com)
- Free with premium tiers (~$5-10 per month)
- Steam/iOS app store/Google Play
- Boasts over 1000 games, some require premium membership to access
- Players will also need Tabletopia
- Networked modes of individual mobile or desktop game apps
- Costs vary widely, may require expansion purchases to run the latest stuff, and are mostly per-game
- Players will need the same app, though many are cross-platform
We have had a lot of success using game mediation software and simultaneously running a teleconference meeting for voice chat. Player video may be less important when using game mediation software, and depending on the players’ monitor options, hard to find visual real estate for.
Playing Azul on Tabletop Simulator with voice chat via BlueJeans, for example, was very immersive. Our one player who had never played Azul previously found it easy to pick up. It helped that the implementation was fully scripted, making it easy to follow the rules and keeping score for us as each round ended. When considering this option, think about how much rules enforcement and assistance the platform offers. BGA, yucata, and individual apps enforce rules. BGA has links to rules books and sometimes tutorials for each game. TTS Workshop implementations can vary widely on how much they enforce rules or keep score for you. Some are similar to having the board on a table in front of you and do no enforcement at all. Tabletopia also has many official implementations but designers can also prototype just like in TTS.
Running a game via teleconference can give players an ‘authentic’ gaming experience, since real, physical games can be used in play, but there are some things to decide when choosing to run a purely teleconferenced game. Consider what kind of game will work in a video meeting. We suggest fully cooperative games and those that have ‘perfect information,’ meaning all game information is effectively public, are best choices. Some games we’ve enjoyed while testing have included cooperatives Flash Point: Fire Rescue, Star Trek: Five Year Mission, and Ghost Fightin’ Treasure Hunters, but also competitive games like King of Tokyo and Deadwood Studios. As the GM, your job will be to manage the ‘state of the game,’ moving the tokens for your players and managing board effects.
Hidden information over teleconference requires private communications and possibly more effort to mediate and communicate as a gamemaster. However, it is possible to manage some games that are not fully cooperative or have some hidden information, especially if the amount of secret information is small. Think Codenames and Betrayal at the House on the Hill. Consider how much hidden information will need to be communicated only to the player who should know it when considering your options. That will be your job to manage as gamemaster.
If there is a lot of information to manage, additional direct text chat, breakout sessions, or other ways to communicate may be needed. You may not be able to play effectively in the game yourself if you are mediating secret information for your players or need to frequently move lots of tokens, cards, dice, etc. because only your hands are available to do that.
If your game will involve rolling dice or flipping cards, think about how to show those things to the players. A dice tray can be very useful to move dice in and out of camera frame or contain them where the camera can see them when they are rolled. Consider that your players may want to pin the game board view so that image is the largest or only one on their screens. Lifting dice or cards toward the camera may be helpful or necessary as play progresses. If you are using a fixed camera, you might want to mark where the edges of the camera view are. Painter’s tape can be a good option. That way you can make sure you know what information your players can see. Some of our tests involved having a second, more mobile camera to ‘zoom in’ on a specific player’s game state to help them make choices during their turn. While this can be helpful, the limits of most player’s screen space makes this effective only when there is limited detail for the player to see. This was especially effective during our test with Star Trek: 5 Year Mission. Players who don’t have large monitors may need to toggle between pinned video screens for this trick to be effective, so be aware.
Aside from the actual game, you will need a camera and device that can join the TC to keep a picture of the board in the conference. Fortunately, most of us have one: just about any smartphone is sufficient for the task. Our first test was accomplished by taping a smartphone to a stick. A tripod with a phone bracket or a selfie stick would be great if you have one of those available. The trick here is the camera has to be able to view the entire board so the players can see the game unfold. This usually means the camera has to be extended over the board somehow. In our first test, we used a stack of game boxes and RPG books to get the proper elevation for our makeshift selfie stick. Alternately, if you have a GoPro or other usb camera and tripod, you may have additional options. If you have one of those devices, we assume you know what you’re doing.
Consider lighting conditions when figuring out your setup. If lighting is too direct, you may have glare or hotspots that interfere with your players’ ability to see the game setup. Check the view from the videoconference window to see what they will see and adjust as needed. Indirect lighting and more of it is usually the best bet. One of our test setups skipped overhead lighting altogether to reduce glare. Make sure the lighting works for the time of day, as needs may be easily met in daylight hours when near windows, but require more artificial lighting as the evening wears on.
Since you probably will have more than one device each with its own camera and microphone in the teleconference, consider which one should be muted and which one should have the sound turned off, to prevent echo and feedback issues. That could mean both of those settings for the same device, or one on each. Think about whether a headset, wired or wireless, would be helpful. You may already have suitable equipment for computer gaming or for business teleconferencing that would work.
It’s All About The Game(s)
This brave new world has caused us to think hard about how we play and share the games we love while keeping ourselves and our community safe. Fortunately, there are a lot of options that provide great ways to play tabletop games with each other and find community in this shared interest. Please join UCon’s Discord server to find opponents and chat about games, systems, and just hang out with UCon people. Consider attending one of the planned virtual Games Library Day events, also in Discord.
We hope that these ideas will help you keep in touch and spend time with other game people even after UCon is able to happen in person once again, with people you already know or with those you just met.
For now, please consider running a game or a few for Virtual UCon 2020. Your community needs you! Sign up here: https://ucon-gaming.org/GameConSuite/gcs/gm/submit.php