Friday, 16 January 2015

Cool Games Showcase: Tabletop Simulator

Tabletop Simulator is one of the most interesting and exciting PC games I've seen in a long time. Its got me rethinking what a digital game is and has potentially limitless depth. I must say that the developers have done a pretty lousy job marketing their own product- there’s a lot more to this than the table flip.

In case you don't know, and the name isn't obvious enough, Tabletop Simulator is a simulator of physical games. Tabletop Sim isn’t really a computer game in the normal sense as the software doesn’t regulate moves, rules and victory conditions. It is indeed less a game and more a tool for playing games.

To play the games you manipulate physics-based objects in the exact same way you’d use a physical table. If you have to move a piece 3 spaces then you must grab the piece with your virtual hand and move it one, two, three spaces. Dice rolls aren’t a random number generator you click on- they’re modelled three-dimensional objects you have to toss across the table- just don’t be over-zealous and pelt them off the table. Actions like that make Tabletop Sim far more immersive than any other digital board game conversions.

Connect 4
The controls are very smartly designed and cover pretty much all of the actions you would want to take when handling dice, models or cards. You can easily flip and rotate anything. If you throw any cards in your direction, they will snap into a hand area, obscuring their faces from the other players. Its smart decisions like this that prevent the virtual hand from becoming too cumbersome to manipulate with a mouse. The devs have succeeded in simplifying the most repetitive actions you’d perform with a board/card game. Some tasks are easier to do in TS than real life like the ability to shuffle cards by just shaking the mouse or the ability to snap placed objects onto a grid. I also must praise the ability to see a close-up of a card at anytime by holding alt. That one feature has probably saved me a ridiculous amount of time moving the camera. There is also controller support that I’m yet to try out myself.

Cards Against Humanity
Tabletop Sim really does just give the players some objects on flat surface. Its up to the humans involved to follow the rules and maintain a semblance of order. In spite of the inclusion of some admin powers, the potential for griefing is great. That is, if you were to play with strangers. In the 30+ hours I’ve played Tabletop Simulator, its always been with a small group of internet buddies with a skype chat running in the background. Its perfectly possible to play games with strangers- there is a standard server browser- but on a personal, social basis, I can’t bring myself to jump into a random server as TS requires chat. Perhaps there are more outgoing people out there than me but if I play a board game then I personally would choose to sit at a table with friends rather than with strangers. This review is now veering in a more personal direction so it would suffice to say that I can’t completely exclude the possibility of using TS as a way of meeting new people. Board games are relatively slow affairs compared to video games and are therefore excellent pastimes for socialising. You can even goof off while waiting for your slow friend, flinging coins in their direction and inflating the size of cards… which is slightly less a ‘simulation’ but its all good, stupid fun.

Boss Monster
Honestly, in reviewing Tabletop Simulator I have to get into the very appeal of board and card games as a whole. The impressive quality of TS is that it can take all of into the digital realm. The two main benefits of this transition are:
  1. You can play board games with your friends across the internet, including the friends you’ll most likely never meet in person.
  2. TS could theoretically offer unlimited games developed by other players all of which are untethered by any restrictions hard-coded into the software.
That second point is a bit of a legal and perhaps even moral issue- so lets elaborate on it. Tabletop Simulator has mod support. This means that anyone can replicate any board game to have ever existed. There are perhaps some that can’t be 100% accurately remade but with custom models there are very few limits. For deckbuilding games such as Magic The Gathering you can independently make a deck in one mod, save it, then carry that across into another game to pit it against an opponent (who is wielding their own custom deck).

Mods that use copyrighted assets are nothing new but these mods let you replicate the game experience as a whole. Imagine LittleBigPlanet let you download the original Super Mario Brothers. Not as a reskin of the floatly Sackboy adventures but as a replication so accurate you might as well be playing the game on a NES emulator. It would be a legal nightmare and the mods of TS very much border on this concept.

I haven’t heard of anything too controversial on the Tabletop Sim front, but that may be because of how relatively obscure it is at the moment. Whether or not these mods do indeed break any laws isn’t my decision to make. As it stands, the issue is whether or not you, the player, have a problem with it . To be perfectly honest, I don’t have a problem with it at all and actually consider the mods to be the main selling point of the product. Perhaps I was wrong about the poor marketing; perhaps the devs chose to hold that particular selling point closer to their chest.

For me, having mods is like having access to an unlimited toy-box and the vast majority of my time has been dedicated to playing copyrighted material (particularly Dominion). To defend the mods (and possibly justify my own use of them) these game are still mere recreations of the real products. One could argue that playing mods may encourage more people to buy the real physical board game. I know my numerous online sessions of Dominion has encouraged me to play more of it in person, which I have done so. I also look forward to buying my next expansion pack soon.

Tabletop Sim also includes some standard copyright-free games such as chess and reversi. There are normal decks of playing cards and given how many games you can play with those alone TS may still be a sound investment without requiring mods. The truly creative may use the mod capabilities to create their own original games. TS may even prove to be an ample testing ground for new board game designs.

Tabletop Simulator is an excellent union of digital games and traditional physical games. It’s a testament to the fact that board games have social qualities that a digital game will never be able to replicate- even if that amounts to nothing more than being able to fling the pieces around like an idiot. It should go without saying at this point but this should not be purchased if you have zero interest in playing with others. Solitaire only goes so far. This is a social game. Buy it with the intention to play with friends. If all of this sounds appealing to you, it may even be worth buying Tabletop Simulator in a pack of 4, as I did. This ensures that you’ll have some people to play with and may even prove to be one of the best gaming purchases you’ve ever made. It did for me.

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