The Rise of Digital Board Games in the Midst of a Global Crisis

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, and many are trapped in their homes in isolation, a strange trend has begun to emerge in gaming: a rise in Digital Board Games. Berserk Games’ Tabletop Simulator is by no means a niche game, likely sitting in over one million players’ Steam Libraries. Despite this, the concept of ‘regressing’ to board games when more exciting games are readily available was a strange idea to many, with most players using in-built modding capabilities to make more extraordinary tabletop games of their own. Since March of 2020 however, Tabletop Simulator has seen a huge spike in players, greater than ever before. Of course during these unprecedented times, many gamers have been granted significant amounts of extra free time, and this clearly shows in statistics for all games across Steam. While this was bound to be the case, the spike in players of online, digital board games is distinct to this broader trend – simply put, more players are craving a board game experience than ever before.

There’s something so intensely tactile and personal about a physical, tabletop game. Rolling dice, tapping counters against the board to count spaces, moving the wrong piece or flipping the table in rage. While most video games are far from linear and rigid, theres an innate human unpredictability to a physical game that no coded events can match. It’s because of this that board games become the epicentre of fond social memories; every time a player forgets a rule in Monopoly, or adds a new wild card in Uno, the game becomes a completely unique and personal experience – for better or for worse – that only the players at the table can ever experience. This combined with the fact that board games are impossible – or at least incredibly difficult – to play alone, and that only people sat metres away from you are able to share in the experience, is what makes board games so special.

Tabletop Simulator‘s goal is simple: create a multiplayer, physics-based tabletop sandbox. The game has suggestions of games, of rules, of strategies, but insists that this should all be upheld by the players and the players only. The game merely gives players a cursor to grab and move pieces and gives them free reign of the table. No event is scripted; the die doesn’t roll at the click of a button, the counters don’t move automatically – all the power is given to the players. Human mistakes, fumbling actions, and strange interpretations of the rules are all facilitated by this format. The result of this is as close as many can get to the authentic board game experience without sitting around a table and actually playing one. It is no wonder, then, that despite many leaving the board game format behind, to pursue the more exciting digital world of gaming, so many players, cooped up in their homes, missing their friends and family, have leapt into the world of Tabletop Simulator. For many, at least for the near future, the game is one avenue to allow players to feel pure, authentic and chaotic human interaction from the loneliness of lockdown.

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