The biggest issue with board gaming has always been finding other players. Even when you do track down some potential opponents, pinning them to an agreed time and place can still be tricky.
As a result, there have been services to co-ordinate online play since the earliest days of the internet. Nowadays they’ve proliferated and become much more polished and usable. If there’s a game you want to play, you’re almost certain to find some software that lets you, often free or for a pittance.
Here are five of our favourites.
Best for: Real-time games on the internet
Speed: Real-time only
Rules: Not enforced
Top Titles: Star Wars Destiny, Cosmic Encounter
This looks more like a physics engine than a board game client. Your view shows a game table, and you use the mouse to manipulate game components, draw cards, roll dice. It feels odd at first, but it's a stroke of genius. It allows the client to simulate pretty much any tabletop game. Throw in text and voice chat, a busy community and a dazzling cascade of fan-made modules and you've got the world's current favourite game client. It's even got VR support.
You pay upfront for the software then, in theory, you pay for premium game modules, of which there are currently 34 on Steam. In practice there are a huge number of homemade ones in the Steam Workshop (opens in new tab). Many are a bit rough and ready, but they work well enough. You’ll need your own copy of the rules, though.
Of course, while it's useful for trying out a new game you might be interested in picking up, using a free module means the original game creator isn't getting paid.
Best for: Hotseat play around one screen
Speed: Real-time only
Rules: Not enforced
Top Titles: Santorini, Race to the Rhine
Following in the footsteps of TTS, this is another physics-based platform with a smaller library and a bit more polish than its competitor. It's free to download, and gives you access to a limited library of solid titles. If you want the full range to play, you'll have to stump up on a subscription-based model.
Almost everything that's good or bad about Tabletopia runs off that subscription model. On the plus side, the interface on most games is slick and professional. And, of course, paying a subscription means game creators get paid. On the downside, subscribers are scarce, so finding opponents for premium-only games can take a long time.
It is, however, great for hotseat play where all the players sit round the same screen. Not least because you can play a lot of otherwise premium titles this way. That's not a great way to play games with hidden information. But for everything else, Tabletopia offers a pleasing and accessible package.
Best for: Dedicated gamers who want a lot of options
Speed: Real-time and play by email
Rules: Not enforced
Top Titles: Mage Knight, X-Wing
Want access to a colossal library of tabletop games, many of which aren't available on any other digital platform? You can get it through Vassal, but you'll need to put in some work. It's Java-based, for starters, so you'll find the Vassal installer adds that you your PC if it's not already there. You'll have to download and configure the modules you want to play. It's all a bit of a faff, frankly, but it's worth it in the end.
What Vassal costs in effort it makes up for in flexibility. Its library of games is huge. They're all free, but you're asked to only download and use ones for games you own. You can play live, although there's no real lobby system, so it’s wiser to arrange games with friends or on forums. But you can also play games by email, sending log files back and forth.
Vassal's original purpose was to facilitate the play of monster wargames. The sort of things that have hundreds of counters and play-hours. There's still plenty of them among its modules library. Nowadays, however, users have created modules for all sorts of games. Plus, wargames themselves have become far more accessible. Try something like Commands & Colors: you might be pleasantly surprised.
Board Game Arena
Best for: Slow burning strategy by email
Speed: Real-time and asynchronous
Top Titles: Through the Ages, Hanabi
If you wander into BGA's website, you'll find it a barebones affair. Register and start playing, though, and you'll discover a service full of impressive features and boasting a big list of games. According to the site's creator, he has licences to offer all of them online. The majority are free, although there's a premium subscription service to unlock a few more and support the site.
There are a lot of websites that let you play games online, but BGA is unusual in offering real-time play alongside asynchronous games. Action unfolds as you watch in your browser, and icons keep everyone informed of each other’s status. You choose which mode you want before selecting or starting a game.
The site even enforces the rules of the game you're playing, although the quality of the interface varies a lot. It can be hard to work out what's going on in some of the more complex games. As you might imagine for a free service that works in your browser, BGA has a solid user base, making it easy to find opponents.
Best for: Long term players who like ranks and stats
Speed: Asynchronous only
Top Titles: A Few Acres of Snow, Jaipur
There are plenty of places to play asynchronous board games. What distinguishes this German site is the range of games and features on offer. There are over 100 titles to play, a ranking system, and a replay feature you can use to study strategies. Chrome users even have a browser plugin available to track their games.
Playing games by email can take a long time: potentially months depending on the speed of your opponents. On the plus side, it does give you plenty of time to think about your moves. And there are some gems among the games on offer, including out-of-print and hard-to-find titles unavailable elsewhere.
Yucata started out purely as a hobby project. It’s still free to use and free of adverts, and is supported entirely through player donations.
While those five are the top picks for online play, there are plenty of other competitors to consider. The best known is probably BrettSpielWelt, a German community that offers free real-time play via its Java client. It's old, though, and it shows. And it can be hard for English speakers to get to grips with the interface and to communicate in game.
Another venerable program is Cyberboard, which lets you record log files for play by email games. It's free and doesn't need any third-party software. But its user base and range of available modules is small. ZunTzu and newcomer BattleGrounds Games clients are also worth checking out.
Other websites worth checking out for browser play includes SpielByWeb, Boite a Jeux and For Whom The Web Rocks. ACTS is a limited-feature site that tracks card decks and dice rolls for multi-player games.