Pocket Tactics Presents: A Guide to Tabletopia12 Mar 2018 2
Tabletopia is a digital sandbox system for playing an impressive range of board games across a range of different platforms. It’s been out on PC for a while but has recently made the jump to tablets. At the time of writing, this tablet release is a beta version with several key features missing. However, it is currently free to try and gives access to a small selection of games to download.
When it comes to digital board game design there appear to be two schools of thought: The first states that to capture the true feel of the original the digital version should strive to remain as close to the source material as possible. The second believes that to improve the digital experience, aspects of the game can be redesigned.
This may involve developing a more intuitive interface and adding animation and sound. Going down the second route can produce splendid apps like Agricola, which presents a very complex game in a simplified and straightforward fashion. However, it can also lead to overproduced and bloated conversions such as Tokaido in which the flashy presentation actually has a negative effect on the flow of the game.
Tabletopia very much adheres to the first school of thought and will represent a real paradigm shift for those players more familiar with user-friendly board game conversions. It does not take the player by the hand by showing them how to play or ensuring that the rules are enforced. It does presents you with a range of games that you can download and play, but it is very much a self-governing experience much like Tabletop Simulator. You get a digital version of the rulebook and all the components (which are set up for you) but then you are very much on your own.
Let’s take Chess as an example; Tabletopia supplies the graphics and interface, however from here on in the players are left to their own devices. The game isn’t going to intervene if, for your first move, you select a pawn and then move it all the way over to your opponent’s side of the board and remove their king – in short, the rules have to be enforced by the players.
Tabletopia will let you do pretty much anything that you can do in a regular board game, you can move and stack counters, roll and manipulate dice, draw and flip cards, and receive and spend coins. Inevitably, this is going to feel fiddly when compared with direct interaction with actual physical components. The lack of screen real-estate means that even on larger tablets you will need to constantly scroll and zoom the play area. You really miss just being able to take in the whole play area at a glance. In addition, although efforts have been made to ensure comprehensive links to rules and video tutorials, learning a new game still requires patience and determination. Physical games have a rulebook that you can quickly refer to whilst simultaneously viewing the board. Whilst the best purpose designed apps go even further, taking you through the rules step by step and making most games a breeze to learn.
Tablet Tabletopia will become a much more attractive proposition when a solid multiplayer online version is released. The current version only offers solo and a pass and play mode, many games are limited to just two players. By comparison, the desktop version offers online play, the potential for much larger screens and an extensive library of games. The tablet version does have an instinctive touchscreen interface rather than mouse and keyboard. In some ways, sitting on your sofa, pinching and tapping the screen means that tablet Tabletopia feels closer to the dream of a virtual and immersive tabletop environment. I should also mention the issue of payment. The desktop version is funded by offering a range of monthly subscription packages. We are yet to discover how the app version will make money for the developers.
Unfortunately, in its current state Tabletopia is not the digital board gaming utopia that it promises. To be fair, it is unrealistic to expect it to replace a physical copy or indeed a purpose designed board game app, but that isn’t really the point. Physical board games are expensive, and even a modest sized collection requires lots of storage space. Purpose designed apps require teams of talented coders and can take literally years to complete (I’m looking at you 7 Wonders), by which point that initial hype has dwindled to a distant memory. Tabletopia’s strength is that it offers a platform in which games can be digitised cheaply and quickly.
Technologically we are still some way away from the point where a group of friends can play digital board games without sacrificing the social interaction that makes tabletop gaming so special. In the meantime, Tabletopia offers a great opportunity for designers to try out prototypes and promote new games. It also offers the hobbyist a chance to try before they buy. I know from bitter experience that it is easy to get caught up in the hype surrounding a new release and spend a big wad of cash only to be bitterly disappointed upon actually playing the game.
Best Games to Try
There may be only a limited amount of games available at the moment, but thankfully there are some real gems to download and try for free.
Worker-placement game Mint Works is both easy to learn and quick to play. It has only a few components; the original game fitted into a mint tin, which makes this an ideal way to get accustomed to the Tabletopia interface.
Whereas in most role-playing games character creation is an aside to the main event, here, it takes centre stage. Players compete to create the greatest fantasy hero by rolling and drafting dice to determine their hero’s race, class, alignment, skills, traits, and equipment. The game serves as a great introduction to the way in which Tabletopia allows players to roll and manipulate handfuls of dice. It also has a neat single-player variant.
This game is particularly interesting as it can be viewed alongside the standalone digital version, which was released last year. Burgle Bros. is a cooperative game in which players plan and execute a robbery. It is a good choice if you want to recruit a friend for a bit of pass and play cooperative fun.
This older game has become a bit of a classic. Players take on the role of traders, building routes and developing technology trees. It is from a time when games seemed to have a cleaner, more streamlined approach that makes it easy to learn. Admittedly, the game is much better at higher player counts, but it still offers a great opportunity for players to sample this modern classic.
CO2 : Second Chance
If you want to push Tabletopia to its limits, then give this a spin. It is a game of pollution control and clean energy production from a designer renowned for his in-depth and heavy creations. The physical version of this board game redesign hasn’t even been released yet, but the app will let you take a sneak preview of the new solo mode.
Tabletopia is available to download for free for iPad.