The Reality of Virtual Tabletop Gaming

It’s Friday night, your favorite pizza has just been delivered, and the last of the guests have arrived. You sit gathered around the kitchen table, character sheets and dice at the ready, waiting for your adventure to begin. Growing up, this is the way I remember the unparalleled experience that is tabletop gaming.

It doesn’t matter if it’s Dungeons and Dragons, Risk, or even a heated game of Monopoly: just about each of us has experienced what an awesome experience a game night can be. Unfortunately, as time goes on, most of us can find it increasingly difficult to travel just for a night of games and revelry. However, it is now 2017, and we have some pretty amazing toys that are starting to challenge conventional tabletop gaming. Could virtual reality be the next big thing?

Virtually Moving Forward

Virtual reality has opened many new avenues for developers to bring people together. We have seen virtual art galleries, virtual battlegrounds, even virtual Facebook Spaces. But, one of the more interesting ways in which virtual reality has brought people together is around a virtual gaming table. By creating a virtual physics based space with no set rules, developers have managed to create a fantastic representation of the ideal analog gaming venue.

A Growing Interest

Virtual reality users currently have access to a couple pieces of software that attempt to provide its users with the ideal board gaming experience. One of the most notable is Tabletop Simulator from Berserk Games. Tabletop simulator does not regulate players in any way when it comes to how they interact with the virtual environment. This is perfect for recreating that real world feel, where players can in fact do whatever they want.

Another option that takes a more regulated approach is AltspaceVR. Unlike Tabletop Simulator, AltspaceVR offers virtual spaces built for several different shared experiences. They range from a virtual movie theater and hangouts, to hosted event nights and gaming. While it doesn’t currently offer as much as Tabletop Simulator as far as board games goes, it is available for free on Steam. It also does not require all users to have access to a VR headset.

Simulators such as Tabletop Simulator and AltspaceVR have become increasingly popular with analog gamers. They offer a wide range of classic board games, card games, and a massive amount of user created content. But how do they hold up to the real deal?

Good News for Bored Gamers

On one hand, these virtual environments eliminate the distance factor for players completely. Gamers from all over the world can hook up and enjoy a night of gaming. The virtual environments also allow for some pretty amazing creativity when it comes to playing pen and paper games such as D&D or Pathfinder. Licensed D&D assets are available, and players can create the virtual dungeon of their dreams. Players can even scale down their avatars to the size of their characters, giving these creations a new layer of depth to experience.

While analog gaming has existed in various forms in the digital world, virtual reality has made the experience even more enjoyable. The feeling of actually moving game pieces around and rolling dice with your hands, instead of with a mouse, can feel far more natural. While motion controls are definitely a step in the right direction, you will still need to learn the key bindings. Until we have full hand motion support, it will not be as good as the real deal.

Coming to Life

One of the most impressive features of playing analog games in virtual spaces is the ability to bring the environment to life. Users have the ability to set up their play space and completely customize it, or utilize other player created play spaces. From simple visual and audio cues, to fully animating miniatures, the possibilities are only limited by the user’s skill level and creativity.

Removing Some Old Barriers

One of the most time consuming aspects of playing analog games is setting up and clearing away all those delicious game pieces. In a virtual environment, that isn’t really an issue. Once you have your space set up, it’s as simple as saving it and loading when you’re ready to play. Another positive: no more lost pieces or looting all the ziplock bags from the kitchen to store all those tokens in.

The cost of games and miniatures can be a restricting factor when it comes to board games. Some of my favorite games came with a rather hefty price tag, and when you start to factor in expansions, many of the larger games can rival the price of your favorite VR headset.

Luckily, virtual copies of games are relatively cheap. Best of all, only one player has to purchase the game, just like in real life. Many user created games, or recreations of popular games, are available free of charge as well. This makes it possible to virtually try some of those pricey games before you buy a physical copy to enjoy outside of VR.

The Journey is Far from Over

Unfortunately, there are a few drawbacks to this new frontier of analog gaming. Most of the available software has a rather steep learning curve that might deter some from taking the plunge. Currently, Tabletop Simulator is the only software that provides motion controller support, and while it is more intuitive that using a keyboard and mouse, it can still be a little tricky to master.

Another drawback is the lack of presence in relation to player interaction. At this time, players can only find themselves represented by avatars and game pieces. Until we can actually see the facial expressions and gestures of our fellow players, the true essence of analog gaming will be missing from these virtual worlds.

So, while VR has definitely opened new doors for old games, we still have a ways to go before a virtual environment offers a truly comparable experience to physically gathering around a table for a game night. But, this new approach is a win for all gamers looking for a way to connect and play with others nonetheless. At the end of the day, if you have a solid group of players, you will always have a blast no matter what realm of existence you choose to play in.

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