Web-Based Board Games: Introduction

I’ve been playing board games for years, but I always insisted on playing them in person, “as they were designed”. I saw online implementations a couple times, and they were always so messy and hard to follow that I had no interest in trying them out. Besides, I had a lot of opportunities to play games in person, so I wasn’t trying too hard to solve this problem.

But this year, I’ve changed my mind. Shortly after becoming a father and missing most of my in-person games, some friends recommended web-based game sites Boîte à Jeux and Yucata. They turned out to be nothing like my preconceptions. Above all, they’re faithful adaptations of the games, with all the art licensed and even the pickiest rules implemented correctly. If you already know the game, sitting down in front of the web page feels just like seeing the game set up on the table in front of you. They have ranking systems that help you find fair matches and also create a sort of meta-game that keeps every match interesting. Even once you know you’re going to lose, it’s still better for your ranking to come in third place than fourth! And most surprisingly of all, the sites are free and keep their ads very minimal. (Both do request donations.)

A game of Trajan on Boîte à Jeux. (Or at least what fits in the browser window at once.) Notice that the area on the upper right has tabs to let the user look at one person's play area at a time.

A game of Trajan on Boîte à Jeux. (Or at least what fits in the browser window at once.) Notice that the area on the upper right has tabs to let the user look at one person’s play area at a time.

These sites are turn-based, meaning that you could be playing many  games at once, and when you log in you might see that it’s only your turn in two or three of them. Not all games work well when they are spread out over days or weeks, but it’s great with others. Personally, I find it pretty easy to play about ten games at once, as long as they are all different types of games. That seems to put me at odds with a lot of players, who sometimes start up dozens of complex games at the same time. They don’t care if one or two of their games can go days without a move, but for me that means my only match of that type is stalling. Even so, I can usually find good people to play with.

The most surprising thing is how fun these are to play on my iPhone, even though I’ve largely lost interest in playing board games on iPhone apps. Many of the web implementations are too big to fit on my large computer monitors, but I still find it more natural on the iPhone to zoom in and out of the detailed screen than I do to follow some apps that attempt to make the playing area manageable. iPhone apps do typically offer decent tutorials, while these websites just have a rulebook to read, so many new players will probably want to stick with the apps. Much of it comes down to personal choice.

Playing a game of Targi (on Yucata) with my iPhone.

Playing a game of Targi (on Yucata) with my iPhone.

One thing really sets these web games apart from iPhone apps, though:  Both Boîte à Jeux and Yucata offer great systems to find matches with other players. Game Center on the iPhone is absolutely awful. It works ok for two-player games, or for explicitly inviting friends, but it’s almost impossible to find a multiplayer game with people you don’t know. Everyone has to choose exactly the same options as you, and by the time Apple has matched you together, one person has usually lost interest and never comes back. On these websites, you can browse the list of invitations, or make your own and leave it up until other people accept. No more hoping that enough other people happen to put in the same options you did in the few minutes before Game Center times out.

Online games don’t always replace in-person ones with friends, but this has been a great addition to my life over the past several months. In my next couple articles, I’ll look at each of these two sites more closely.

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