Games

How Board Gamers Embraced Tabletop Sims During Lockdown

When coronavirus ended normal get-togethers, tabletop gaming simulators—formerly a niche-within-a-niche hobby—became the only way to play.
May 29, 2020, 12:49pm
'Scythe' screenshot from Tabletopia
'Scythe' screenshot from Tabletopia

There are heroes of our coronavirus times. The doctors, nurses, first responders and health care professionals who work day-in and day-out to bring hope and healing to those afflicted by the pandemic. The grocery store shelf-stockers and Instacart runners who risk life and lung to keep our stomachs quelled, our pantries full, and our super-markets safe from 1930s style panics.

And then there’s most everyone else, sheltering-in-place with the daily stresses of living through a literal plague, while also facing a brand new kind of blinding terror: being stuck inside with fucking absolutely nothing to do.

To be clear, Ivan Karmonov belongs more to the latter group than the former.

But, to a certain kind of nerd, he and his colleagues provide a certain indelible public service: keeping TableTopia, a popular virtual board game simulator, alive and running for all to play.

On March 19, the Thursday after the world changed before our eyes, Karmonov sat in his apartment in St. Petersburg, Russia, and hit send on his final email for the day.

After a quiet afternoon of work, he prepared to kick back mentally reconvert his newly-minted work-from-home office into its usual role of relaxing living room. But first, he figured, it couldn't hurt to hop online and check the various Tabletopia social media accounts that he manages as his side-gig.

In an instant, logging into Twitter revealed his day was not yet over. In fact, it quickly became apparent he wouldn’t even be having a weekend at all.

A biblical flood of notifications stormed through the brand’s account. As Karmonov sailed through the endless scroll of users and fans flagging glitches, bugs, and session timeouts, he grabbed his phone to relay the information to TableTopias’ tech support and engineers.

But they already knew what he had just grown to realize: TableTopia had crashed, eaten alive from the inside-out by a massive surge of stuck-at-home, existentially bored new users.

'Tapestry' adaptation from Tabletopia

TableTopia— like its competitor platforms Tabletop Simulator and Board Game Arena—is just one pillar of the board game universe, a micro-economy that could perhaps be as aptly described as a community as it is an industry. Though a handful of brandname titans such as Hasbro and Parker Bros loom large in the public’s eye, with their wildly popular offspring collecting dust in storage closets or lining the shelves of Targets and Walmarts across America, an underworld cohabited by indie games, experimental designers and enthusiastic content creators exists just below the internet surface, in a bright, robust and delicate ecosystem.

In the recent years of pre-coronavirus times, the niche world of hard core board gaming worked like this: indie game developers took their designs and concepts to crowdsourcing platforms like KickStarter, where the tabletop industry has supplanted video games as the most-engaged campaign type; rabid fans backed and funded the games and designers that excited them most, while various content creators and influencers—like Shut Up and Sit Down, Watch it Played, or Girls Game Shelf— often gain early access or print-at-home versions to play for their fans. Successful campaigns ended with a full launch of a new game.

The hobby has exploded in recent decades, transitioning from sub-culture to pop culture. And with the globe in peril, the escapism and community provided rolling dice, flipping cards, and moving tiny, acrylic pieces from space-to-space has never felt like a better remedy to the anxieties of real life.

With sports cancelled, movie theaters closed, and production on damn near every television show postponed until a far-out, undetermined later date, there simply isn’t much culture occurring in the world right now. Board games naturally bring people together and force communication and can help fill the awkward, quiet gaps in conversation.

The problem, of course, is that in the age of social distancing, there isn’t always a fellow board gamer around to play with. Or, at least, that’d be true without the internet. But as the hobby has transitioned from subculture to pop culture, virtual editions have become increasingly prevalent—typically made available via TableTopia, Tabletop Simulator, and BoardGame Arena. When available online, the game publishers and the online platforms then split the revenue generated by yearly subscriptions. Still, among people who play tabletop games, online play remains the exception more than the rule. At least, until the world went under lockdown.

By Sunday of that weekend in March, the TableTopia team—which numbers no more than 18 staffers—patched up the site, beefed up its server capacity, and welcomed gamers back in.

“We hit a spike,” Karmonov, the platform’s PR director told me. “Actually, no. A spike doesn’t begin to describe it.”

A Google Trends graph visualizing the relative interest in searches for ‘TableTopia’ from March 1 through March 20, paints a picture Karmonov’s words couldn’t. It wasn’t a spike, or a road-bump or a hiccup. It was a veritable volcanic eruption of compounding visitors— friends inviting friends inviting friends inviting friends— blasting through a presumed-solid foundation and shaking the site to its core. Competitors TableTop Simulator and Board Game Arena (neither of whom could be reached for comment for this story) experienced similarly dramatic increases in searches, with the latter forced to manage server load by sorting-out paid subscribers from free users during rush hour traffic during the hectic first few weeks of widespread shelter-in-place.

“We have about one thousand unique users a day,” Karmonov said. “That day we had 12,000.”

'Zombicide'

The Tabletopia team has since stabilized the site, beefing up server capacity and smoothing out glitches and bugs. For a short time, the site even removed all differences between free and paid tiers for users to provide as much board game entertainment access as possible in the early days of the pandemic.

Halfway around the world from St. Petersburg— 4,854 miles, to be exact— Lincoln, Nebraska resident Michael Dyrud was among the many bringing their hobby online for the very first time.

Dyrud’s dedicated twice-weekly (every Wednesdays and Sundays) local board game group— incepted on the r/boardgames subreddit that Dyrud moderates— came face-to-face with the same decision near everyone in the world has faced in the past month: risk spread of coronavirus, or cut-off all in-person contact with close friends and family and neighbors.

After a final, hesitant meeting for his birthday at his home on March 14— away from the usual array of coffee shops and bars the group hops between— the roughly 20-some board gamers decided to call it quits, and try their hand at the virtual version.

Michael and his group landed on Game Board Arena, while using Discord chat to communicate. The transition has been a learning curve— teaching strategy and explaining rules is a lot harder when all parties aren’t physically present—but it’s been worth it, he says.

Now, more than ever, he’s seeking the regular entertainment, distraction and companionship of his board game group. More than ever, because, during the day Michael works as remote tier one technical support for Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, keeping vital systems and infrastructure running as the hospital faces unprecedented crisis.

It’s been hectic, and rushed, and a little more stressful than usual. And, yes, missing out on his twice-weekly hangouts with his beloved board game group has been a bummer. But they have the next best thing. And when you play virtual versions there’s no time wasted on the laborious set-up and take-down of every game you play.