Playing digital games on Vassal & Tabletop Simulator

(…On Apple and PC), AKA An Intro to Digital Boardgames, Part 4

Are you tired of boardgames yet? I’m not! Today we continue our saga, AKA “intro to digital boardgames”, by looking at one of the most popular options out there: dedicated boardgame engines. You can think of these as dedicated applications that let you play various games from inside a dedicated interface, instead of through a web browser.

These engines require that the people you want to play with either all use the same type of devices (Apple/Mac or Windows devices), or at least that everyone has access to the same device. However, if that describes your group, you should consider one of these options.

Tabletop Simulator

One of the most popular ways to play digital boardgames is Tabletop Simulator. It requires a Steam account, which itself is free, but you’ll need to buy the base application. On the other hand, most of its community-driven content is free to play.

So what makes Tabletop Simulator so popular?

The base engine includes a few free (licensed) games, but you can also buy official versions of games as downloadable content (DLC). Both are usually very high quality. The app also includes a number of classic games, as well as basic game components like dice and decks of cards which include all the required game components you need to play pretty much any game you can imagine.

If you’re really bored, you can even upload an image (from your library or a link) and create a custom puzzle.

However, what makes it really popular is its extensive library of boardgames, including a veritable treasure trove of fan-built versions. It also supports features for playing tabletop RPGs, like sets, maps, and miniatures. Together with the dice roller and the decks of cards, this makes it an extremely versatile application.

Tabletop Simulator: Steam community workshop page, listing the most popular items for all time. "See all 35,596 items."

As with other gaming services discussed so far, you can play with other people in one of three modes: single-player, multiplayer, and hotseat (pass-and-play). Additionally, you can either create your own server or join an existing game online.

A few downsides: The in-game support for these games varies quite drastically from title to title. And like the web- or browser-based games, most games on Tabletop Simulator don’t provide a step-by-step guide to playing them.

Also, you’ll need to know the rules for any game and apply them yourselves (like on Tabletopia), because the application doesn’t include scripts/coding for those. Still, it’s a great feature if you don’t have the physical component or you can’t be in the same room with the other players.

You can currently buy the base engine for about R220, or add it to your Steam wishlist and wait for it to come on sale. Official DLC currently range in price from R36 to R160, with most averaging out to between R60 and R90.


Another option is Vassal, which doesn’t require Steam. This is an open-source boardgame engine.

Vassal web page.

From the site:

Vassal is a game engine for building and playing online adaptations of board games and card games. Play live on the Internet or by email. Vassal runs on all platforms, and is free, open-source software.

Although it has a rather dated interface, it more than makes up for it through its low hardware demands. That makes it the perfect choice if you’re playing on older devices or over a poor internet connection.

Unlike Tabletop Simulator, both the application and the library community-created modules are free to play. You can download the application for free and access about 2,000 community-driven titles. Like Tabletop Simulator’s fan-made content, the support for this content varies drastically from title to title.

Although it takes a bit of getting used to, and it’s got a pretty steep learning curve, I would definitely recommend checking out this option – especially if you’re unsure whether digital boardgames are your thing.

A few final notes

Tabletopia also has a dedicated app for Steam. If you already use Steam, you can also add a free copy of its application to your library. You can still play games with friends using a web browser or another device.

For both of Vassal and Tabletop Simulator, you will need to download and add individual games to your library. Otherwise you may never even know about most of the games on offer. Let us know in the comments if you’d like a step-by-step guide for that, or if you have any other questions.

Likewise – which of these systems have you used? What have your experiences/problems been? Let us know!

In the meantime, keep gayming!

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