Since the pandemic, many of us have started to explore the world of online board gaming. Even before we went into lockdown, there have been digital platforms allowing us to play games remotely. For me, these were really important, because it allowed my game group to carry on when we were all told to stay at home. Now that my friends have moved away, they continue to help us play together. Yet, in this article, I don’t want to look at these platforms themselves, but focus on how the digital gameplay experience differs from meeting in person.

Actually, let me clarify this further. When I say I want to focus on the gameplay experience, I don’t mean how it’s nice to see people in person and hold actual components in your hand. Instead, I want to look at how online platforms take away some of the heavy lifting that we otherwise have to do ourselves when we play face-to-face.

Click and Play

Some online board game implementations make you move pieces around the board, draw cards and otherwise do everything you would normally do – except it’s on-screen. So rather than manipulating things with your hands, you have to get to grips with what mouse-clicks do what or how to trigger things with your keyboard. These platforms often don’t even enforce rules.

Steam, Yucata and Board Game Arena are different and there are others like them. These systems make things a lot easier for players. You simply click and play. Sure, sometimes the user interface is a bit confusing and you curse that you can’t do what you should be able to, but generally speaking, not having to painfully drag tokens across your tiny laptop screen is a bonus.

These systems also enforce rules. So while you might have your own interpretation of how something should be interpreted, the digital platform is the final arbiter in the situation and that’s that. No discussion. No arguments. If the system is buggy, then there is nothing you can do. All players have to abide by what the computer decides.

There is also no need for the usual end-of-turn or end-of-round housekeeping that can be time-consuming, boring and sometimes even confusing when playing in person. The system does it for you. You get your income, discard down your hand, draw new objectives, move the round tracker forward and everything else happens automatically.

Overall, I think that’s a good thing. There are no longer situations where someone forgot to take the bonus resources on their turn a whole round later and the pleading and crying that would ensue in a face-to-face game. Nobody forgets to move their score marker up. It’s often even possible to undo your turn, which is often impossible in a physical game.

We Don’t Need Rules Where We’re Going

In fact, these platforms also often show you your options on your turn. You don’t have to work out if you have enough resources to play a card. You can see where you can move your player token to. It’s easy to look at cards. It’s all there right in front of you right at your fingertips.

Unfortunately, by removing players from the boring bits of board games, they also allow us to be lazy and not even bother learning the rules. You can easily just randomly click on things and see what happens. While that’s all right for some games, more often than not you should have a slightly deeper understanding of the rules to actually understand what’s happening. I’ve heard people play a new-to-them game online, not knowing the rules, but still winning just by clicking around. Maybe that’s a good thing and uncovers bad game design, but it’s also a reflection of how we learn board games.

While many of us do learn games as we play them, we have to have a basic understanding of the rules first. Unlike video games that literally teach themselves, board games don’t usually work like that. So when you play a board game online and expect to just pick it up, you’ll be disappointed.

At the same time, some online board games do have tutorials built in. Those are great and allow you to learn the rules without having to read long and often badly laid out rulebooks. I’ve not tried it yet, but I do think that you could play a game in person after learning the rules from a digital tutorial. All you need to do is read about the setup and end-of-round housekeeping.

Online Only

Having played various games on various digital platforms now, I’m at a point where I know that I will never play certain games in person – ever. They are just so much easier to play online. Not only is it all set up for you in an instant, without having to get everything out of the box, shuffle cards and remember where everything goes and what starting resource everyone gets, but there is also no time-consuming putting away afterwards. During the game, you don’t have to follow the 10-step end-of-round clean-up procedure to ensure everyone has the resources they deserve and pays their debts. It all just happens automatically, is wonderfully animated and often with a lovely soundtrack to boot.

At the same time, there are also a number of games that just don’t work online, unless you know them well. Some physical games are really well designed and give players everything they need to know on player aids or their player board. The real estate on a screen often doesn’t allow for these. It either takes several clicks to find the quick guide you so desperately need or things happen automatically, so you’re not actually sure what’s going on. So until you’ve played these games plenty of times in person, leave their digital version alone.

So, whichever way you look at it, online platforms have clear benefits, but also clear disadvantages. Being able to continue game nights when your group is apart is obviously a bonus too, but I do love it when we do meet up in person and get to see each other face-to-face, rare as it may be.

the digital version of Carcassonne
the digital version of Carcassonne

How About You?

Now I wonder how you feel about online board gaming. Do you feel that some games are just easier and maybe even more enjoyable to play digitally? Are there any games that you just wouldn’t play in person? Are there any games that just don’t work online? As always, please share your thoughts in the comments below and let us know how you compare online and in person.

Useful Links

Audio Version

Intro Music: Bomber (Sting) by Riot (

Dreamsphere 1 by Sascha Ende
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These are the songs I listened to while I was writing this topic discussion article:

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