Zoom For Games

Covid sucks. I have barely been able to get out of the house. On the plus side, my car insurance company gave me a rebate, so there’s that…

But what do we do about social events like board games? How does that work? I have played games with my sister (remote in Colorado) as well as local friends (local meaning each in our own houses, they just happen to be our normal board game partner family). As we have played I have slowly figured out some things that help (or hurt) the board game experience, so I thought I would share.

First, technology. I already had the opportunity to work from home on a limited basis, so I have a full-sized monitor, stand-alone keyboard and mouse, and high definition webcam set up for my work area. I figured that meant I was all set for remote gaming. Maybe it would have been if I was not hosting but just a participant.

Second, board game types. One of the first people I wanted to game remotely with was my sister, and she loves (as I do) Takenoko. That was the first game we tried to play, and it was semi-functional but we ended up playing open hands (all content visible). That wasn’t the best experience.

How have I reacted to these early attempts?

First, I have only played full cooperative games or abstract games which have completely public information (Azul for example). I also really like Sagrada but it has hidden personal goals. So far I have played multiple sessions of Defenders of the Realm and that has worked well! Any of the similar games (the Pandemic cousins for example) should also work. I just can’t bring myself to play Pandemic when I’m living in one. 😮

From a technology perspective, I have added a second webcam. My first camera is showing the room. It’s a social experience, so people should be able to see the folks on my end that are playing the game. But the second webcam is focused directly on the game board. That way folks that are remote are able to “pin” that video and get a closer view of the board as desired. The first time I used this approach I had the board short edge next to the camera (portrait mode) which meant the far edge was really far away. I have since started placing the game board in landscape mode (long edge nearest to the camera) which helps a lot! In hindsight I don’t know why I ever tried portrait mode, other than it made the board text easier for me to read…

Before we play Defenders of the Realm I email the character cards to the other participants so they can have them printed out before the game. I think it’s also super important for the remote people to feel like they are participating instead of just watching, so I ask them to have their own dice. When I play with my sister she only has one camera. When we play with our local friends they set up two (or even three!) different cameras. One is for the room, and one is the “dice cam.” 😆

Of course with multiple active cameras it’s important to mute all of them except for one, otherwise the dreaded “echo-death-spiral” starts…

I have played Azul with a couple of people via webcam and it does well in that all of the information is public, but it’s far less inclusive because unless the remote participants have their own copy of the game they’re just telling me what to do for them on their turns. Visually and functionally it’s fine, but it falls short on the goal of being inclusive. As mentioned earlier we played Takenoko via webcam as well. It was visually fine. The board was easy to see and my remote sister was mostly able to play with only a few clarification questions on colors. However it falls short on the functional (can’t have hidden information) and inclusivity goals.

So what is next?

I have some other fully coop games that I want to try (Red November for one). The creator of Isle of Cats has released a set of modified rules to support remote players which I am really looking forward to trying. I have seen folks mount their board camera above the game board, but I don’t think I want to try that as there is a limited cable length on my webcam.

How about you? How are you board gaming with others in these weird times?

One of my favorite web comics did an episode about digital gaming. I especially liked the notes about “all the forbidden snacks.” 😆

Perks of Digital Gaming by Semi Co-op

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