One of the best things about board games versus playing games online is being together with friends, family or even strangers in the same room. It’s not just party board games that serve as a reason to get together in person and socialise; games of all kinds have the power to get people chatting and interacting in a way that digital offerings such as video games just can’t match.
But sometimes you simply can’t be in the same place as your preferred players - whether that’s due to a common problem like living far apart or something specific and unusual like, say, social distancing during a global period of self-isolation. There’s no need to miss out on your tabletop hobby when you can’t meet up in person, however - there are loads of ways to play board games online with friends.
On this page:
- Voice and video chat: Keep things simple by chatting with friends over Skype, Discord and Google Hangouts
- Tabletop Simulator: Play board games online in a physics sandbox with thousands of user-made mods
- Digital board games: A polished experience if you know which board game you're looking to play online
- BoardGameArena: Load up your web browser and play board games online without paying a penny
- VASSAL: An old-school option ideal for wargamers and strategy lovers look to take their tactics online
- Dedicated websites: From Cards Against Humanity to Diplomacy and 18XX, take on fans of your favourite board game across the internet
- Yucata: No need for downloads with this browser-based board game library
- Tabletopia: A tabletop sandbox that can run in a browser window, this can give you the best of both worlds
Things have come a long way since the days of playing chess by mail. There are more ways than ever to play some of the most popular board games online with friends, from setting up a simple video call to play TCGs such as Magic: The Gathering to more elaborate apps and digital replacements that elegantly swap plastic for pixels and cardboard for code.
Working out how to play board games online with friends doesn’t mean you need to be a tech whizz, own a powerful gaming PC or video game console, or even have any board games of your own. There are great options for playing some of the very best board games online for free, as well as those that - if you have a little more budget - can offer you a unique experience when playing with friends in the virtual world.
We’ve gathered together some of the best ways to player board games online with friends if you’re looking to move your gaming group onto the internet, or searching for like-minded players to enjoy your favourite tabletop title with. Who knows, you might even make some new friends along the way.
How to play board games online with friends
We’ll be running through some of the best ways to play board games online with friends, as well as giving a few recommendations for specific board games that might work well across the internet.
While the methods below should give you some idea of the general options available to play board games online, they’re far from the only ways to enjoy your favourite tabletop titles in the digital world. If you enjoy a particular board game and are desperate to keep playing, dedicated communities have found ways to play some of the most popular board games and lesser-known but just as beloved releases. (Let us know in the comments and we might even add it to the list for others to make use of, too.)
It’s worth saying that playing board games online doesn’t always have to be about multiplayer, either. There are plenty of the solo games playable in digital versions, as well as the option to face off against computer opponents when human players aren’t around.
Some publishers even release upcoming games, and Kickstarter games, as digital versions first, giving you a chance to check out a game before investing in a hefty box of tabletop treats.
Whether you’re looking to play board games online with friends, keep playing some of your favourites away from the tabletop, avoid the fuss of setup or another reason, here are the best ways to play board games online.
Voice and video chat (Skype, Discord, Google Hangouts)
Cheap and easy, but limited
- Cost: Free, assuming you have a phone, headset and/or camera (although some chat services have premium options)
- Complexity: Low
- Best for: Trading card games, roleplaying games, storytelling games, board games without many components
The cheapest and maybe the easiest (on paper at least) way to play games online with friends is by getting everyone who’d normally sit around a table together and getting them to sit around a virtual table.
Almost everyone chats over the internet in one form or another, whether it’s through popular services such as Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp or Facetime or slightly more specific platforms such as Skype, Discord and Google Hangouts. This means there’s a pretty good chance you already own either a phone or tablet with the ability to stream your voice and video over the internet, or maybe have a slightly fancier setup such as a headset and webcam connected to your PC.
Whatever your preference for sending text, audio and video, you can use it to play some board games online with friends. The challenges of this approach is that you’ll only be able to interact using your voice and motions, so anything that involves passing pieces around is a no-no - or too complicated to really be worth the effort, such as requiring everyone to own the same game and keep track or someone to move pieces on the other players’ behalf.
Still, it’s not a bad option for those just looking to be social with each other. Some party games and storytelling RPGs work just fine without needing you to juggle a bunch of components, and of course many tabletop roleplaying games are ideal. Why not take the opportunity to finally get to grips with Dungeons & Dragons 5E? Trading card games are another option - you could each learn how to build the perfect Magic: The Gathering deck and broadcast your half of the battlefield to your opponent.
It might be that having a good way of chatting face-to-face is worth combining with another way of playing your favourite board games online, but it’s a good place to start either way.
The most flexible option on PC, once you learn how to use it
- Cost: RRP on Steam is £15, though it’s often on sale and there’s a four-player bundle available
- Complexity: Medium/High if you’re unfamiliar with PC games
- Best for: Most board games and card games, although nothing too fiddly or involving a lot of pieces
Maybe the most popular way of playing board games online, and almost certainly the most flexible, Tabletop Simulator is an app available for PC that recreates the tabletop in a digital sandbox. You and your friends essentially exist in a virtual space with any components that you want to add to the table (or that someone else has added - more on that in a sec), and the app simulates the physics of moving the pieces around, much like real life.
This means you can technically recreate almost any tabletop experience, as long as you have the pieces. Tabletop Simulator comes with an impressively broad and capable set of built-in features allowing players to shuffle cards, roll dice, hold a hand of cards their opponents can’t see and more. There’s even a dedicated option to flip the table if you’re so inclined. (Don’t worry, there’s a rewind function to put things back as they were before someone rolled that natural 1.)
Vanilla Tabletop Simulator comes with basic games and pieces by default: classics like chess, backgammon and so on. It’s in the app’s flexible modding scene that things get really interesting. Players have created thousands of custom components and ready-made setups for some of the most popular games ever made, from beginner games such as Catan to complex miniatures games - there’s no reason you couldn’t learn to play Warhammer 40,000 before dropping hundreds of pounds on models.
While many of the player-made board games in Tabletop Simulator are free, publishers also release official versions of popular board games as paid DLC, offering a full recreation of games ranging from co-op board game The Captain is Dead to sci-fi strategy epic Xia: Legends of a Drift System and recent smash hit Wingspan. Others use it to playtest prototypes of upcoming games, meaning you can occasionally play big titles such as Oath before they’re released.
The downside is that Tabletop Simulator is very much a DIY experience - you still have to move the cards, pieces and components around, and there’s no automation of certain actions or teaching of rules built-in. If you’re unfamiliar with playing PC games, the control scheme and fiddliness can be a bit of a hurdle at first. Overall, though, Tabletop Simulator is a seriously accomplished way of replacing your physical tabletop with a digital one.
Digital board games
Polished and flashy, good for mobile devices
- Cost: Varies, from free to £15+ for more elaborate apps
- Complexity: Depends on the game’s rules, though the apps handle much of the heavy lifting
- Best for: Games involving more rules or pieces to manage, playing without any human opponents
If you’re looking to play a particular board game online with friends, sometimes the simplest answer is the best one. Many of the most popular board games of recent years such as Scythe, Splendor and 7 Wonders Duel, as well as some of the best board games of all time including Magic: The Gathering, Ticket to Ride and Twilight Struggle, have been adapted into games for PC and mobile.
The benefit of these apps isn’t just their flashy animations, music soundtracks and the fact you don’t have to set up and pack away each time. They also often make learning board games easier thanks to proper tutorial modes, and typically come with options to play single-player against AI, local multiplayer or across the internet with friends and strangers alike.
Because most of the rules are handled by code, digital board games often quicker experiences than the original board game or manual alternatives such as Tabletop Simulator. Some even feature the ability to save and resume games, play asynchronously, play new modes exclusive to the virtual version, and more.
Of course, it really depends on what you want to play, and whether there’s an app for it. Some digital board games can also be a bit iffy and suffer from bugs and other technological drawbacks, or be much more restrictive when it comes to how you play. (That means no house rules.) They’re also typically more expensive overall, varying from free-to-play apps - which might feature paid DLC to make them fully comparable with the tabletop version - to premium releases that edge closer to the cost of a full box of cardboard. If you just have to play that one game, though, you could be in for an unbeatable experience.
Play board games in your browser
- Cost: Free, with a monthly premium subscription option
- Complexity: Low
- Best for: Simple games, playing with strangers, people who don’t want to download anything
BoardGameArena runs in a normal web browser, meaning you can play board games online across your PC, phone, tablet and more without having to download anything specific.
At the moment there are nearly 200 different games that can be played on the site, including top beginner games such as Carcassonne, Kingdomino and Hanabi. Many of the games are free once you sign up, while others require BoardGameArena’s premium monthly subscription, which costs a few pounds a month and unlocks a few other features.
The games run on a virtual tabletop that’s not quite as complex as the likes of Tabletop Simulator or as polished as full digital board games, for better and worse. Though the visuals might not be as impressive, it means that the games can be easier to get to grips with and play if you’re not so tech-savvy - although you’re also strictly limited to the games in the virtual library. That said, you don’t have to pay a penny if you don’t want to.
Some games even feature a play by email option, so you don’t need to worry about how to play the board games online with friends all at the same time.
The old-school option
- Cost: Free
- Complexity: Medium for the software itself, though many of the games are high complexity
- Best for: Wargames, strategy gamers, old-school players
VASSAL is a free programme for PC that lets players run different tabletop game modules and play board games online or by themselves.
The app has been around for more than 20 years, and is still decidedly old-school - including in the way it looks and the kinds of games that it supports.
The majority of VASSAL modules are for wargames and hardcore strategy games, though there are some adaptations of more recent board games including the hard-to-find Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game, horror board game Betrayal at House on the Hill and even Cards Against Humanity.
It’s not quite as user-friendly and intuitive as more modern rivals - you’ll have to dig through the user guide and wiki to find what you’re after - but it’s just as flexible and extremely budget-friendly.
Dedicated websites (Backstabbr, Board18, Dominion.games, Pretend You're Xyzzy, Wavelength Daily)
Good if you know what you’re after
- Cost: Free
- Complexity: Varies
- Best for: That one very specific game you want to play
There are a number of individual websites dedicated to playing board games online with friends, whether you’re after a free multiplayer version of Cards Against Humanity (though, honestly, you should consider playing something better), want to deal out a digital match of deckbuilding card game Dominion, looking to play a hardcore train board game from the 18XX series or try out a classic board game such as the infamously backstabby Diplomacy.
Optional ↔ Mandatory pic.twitter.com/YHXvUpYQbP— Wavelength (@WavelengthDaily) March 19, 2020
Some clever folks have even set up entire Twitter accounts dedicated to running games in the form of tweets, including the excellent recent release Wavelength - which Charlie called the best party game since Codenames in our review.
No downloads, but limited functionality
- Cost: Free
- Complexity: Low
- Best for: Eurogames, beginner board games
Similar to BoardGameArena, Yucata is a website that hosts a virtual library of board games to play online.
The selection of board games varies from easier games such as two-player game Jaipur and Hey, That’s My Fish - one of the best games for kids - to the more complex and meaty, including Martin Wallace’s historical deckbuilder A Few Acres of Snow and the Spiel des Jahres-winning El Grande. There are dozens of games available for free, although the catalogue does learn to more strategic ‘Eurogames’ than theme-heavy or story-driven board games.
Like BoardGameArena, there’s no need to download anything to play on Yucata. The games are played in a browser window, with players taking turns - there’s the option to play over multiple sessions and take part in several games at the same time.
Although Yucata favours function over form, it does include the ability to chat during games and has a ranking system that allows players to work their way up a series of levels. The most useful feature is the ability to watch replays of past games, letting you analyse your moves and your opponents’ strategies to help improve your play in the future matches.
The best of both worlds
- Cost: Free, with premium subscriptions available
- Complexity: Medium
- Best for: Official versions of board games, playing in a browser
Tabletopia splits the difference between the completely open sandbox of Tabletop Simulator and the convenience and affordability of playing board games online in web browsers like BoardGameArena and Yucata.
Like Tabletop Simulator, you play different board games in a 3D environment, with the ability to drag cards and components around the virtual table. Where Tabletop Simulator is much more open-ended with thousands of user-made mods, Tabletopia sticks to official digital versions made by the developers of the original board games. (Whereas Tabletop Simulator’s non-official mods sometimes fall into a more grey area.)
Games on Tabletopia include some of the best board games of the last few years, including strategy hit Scythe, party game Secret Hitler and co-op game Burgle Bros., as well as brand new releases such as Wingspan and Tapestry and older classics - Survive: Escape from Atlantis is one such highlight. A number of upcoming board games are available to play before their full release, too.
You can play two board games online with friends at the same time on Tabletopia without paying a penny. There are monthly subscription tiers that let you play more sessions at the same time and access premium board games in addition to the free library.
While one of Tabletopia’s biggest advantages is the fact you can play board games online in your browser, the app is also available as a dedicated program on Steam, as well as mobile platforms such as iOS and Android.