This is the first post in one of our new series for the Die Gute Fabrik site. Playing in a Pandemic from Game Designer and Co-Owner Douglas Wilson will offer insights into games and play for lockdown, and limited physical contact, to think through and help us connect socially in physically-distanced times.
Four great tabletop games to play online with friends and family
Like many people, I’ve had to significantly alter my game playing habits under pandemic conditions. What I didn’t expect is that I’m playing way more games in 2020 than I ever have previously. Here in the house, where we’ve been confined on and off under various lockdown orders, my partner and I have found ourselves drawn to the playful banter and rituals of tabletop games. And since we’re isolated here in Australia, we’ve discovered that playing games over videochat offers a perfect excuse to socialize weekly with our families back in the USA.
In this first post, I want to start by recommending four great social tabletop games that feature heavily in my regular weekly game sessions with my family and my partner’s family. These are all games that seem to work well across generations and a variety of gaming backgrounds. And perhaps most importantly, they’re games that hold up well over videochat.
#4 — Codenames (2015) by Vlaada Chvátil
Codenames is a popular word guessing game in which two teams compete to guess all their words, while avoiding the dreaded assassin word (which loses the game instantly). Here’s a useful How to Play video (the official written rules are here):
Codenames has a few key properties that make it such a good fit for family play. First, unlike many tabletop games, Codenames scales really well, from small groups (3 or 4 players) to big groups (10+ players), since each team can pretty much be as big as you want. Even better, players can easily dip in and out of the game. If I’m on a team with three other family members and I’m one of the guessers, I can easily miss a clue or two, then join in again later.
To play Codenames online, we had been playing on this fan-made website. You input a random word and get a shared URL that you can distribute to all players. The two Spymasters (clue givers) can press a button to toggle the secret view showing the word assignments. Sometimes I screenshare the webpage (not in the Spymaster view) over Zoom, and then teams just tell me which button to press as they make their guesses. (If I was a Spymaster, I’d just bring up the same webpage on my phone, so only I could see Spymaster view). This saves us the extra step of needing to distribute the URL to all the clue guessers.
That said, Czech Games Edition now runs its own official Codenames website which is a little more robust (but requires a bit more setup).
Codenames is one of our favorite social games, but it can really fall flat if approached in the wrong spirit, so I wanted to caveat my recommendation with a little advice:
First, it is a lot more intimidating to be a clue giver than it is to be a guesser. There are certain members of our family who never play as Spymaster and…. maybe that’s ok? I wouldn’t force the Spymaster role on anyone. As long as you have a few players who are willing to trade off as Spymaster (say, at least two in each team), you’ll be fine, just balance the teams appropriately.
Second, the game can really drag if the clue givers aren’t pushing themselves. It’s relatively easy to improvise a clue linking two words, but it’s much harder to think up a clue for three or even four words. I would argue that Codenames really only comes alive when the guessers are forced to interpret weird or ambiguous clues. You start asking questions like: Does grandma know enough about “France” to catch this obscure reference? Will Melissa realize that I’m hinting at the beach trip we took last year? Codenames is inherently personal and psychological, and I find it’s really fun to intensify that aspect via ambitious clues.
So, if you’re a Spymaster, make sure to force yourself to give some 3 or 4-value clues! Sure, your team might get it wrong, but that often leads to some fun discussion after the game. And the reward of giving the perfect clue is worth so much more than merely “winning” the game.
One final note: when played online, Codenames is pretty susceptible to cheating! We have some naughty family members who have texted each other behind the scenes to give illicit clues, or who have pressed the Spymaster button to peak at the answers. There isn’t a perfect solution here, but it’s maybe something to flag with your play group, if they’re mischievous...
#3 — 6 nimmt! (1994) by Wolfgang Kramer
6 nimmt! is a simple card game that is weirdly compelling. Like Codenames, the game works for 3 to 10 players, which makes it usefully versatile in a group setting.
In a nutshell: each round, players all choose a card (numbered 1 to 104) from their hand. Cards are revealed simultaneously, and then get played onto the board in numeric order. Based on a series of rules specifying how cards get placed (see rules below), you might be forced to score all the points in a row, which is bad, since you want to end the game with the fewest points.
6 nimmt! works well in a family setting partly because there are so few decisions to make. It is certainly possible to choose your card strategically each round, but there is also a lot of luck and chaos involved, which is a great equalizer for playing with a wide range of people. It is also just hilarious when another player is forced to take a row with a lot of points. 6 nimmt! is ultimately a game of schadenfreude, delighting in your family members getting unexpectedly walloped.
To play 6 nimmt! online, we’ve been using the website Board Game Arena, which allows groups of friends (or strangers) to play a variety of tabletop games in the browser. Be warned, the user interface/experience is pretty messy, though thankfully our family members have been able to figure it out (...with a little guidance). You’ll need one player to pay for a Premium account, to host the game. All the other players can just sign up a free account.
The good news is, when you’re playing you just pick a card (and, if needed, the row you want to replace) and the website handles placing all the cards, tabulating the points, and so on. The bad news is, the website animates and resolves each round rather fast, so it’s easy for new players to miss what happened and why. I wish there was a mode where you could step through the round one placement at a time! In general, I find that Board Game Arena tends to automate away a little too much control - for me, one of the key pleasures of playing non-digital games.
If you’re feeling enterprising, I have an alternative, more DIY suggestion for playing 6 nimmt! online: with some setup work, you could pretty feasibly recreate the game as a custom table on the (free!) website playingcards.io, which allows you to make/upload your own cards. The laborious part would be matching each number (1 to 104) to the correct number of associated points. (I’ll be writing about playingcards.io in a future post, as we’ve been using the website extensively for some other games…) Regardless, you should order yourself a physical copy of 6 nimmt!, as I suspect it will also be a perfect game for in-person gatherings after lockdown!
#2 — Can’t Stop (1980) by Sid Sackson
Can’t Stop is another game we’ve been enjoying on Board Game Arena. It’s a relatively straightforward dice game that exemplifies a “push your luck” dynamic. Each turn you roll four dice, and based on the sums of certain dice pairs (see more below), you can choose to climb certain ropes valued 2 through 12. The first player to complete three ropes wins.
The twist is, after each roll you can choose whether to roll again or stop. If you stop, you save all your current progress and the turn passes to the next player. Alternatively, you can choose to keep going…. but if you ever roll the dice such that none of your pairs sum up to your chosen ropes (see rules video above), your turn is over and you lose all the progress from this turn! In theory, you could keep rolling and win on your very first turn; in reality, you’re very likely to make an unlucky roll eventually, and so the trick is gauging when to stop and when to take risks.
Can’t Stop is a classic example of a family-friendly game that is heavily dependent on luck but that still rewards some skill and analysis. Sure, you might end up rolling badly, but there’s at least a little strategy in knowing which ropes to choose and when. And all the overt randomness helps ensure that the game won’t be dominated by one expert player. Everyone usually laughs when one player rolls one too many times and loses all their progress. It’s just good ol’ fashion fun to watch your family members get punished for being a little too greedy.
Beyond family play, I’ve started teaching Can’t Stop in my intro game design class, as it’s a great example of “shaping” randomness towards dramatic outcomes. You might notice that the game board is shaped like a probability distribution. For example, the 7 rope is much longer than the 2 and 12 ropes — that’s because 7 is the most likely sum when rolling two dice and adding them. Sure, the 3 rope is appealingly short, but picking such an unlikely value increases your chance of busting. In short, the “spiky” nature of dice sum probabilities leads to meaningful, interestingly uneven choices. It isn’t always immediately clear which risks you should take.
Unlike 6 nimmt!, Can’t Stop only scales up to 4 players. My family gaming groups often consist of 5 or 6 players, so we usually need to have a few people pair up together. There isn’t any hidden information (e.g. secret hands of cards), so two-player teams can freely discuss their choices on the video call, for everyone else to hear (and possibly heckle).
One key advantage of Can’t Stop is that it’s free on Board Game Arena, i.e. nobody needs a Premium account. In addition, Can’t Stop is one of the few games on the website that offers an AI opponent, so you can practice the game on your own before introducing it to family.
I’d also argue that Can’t Stop is one of the few boardgames that is actually better digitally! In person, you need to do some math to work out the three possible dice pairs after you do a roll. On the computer, Board Game Arena instantly shows all your choices. The pacing of the game feels tighter because all the players can see immediately if a roll busts or not. For me, this is one example of where automation is quite welcome, making the game more legible.
#1 — Azul (2017) by Michael Kiesling
Azul is possibly my family’s favorite boardgame. It is a quintessential example of a “Eurogame” — a type of boardgame that prioritizes strategic thinking and indirect competition over direct conflict. In Azul, players take turns “drafting” beautiful plastic tiles from some piles in the center of the table. After choosing which tiles to draft, you then have to decide where exactly to place them on your board. There are multiple different strategies for earning points, and winning Azul usually requires predicting what your opponents will do. This strategic and psychological element is much stronger in Azul than it is in the other three games discussed in this post.
Azul is certainly not the only game with this flavor of gameplay; we can point to other, more famous Eurogames like Settlers of Catan and Carcassonne. And Azul isn’t even the only boardgame to use “drafting” as a core mechanic! We might also think of other drafting games like Sushi Go! or 7 Wonders. However, there is just something so pure and crystalline about Azul that, in my opinion, makes it the standout of the genre.
Most importantly for our purposes, Azul has no hidden information. There aren’t any hidden cards to deal out; all players can see the entire state of the game, not unlike a game of Chess. What this means is that I can physically setup Azul on my dining room table and broadcast the board over video to my family! I “pilot” the game, which means each player tells me what move they want to make, and then I go adjust the board accordingly, live on camera.
I mount a webcam to a chair, and point the camera down over the board. We use two laptops — one to show the board (which we “spotlight” in our Zoom call, to make sure it’s the largest image) and one to show me and my partner. There’s something charming and fun about our homespun setup. And in a year full of too many online games, it feels tactile and refreshing to actually get to handle physical pieces, especially since the Azul tiles are so lovely.
Crucially, the Azul boards are visually simple enough that my family can make out what’s happening, even via a poorly lit, somewhat fuzzy video call. There are other boardgames without hidden information — say, Carcassonne — but many games have pieces that are too small, or other details that are difficult to make out over video chat. One tip: we tend to rotate each title slightly so that they clearly stand out against the demarcated places on the board. Also, my parents follow along at home on their own physical copy of the game, which can help double check that I don’t make any scoring errors… and allows us to reset the game accurately when our cat inevitably jumps on the table and runs through all the pieces!
One final hot take: there are also two Azul sequels, Stained Glass (2018) and Summer Pavilion (2019). I haven’t played the former, but we have played Summer Pavilion extensively and I am not totally sold. One big difference in Summer Pavilion is that you score points immediately after each placement, rather than all at once at the end of a phase. This makes the pacing considerably slower, which is only exacerbated when piloting the game for an entire video chat.