Re-plugged: Ways of playing board games digitally

April 1, 2014


Board games are awesome, but they are not without their flaws. The number one flaw, of course, is the fact that you actually have to get together with other people in the same physical location to play them. What is this, the Dark Ages? Note that for the purposes of this article, “the Dark Ages” includes the entirety of mankind’s existence on Earth prior to the mid-1990s.* Although probably only the period after the invention of the first board game counts, which is still a lot when you consider the likes of Go and Chess.

And the problems don’t stop there, either! Once you finally manage to get everyone in one place, then you have to agree on what you’re going to play. As anyone who has ever attended a regular gaming group can tell you, this is often no simple task. Even after that hurdle is cleared, there’s the fact that board games involve quite a bit of manual labor. Shuffling and dealing cards, pushing cubes, placing workers and even tallying up scores all have to be done by hand, as if we were cavemen! And let’s not even talk about what happens when someone gets a rule incorrect…

Fortunately for us, we live in the Internet Age and a (not-)surprisingly large percentage of board game fans are also huge computer nerds. Chances are, if you want to play board games online, you can do so with relative ease. Today I’m going to discuss two of the portal sites with which I have the most experience, but there are many others available.


Most sites tackle gaming asynchronously, letting each player take their turn as time allows and contacting the next player via email notification. Boîte à Jeux (BaJ) is one such site, offering nearly fifty different games. Unplugged readers will be familiar with Agricola, Cities, Dixit, The Castles of Burgundy, Ginkgopolis and both YINSH and ZÈRTZ. Of the games I haven’t covered yet, there’s also Alhambra, Dungeon Petz, Myrmes, Trajan, almost all of the other Project GIPF abstracts and many more.

As you might have suspected, BaJ is primarily a French site but also offers English and German. Games with text-based cards, like Agricola, use French images but thankfully have pop-up translated text to accompany them. Rules for all games are available, as are links to the games’ official websites. Most games have a number of options that can be set to replicate the variants of their real-world counterparts.

The hardest part about using BaJ is learning the interface for each game. Most are fairly intuitive, while the limitations of a point-and-click environment necessitate some adjustments here and there. You usually have free reign to plan your move before confirming, but once you do there’s obviously no take-backs. If you are playing “live” with friends — possibly communicating via Skype or the like — it is kind of a pain to have to constantly refresh the board between turns but you can get used to it.

If BaJ has a major drawback, however, it is the fact that there is no option to abandon a game. This is most necessary when one player has clearly (rage)quit and left everyone else stranded. Hey, those are the risks of playing with strangers on the internet as I’m sure most of you are well aware.


That problem doesn’t exist when playing at Board Game Arena (BGA), which features live play of over fifty titles. BGA offers an impressive range of options, from casual classics like Hearts and Yahtzee to modern releases like Tzolk’in: the Mayan Calendar. Of the games I’ve covered here, you can play Race for the Galaxy (core set only), Puerto Rico, Troyes, GoSu, Tobago and Can’t Stop. You might also be familiar with Takenoko, Seasons, Hive, Coloretto, Perudo (aka Liar’s Dice), Stone Age or Spyrium to name a few others.

The primary benefit to playing on BGA is efficiency. Since the games are happening in real-time, but without all of the “fiddliness” normally associated with board games, a session can fly by in a matter of minutes. The natural cost here is the fact that BGA is much less forgiving when it comes to a misclick, and the pressure of a clock might affect you.

As with BaJ, the interface on BGA can occasionally take some getting used to, although most games on BGA awesomely have a video tutorial to help walk you through them. Primarily an English-based site, BGA actually offers a wide variety of languages thanks to its dedicated global fanbase. BGA also works with the publishers of many of their offerings to obtain official images for cards and boards, which definitely enhances the presentation.

While both BaJ and BGA are free to join and use without limits, they also offer the option to pay for additional features, like access to rankings. Both of these sites also have designer and publisher permission to reproduce all their offered games, which is the main factor in why some popular games don’t appear on either. Other sites are not so scrupulous.


Speaking of publishers, many have begun offering online versions of their own titles via either a web portal like BattleCON (still in development at the time of this writing) or purchasable apps for iOS or Android devices like Ascension and several Days of Wonder titles (Small World, Ticket to Ride). Even Xbox Live had versions of a few board games a while back, although I think that trend has tapered off in the wake of the mobile device revolution thanks to their more intuitive touch-based interfaces.

The point is that the barrier to enjoying great board games is now thinner than ever. While nothing will beat the tactile and social experience of playing a physical copy of a game in person with good friends (or even strangers in many circumstances), it’s always nice to have options.

*As I type this I realize that a depressing number of you reading this might literally have no experience with that time frame. Get off my lawn. (back)