Guide to Gaming on Board Game Arena
By MARK WILSON
Like many during the COVID-19 crisis, I’ve shifted to playing a lot of online games. The number of online options is truly impressive these days. So while no online game is going to be able to fully recreate the fun of being around a table with friends, it’s been a nice replacement under the circumstances.
No online outlet has seen more increase in traffic than Board Game Arena (BGA) an online platform for playing board games. As I write this, BGA boasts in the neighborhood of 150 games, and the way games are scripted makes them easy to find others to play with and quickly play.
I’ve tried to absorb a lot of BGA in order to do this writeup, which has doubled as an excuse to learn a bunch of games to be able to teach them to my friends. Below is some of what I’ve learned to help streamline your BGA experience.
Free vs. Paid
BGA has a free level and a paid, Premium level. The latter comes with access to extra games, and things like post-game statistics, along with a few other benefits. Premium is very cheap, at only $2/month, or $24/year.
Premium games tend to be those that are newer or more sought-after. However, the majority of BGA’s catalog is available for free. Later in this article I discuss about 45 specific games, and only about 25% of them require Premium membership.
So while I think Premium is a great deal, it’s also not necessary.
Each game page on BGA tends to have links to both an instructional video and a PDF copy of the rules. This is great for learning games before you play them, especially if you’ll be playing with strangers.
Additionally, the page lets you “watch” a previous match of the game on BGA to get a sense of the commands available to you, and the flow of the online experience. Rather than trying to actually click through each in-game decision, there’s a “Play” button at the top that allows you to go step-by-step through the game you’re watching. While I don’t always use this feature before jumping into a live game, I certainly use it for more complicated games.
Making use of these tools is a great way to learn games and become comfortable playing them.
Curate Your Experience
If you join a table, you’ll be at the mercy of whatever settings the host has set. While this is generally not a problem, a fair amount of customization is available to you if you host your own table.
For example, are you just learning a complex game and only want to play other beginners? Or a veteran who wants stiffer competition? Are you playing with friends and want a more generous time limit (or no time limit whatsoever on turns)? All of these and more are possible. Several games also include options to toggle expansion materials and game variants.
Using these settings by creating your own tables can help you curate your experience better.
My own preference is for live play, even if I’m playing with strangers (though ideally, it’s with friends as we voice chat). However, maybe your situation makes it hard to sit down for 45-75 minutes to play a full game of Tzolk’in, or something similarly lengthy. Or maybe you’d like to try out multiple games at once.
Board Game Arena allows you to play in real-time or asynchronously. Often there’s a turn timer on these games of an entire day, or perhaps 5x per day. Regardless, it allows for a slower pace that may better fit your schedule.
If you just want to get started and begin exploring BGA, now is the time you can stop reading. Below I’ve listed every single game I’ve played on BGA, as well as how closely I think they recreate their in-person counterparts. In assessing them, I’m not reviewing them as games, per se. Rather, the brief writeups beneath each game focus more on the online implementation of the game on BGA, and what the differences are between online and live play. Some do a great job of recreating the physical board game’s experience, and a few actually enhance the experience in some ways. Again, though, it’s not an assessment of the game itself, and I’m not aiming at anything more than anecdotal overview.
It’s also not an exhaustive list, but it’s a pretty good representative sample of a lot of popular hobby games available through the platform, and may give you ideas on what games to try out.
Even though I’m assessing implementations, not games themselves, below, there’s a fair amount of subjectivity, and each of the games below (and others not listed) can be lots of fun.
In general, games with high levels of interpersonal interactivity are harder to fully recreate in a digital environment, whereas those with more cerebral elements tend to fare better. Additionally, the more tactile elements a game includes, the further removed from it the digital experience will seem. There are exceptions to each of those, of course, and things like video chatting with friends while playing can further bridge this gap. However, the assessments below consider only BGA.
One of the site’s most popular games owing to how quick it is, 6 nimmt is nevertheless a game that benefits most from the ribbing that occurs around a table as someone is inevitably stuck with the worst beats. Something is lost in translation when it’s automated and remote.
Skips the setup and teardown, which are among the more onerous parts of the physical game, and gets you right to the drafting. Further, helpful little checkmarks and X’s cue you in to which options you can and can’t afford. Remarkably smooth play.
Probably the only place many will see this game. The site is rife with options for “press your luck” games, this one among them. There’s nothing terrible in the implementation, but it’s missing the dice rolling.
Another press your luck. As a “hey, remember me?!” entry into BGA’s offerings, I enjoy its presence. It’s also short as hell and well-known enough that it’s very easy to find a game.
The biggest streamlined element here is that it automates field scoring, which can be a chore in some games. Options to toggle various expansions and variants exist as well, making this among the more modular games on the site.
Among my favorite press your luck games, the digital implementation nevertheless loses something of the aesthetic charm of the airship in the physical version. Pushing your opponents off the ship against their will is among the funnier moments of the game, and here you’re deprived of that chance. Even worse, the implementation rushes you through certain decisions, putting a very short timer on decisions like whether or not to use special ability cards. Frustrating.
Unassuming in any format, neither better nor worse imo.
The option to filter opponents by skill level on BGA is a boon here. You can cater the competition to your skill level, particularly if you’re a beginner or remembering the strategy after years away from the game. Otherwise, my favorite Chess moments are across from a friend, thinking in meditative, comfortable, communal silence. An online game with a timer is devoid of this feeling.
Doesn’t suffer much, but it’s also not a game known for its table presence.
Like Celestia, something’s missing in the absence of a real, three-dimensional train to maneuver around. Otherwise fine.
Anything resembling social deduction is going to be worse online without a lot of effort, simply because the games were created for the exact opposite scenario. While Coup doesn’t quite fall into this genre, the table talk and interpersonal scheming that occur in a live session are the highlights, which digital will struggle to facilitate as smoothly.
I dare say that engine builders are going to suffer the least on BGA of any broad genre of game. That said, this one has you building and modifying dice, and that tactile thrill is part of the core experience, which an automatic dice roller can’t quite recreate.
While the physical version is lovely and impressive, the online implementation here is commendable, and the highlighted tiles to assist in drafting are a godsend. It’s not quite as cool as building, then picking apart, a real tile-castle, but it’s surprisingly close.
One of the more obscure Spiel des Jahres winners, you may struggle to find Elfenland elsewhere. That alone makes this worthwhile. The map is lovingly displayed, so there’s not too much missing between this and a real copy.
Falls into the Coloretto category of being light, short and small enough that no version will be markedly better or worse.
With my chief difficulty in Hanabi being that I almost look at my cards accidentally, I might actually prefer the online version. Beware, though, regular BGA players of Hanabi have advanced cues that are not easy to pick up on, and I’ve seen them get frustrated with me and others for not understanding them, which saps the fun somewhat.
Not many casual players that I’ve found, so learning is going to be a lesson in losing for a while, until you absorb enough intermediate strategy to compete.
In the Year of the Dragon
A Feld engine-builder (sort of), and not particularly in need of face-to-face to enjoy. However, the shared suffering at the hands of the game can create a camaraderie that is more difficult to emulate online.
A game chiefly interesting because of the hilarious moments of triumph or failure, which is best experienced in-person.
As a thoughtful, quick 2P experience, this feels very similar to the real thing to me, and is one of my favorites on BGA.
The click-clack of the stones is sorely missing, particularly when you emphatically take a massive haul.
Among my personal favorites irl, this actually doesn’t seem to speed up a ton online, owing to the bidding and placement phases taking about the same amount of time.
See Coloretto/For Sale
Another I really enjoy irl, I miss laughing as someone ends up with a bad beat. Essentially, anything with even light “take that” mechanics is going to seem robbed of some of its joy. However, those elements are light enough in Libertalia that it’s still fine online, just not ideal.
Like Jaipur, it benefits from the streamlined setup, without sacrificing much in terms of experience. One of my favorites to play on BGA.
Fine overall, and a bit better with the new cards that are available (which I believe only unlock at 5-8P on BGA), but then the downtime bloats at 7-8P. Play at 5P with all cards for an experience that differs significantly from the base game, but otherwise I avoid.
Per my earlier comments about engine builders, Puerto Rico is one that fares as well as any in this regard.
Nice, quick way to match wits with a stranger, and no better or worse than a physical copy imo.
Race For the Galaxy
Those who play this online tend to play it a ton, so you may be in over your head if you’re new to the game. That said, this mostly insular card game is a breeze in its online implementation, so it makes it easy to learn and improve.
See Coloretto et al
Roll For the Galaxy
A bit more fiddly than its older sibling “Race,” and missing the chance to roll all those dice. If I’m going to play this, I want the real thing.
Engine-builder, literally and figuratively, so there’s very little lost in digital translation.
Fun in any format, this really needs people crowded around a table to get the most from it.
Another like 7 Wonders that benefits greatly from the automated setup, teardown, and automatic bean-counting of points and card abilities. I’ve actually not played Seasons outside BGA, but I suspect it could easily drag with all the different card abilities and different points at which they trigger. As such, it may be among the few that I prefer to play on Board Game Arena as opposed to in-person.
Maybe we’ve found another theme adjacent to engine-building, with worker placement games faring better than some genres into digital format.
Quick and fun, but it’s not Sushi Go Party! so it’s very limited by comparison. As an implementation, it’s fine, but is so quick regardless that it’s no better or worse here.
A game that screams to be played with an opulent, physical copy, this will be pleasant online but not quite as magical.
Worker placement, and feels quite abstract, the digital version of this feels identical to playing irl for me.
The Werewolves of Miller’s Hollow
I know multi-night social deduction can work fine online, but boy does it require a lot of effort to even approach the same level of interaction.
I’m tempted to say this suffers like Takenoko since the art and components are lovely. But Tokaido is more about the art style, which translates better than elaborate components, which is more Takenoko’s forte. It’s also among the most modular games on the site, with numerous options to experiment with expansions, optional rules and variants.
The forgotten little brother of Troyes, and it’s a good one, but is mired behind obtuse iconography. For me this is only playable online, due to how horribly confusing the iconography is. The mouseover text for each card is crucial to me being able to play coherently and enjoy myself.
Another dice roller, which I prefer to do live. Troyes is also an engine-builder worker placement game, both of which translate admirably here. This is the game I’m most torn about relative to its physical version, but quite enjoy both
Sort of like Troyes in terms of implementation, the game itself holds up fine, but the grandeur of the board itself seems important to experience in-person.
If you’re not playing to juggle the dice around endlessly in your hands, why are you playing? Kidding, but only sorta.
Other good games certainly exist on Board Game Arena, including some hobby stalwarts that I haven’t gotten to on BGA like Clans of Caledonia and Terra Mystica. However, I hope the guide to the service above is helpful in your journey in online board gaming.
For other general questions about the platform, you can check out the BGA FAQ Page on their website.