Why The Future For Tabletop Games Is Digital

Why The Future For Tabletop Games Is Digital
Image: MTG Arena

Tabletop games are traditionally played in person, with two or more people. They require planning and preparation, a shared space and (usually) a side of chips. But the pandemic has played havoc with how these games are played. The Pokémon World Championships are skipping this year because of it. Several other tournaments were also cancelled, and games like Yu-Gi-Oh, Pokémon and Magic: The Gathering have had to rethink how to continue playing safely.

Recently, the Kotaku Australia team was invited along to the launch of MTG‘s Kaldheim set. It was originally set to take place at Mjølner, a Norse-themed restaurant in Sydney. But following the Northern Beaches coronavirus cluster of late 2020, it was shifted to an online event where we all got to play around with the new cards in MTG Arena and enjoy a home-cooked meal.

MTG Arena is the digital component of the physical Magic game. It features replicas decks and easy-to-understand gameplay (both online and solo) so anybody can hop in and play. The most important part of this currently is you don’t need to risk dying to battle your mates. It’s true that digital card games will never entirely replicate the feeling of hanging out with your friends and battling in person but in a pandemic, you need to make certain sacrifices.

Luckily, playing MTG Arena is just as much fun as playing Magic in person.

mtg kaldheim
Image: Magic Arena

For a relative newcomer like me, Magic Arena is great because it ditches the complications of more intricate cards and powers. Magic has rules for which monsters can go where and what they can do, and learning every nuance is overwhelming. Arena streamlines these rules by guiding you through what cards can and can’t do as you play.

It means you can learn Magic and discover more about the strategy behind it in about five minutes. There’s no scrolling through manuals or looking up guides online — there’s a brief tutorial, and then you’re away and battling. It’s so much easier to focus and organise a game with mates when a digital game is just a click away.

Traditional games are popular because they connect people together. But digital games have the same capabilities, and in the coronavirus era they’re more accessible, too.

If you want to play Pokémon with a mate but you can’t meet them in person, you’ve got Pokémon TCG OnlineIf you’re more of a Yu-Gi-Oh fiend, you’ve got more cinematic games like Duel Links and Legacy of the DuelistThey’re all games that perfectly replicate the look and feel of playing in person when chips, dips and chats aren’t an option.

Going into MTG Arena for the first time, I was sceptical about how I’d feel. I’ve written about my love for traditional board games before, and playing a card game online felt sacrilegious. But despite the lack of cardboard between my fingers and the smell of a good hummus dip, MTG Arena made me realise how much potential digital adaptations have in the modern tabletop space.

There’s plenty out there already, including the ones I mentioned earlier. But beyond card games there’s also Talisman: Digital Edition, Ticket to Ride, Mysterium, Gloomhaven, Splendor … the list goes on.

You’ve even got board game-games like Tabletop Simulator where people can create and upload their own digital versions of traditional games. (You can visit here to check out the top-rated user creations.)

digital board games
Screenshot: GrabTheGames Gaming/YouTube

In the future, this may be the way we play all our board games. It means a future where set up is easier. Where you can learn a game and get started in minutes. A future where your friends can login from anywhere around the world, one where all your favourite tabletop adventures are in one place.

Sure, you’ll forgo sticky fingers making a mess of your cards and someone spilling the draw pile over the whole board. But they’re small sacrifices to make so you can spend more time playing with friends.

My time with MTG Arena was great, and it made me realise how important digital tabletop games are in our current future. They’re more accessible than traditional games, and they’re also essential in a time when in-person gaming events are regularly being cancelled.

If you’re looking for a party starter, you miss your favourite games or you’re just feeling lonely at home, consider adding a digital card or board game to the menu. While quality will vary from title to title, apps like MTG Arena are great for replicating that in-person feeling. Personally, I’ve enjoyed the digital Ticket to Ride and Mysterium adaptations, but there’s plenty of others out thereTabletop Simulator is also an absolute treasure trove for options.

Diving into digital tabletop games can be a strange feeling if you’re used to more traditional gameplay. But once you get started, you’ll feel right at home. They’re the perfect alternative for a world that’s shifting towards digital living.

Even if your favourite game isn’t available online, there’s sure to be plenty of others out there you’ll enjoy.


    • Seconded. Our gaming group moved to Tabletop Simulator during the lockdowns but it’s nowhere near as good as in person. Although it is much cheaper.

    • Indeed. The whole point of boardgames is to provide introverts with some artificial social lubrication to facilitate them interacting in the same physical space as other human beings.

      Also, you can’t read body language via skype when your screen is full of the “board”.

      Seriously, if I want to listen to people trash talk via skype there are no shortage of options already, options designed specifically for an electronic medium unlike the physicality of boardgames.

      Next article: How computers are making libraries obsolete. Also, how video killed the radio star.

      • They’re also good at teaching kids those same sort of skills as well. I would hate to see us lose all physical copies of these games because digital is an option. I’m not the biggest board game player, but the physical games definitely have their place in the world.

  • We’ve been lucky here in Western Australia, so I won’t speak to the lock-down experiences of others. But after the relatively brief period of time we were forced to use Tabletop Simulator for out regular boardgame catch-ups last year, one thing became abundantly clear: despite being a viable alternative, digital gaming is an inadequate substitute for IRL gaming.

    There are laughs and fun to be had with your friends around the table that digital gaming simply cannot replicate or provide.

    Still, I’m glad digital gaming *is* a viable alternative, coz it lets me play more games than I otherwise could. 🙂

  • I wish it was but unfortunately it seems like any time I hear about a tabletop game getting a digital game it’s a video game based on the original’s IP rather than a 1:1 port. Even with the success of stuff like Magic Arena the industry seems hell bent on drawing a line between tabletop and video games.
    It doesn’t have to be one or the other. A game can be built for online play and still feature Jackbox style local multiplayer. The physical version can exist side by side with the digital like Magic.

    • There are literally dozens of decent 1:1 ports on Steam. See for example

      There have been several Humble boardgame bundles featuring actual 1:1 boardgames.

      Then there are a number of dedicated sites such as Board Game Arena and BrettspielWelt.

      As usual, the phrase “any time I hear about”, or similar, says far more about the poster than it says about any actual facts.

  • I really don’t think it is the future.

    I play MTG and 100 times out of 100 i prefer playing with real humans around me. The feel of real cards in your hand.

    The fact someone plays a rare and powerful card and it’s REAL.

    Arena can never replicate any of that.

  • I like playing tabletop games online….and I actually love buying digital cards, it saves lots of space and actually saves me money as a casual player.

  • I think humans are social creates and we gain a lot from being in physical contact with one another.

    Though in recent times, I’ve seen some board games, who’s complexity and house keeping strongly suggests they would have instead benefitted from being digital.

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