When I’m not writing about video games for this site, or talking about video games on my podcast, or actually playing video games, I often spend my free time playing games of the cardboard variety. My fiancé and I do a lot of table top gaming. We’ve got some deck builders by Cryptozoic, Carcassonne, Munchkin, Splendor, and many more. What we don’t have is very many people to play with. As a result, my table top gaming itch doesn’t get quite the scratch it needs. Enter Table Top Simulator.
Table Top Simulator is the long-handled back scratcher to my previously unscratchable board game itch. Developed by Berserk Games, TTS is exactly what it sounds like. It’s not really a game per se. It is a physics sandbox that acts as a platform for digitized tabletop gaming. The software provides the tools to simulate almost any table top gaming experience. The base package comes with several classic board game modules including Chess, Checkers, and Dominos, but the software supports Steam workshop support, allowing intrepid modders the freedom to create their own games or re-create their favorites.
Once a module has been loaded, players are free to manipulate all of the pieces in real time in a fully-simulated physics sandbox. This includes rolling dice, flipping cards over, or moving, throwing, and flicking game pieces. There’s even a ‘flip table’ button (and an ‘undo’ button, thank goodness). Game rules are not enforce, though. There’s nothing keeping you from moving your chess pawn forward four tiles. In that respect, TTS is a very true simulation. You can even “accidentally” knock your opponent’s pieces over. Whoops…
TTS was crowd-funded on Kickstarter. The developers asked for a modest $3,000. They received an unexpected torrent of support and at the end of their funding period had received a whopping $37,403. The evidence was overwhelming: there was an unquenched thirst for a fully-realized table-top simulator. Before TTS, open source solutions like OCTGN and Vassal were the best anyone had. Those tools did the job, but there was no denying their clunkiness.
Since the game’s release in June 2015 (and for some time before in early access), modders have been pumping out free content like crazy. Many have recreated their favorite tabletop games. There are obvious legal implications at play here. Copyright is a very real thing and many Steam workshop modules created for TTS use images copied directly from the games they simulate. While it would be impossible for Berserk Games to police this content themselves, many of the modules overtly violate copyright laws.
I’m of two minds when it comes to these copyright issues. On one hand, they are very clearly breaches of copyright. There’s no spin that might make it otherwise. Recreating a board game digitally using their exact assets is theft. On the other hand, there is a lot of good that can come from these recreation modules. Digital table top is a space that has reach and flexibility that its cardboard counterpart does not. Sometimes, people just can’t get their hands on a particular game in their region or country. In this case, using a TTS module does not cannibalize the sale of the physical product, because there was no physical product to sell.
To my surprise, the board game developers themselves seem as split on the matter as I am. Colby Dauch of Plaid Hat Games is quoted in a Rock Paper Shotgun article as follows, “I’m concerned that knowing a game of ours is up there gives me some legal obligation to protect our copyright.” Copyright laws are a funny thing. If it can be demonstrated that a company does not protect their copyrights consistently, any enforcement they do attempt comes under scrutiny and is less likely to hold up in court. For that reason, Colby acknowledges that he is obligated to issue cease and desists to the authors of TTS modules that recreate his own games.
“I don’t want to do that,” he admits. “I don’t want to be the jerk that ruins people’s fun and I think that digital versions of our games likely sell more physical copies than they deny sales.” He recognizes that TTS modules carry the power of word-of-mouth. I certainly agree. I’ve been having the time of my life using TTS to play Dead of Winter, one of Plaid Hat Games’ own inventions. Playing with my internet gaming group only makes me want to pick up a physical copy to enjoy with friends in real life. Conversely, I have shared games that I already own physically with some of my internet gaming friends using TTS. Without TTS, this would have been impossible. The hope here is that they feel the same compulsion I did and go purchase physical copies of the games I’ve shared with them.
Table Top Simulator is likely to be a real game-changer in the board game industry. I’m always eager to seek out demo videos of board games I’m interested in buying. But now, a better option would be to find a TTS module and actually play the game for myself. The closest analogy is a demo copy a gaming store may have out for patrons to put their hands on. In any case, I’ve been having a blast kicking back in my compuer room trying new board games at my leisure. And if worst comes to worst, I can always just click ‘Flip Table’ and go play some Diablo III.