Best Tabletop Simulator Mods

What are the best Tabletop Simulator mods? We asked Dominic Tarason to dig through the Steam Workshop, turn a blind eye to potential for intellectual property to be infringed, and pick out the best the community has to offer.

If there’s one thing that RPS has been trying to teach us over the past few years, it’s that tabletop gaming is cool, possibly even sexy, and definitely done by some handsome folks (hello there, Rab). Sadly, not all of us are blessed with a local circle of sexy and handsome friends to play with. Enter Berserk Games and their solution: Tabletop Simulator [official site].

Something of a rising star of Steam Early Access, Tabletop Simulator boasts the ability to simulate (fancy that) a 3D, physical tabletop with up to 7 other players online. While it comes bundled with a handful of copyright-free board/card game staples, its real strength lies in its easy moddability, allowing you to import just about any tabletop, playmat, token, card or custom dice that you can find an image file or 3D model of and share it with others. Combined with full Steam Workshop support, it’s a potentially huge boon for those with tabletop gaming friends in far away places, and (unsurprisingly) a bit of a legal minefield.

I’ll come back that minefield later, but for now: here are four of the best Tabletop Simulator mods, what they do and how they play.

The huge flexibility of TTS is something of a double-edged sword. While it sometimes simplifies complex processes (such as setting the table for a game involving hundreds of little pieces), it can also render the simplest of things surprisingly difficult. A slip of the mouse can disturb whole boards and send pieces tumbling off into the void, only to messily respawn back in the center of the playfield. It’s merciful, then, that the host is given full control over time itself, able to roll back and undo any physical action as required. States can also be saved, loaded and shared easily.

The application itself is being constantly updated, with new features being added every week or two. I can’t predict just what it’ll support in the future, but I can tell you how it works in the here-and-now. I sought to assemble a crack team of tabletopologists to bring you this report; I failed, so instead I got together a loose, confused and occasionally slightly drunk bunch of nerds in lab-coats. Turns out that’s all you need. Let the science begin!

Android: Netrunner

Official site
The phenomenon taking the collectible card-game scene by storm, Netrunner is a fascinating piece of design. Going beyond Magic: The Gathering, it’s part deck-building puzzle, part bluffing game and part cyberpunk roleplaying. Two players square off, one playing the role of a faceless mega-corporation aiming to push through several secret agendas, and the other a plucky hacker intent on stealing research files before they come to fruition. What makes the game so distinct is that while the players oppose each other, they each have wildly different objectives and playstyles.

The Mod: Android: Netrunner, Cyberpunk Starter Table
Steam Workshop page

It was easy enough to find a mod offering the basic contents of the starter box-set for the game (a generous package in of itself, with 4 corporate and 3 runner decks), but something felt wrong just laying these cards out on a virtual wood surface. With a little help from RPS comment-box regular and Netrunner boffin Sir Custard Smingleigh, I decided to get a little bit jazzy.

After about two hours of tinkering, tweaking and hunting for resources, we can now play Netrunner as it was always intended: On a spiralling glass table, hovering above a virtual cyberpunk cityscape, with a full set of authentic looking counters (including some custom shiny metal credit-chips courtesy of Smingleigh) and a professional looking playmat.

As a final accent to the table, we added a virtual browser tablet (one of TTS’s newer additions), linking to the official PDF rulebook for the game, just in case you want to double-check something mid match. It even fits in with the rest of the decor! I’ve not tried it yet, but the good Sir also claims to have a script that converts community-standard NetrunnerDB deck files into TTS playable decks, giving you access to every card (and every pre-assembled deck) for the game.

The Results: If anything, Netrunner plays even better in TTS than simpler card games, such as Apples to Apples or Cards Against Humanity – possibly better than on a real tabletop. Management of counters and tokens is made easier by the ability to magically copy-paste or delete them at will, and the Examine button (Alt, by default) allows you to read the contents of any card played face-up, even if it’s way over on the other side of the table and upside down relative to you.

Basic manipulation of cards is intuitive enough, although you do need to use the keyboard to flip and rotate them – you can’t really use TTS one-handed. The UI can be a little finnicky when it comes to performing hidden actions. By default in TTS, each player is given a space where they can view their own cards and counters away from the prying eyes of other players, but more is needed for Netrunner. Each player can define areas of the table as hidden whenever required, making anything possible. While this could theoretically allow for some cheating, we’re running on the assumption that you’re playing with gentle-folk that would be above such scurrilous acts.

X-Wing: The Miniatures Game

Official site

Another Fantasy Flight product, and one near and dear to the hearts of ageing PC gamers. X-Wing is a light tabletop wargame about space dogfighting, eschewing tape-rulers and dense rulebooks in favour of relatively simple commands and movement templates dictating how your little X-Wings and TIE Fighters move around the starry playfield.

On tabletop, it’s pretty quick and accessible stuff, letting you play a basic match in under an hour. The main drawback is the staggering price of some of the miniatures, especially the larger ones, but that’s not so much an issue here.

The Mod: X-Wing: Large Table
Steam Workshop page

Containing all the pieces from the starter box set, the rulebook is accessible from Fantasy Flight’s official page, meaning you can just jump in and play. However, due to a broken link, we had to provide our own starfield tabletop image – TTS prompted us for one upon starting.

The Results: X-Wing is definitely playable on the virtual surface, although not ideal for a variety of reasons. The largest of which is that precision movement of miniatures, mini-rulers and movement templates is especially fiddly outside of grid-based movement, and unless you religiously remember to use the Lock feature (L by default) to nail down any piece you want kept still, it’s all too easy to send TIE fighters pinging off the tabletop and into virtual shag-pile void beyond.

The other limitation of TTS is less extreme. Due to not supporting dial-display systems, you can’t declare your (hidden) movement plans as you do in the tabletop version. Thankfully, a workable alternative is a deck of tokens with the various maneuvers for each ship drawn on it, but even that gets a bit messy when you’ve got more than a few ships on the board. Despite these issues, it’s fun and relatively fast to play still, and any embarrassing miniature-handling mistakes can be undone with a click of the Undo button, a feature sorely missing from Reality v1.0.

32 Comments

  1. Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

    I do so enjoy Tabletop Simulator. It has made it possible for me to play Netrunner against friends in different continents, and I have come to enjoy tinkering with custom models – the barrier to getting something into Tabletop Simulator is lower than traditional modding AND real world custom model making. While at first it feels like you’re trying to manipulate the pieces with telekinetic elbows, after a little while you can learn to work around its little foibles.

    • Vandelay says:

      As a Netrunner fan who has looked into playing it online, I assume you have tried it on OCTGN? How does this compare?

      A friend of mine and I tried Netrunner through OCTGN a few weeks back. It didn’t work out too well, with both of us struggling to figure out commands as simple as laying down a piece of ice, which was before we even got to more complex, but fundamental, concepts, such as making runs. We gave up after about 20 minutes and only 2 and a bit turns.

      • SimulatedMan says:

        I’d be interested to know about this as well. Tried a test game on OCTGN against myself and found it a bit clunky.

      • Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

        The only minor adjustments we had to make are to keep a small “hidden” area with a bag in it for things like traces, and bring cards that aren’t public (like Corp reviewing already-installed ICE or Runner accessing cards from R&D) into your hand.

  2. w576 says:

    What I don’t understand fully is the topic of copyrights: how can versions of Xcom or Doom can be on workshop without 2k and Bethesda sending them a DMCA? How is it legal? Because these official boardgames are what I’d buy Tabletop Simulator for, but I am not so sure they’ll be online in the long run…

    • X_kot says:

      This is the thing that worries me most, because (a) it would be fairly easy to DMCA and (b) a good chuck of TTS’ value lies in emulating popular, modern boardgames. Like Dominic says, the electronic version has some significant advantages over the physical one.

      As such, I’ve followed a few rules in which mods I download: only ones I own, and only if the publisher doesn’t already have a digital version. This is an area where I think paid mods could work, although I wonder how much publishers would worry about cannibalizing their print products.

    • apa says:

      I expect the rights owners to slap legal threats on mods or even TTS as soon as they are aware of what is happening. That is the nature of the copyright beast.

      • ScottTFrazer says:

        FFG have already pulled several games from the workshop including Descent 2nd Edition, I would expect that the minute they get wind of every single game listed here (even Doom was published by FFG) they’ll draft the appropriate takedown notices.

        As always, the tricky things about games is that you can’t protect the mechanics of the game, but you can definitely protect the branding (name) and assets (artwork) which the majority of these seem to fall afoul of.

        • trashmyego says:

          It’s just the depressing fact of how copyright law is handled in the States. That if you don’t actively protect your product in every equitable manner, your case to protect it in a swath of other circumstances in the future is weakened. Though I understand where the root of this requirement comes from, it makes sense in a number of trades, I feel that in gaming it doesn’t always align with how the creators or even publishers would prefer to operate.

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          DelrueOfDetroit says:

          Since you can’t copyright the mechanics of a game, why don’t modders just essentially give the games a non-trademark reskin? Doom becomes Hopeless. Nethack becomes Interwar. X-Com becomes Z-Battles. And so on and so forth.

      • JiminyJickers says:

        Too be honest, I can’t see anything wrong with them wanting it taken down.

        If I made a board game and is trying to make money from it, and if someone makes a digital copy that has no relation to me and that is actively hurting my sales, I would want them to take it down immediately. I would be talking to a lawyer straight away.

        I bet if they contacted Fantasy Flight, they wouldn’t have been given permission, but went ahead and did it anyway. That has never really worked out well.

        I hope that they can come to some sort of a deal, but I doubt it.

        • MellowKrogoth says:

          It’s the “actively hurting my sales” part that’s dubious. Prove that everyone that plays online was a potential buyer of the physical copy and decided not to buy it after playing online. Prove that people playing online doesn’t act as advertising for the physical copy.

          • JiminyJickers says:

            If one person plays online instead of buying the physical copy, then it is actively hurting sales, it doesn’t have to be everyone that would have bought the physical copy.

            The same justification you are using can be used to falsely justify pirating games. Not everyone would have bought the game anyway, but they are happy playing it.

    • malkav11 says:

      Simple: it isn’t legal. Not to just slap up a full unlicensed conversion.

      But with systems like VASSAL and OCTGN (which are similar but skip the physics and 3D and have something of a learning curve), some publishers (including Fantasy Flight) have okayed modules based on their games, usually with some sort of caveat to help avoid lost sales, like an important set of cards being blank (thus requiring a physical copy) or not including the latest set or something. I don’t know if this is happening with Tabletop Simulator but it could.

  3. ScottTFrazer says:

    Personally, I would love to see FFG embrace this concept. Sell the game content in such a way that let’s the host have a copy and everyone who joins to play can do so for free. Make it cost the same as the physical board game, but give us a use for those silly “proof-of-purchase” tokens that come with every game: I send that and $5 in and I get the electronic version.

    • Vandelay says:

      I think selling electronic versions along with the physical copy is an excellent idea and it is surprising that no one has tried to go ahead with it. I understand the fear of selling it separately being to the detriment of the physical game (I don’t agree with it, as I think anyone buying electronically would understand they would be missing out on a large part of the enjoyment, but I do understand the worry,) but selling it bundled with the game wouldn’t run into similar problems. Even if everybody playing had to own it and not just the host it would be a step in the right direction.

      I would hope that the makers of Tabletop Simulator have tried to get in touch with people like FFG to see if they could partner up on such a project. I would imagine something like Netrunner would really explode in popularity if there was an official online version that came with the ease of use a bit of money could bring.

      • mgardner says:

        Not sure how successful they have been, but Dan Verssen Games (www.dvg.com) publishes some solo print war games for $50 – $100, and sells a Vassal module version of some of them for $20 – $25 (rules provided online, so no need to own the print game to play the Vassal module). I have tried Thunderbolt-Apache Leader Vassal, and it’s really high quality and I feel like I’ve gotten my money’s worth. It’s awesome when companies allow electronic reproductions of their games without bringing lawyers into it, but barring that it’s much more preferable for a publisher to offer their own paid-for electronic edition rather than just forbidding it outright.

  4. Baines says:

    How viable is Tabletop Simulator for testing your own games? Rather, how easy is it to make your own mods? And do you have to use Steam Workshop?

    • Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

      No, you don’t need to use Steam Workshop. Workshop helps with getting something public. I keep my custom meshes in Pastebin and textures in Imgur. That way your other players’ copies of TS can reach and download the files automatically when you bring an object into the game through the Custom chest tab.

      You can make decks of cards if you can make an image, you can make custom models if you can make a mesh and export it as a .obj file.

  5. Theon says:

    Am I misunderstanding something here, or isn’t this essentially just the free game made by Wolfire in some jam not too many years ago?

    link to wolfire.com

    • JB says:

      It was similar (though more universal, I guess) to start with, but TTS is evolving a lot over time. There are now movable joints and suchlike (for spinners and other wonderful contraptions) and animated miniatures.

      In an interesting turn of events, if you look in the Steam Workshop, someone made Desperate Gods in TTS =)

  6. wodin says:

    If it ends up with a NUTS! by Two Hour Wargames module I will buy instantly.

    • Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

      There isn’t really such a thing as a “module”, as TS doesn’t interpret or enforce or even care about rules. Even the Workshop entries are typically collections of models and textures. Do you have the rules already in physical or electronic form? Then you’re half way there. Nuts is a Second World War wargame if the Googles aren’t deceiving me, so suitable models might not be too hard to locate or make. TS also has a nice feature where you can import a picture and it will make a little cardboard-cutout style miniature. You can see an example of that in the soldier cutouts in the XCOM illustrations in the article.

  7. Spacewalk says:

    I have an important question: is there a Necromunda mod in development anywhere?

  8. Shiloh says:

    Hmm. I’m genuinely not sure what to think about this – is it a GOOD THING for boardgames, or not?

    Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind getting a virtual leg up if it makes the game move faster (for example, I use the rather excellent Eldritch Companion to avoid laying out all the encounter/research/gate etc decks in Eldritch Horror) but would I want to play the whole game virtually? Not sure I would, to be honest.

    Still, I can see the benefit if you didn’t have a circle of chums ready to give up 4 hours of their life to fail to defeat Cthulu, so YMMV, I suppose.

    Can’t see FFG going for it, though. I mean, really?

    • Moe45673 says:

      I started playing a game of 1775: Rebellion this morning with two others. I own the physical version and games take 90-120 minutes. After the same amount of time, we’d only made it through a round and a half. TTS is excellent at what it does but it’s way clunkier than actually playing a physical copy of a game.

      Having said that, I feel it was money well spent. I am playing 1775 and I feel somewhat like I’m playing a boardgame, manipulating all the components myself, speaking with my opponent, etc. No AI. That’s pretty awesome!

  9. HidingCat says:

    I’ve got a huge collection of Battletech CCG cards. I’ve been thinking of getting my friends and do a private mod. How hard is it to create one?

    • Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

      Scan the cards. Arrange them in an image on a 7*10 grid, with the bottom-right as a placeholder that will show to other players while the card is in your hand. Go into TS, Chest, Custom Deck, enter the location of the file, set a couple of other settings, bam, you have a deck. Click my name, my blog has a contact link, or engage your Twitulator at Smingleigh.

  10. Novodantis says:

    Creating your own house rulesets of games is in some ways easier than a physical version, as you can apply any rules you want (there are no rules built in, only interactions like picking up or flipping). Making counters or tokens on TTS can be as easy as finding an image you want to use; no printer or glue necessary =)

    That said, I don’t think there’s any real threat posed by TTS to actual tabletop games, in much the same way as video games were never able to completely supplant physical ones. Part of the appeal is the physical presence of the thing. I doubt I’m alone in saying that if I had everyone round and a physical copy of the game, I would play that rather than the TTS version.

    TTS is best for situations where you can’t really play a physical copy easily, like we have some gaming pals that live 4 hours away, for example. If anything I think it would boost a game’s popularity rather than hurt it. It’s also fantastic for budding games designers that want to experiment with ideas, without having everything in biro on bits of paper (hard to get the feel) or spending loads on repeated printing of assets.