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!
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
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.
XCOM: The Board Game
Continuing our theme of PC classics turned board game (and coincidentally another Fantasy Flight title), XCom is a fascinating peek into the potential future of the medium. Rather than focus on the tactical combat of Firaxis’ reboot, the board game simulates the money-crunching management of the organization, with the role of the aliens (and keeper of the rules) being played by an official tablet/phone/desktop app, dropping objectives, challenges and funding your way in real time.
The Mod: XCom: The Board Game
Steam Workshop page
Does just what it says on the tin! The image quality on the cards and counters isn’t great, but it’s fully playable and the app is available via the official site for the game. It won’t run on the TTS tablet though, sadly, so whoever is playing the Central Officer role will have to read each update to the other players and hum the soundtrack so nobody misses out.
There does seem to be one small and amusing glitch with this mod - the interceptor models are incorrectly aligned, so those little planes end up standing vertically on the board rather than flat - a feat that they’re only capable of if you hit the Flip button on them.
The Results: Once the logistics of running the app alongside Tabletop Sim were worked out (I ran it in a separate window, but if you’ve got a twin-monitor setup or a tablet to hand, that’s even better), it was plain sailing the whole way through. In fact, once you’ve figured out the basics, you can pre-set the board and create a saved game to get yourself back into the action more quickly next time.
As an interesting aside, the XCom board game can also be played solo, with one player controlling all four wings of XCom Command. You’ll have to abuse the pause-time feature to keep up with the sheer number of duties you have to track, but it is possible, and an interesting place to begin with if you really want to get down and dirty with TTS without embarrassing yourself in front of friends. At least that way, nobody will judge you if you can’t resist the siren song of the Flip Table button.
Doom: The Board Game
After some deliberation with our team of board-game boffins, we decided to eschew a full pen-and-paper RPG (something TTS isn’t quite ready for until they add virtual paper) in favour of this venerable (and out of print) behemoth. The Doom board game is an enormous, sprawling thing with what seems like a million pieces, all in the name of replicating the FPS experience in turn-based form. One player controls the demons (and reads out scenario notes from a dungeon masters handbook of sorts), and up to three others control the marines.
In terms of actual play, it’s surprisingly simple and intuitive, controlling more than a little bit like the tactical layer in Firaxis’ XCom. Each marine can perform two actions per turn, modified by various class perks, and item tokens moved over on the board are placed into your ammo/equipment pools. The issue comes from the sheer number of tokens, miniatures and board-segments used, making it complex enough to deal with in real life, let alone a virtual tabletop.
An impressive piece of work, all things considered. While the miniatures are replaced with virtual cardboard standees on metal bases (real models are apparently planned for a later update), everything from the core set is there, including the DM’s scenario files on a tablet.
The Results: This one was rather exhausting to play, but not so much because of failings in the software. Frustrations stemmed from a combination of Doom’s enormous physical complexity, and some shortcomings of the mod used. While it’s nice that the first campaign map comes pre-assembled (normally a time-consuming process in reality), it isn’t laid out in sync with the tabletop sim board-grid, meaning that placing anything in a given tile-space can be frustrating.
Other issues presented themselves early, such as the scenario booklet included on the in-game tablet being unreadable there, necessitating the use of an external PDF reader. Not too much of a hassle, but it did require some careful window-stacking and additional muttering under my breath that I wish I had a two-monitor setup. Mainly, the issue holding back the game is the sheer number of pieces involved. Playing it virtually might eliminate the (lengthy) game setup period, but there’s still a lot to track and manage. That said, a cleaner version of the mod with proper grid-snapping pieces would probably make for a vastly improved experience.
With all that said, I’d love for some enterprising indie developer to adapt this into purely digital form. If Doom: The Roguelike can exist in the gaps between corporate monoliths, then so can this.
By Jove, it works! It really works! For the most part, at least. While Tabletop Simulator does have some limitations in its current incarnation that prevent it from doing everything with relative ease, it’s a surprisingly powerful and flexible piece of software. While we found some notable shortcomings during testing (Pen & Paper RPGs are still a fools errand best served by the likes of dedicated packages such as Fantasy Grounds) and some quirks in the mods we used, all five games were consistently playable, give or take a few irritations.
I also need to address the snarling elephant in the room, which I’ve been turning a blind eye to for so long. As inherently neutral a toolkit as TTS is, and there are plenty of people using it for wholly new creations, most will use it to play board games that would normally set you back £30-50 in a shop. Vastly more in some cases, such as with constantly expanding games like Netrunner & X-Wing. Perhaps the solution for publishers, as with Fantasy Grounds before it, could be releasing official Tabletop Sim adaptations of their properties as paid DLC, but that hasn't happened yet.
Legal quagmire aside, Tabletop Simulator works as advertised. It may not provide quite the same tactile joy of rolling dice through your fingers or clicking hard tokens across a polished board, but it does something genuinely important: it lets you play these fascinating, creative games with friends, no matter how far apart you might be, and I consider that a resounding success.
Tabletop Simulator is available now for £11 via Steam Early Access, and supports Windows, Mac & Linux.