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Twelve Board Games You Can Play With Friends From Afar

These virtual versions of classic and lesser-known games are ideal for social distancing

The list includes Sagrada, Pandemic, Settlers of Catan, Wingspan and Dune. (Photo illustration by Meilan Solly / Photos via Getty Images and game publishers)
smithsonianmag.com

With millions of people around the world practicing social distancing and staying at home, video games like “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” and versions of “The Sims” franchise are more popular than ever. But as digital offerings reach new heights, virtual versions of beloved board games are—thanks to a pre-pandemic boom in board game hobbyists—more accessible than one might think.

To support those searching for a way to divert their attention from the novel coronavirus pandemic, and avoid going out into the world to buy board games in person, Smithsonian magazine has curated a collection of 12 games you can play with friends online.

Offerings range from classics such as Monopoly and Clue to newer games like Wingspan, Ticket to Ride and Codenames. Each listing includes the game’s price as of publishing, platform (official app or website, unaffiliated copycat, or distribution service featuring an array of games, for instance), and playing parameters. For more options, check out Tabletop Simulator (see entry on Dune for more information) and Tabletopia (see entry on Villagers), both of which allow users to create their own virtual versions of physical games, and Board Game Arena, a free tool with no downloads necessary.

Ticket to Ride

Ticket to Ride

Price: Free web browser lite version; app costs $6.99 to $9.99

Platforms: App Store, Google Play, Steam, Amazon and web browser

In lieu of taking an actual train ride, consider trekking across the globe via Ticket to Ride. Available on five digital platforms, the online version of the addictive game operates much like the physical edition, with players embarking on a “cross-country train adventure in which [they] collect and play matching train cards to claim railway routes connecting cities throughout North America,” according to publisher Days of Wonder.

Gameplay options range from one-person matches against up to four artificial intelligence competitors to pass-and-play (in which participants physically pass the phone or tablet to the next player), virtual sessions with random members of Ticket to Ride’s online community, and remote showdowns with friends who also own the app. Expansion packs featuring maps of Europe, Asia, the Nordic countries, Switzerland, India, Germany, the United Kingdom, France and Pennsylvania are available for in-game purchase.

If you’re hoping to try out Ticket to Ride without splurging on the relatively pricey app, consider registering with Days of Wonder to earn four free trial games of a scaled-back web browser version.

Dune

Dune

Price: Free mod (short for modification, or fan-made addition to an existing game) available via Tabletop Simulator ($19.99 on Steam)

Platform: Tabletop Simulator

Dune, one of Smithsonian magazine’s picks for the best board games of 2019, is based on the 1965 science fiction novel of the same name. Players lead competing factions of noble families, guilds and religious orders to establish dominance on the barren planet of Dune; as its subtitle indicates, the game artfully blends “conquest, diplomacy and betrayal.”

Originally released in 1979, the “sprawling sci-fi epic”—which spans “politics, ecology, religion and technology,” according to Rachel Kaufman of Smithsonian—was rereleased in 1984 to promote David Lynch’s film adaptation of the book, but proved unpopular and soon went out of production. Now, more than 40 years after its launch, the latest version of the game is finally receiving its due.

To play Dune virtually, download Tabletop Simulator, a self-described “online sandbox” that allows internet-savvy users to create their own 3-D models of physical games. Play “just like you do in real life,” the platform’s website notes, picking up, rotating, shaking and throwing digital game pieces, in addition to flipping the table “when you are losing the game.”

The base version of Tabletop Simulator, available from Steam for $19.99, comes with 15 classic games, including chess, poker, dominoes and backgammon. But the true power of this versatile tool lies in its capacity for user-created content.

Players can use Steam’s Workshop function to digitize any game they want, from board games such as Clue and Life to card games like Uno and role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons. In fact, multiple versions of virtually all of the games included on this list can be found on Tabletop Simulator, though it’s worth noting that because the content is created by users, glitches are likely to occur. Read through reviews, comments and Q&As to find the best fit for you.

Settlers of Catan

Catan

Price: Some free features, but requires base game (500 gold, or $3.99 plus 100 free gold upon sign-up) to unlock all gaming modes; expansions and special scenarios available as in-game purchases

Platforms: Web browser, App Store, Google Play and Steam

Alternatives: Tabletop Simulator has a mod featuring the Catan base game and expansion packs; Catan Universe’s predecessor, an app called Catan Classic, is available for purchase through the App Store and Google Play but is no longer updated and may be subject to glitches.

The online version of Settlers of Catan, technically retitled Catan Universe in this multi-platform 2016 release, has all the charm of its real-life equivalent, which pits players against each other in a race to settle an island with limited resources. Plus, it offers digital-only features including avatar customization, an in-game chat room, artificial intelligence competitors and varying levels of difficulty. Users compete to earn Victory Points by building settlements and cities, acquiring resources, and trading with—or thwarting—other players. The first person to reach ten points wins.

Catan Universe normally hosts free three-player matches of the Catan base game, but due to recent high demand, this feature is temporarily unavailable. Paid users can still participate in multiplayer games, and Catan’s makers hope to reactivate its free games after tweaking the site’s backend development.

Free-to-play content still available includes introductory free matches of two-player card game adaptation Catan: The Duel and an “Arrival on Catan” tutorial that unlocks single-player versus A.I. matches. Upon registering, users receive a bonus of 100 gold pieces and two scrolls, which can be used to unlock special features or purchase expansion packs such as Seafarers, Cities and Knights, Rise of the Inkas, Rivals for Catan. The full base game, as well as each of the expansions, costs 500 gold (or $3.99 for 400 gold, used in conjunction with the sign-up bonus of 100 gold).

For tips on mastering Catan Universe, see Juliana Kaplan’s explainer for Business Insider.

Sagrada

Sagrada

Price: $6.99 to $9.99

Platform: App Store, Google Play and Steam

Like the Barcelona cathedral that gives this game its name, Sagrada is known best for its sumptuous visuals. Players assume the roles of artisans tasked with bringing La Sagrada Familia’s stunning stained glass to life, competing via “dice-drafting” to create the most beautiful window of all.

The key to securing victory is identifying the perfect dice (as differentiated by color and number) for each window pane—a choice complicated by rules regarding the cubes’ placement. Breaking these rules by expending special tool cards, in addition to adapting to meet the “fickle demands of your patrons” while simultaneously maintaining “your signature artistic flair,” also places players on the path to first place. Play alone, versus A.I., with friends or with members of your household.

Monopoly

Monopoly

Price: Free with Pogo account or available as an app for $3.99

Platforms: Pogo, App Store and Google Play

Alternative: Monopoly is also available as a mod on Tabletop Simulator

The classic real estate game, in which players buy, trade and maintain Atlantic City properties in hopes of driving the competition into bankruptcy, is available to play online for free via gaming portal Pogo. Register for an account to compete with friends, A.I. or other online users, but be prepared to shell out for a Club Pogo subscription ($6.99 per month) to access the site without ads.

For a more high-tech experience, download the official Monopoly app through the App Store or Google Play. Rendered by Marmalade Game Studio, the app boasts detailed 3-D animations, no ads, online and offline multiplayer modes, customizable house rules, and a quick mode ideal for shortening the game’s notoriously lengthy runtime.

Villagers

Villagers

Price: Free

Platform: Tabletopia

Villagers, a “card drafting & village building” adventure set in the aftermath of a medieval plague, asks players to guide a hard-hit region to prosperity by strategically choosing settlers to populate the community. As the game’s Kickstarter page explains, village founders must “recruit the right people to form lucrative production chains while balancing your food production and building capacity.” The individual with the most prosperous village wins.

A digital version of Villagers is available for free with a basic Tabletopia account. Like Tabletop Simulator, Tabletopia describes itself as an “online arena for playing board games just like in real life.” The platform currently features nearly 900 games, many of which are in early development and therefore offered free to users willing to test them out. Creating a Tabletopia account is free, but accessing certain games requires a premium subscription. Some games are free to play with a limited number of users but need a subscription to bump up the number of players.

Other free games available via Tabletopia include Lisboa, Architects of the West Kingdom and Smithsonian best board game of 2018 pick Everdell. Premium games include Anachrony: Modules, Pocket Mars and Artifacts, Inc.

Pandemic

Pandemic

Price: $4.99 to $19.99

Platforms: App Store, Xbox, Google Play, Nintendo Switch, Steam and Amazon

Given the current global health crisis, Pandemic might seem like a questionable choice of entertainment. But the game, which asks players to work cooperatively to save the world from deadly diseases, is actually far more uplifting than it sounds—and it could serve as a much-needed source of hope, or at least distraction, amid these trying times.

To play Pandemic, one to five players act as a team of experts equipped to contain and, if all goes well, end a spate of viral outbreaks. Each player assumes a special role, such as scientist, operations expert or researcher; all roles come with their own unique abilities. The goal is to travel between cities and research centers, stemming the spread of four diseases while simultaneously researching cures. If players find all four cures in time, they win the game.

Pandemic and its various expansion packs are technically only available as single player- or local multiplayer-games (meaning individuals have to play against A.I., connect to the game via the same internet network or physically pass around a playing device), but those who purchase through distribution platform Steam can use the Remote Play Together feature to circumvent this constraint. See Wired for more information on setting up Remote Play Together.

Codenames

Codenames

Price: Free

Platform: Unofficial online version hosted on Horsepaste.com

Codenames publisher Czech Games Edition plans to release an online version of the popular party game, which pits two teams against each other in a word guessing showdown, by the end of April. In the meantime, however, word game aficionados can access a free, unaffiliated version of the secret agent adventure via Horsepaste.com.

To play, simply visit the site, select a game identifier (like a password) and language, enable or disable the timer, and click “Go.” The site will automatically generate a link to share with friends. A cooperative version of the game—in which players work as a single team instead of competing against each other—is available at Codenamesgreen.com.

Clue

Clue

Price: Free low-tech version available online; official editions range from $3.99 to $11.99

Platforms: ArcadeSpot, Steam, App Store and Google Play

A truly retro version of Clue—the murder mystery party game that asks players to puzzle out which character committed a crime, where the incident took place and what weapon was used—is available for free via ArcadeSpot, but as one might expect, the outdated interface comes with limitations, most prominently the inability to play with friends remotely. Still, if you’re simply looking for a quick solo fix, or if you have roommates and family members willing to sit down and take turns in front of the computer, this version will do the trick.

The official Clue app, available through the App Store, Google Play and Steam, is richly animated and simple to use. Play against the game’s A.I., or connect with friends for an online matchup. A Clue “season pass” featuring ten new boards—including recreations of Victorian London populated by Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson and an Egyptian archaeological dig inspired by an Agatha Christie novel—is also available for purchase.

Wingspan

Wingspan

Price: $7.99 DLC (downloadable content) with purchase of Tabletop Simulator ($19.99)

Platform: Tabletop Simulator

Alternative: Also available to Tabletopia premium users

Wingspan, an eclectic board game that transforms players into avian enthusiasts working to attract visitors to competing wildlife preserves, has won an array of accolades—including a spot on Smithsonian’s best board games list—since making its debut in 2019. Created by birder Elizabeth Hargrave, the game is recognized for its scientific rigor, eye-catching illustrations and unique premise.

Available as a Tabletop Simulator DLC (unlike mods, which are typically free, user-created modifications of original content, DLCs are produced directly by the gaming company and often cost a small amount of money), the virtual version of Wingspan retains much of the board game’s signature aesthetic, though some users have noted that the game’s functionality could use an update. Other DLCs offered by Tabletop Simulator include Scythe, an alternate history game set in 1920s Europa, and Boss Monster: The Dungeon Building Card Game.

Twilight Struggle

Twilight Struggle

Price: $6.99 to $9.99

Platforms: Steam, App Store and Google Play

Twilight Struggle, a two-person strategy game set during the Cold War, pits the United States against the U.S.S.R. in a race to establish global dominance via “political influence and coup attempts.” Available as an app, the digital version of Twilight Struggle captures the same level of tension that pervades its physical incarnation, artfully detailing real historical events while maintaining a sense of high-stakes gameplay.

Hone your skills by playing against an A.I. opponent or using the in-game tutorial, then connect with a friend online for a cutthroat showdown. Users can also purchase a mini expansion pack called Twilight Struggle: Turn Zero. Per the app’s description, the expansion allows players to explore alternate starting situations for the competing superpowers, considering such questions as what would have happened if the Western Allied powers had reached Berlin before the Soviets.

The Game of Life

Life

Price: $2.99 to $4.99

Platforms: Steam, App Store and Google Play

In the Game of Life, as in real life, much is left to chance: in this case, the whims of a randomly spun wheel. Players race to reach retirement, garnering degrees, job titles, properties and loved ones along the way. The individual who retires with the most wealth wins.

The app version of Life, developed by the same studio responsible for digitizing Monopoly and Clue, illustrates this journey with detailed 3-D animations—a welcome upgrade from the original Checkered Game of Life created by entrepreneur Milton Bradley in 1860. Play alone, with friends or with members of your household, competing in a “fast mode” version of the base game or in app-exclusive minigames.

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