Buying a board game can be a pretty big investment. When you really start collecting board games it can be hard to justify the amount of money you spend on them. In order to drop a nice chunk of change on a board game you have to be sure you’re going to like it or at least that you will get what you paid for out of it.
Reviews and playthroughs are a major source of information in the process of deciding to buy a board game but actually being able to play the game before buying it is the gold standard for assessing a board game. Naturally, finding free (or cheap) ways to play board games is worth some time and effort.
Board Game Arena popped up on my radar last year and looked like a promising way to play some of the games I was considering without dropping money on them beforehand. In this post we’ll go over all the details and the pro’s and con’s of Board Game Arena.
What is Board Game Arena?
Board Game Arena is a browser-based online board game platform. The site was created in 2010 by Grégory Isabelli and Emmanuel Colin and the founders officially started working on the site full time in early 2018.
Board Game Arena touts itself as “the largest board game table in the world” and provides a few statistics to back up its claim including:
- 160 Games
- 1.5 Million Players
- 41 Languages
- 300 Countries
The tabletop platform has gained a lot of traction and is continuing to grow. The real question here is: How is the gameplay and how does it compare to its competitors?
I’m going to go over some basic gameplay designs for the site before digging into how it actually plays. First, the only software needed is a browser which makes this accessible on desktop, mobile, and tablets.
Secondly, Board Game Arena offers two types of game play to choose from:
- You are connected during the entire game
- You can react to moves immediately
- Players do not need to be connected all the time
- Notified by email or alert when it is your turn
Real-time is basically like sitting at a table with other people. It will give you quick gameplay but also requires you to play for longer periods of time.
Contrasting that, the Turn-Based mode is much more convenient since you can hop on whenever you please to make your next move. However, games in this mode can take a very long time. In some cases it takes months to finish a complex game if players take a long time for their turns.
With all that said, the gameplay is decent for the games I have tried on the platform. The rules tend to work correctly, and the community is fun and responsive. However, there were a few bugs I ran into while playing some of these games. Which brings me to the first downside of this platform:
This platform is based around volunteers using a development kit. Small bugs in the programming of the game requires someone with adequate knowledge of Board Game Arena SDK in order to fix it. Based on some responses I’ve seen of people trying to fix bugs, the mixture of volunteer produced code can be a bit tricky to work around.
There are about 160 games on the platform currently but even though that sounds massive the selection is limited. For instance, there are not many games that cater to larger groups.
Since their games are implemented from scratch by volunteers using a development kit they provide the visual and user interface aren’t groundbreaking. The visuals are good enough to enjoy the game and the UI is intuitive enough to not struggle when playing a new game if you already know the rules.
Keeping in mind this platform is free, I still think major improvements could be made to both the visuals and UI when you compare this platform to Tabletopia or Tabletop Simulator. You’re not going to get the hand-crafted interfaces you get on some top notch board game pc or app ports on the market today. It looks pretty rough and feels pretty clunky compared to some of the alternatives that I use more often.
There are two major useful systems in place on Board Game Arena that are not one most of the competitors. These really give a leg up to this nearly free platform:
- The player ranking system
- The player accountability system
The Player Ranking System
Board Game Arena uses the Elo rating system (same system used in chess) for determining player skill. A few things about the Elo system on Board Game Arena:
- You always win 1 Elo point on your first game
- Until you hit 100 Elo points you won’t lose any
- Can’t go under 100 Elo after that
- You have a seperate Elo for each game
Although this isn’t a revolutionary idea, it doesn’t get implemented in many of the popular online board game alternatives. It keeps you striving for something while playing the games. This is a major positive of the platform. They are also continuing to update the platform and rankings which is a good sign for the longevity of the platform.
The Player Accountability System
One of the biggest issues with online board games has been players quitting unexpectedly since so much time can be sunk into one game. Board Game Arena’s karma system tries to fight this issue by giving players a way to check and even negate players based on their past performance. The system is pretty simple:
- You start out with 75 karma
- +1 karma each time you finish a game without taking over the amount of time you were allotted for your turns.
- -10 karma for quitting a game.
- -20 if you have quit a game recently.
- -4 for missing out on planned tournament games
I feel like this reduces the amount of dropped games a good deal and keeps players from taking too long during turns. It seems like this is very effective.
I’ve found that often in the world of online board games comes some grey area legal maneuvers. In the case of Board Game Arena the legality is pretty clear cut: The games on the site have been licensed or authorized by the copyright holders. So you don’t have to debate whether this is fair to the game developers since they are giving the go ahead.
However, with this comes another small downside to the platform. The games can be removed at the demand of the copyright holder.
The main reason I could see this happening is if a game developer published their own online game or app. This means that all the work that goes into creating the game and the time spent building up your Elo rating on it could potentially be wiped out.
This platform is on the low end with cost. It is essentially free to play any game; however, there are premium games.
At first I assumed this meant you had to be a premium member to play these games. It doesn’t work exactly like that, you just have to have a premium member pick you up for a game. So essentially you’ll just end up waiting longer for a game than if you were to start one of the free games yourself.
Premium membership is also relatively reasonable at $24/year. This is a hot price point and it competes with Tabletop Simulator but If you’re looking for something specifically browser based this can’t be beat.
- Essentially free
- Mobile support
- Real-time and asynchronous gameplay
- Playing ranking system
- Player accountability system
- Totally legal
- Lower quality visuals compared to competition
- Very limited game selection
- UI is just okay
Overall, for the price (free) Board Game Arena is worth a shot. If it has the games you are in to and the UI doesn’t throw you off, it has a ton of positives and a growing community that supports development and keeps the site active.