Traditionally, tabletop games have been played in person with friends. But the pandemic’s changed everything about how we play together.

Tabletop games are traditionally played in person, with two or more people. They require planning and preparation, a shared space and (usually) a side of chips. But the pandemic has played havoc with how these games are played. The Pokémon World Championships are skipping this year because of it. Several other tournaments were also cancelled, and games like Yu-Gi-Oh, Pokémon and Magic: The Gathering have had to rethink how to continue playing safely.
Recently, the Kotaku Australia team was invited along to the launch of MTG‘s Kaldheim set. It was originally set to take place at Mjølner, a Norse-themed restaurant in Sydney. But following the Northern Beaches coronavirus cluster of late 2020, it was shifted to an online event where we all got to play around with the new cards in MTG Arena and enjoy a home-cooked meal.
MTG Arena is the digital component of the physical Magic game. It features replicas decks and easy-to-understand gameplay (both online and solo) so anybody can hop in and play. The most important part of this currently is you don’t need to risk dying to battle your mates. It’s true that digital card games will never entirely replicate the feeling of hanging out with your friends and battling in person but in a pandemic, you need to make certain sacrifices.
Luckily, playing MTG Arena is just as much fun as playing Magic in person.
Image: Magic Arena
For a relative newcomer like me, Magic Arena is great because it ditches the complications of more intricate cards and powers. Magic has rules for which monsters can go where and what they can do, and learning every nuance is overwhelming. Arena streamlines these rules by guiding you through what cards can and can’t do as you play.
It means you can learn Magic and discover more about the strategy behind it in about five minutes. There’s no scrolling through manuals or looking up guides online there’s a brief tutorial, and then you’re away and battling. It’s so much easier to focus and organise a game with mates when a digital game is just a click away.
Traditional games are popular because they connect people together. But digital games have the same capabilities, and in the coronavirus era they’re more accessible, too.
If you want to play Pokémon with a mate but you can’t meet them in person, you’ve got Pokémon TCG Online. If you’re more of a Yu-Gi-Oh fiend, you’ve got more cinematic games like Duel Links and Legacy of the Duelist. They’re all games that perfectly replicate the look and feel of playing in person when chips, dips and chats aren’t an option.
Going into MTG Arena for the first time, I was sceptical about how I’d feel. I’ve written about my love for traditional board games before, and playing a card game online felt sacrilegious. But despite the lack of cardboard between my fingers and the smell of a good hummus dip, MTG Arena made me realise how much potential digital adaptations have in the modern tabletop space.
There’s plenty out there already, including the ones I mentioned earlier. But beyond card games there’s also Talisman: Digital Edition, Ticket to Ride, Mysterium, Gloomhaven, Splendor … the list goes on.
You’ve even got board game-games like Tabletop Simulator where people can create and upload their own digital versions of traditional games. (You can visit here to check out the top-rated user creations.)
Screenshot: GrabTheGames Gaming/YouTube
In the future, this may be the way we play all our board games. It means a future where set up is easier. Where you can learn a game and get started in minutes. A future where your friends can login from anywhere around the world, one where all your favourite tabletop adventures are in one place.
Sure, you’ll forgo sticky fingers making a mess of your cards and someone spilling the draw pile over the whole board. But they’re small sacrifices to make so you can spend more time playing with friends.
My time with MTG Arena was great, and it made me realise how important digital tabletop games are in our current future. They’re more accessible than traditional games, and they’re also essential in a time when in-person gaming events are regularly being cancelled.
If you’re looking for a party starter, you miss your favourite games or you’re just feeling lonely at home, consider adding a digital card or board game to the menu. While quality will vary from title to title, apps like MTG Arena are great for replicating that in-person feeling. Personally, I’ve enjoyed the digital Ticket to Ride and Mysterium adaptations, but there’s plentyofothers out there. Tabletop Simulator is also an absolute treasure trove for options.
Diving into digital tabletop games can be a strange feeling if you’re used to more traditional gameplay. But once you get started, you’ll feel right at home. They’re the perfect alternative for a world that’s shifting towards digital living.
Even if your favourite game isn’t available online, there’s sure to be plenty of others out there you’ll enjoy.