The Murky Rise Of Tabletop Simulators

I played a lot of Magic:  The Gathering when it came out.


A lot.

From 1994 onward, I attended weekly events, playtested in a group for competitions I would enter, played against the computer when the Microprose product came out and poured over lists of cards as they were released to find new strategies for old decks and to see if there were any interesting brand new plans I could utilize.

Before that, I played a lot of Dungeons and Dragons.


A lot, too.

From 1985 until I lost my gaming group to the vagaries of time commitments [Exams, jobs, families and the like] I played the Red Box, made characters under the Second Edition rules, built up a campaign for friends that ended in hilarious disaster when someone lit a torch in an underground zone that was nothing but propane gas and tended my Beast in long-standing games of Vampire:  The Masquerade.

The point is, I really like board, card and role playing games.

The problem is, of course, that these games are difficult to play without friends.  I am primarily an introvert.  I have few friends.

The Rise Of The Tabletop Simulators

Tabletop games come in all sorts of flavours from the simple - like Chess - to the complex - like Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.  A game where you make a little movie in your mind of the actions you're performing with set dice rolls deciding your fate.
Chess is one of my very favourite tabletop games, but I’m terrible at it now :)

I remember the first time I saw tabletop simulator software.  It was 1995.  I was reading a magazine called the Duelist.  The Duelist – for those who didn’t experience the joy of reading it – was Wizards of the Coast’s magazine about Magic:  The Gathering and other card games.  Yes.  I know.  It was a weird time when the people who printed the cards could also make a magazine about the cards they were printing.

In this particular issue – one of the very first – they were updating us on the state of the Magic video game.  It was coming along, the article said.  It even had screenshots.  Screenshots of a marvellously quaint [and sometimes beautiful looking] DOS version of the game.  We never did get that version of the game, because – like most big projects that require a lot of coding – this one fell into a pit of never-ending delays.

I fell in love.

I wanted that game so, so bad.

Why?  Well, because it meant two things:  I’d get to play with cards I didn’t and never could own [even back then the price for a Black Lotus was starting to skyrocket.  It started at the $50 mark and we’re now sitting at well into the $4,000+ mark.  $50 for a card, back then was a CRAZY amount of money.]

There was another reason I wanted the game.

I recognized that I wouldn’t be able to keep playing it the way I was with the friends I had.  I also recognized that Magic was basically a money sink and I wasn’t going to be able to keep up indefinitely.  1995, for those of you who don’t know, was the point where Magic started formalizing tournament structures.  This meant a dreaded rotation of cards if you wanted to stay in the then-type-two meta game.  [That meant being part of the game that had an ever evolving and changing landscape due to cards cycling in and out.]

So, I wanted that game.

As time went along, I realized that I wanted a game like it for my other hobbies:  tabletop and card games badly needed either offline representation through life trackers and so on, or online counterparts where I could spend time hanging out with friends I’d met on the internet and play a game of pretend vampires.

Technology had other plans.  It would take years before many of these products were properly viable and now – with the web having become part of our true consciousness, to a point where we can’t properly imagine a world without the web, we’re here.  At a point where that game exists in a number of formats:  clients.  Life trackers for your smart ‘phone.  Web clients that connect people together for play sessions.  It’s glorious.

The Sad Vagaries Of Stupid Intellectual Property And Copyright Laws Strike Back.

That sigh when lawyers are more silly than they're worth.
That sigh when lawyers are more silly than they’re worth.

There are, unfortunately, also problems:  while many of these games do, indeed, connect players, they also do a few things that have…side-effects.

I wanted to get into Sanguine Games role playing staple Ironclaw.  Again, for those who don’t know, Ironclaw is a very interesting take on role playing – both in the way you manage your dice and rolls, but also in the way characters are set up.  You see, in Ironclaw, everyone’s a walking, talking animal.  So, like Zootopia, but before Zootopia showed up.

The biggest single problem was that technology hadn’t quite caught up at this point, and importing the rule books for Ironclaw was prohibitively expensive.  In this case, at least one friend had access to a rule book they bought.  Naturally, we circulated that version of the book amongst ourselves.  But it was a problem.

In the same way, many of the modern simulators can’t really get official support out of the people who make the actual role playing games.  Modders have stepped in, but modders and enthusiasts are also not really allowed to be creating this kind of content without the blessing of the original creators.  And thus, we enter the murky, murky world of copyright and IP shenanigans.

And this is why, sadly, most of these gaming tools, as fantastic as they are, haven’t gotten the spotlight and traction they’ve deserved.  I think the current free-to-play Magic game is a complete farce…and yet, I’ve sunk almost sixty to eighty hours.  [More, maybe] into a fan-run rules-oriented offline variant.  Why?  Because it obeys the rules of Magic properly.  It allows me to play with those older cards I prefer so much.  It has a passable single player experience.  In short, though it’s fan-run and somewhat buggy, it lets me play the game the way I enjoy playing it.

The same is true of the other online tabletop simulators.  They provide access to games I know I’m going to enjoy.  If only the board-, card- and role-playing game industry didn’t view them as threats.

Images courtesy of Pixabay and Wikipedia