When should you be using Tabletop Simulator when developing your game and why

Marketplace of Fantastic Factories

You’re designing a board game, and you’ve just heard about this interesting tool called Tabletop Simulator (or maybe Tabletopia). You can design and upload your game to the cloud and play online! Sounds great, but does it work as advertised? Like any other prototyping tool, Tabletop Simulator has its time and place. In this post, I’ll answer some of the most common questions about Tabletop Simulator.

If I upload my game to Tabletop Simulator, doesn’t that mean someone can steal my game?

Yes and no. The short answer is nobody will steal your game because ideas are only as good as the execution behind it. Without you to grow the audience and develop the brand, your game isn’t worth much to someone else. Many people have written about this topic as well. Additionally, within the US, your content is implicitly protected by copyright automatically.

If I make the game available for free online, won’t fewer people buy my game?

Unlikely. In fact, the opposite is more likely to happen. Tabletop gaming is an inherently social and face-to-face activity. Tabletop Simulator allows players to try games they otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to try, but ultimately the majority of people will want the real deal. Making your game available online serves a similar purpose to a print and play — it allows players to try your game before buying it.

Shadow Thief’s player board from Dice Throne

So I have this cool idea for a game — should I go ahead and create it using Tabletop Simulator?

No, not yet! Your first prototype ought to be pen and paper. Creating your game on Tabletop Simulator can take hours if you are doing it for the first time. And subsequent updates can take 10 to 30 minutes. When you first start prototyping, you’ll want to be iterating at a much faster pace. In fact, I know many designers will even make modifications in the middle of the game!

So when should I be putting my game up on Tabletop Simulator?

The answer to this question will vary from game to game and from person to person. For my game, Fantastic Factories, uploading it to Tabletop Simulator served two purposes. First, it allowed me to play test the game with some good friends who lived far away from me. Second, my son was just born, and it was difficult to leave the house for in-person play testing. Having Fantastic Factories on Tabletop Simulator allowed me to continue play testing the game from the comfort of my own living room.

In general, I believe the appropriate timing for using Tabletop Simulator is when the game design is nearly complete and you need to either test out the graphic design, widen your pool of players, or play test more frequently for development/balance changes. Once you start having more art and graphic design, it can be difficult to make changes on-the-fly, and using Tabletop Simulator can allow you to make those changes without having to reprint your game. For some games, Tabletop Simulator might not even be part of the development process and can instead be used as marketing tool to gain exposure.

Is playing a board game on the computer even fun? It seems so awkward.

There is certainly a learning curve to playing games on Tabletop Simulator. There’s a helpful tutorial but also a number of additional hot keys and commands that make the overall experience smoother. Once I got the hang of the controls, I was surprised at how much playing online felt like the real thing. But still, I would prefer to play in person, and I find that Tabletop Simulator games take longer to play.

Are there any other reasons to use Tabletop Simulator?

I posted the Fantastic Factories download publicly and left a note linking to the rules and encouraging players to email me about their experience playing the game. Since then I’ve had a couple people stumble upon the game and try it out — including one Japanese fan who even drew some fan art for us! Just putting your game out there can help build your audience.

Fan art from someone who discovered Fantastic Factories exclusively through Tabletop Simulator.

Also, if you ever plan on doing a video or live streams, playing on Tabletop Simulator can often be a great choice. Recording a physical game in real life can be tricky since you have to balance between seeing the entire game and the individual details and text of the components. Using Tabletop Simulator gives you controls to fly around the table and highlight/zoom into various components and cards.

What’s the difference between Tabletop Simulator and Tabletopia?

Tabletop Simulator has an up front cost of $20 (although it’s often on sale for $10), and each person playing has to have a copy of the game. Tabletopia on the other hand is free to play with a premiums subscription of $5–10 a month, which gives access to premium subscription games. For playtesting/development, the free to play model may be advantageous for attracting new players, but I’ve found that more people seem familiar with Tabletop Simulator than with Tabletopia.

So as you’ve seen, putting your game on Tabletop Simulator has a lot of benefits but it may not be for everyone. Just as with anything, there’s an appropriate time and place. It’s just another tool, but one that game designers/developers/publishers should get to know.

Finally, I have a list of my favorite tips/tricks and hotkeys. The tutorial gives you a brief overview of the controls but there are a lot of additional shortcuts that I’ve found to be very useful:

  • Hover over a deck of cards and press ‘5’ to draw 5 cards into your hand.
  • You can hold multiple objects by picking them up one at a time by left-clicking on the first object, holding the left-click, and right-clicking on any additional objects. This can be useful for grabbing multiple dice, cards, or tokens. This can also be used to grab multiple tokens out of a bag rapidly.
  • You can lock an object into place by hovering over it and pressing ‘l’. You can unlock it using the same hotkey.
  • You can roll dice by grabbing them first and then either shaking them or pressing ‘r’. The latter method tends to knock over fewer things on the table. This hotkey can also be used to shuffle decks.
  • You can search through a deck for a specific card by right clicking on the deck and selecting ‘search’.
  • You can set the value of a die by hovering over it and pressing the number that you want it to be set to.
  • You can group together all selected items together by pressing ‘g’. This is useful for collecting a lot of cards into a single pile.

Thanks for reading, and finally, here’s a link to the Tabletop Simulator version of Fantastic Factories.