A few weeks ago, my nephew — yes, the same one in the video from last week’s F2P Cast — invited me to join a group of his friends to play board games online. The site they’d been using was Board Game Arena, and ever since he introduced me to it, I’ve been hooked. In fact, I might be playing on it right now. Don’t tell Magicman.
BGA has nearly 200 games, ranging from well-known traditional games like checkers, backgammon, and Yahtzee, to more complex Eurogames like Carcassonne and 7 Wonders. The games have rules pdfs, instructional videos, and in-game demos if you need them, and playing is as simple as choosing a game and clicking on the Play Now button. Each game uses simple point-and-click mechanics, with mouseover tooltips on game elements to serve as reminders, while automatically handling most of the mundane elements of the games, like set-up, shuffling cards, and some “no-choice” game decisions, such as moves when there’s only one option.
You can play any game for free, though if you want to start a table — to either play with friends or let random people join — for games marked as “premium,” you’ll need a premium membership. That’s just $4/month, or $2/month ($24 total) if you pay for a year in advance. As of this writing, just 15 games are marked as premium (a decision made by publishers when they allow BGA to host their games), so you’ll still have plenty of options, and if you’re playing with friends, just one needs premium membership to start a game. Other benefits of premium membership include stat tracking, tournament creation, and priority color choice.
My favorite games so far include:
- 7 Wonders: One of the best-regarded board games of recent years, it’s a drafting game, where you build structures to enable your civilization to construct the most amazing ancient wonder. It’s understandably a premium game, but you can find players at nearly all hours.
- Colt Express: You’re all bandits on a train trying to accumulate the most cash by robbing passengers and, occasionally, each other. With “programmed” turns, it’s got strong Roborally vibes, so if you like that, you’ll probably like Colt Express.
- Tokaido: My group played this for the first time last week, and we’re all in love. All players are travelers on Japan’s Tokaido Trail, sampling local cuisine, relaxing in hot springs, and viewing gorgeous panoramas along the way. Also, the board is beautiful and I wish I had the real thing.
- 6 nimmt!: A very simple game, but it’s another new fave for our group. Cards are numbered from 1 to 104, each with a number of “beef heads” on them. You play one card per turn, placing it in a row according to certain rules, and if you fill a row, you have to take the cards from it, which is bad. The strategy is in trying to guess what other players will play to force them to take cards while not taking any yourself. “This game is pain,” is how one of us described it.
I came into the site knowing how to play just a few of the non-traditional games, but have since learned and played about a dozen new ones, and I’ve got several more on my “wish list” that I can’t wait to discover. My ultimate goal is the incredibly complex, takes-several-hours-to-play Through the Ages: A New Story of Civilization. It’ll be a while before I’m ready for that — hell, it’ll be a while before I can get through the rulebook, which is 24 pages long.
In case you’re wondering: no, this isn’t a paid endorsement. I just really like Board Game Arena. It’s brought back fond memories of gathering around a table in the evenings with friends and family and figuring out some complex new game while also marveling at the attractiveness of the components. I’m a sucker for a pretty board, like Tokaido’s. (One other thing you might be wondering: yes, this is all legal.)
The site started in 2011 but its two founders, Grégory Isabelli and Emmanuel Colin, only started dedicating themselves to it full-time in 2018. Their years of experience show, as the games themselves play very smoothly, with slick presentation and UI. My only gripe is the difficulty in starting up a new table with all the proper options enabled.
My nephew told me that he and his buddies got into the site to have something they could do as a group during the COVID-19 pandemic, but I wish I’d have known about it years ago. I’ll be sticking with it long after the situation has changed and I can actually go outside again. Not that I ever needed an incentive to stay inside and play games, of course.
Now, who’s up for a round of Colt Express?