If there’s anything the past few years in gaming have proved to us, it’s that you can take just about any noun, add “simulator” to the end of it, and it will sell based on that and that alone. Some have enjoyed explosive success for actually being reasonably fun, such as Surgeon Simulator 2013 and Goat Simulator, while others tend to reek of the “me too” attitude that drives the development of most of these games (*cough* Rock Simulator, Grass Simulator *cough*).
The question it really comes down to is “Does this exist for a reason? Is this simulating anything that I couldn’t simply experience in real life for free?” In the case of Tabletop Simulator, the answer to this question at first seems to be “No,” but the more you look into the workshop tools and mods, the more it opens up to be quite fun.
When I first booted up Tabletop Simulator, I didn’t get it. I could play about half a dozen card games, chess, checkers, dominoes, and a few more, but I felt that I was being limited by a tool that seems to promote itself based on being able to do anything in its engine. Perhaps I wasn’t looking closely enough, but I could not find any option to play any of the games against a CPU, which I suppose would make sense: not only would the AI have to compete, it would have to do so within the simulator’s realistic physics engine.
Still, I suppose the appeal of this game is for people with faraway friends who want to be able to play a card game or a game of chess with them. The matchmaking system seemed to be working pretty well for others when I logged on, but I couldn’t get any matches (though that could be due to my crappy campus wi-fi more than anything else). Another big thing that TS has over real life is that if you buy it once, you can theoretically have any board or card game at your fingertips without having to go out and buy it. It’s like meta-piracy. Which is pretty insane when you think about it.
I had spent a few hours with the game and the only game I found myself able to really enjoy was Solitaire. With this and the other considerations in mind, I wondered how I was going to write a preview for this game. I couldn’t sit down and call it BAD, because it works exactly the way it’s supposed to. At the same time, I couldn’t really be overwhelmingly positive because I’d only managed to a slightly more clunky version of Solitaire, which exists on almost every computer and phone by default.
Fortunately I gave the simulator a second chance by getting a friend to join me. We downloaded some of the mods from the Steam Workshop and found ourselves particularly enjoying “Eels and Escalators” and “Space Jam VHS Tape,” which is literally just a blank board with a VHS of Space Jam lying on top of it. We played Tic-Tac-Toe before realizing 3 x 3 is literally the worst game ever made by humans, and two nail-biting rounds of Chess. As long as you’re not playing alone, the games are still enjoyable, but my big warning is not to buy this expecting any sort of single-player experience.
Another byproduct of the physics engine is that there’s really no neat-and-tidy way to enforce the rules. In that way, it’s pretty similar to a real tabletop game: if your opponent looks away from the screen for a second you can switch the numbers on the dice or the position of the playing pieces. Your mileage may vary on this. I wasn’t too bothered by it, but I’m sure it can lead to some pretty intense griefing in online play.
So it’s no replacement for actually playing a game over a tabletop, and if you intend to play Uno with some friends, it’s probably a better idea to just go ahead and engage with the physical cards. But if you ever feel the need to flip a table and real life won’t allow you to do so, Tabletop Simulator is a great place to do so instead.