Coronavirus pandemic

Board gaming goes online

Tabletop game enthusiasts are tapping board-gaming portals, coupled with voice and video chat resources, to continue their hobby during the circuit breaker

A pale young man looks skyward and trembles in fear as a red dragon descends before him, letting out a mighty roar. But he is not alone: Making a final stand with him is a powerful sorcerer, staff in hand, ready to fight.

These are not scenes from a movie. They are moments from online Dungeons And Dragons games played by a community of more than 600 Singaporeans, who have become creative in getting their board gaming fix during the Covid-19 circuit breaker.

They and other tabletop game enthusiasts have taken these games – traditionally played in person and with items such as miniatures, dice and decks of cards – to the online realm, using board-gaming portals such as Roll20 and Tabletop Simulator, coupled with voice and video chat resources such as Discord and Zoom.

Like how Google Drive works as a server that hosts documents, the gaming portals let players create their own maps to play any game, so each game is basically built on custom content.

Student Bernice Lim Yi Mei, 20, is among those who started playing online due to the circuit breaker. She is an avid Magic: The Gathering (MTG) player.

In this long-running, popular board game which debuted in 1993, players take on the roles of wizards duelling one another for supremacy through the cosmos. Their cards represent spells and resources.

Playing online, Ms Lim would place cards representing champions and creatures onto an online battlefield on her turn. Her opponent may react to her moves and make plays.

The online game portal she plays in is called MTG Arena.

“The online platform hosts less time-consuming games than those I’ve played face to face, but it misses out on the interaction I would usually have through playing the game in person,” she says.

But MTG Arena has made the game much more accessible to players who would otherwise not have tried the game for reasons such as the cost of purchasing physical decks of cards (which can cost hundreds of dollars) or not having friends to play with, she says.

Mr Jason Koh, account director at pop-culture events firm Neo Tokyo Project and founder of the Dungeons and Dragons Adventurers League (DDAL) Singapore community, says: “As a community, we’re leveraging these platforms to continue doing the things we love while keeping a safe distance.”

Dungeons And Dragons is a fantasy tabletop role-playing game franchise that dates back to the 1970s. DDAL is an official, organised gameplay of the franchise, in which players can play their characters at games around the world, as opposed to self-contained playgroups.

In DDAL, players can assume roles from a roguish thief to a sneering noble. They confront scenarios placed by game masters – known as dungeon masters – and hunt for treasures, make daring rescues and navigate political intrigue.

DDAL and MTG are believed to be among the board games in Singapore with the largest following. There are hundreds of MTG players in Singapore – in 2018, close to 700 people signed up for the MTG Grand Prix Singapore tournament – and the number of MTG Arena players online might far exceed that number.

Being able to play in the comfort of one’s own home is a plus and flexing those creative muscles can definitely help those who are getting a little stir-crazy stave off boredom in a wholesome manner.

MR JASON KOH, founder of the Dungeons and Dragons Adventurers League Singapore community, which has taken the gaming online during the coronavirus circuit breaker

Echoing Ms Lim, Mr Koh says the circuit breaker has created a steady influx of curious adults who have never had the time or opportunity to try DDAL asking about how they can get a taste of the game.

“Being able to play in the comfort of one’s own home is a plus and flexing those creative muscles can definitely help those who are getting a little stir-crazy stave off boredom in a wholesome manner,” he says.

Mr Koh and the other founders of DDAL’s Singapore community estimate that since the circuit breaker started, the number of games being played online by community members has increased fivefold, from one or two games being held a week to around nine to 10 games now.

Prior to the circuit breaker, the DDAL Singapore community worked with local game stores to host games at their venues and held large-scale gaming events at local conventions Doujin Market and Game Start.

Now, the games organised by the community are hosted online.

Most recently, as part of the RPG Day Singapore event that was held on the weekend of May 9 and 10, 16 virtual tables of DDAL comprising more than 100 players vanquished beasts and explored unknown lands together online.

To introduce more people to the game, the DDALSG Digital Open House will be held on Saturday and Sunday. Go to warhorn.net/events/ddalsg to sign up.

Ms Charlotte Lee, a community leader at DDAL Singapore and founder of Geekified, a local tabletop accessories start-up, says: “With easy access to the rules and a plethora of content to delve into, it has never been a better time to play DDAL online.”

She adds that Wizards of the Coast, publisher of Dungeons And Dragons, has released the basic rules for free online to encourage people to start playing the game at home.

The trend in Singapore mirrors that in other places, such as Seoul in South Korea, where more than 550 players interact with one another on an online DDAL gaming portal site - a large number for this gaming community in the city.

Role-playing board games such as DDAL have become very popular in recent years. In 2017, more than 7,500 broadcasters worldwide streamed live DDAL games.

For online gameplay, one can play DDAL for free on sites such as Roll20. For MTG players, portals such as MTG Arena, Cockatrice, Xmage and untap.in are similar options to play the game online for free.

DO MORE BY PLAYING ONLINE

Mr Koh encourages members of the DDAL community to not only play the game, but also write adventures of their own.

He is an author of original creative content in the DDAL community, having written and published a series of adventures titled The Neverdusk Trilogy, which is available on the DMsGuild download portal.

With DDAL and other tabletop board games going online, players also get a chance to interact with players from other countries.

Ms Lyndon Ang, 24, who is unemployed, is one such person. She took on the role of dungeon master two weekends ago at the international Maydays Tenday Online Charity Convention, which was held from May 8 to Monday and supports causes such as at-risk youth, food banks and mental health.

"This was the first time I was controlling characters in an online setting with overseas players I'd never met before. And while I initially fumbled with the Roll20 portal controls, it was fun," she says.

There are, however, some fundamental differences between playing the game online and in real life.

Ms Lee says: "For instance, playing online, you lose out on the tactile elements of the game, like props and sets.

"There's a difference between looking at a picture of a castle on-screen and moving your miniature through an elaborate castle set that includes portcullises, battlements and other moving parts."

Ms Lim says: "If I had to choose between online and offline MTG, I would choose to play in person with friends, as I get to play with the decks I spent time building."

And for gamers waiting to get back to playing their games in the physical realm, some local game stores are operating webstores that they can go to for supplies to upkeep their gaming gear during the circuit breaker.

For instance, the webstore operated by Games @ PI, a game store located at Midpoint Orchard, fulfils orders for games and restocks hobby supplies for those painting miniatures of their role-playing characters.

Mr Kenneth Kooi, manager at Games @ PI, says: "While the Internet has allowed us to keep engaging in games, it cannot truly replicate the social experience of playing games in person.

"We are glad our games have brought some relief to people and are looking forward to a return to normalcy where people can finally meet to play games again."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 20, 2020, with the headline 'Board gaming goes online'. Print Edition | Subscribe