“How do I play board games with my friends online?”

As somebody who increasingly writes about the pleasures of tabletop gaming, even in a time of pandemic (and Pandemic), it’s a question I’ve been asked more and more frequently in the last month.

But it’s also a question I’ve had myself. I love board gaming. I love board gaming with friends. But board games are uniquely difficult to play across Zoom, and the handful of free board game sites out there tend to be focused on the classics, like chess or checkers. Don’t get me wrong: Chess and checkers are fun. But more modern board games — your Sushi Gos, your Hanabis, your 7 Wonderses — aren’t really available online.

Or are they?

You can find all of those games I just mentioned on the website Board Game Arena, which has been around for years but exploded in popularity in recent weeks. It’s a site that’s been getting me through some tense times and letting me stay connected to friends around the planet. The selection of board games is truly impressive, and the interface is clean and simple to use.

But it’s also a site that has some problems, particularly as more people crowd onto its servers. I’d recommend Board Game Arena — but particularly if you can afford the $24 annual subscription, which will make your experience much more stable.

Board Game Arena has most of the classics, but it’s also got a surprisingly robust selection of modern games to play

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The first thing to know is that Board Game Arena doesn’t have everything. If you wanted to play, say, Ticket to Ride or Settlers of Catan — to name two wildly popular modern games — they’re not there. (Just for simplicity’s sake, I’m defining “modern” as roughly everything from about 1990 on, when the rise of so-called “Eurogames” changed board gaming as a hobby for even the most casual enthusiasts.) The same goes for more obscure titles like (my favorite) The Fox in the Forest, most cooperative titles like Pandemic, and more cerebral and involved games like the Cold War simulator Twilight Struggle.

Many of the games I just listed have dedicated digital apps on phones and the PC gaming marketplace Steam. That means you can play them electronically, if you want. But those apps often don’t allow for play over the internet, and you’ll be purchasing app after app piecemeal.

Board Game Arena’s chief strength is that it features a lot of games, 175 in total, many of which are very well-known modern titles (Carcassonne, 7 Wonders, Sushi Go, to name three) and several of which are all-time classics (yes, chess and checkers and backgammon are here for you traditionalists). It also allows you to play with friends, so long as you know each other’s screen names. But if you don’t have friends ready and waiting to play, the site will fill your table with players randomly selected from around the world, based on your skill level and preferences. And it’s all free.

When Board Game Arena works, it works really well. It’s going to be the solution for most people looking for a way to play games against each other online while they’re closed away from the world. There’s even voice chat that will allow you to trash talk or engage in polite conversation as you play. (Look, I’m not going to tell you how to treat your friends.)

But — and this is a pretty massive “but” — the site often stops working almost entirely at peak hours (usually early evening on the East Coast of the US). The crush of new players who’ve joined what was once a pretty niche site has led to severe server strain that the site is struggling to keep up with. Preference is given to players with subscriptions — $24 for an annual subscription; $4/month for a monthly membership — during those peak times, so it’s not unusual for free players to just not be able to access the site at all. (Subscribers get some other perks as well, including the ability to create tables for certain popular titles, though free players can join a table for any game.)

Yet even in its free version, Board Game Arena will be a great stop for most Americans. The site’s peak hours roughly correspond with primetime hours in Europe, so by the time it’s night here, you’ll likely be lucky enough to stay connected and find games to play. And if you can afford a subscription, I’d recommend it wholeheartedly. The selection is great, the players are polite, and there’s no better way to show my friends how great I am at Yahtzee.

To play, simply visit BoardGameArena.com.

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