Downtime

The Ingenious Ways People Are Playing Board Games on Zoom

Everyone has a Codenames method.

A laptop computer sitting on a table next to a board for the game Pandemic. On the laptop, there's a video conference featuring shots of cards, another Pandemic board, and other players.
Playing board games over video chat just takes a little finessing.
Kate Dramstad

Slate is making its coronavirus coverage free for all readers. Subscribe to support our journalism. Start your free trial.

The outbreak of COVID-19 has forced people to stretch the idea of virtual socializing to its limits, with seemingly every IRL get-together now finding its video-chat equivalent. Virtual happy hours? Sure! Virtual book clubs? Worth a try! Virtual … weddings? Why not? So it was only a matter of time before people realized that now is also a great time to bring the board game, that reliably vintage excuse for gathering, into the video-chat fold.

Just ask Emma Alterman. She and her college friends have a long-standing tradition of getting together to play games. So when Alterman, a New Yorker who works in education policy research, started doing her job remotely earlier this month, “I was thinking about how all of my meetings had moved virtual,” she said. “And so I figured, why not move game night virtual?”

I’m not talking about online Scrabble or other video game equivalents here. I’m talking about the kind of games that have tangible components like boards, tokens, cards, dice, and the like, but that, with a little tweaking, could still work over video conferencing. As Dustin Palmer, who lives in San Francisco and works as a program manager for Code for America, put it to me, “There are a lot of games that are virtual or even board games you can play online like Scrabble or something like that, but I think what we were kind of craving is something that replicates that in-person experience that we can’t get right now.” This was a priority for Sarah Kuranda, who does communications for a tech company, as well: “I kind of like the tactile part of moving the pieces,” she said. “It just feels a lot different when you play it, versus clicking buttons.”

Game choice is paramount. Not every board game can be played online, but more than you might think work for Zoom. A few weeks ago, game designer Scott Rogers took to his blog to post a list of 10 board games he thought would work well over video chat. He told me about a few basic approaches: One way it can go, Rogers said, is that “one person is kind of the moderator or the master of the game—and the other players are still there, they still might have certain elements of the game at their disposal—but the moderator’s kind of acting as the hands for those other players.” This is basically what Palmer said his group did with the game they chose, One Night: One person sat out to facilitate.

Kuranda, though, chose Ticket to Ride, a strategy game comparable to Settlers of Catan, because she and the friends she was playing with owned physical copies: “We each set up a board on our side, and then we would just say what moves we were doing and what pieces we were putting down. As long as we communicated, it worked pretty well.”

A game called Pandemic is, perhaps unsurprisingly, another popular choice. Kate Dramstad, a software engineering manager in Montana, described playing with some friends from college: “The two folks who were hosting the game for us had a camera pointed at the board, a camera pointed at the cards, and then one camera pointed at the two of them,” she said. (Once they got the hang of it, it almost felt casual, even: “It reminded me most of being back in college where you had a common room that people would just kind of come through and hang out and sit down for a while and then you say, ‘OK, I’m headed to bed.’ ”)

You’re probably starting to see that this often involves a certain amount of MacGyvering. For example, with the game that came up most when I was interviewing people for this story, Codenamesalso a Slate-endorsed favorite, by the way—each party I spoke to figured out a slightly different way to play it over video, some ways more complicated than others. They all seemed to work fine.

A photo of a laptop screen with a Zoom video conference on it, the largest square featuring cards laid out for the game Codenames and the smaller squares featuring players' faces.
Using Zoom, and a few hacks, to play Codenames.
Emma Alterman

“I use Zoom for work a lot,” Alterman said. “So I was able to think about the different features that Zoom offers” that could be marshaled for Codenames purposes. Screen-sharing would let her show off the grid of cards while still participating in the game herself, and on-screen annotating would let her mark the cards as they were revealed to be red, blue, or neutral.

That left just one thing to figure out: “There’s the little map in Codenames where the clue givers have to see which cards are red and which are blue, but no one else can see that, so I had pictures of those, and I emailed those out to the clue givers at the start of each round,” Alterman said. Well, almost: “I will admit I do not own the game, so I texted my mother and had her send me photos of the cards.” Generous of Mom.

All in all, it was easy. “It certainly did not take any more time than it would to clean my house and put out snacks and get ready to host people in person,” Alterman said.

Anna Brune, who works in sports marketing in Chicago, figured out her own way to play Codenames for her board game–loving family, which is currently spread out in far-flung locations.

“It was funny because my sister and I had one idea of how to best play it, and my mom had a different one, but we kind of teamed up and got my mom to do it our way,” Brune said.

“The board was at my parents’ house, so my parents would send us a picture of the board, and then my sister and I would both pull it up on our computers and as different words were taken—I used Photoshop, I don’t know what program she used—we would just cross out those tiles so that we could keep up with what was happening.”

Brune said it felt like the real thing: “Even though it was all e- and technology, we still had plenty of times to accuse each other of cheating like we usually do.”

Meanwhile, Melis Akman, an evolutionary biologist in Oakland, California, had yet another method of playing Codenames: This one involved using the website Horsepaste, which is free and lets players use their smartphones to play; Netgames.io is another one that does the same thing for Codenames and other games. The catch there is that each player might want to have two devices—a phone to play on and a computer to video-chat with. It saves the time of having to take pictures and distribute them or annotate anything, but a bit of the aforementioned tactile pleasures might also disappear in the tradeoff.

Akman, for her part, said she hopes to get together with friends to play every other day, or maybe even every day. “I think it’s going to be really helpful for me to stay sane and not lose my mind while staying at home,” she said.

Here are a few other stray tips from the gamers I spoke to:

• “At my work we do a lot of remote work. I have remote teammates. Our best practice is to have everyone open their laptop and have their video on [even when multiple people are in the same place]. It gets you—it depends on what you’re doing, maybe 75 percent to that in-person experience at least for sharing information and reacting in real time and making jokes and all of that.” —Dustin Palmer

• “One of the big things is if you’re the person that has the actual board pieces at your place and everybody else is doing it through the phone or through video chat, let them come up with the system. It seems so simple to you if you have the stuff because you’re there, but to the people that are remoting in, it might be different. Since they’re the ones that are remote, they probably have a better idea. Let them take charge of that.” —Anna Brune

• “If you don’t own many board games or if you’re bored with the games you already have, there is a phenomenon in the board gaming world called ‘print and play.’ If you don’t want to spend the money or you can’t get to a game store to get a copy, you can print these out. Part of the joy of a print-and-play game is you’re actually also making the game. If you’re crafty, this can be a lot of fun.” —Scott Rogers