If you’re running out of things to talk about with your friends during your weekly Zoom happy hour — after all, it’s not like any of us have much to report in these days of social distancing — it might be a good time to introduce an online game. Like baking, knitting, and scrapbooking, gaming has become a popular hobby (just try to find an in-stock Nintendo Switch) as we look for new ways to pass the time. Along with single-player games like The Sims and Monument Valley, there are plenty of great games that can be played in groups, even if that group is scattered around the country.
We asked five experts for their favorite games to play virtually. Their picks include something for everyone, whether you’re into trivia, board games, or exploring virtual worlds together. Depending on the specific game, the options below can be played through sharing screens on Zoom, having a Zoom window up next to the game window, or simply chatting on Zoom while playing the actual game on your phone, tablet, or console.
For board game fans, Elizabeth Ballou, a game designer and writer, recommends Tabletop Simulator. “It basically works like a platform itself, allowing you to play various digital versions of tabletop games,” she says. Tabletop Simulator comes with basic games like chess, dominoes, and mah-jongg, and there is the option to purchase dozens of others, including Settlers of Catan and Risk. “It’s hard to ever perfectly replicate the tangible feeling of a board game, but Tabletop Simulator does let you ‘sit down’ at a table with friends, even if only with a virtual presence,” says Eric Van Allen, news editor at USGamer. According to Ballou, “the quality varies across games, but stick to the ones with the highest ratings and you should be fine.” To buy Tabletop Simulator, you’ll first need to download Steam, a desktop app that’s essentially a marketplace for video games.
Also featured in our guide to video games for people who don’t play video games, the games in the Jackbox Party Pack came up a lot in our reporting. “They’re incredibly easy to pick up and play, and you need only one copy of the game. Everyone else logs in using a phone, tablet, or computer,” says Van Allen. “Most are a series of either improv-style comedy competitions or fairly easy party games. I’ve played them with extended family, friends — just about anyone can pick it up and have fun.” The pack includes the Pictionary-esque Drawful, You Don’t Know Jack trivia game, and Fibbage, in which players have to convince others to believe made-up facts. “Anything that has user-submitted content always leaves room for craziness,” says Sonja Reid, a Twitch streamer and YouTube gamer known as OMGitsfirefoxx, who has more than 631,000 followers. She likes that the games work just as well for family get-togethers as boozy happy hours.
“Werewolf has very few rules and can accommodate large groups [of up to 16 players], which makes it good for virtual family hangouts,” Ballou says. Like the party game Mafia, in Werewolf players are assigned specific roles and have to figure out who among them is a “werewolf,” while the werewolves have to deceive other players to avoid capture. “Just like with Jackbox Games, everyone gets on a Zoom call and opens the game on their phone,” Ballou says. “One person functions as the ‘master of ceremonies,’ setting up the game and friending everyone else.”
Groups of friends who are regulars at trivia night will get a kick out of the very specific topics in QuizUp, an app recommended by Sophie Orchard, a YouTube gamer with 14,100 followers. “I’m currently champion of the ‘Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’ category,” she says. “But there are thousands of categories to choose from,” including celebrity tattoos, Agatha Christie novels, Greek mythology, and Bollywood films.
There are a few cultural touchstones that will likely come to define the coronavirus era: Tiger King on television, banana bread on Instagram, and, in the video-game category, Animal Crossing. Released in March, right around the time lockdown orders became the norm in cities around the country, the colorful game in which players gather materials to create crafts, make friends with animals, and explore a cartoonish island has been a welcome escape from reality for many. As Reid explains, “In these strange times, it creates such an air of positivity from the dorky and cute characters to the cheerful music.” Since you can interact with other players in the virtual world, it’s a good choice for social gaming. “My friends and I have been doing morning Zoom calls where we play Animal Crossing for a while and then do yoga together,” Reid says. “It’s been such a key in keeping connected.”
“If you want to spend time together in a virtual world free from too much violence and danger, Minecraft is a great play to share adventures and be creative,” says Ben Cousins, a game designer and industry consultant. Reid is a fan of the open-style gameplay, in which players navigate a massive game world with unlimited opportunities to collect resources, build different structures, and compete or cooperate with others. “Exploring, adventuring, and building whatever your imagination leads to provides countless hours to spend together,” says Reid.
If you’ve ever considered getting into the immersive gaming world of Dungeons & Dragons, Ballou says now would be a good time to get started. “There’s a misconception that D&D players need to go hard and read every manual back to front, but that’s not necessary,” she says. “You only need one knowledgeable player to be the DM — dungeon master — and everyone else can learn as they play.” For playing via Zoom, she recommends using the Roll20 platform, which has everything you need to create characters and share maps for your adventures.
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