Even before the ongoing pandemic I already used Tabletop Simulator (TTS) quite a lot, as I thought that this is a great way to quickly start a game with friends that are not local and still sit a round a table. After porting Dungeons of Doria into TTS I realized, that this is a great tool for prototyping and selecting the right components for your board game. If it is not a component in TTS already, do not use it – as a printer/manufacturer will also have problems with it…!
But up until then, I used TTS just for a bit of playing with remote friends and for quickly showing new designs. Shortly after, Tabletopia showed up, and I also started playing around with this tool and created my game there too. But since the pandemic started, all my game rounds (except for the ones with my wife and son) completely transferred to TTS. Why TTS and not Tabletopia? And why do I still update both TTS and Tabletopia, even though I like TTS more? Here is why:
First of all, TTS is (in my eyes) the better tool. It has more features, there is no limit in where or how much you upload and you can play anything you like with your group. But TTS has one small downside: It is a program for Steam that you have to buy for around 20 USD. And that is a high hurdle for people that just want to play a game from time to time – or even worse, just want to test your game design quickly. That is definitely the biggest plus for Tabletopia: Anyone with a browser can use it, and as long as you publish your game design not as a premium setup, everyone can use it without any cost. To use premium game setups, Tabletopia users have to pay around 5 USD a month. So, let’s say the cost is roughly comparable if you want to use it more often and with more games – though Tabletopia is a subscription model and that might end up higher than TTS after a few months.
But what about the other features?
For the players the main differences will be how many games you can play. TTS for sure has a lot more games than Tabletopia, but most of them are created by fans as (in many cases) unofficial mods. This does not have to be a bad thing in general. But there are two problems: If you search for a game, you might find 10 different versions from different people with different features or in different quality. And when you found a good version, it would be best to quickly save it to your local saves, as this Mod might get pulled from the Steam Workshop as soon as a company does not like people playing the game on TTS. My personal opinion on this: Let people play and test it remotely – if they like it, they will also buy the real version. TTS also has nicer special paid/DLC releases of some board games from some publishers (for example Scythe and Zombicide), but on that front, TTS will get more expensive really fast, as every additional game costs money (though only one time and only for the owner). This only is worth it, if you really like a specific game and therefore play it a lot also in TTS. My recommendation to the makers of TTS – for these games, maybe an option like Tabletopias to pay a small monthly fee for all “professional made games” might be better?
So you can see where this leads: Tabletopia has better games, all professionally made by the authors or publishers themselves. You don’t have to search for the correct version, you don’t have to upload it yourself and if it is a premium setup, each creator/publisher will also receive a bit of money from Tabletopia (if you play it and have also a premium subscription). That might be the general reason, why Tabletopia is more preferred by bigger publishers.
Creating games: Steam Workshop vs. Tabletopia Workshop
TTS uses the Steam Workshop by default. While Steam is a downside for many people, it is a BIG plus for TTS creators: Just upload all of your designs files to the Steam Cloud of your account – you have a few Gigabytes at minimum (I believe 20 GB). That is a lot, even if you used some of that space already for game saves or video uploads in Steam. And if you don’t want to use Steam Cloud, just use your own webhosting space!
Tabletopia limits you in size on the free account with only 200 MB. If you only have very small card games, this should be enough to publish maybe 2 games easily including a few setups. But if you have a bigger game with a lot of cards, figurines and tiles, these 200 MB will get small fast. And setups also apparently cost you some space. I say apparently, as Tabletopia is very limited in showing you how much space you have used. You will get a warning when you approach or went over the 200 MB, but there is no way to find out, what the big consumers in your game are at the moment. You can easily extend this to 1 or even 5 GB, but that will cost you monthly subscription money. Money that you most likely don’t have before your game is published.
And then there is the publishing time in Tabletopia. Whenever you upload something, it goes into a queue. In general that is fine, and premium users are preferred. But sometimes, especially weekends, this queue is overwhelmed, and this one small update of one card in your game can take a lot of time until it is really included in your game setup. Definitely make sure to update everything a few days before a playtesting session and do not make any last minute changes! TTS is much better and faster about these things.
Card creation differences
Card deck creation has its downsides on both tools. I think Tabletopia is much better, if you only need to change single cards from time to time, as you can update the card, publish it and update all setups – done! But if you need to exchange the whole deck? This is a nightmare!
Therefore I still tend to like the TTS Deck creation a bit more. Yes, you have to create a big picture with all your cards first. But changing one or all cards in this picture is up to you, and you can just easily create new decks with a new picture. But having this “update item in all your mods” feature from Taletopia would be a dream in TTS.
Things that Tabletopia does right
Standees in Tabletopia always face the users eye. While it can be distracting and unusual at first, it allows you to see figurines always from the front. But apparently there is no feature to turn it off. So if you need figurines facing a direction, you’ll have a problem in Tabletopia. I also like how Tabletopia handles adding cards back to a card deck: When you hover over the deck, it will highlight the deck in orange to show you the card will now be added on top. TTS also does this, but does not show it. Throwing a card in TTS between two piles you will never know where it ends up – and in the virtual world, it is harder to aim…
I absolutely love the Magnetic Maps feature in Tabletopia a lot. With this you can create tiles, boards or anything else and influence the location and orientation of items on top of it. TTS has a very similar feature, but within TTS you have to create it on the tile itself within the game. In Tabletopia this is a much better process by creating it in your graphic tool one time and then upload it as many times you want. TTS asks you to redo it every time you update your tiles or re-create them.
Naming of items and other virtual tools
Tabletopia allows naming of items when you upload them – but this is never shown again. This is due to the fact that Tabletopia calls itself a “Gaming Sandbox” – play like in real life! TTS on the other hand (sometimes also called a sandbox) is much more an extension of a real table into the virtual world. TTS allows naming items, so when you hover over them, you see the name. You can even name all the cards in your deck and then search the deck to find a specific item easily. Tabletopia leaves you with exactly what you would do in real life: Search through the whole deck until you find the item. Even if you did not name the cards, going through a whole deck with TTS search is so much easier…
The only thing I am missing here in TTS too: Bulk naming cards or items while importing them. There are a few options with scripting, but this should be somehow included in the base import functionality (through a text file or similar).
Speaking of scripting: This is the one big point for TTS. Tabletopia does not offer anything to script. In TTS, you can create your own dice rollers, character sheets, even automate game setup and anything can be influenced. You could even create a game that basically plays itself (but who would want that?). And yes, while the scripting language is horrible and you need to be a programmer to really create something nice, it is a cool add on that Tabletopia does not offer and is really helpful in creating more advanced game functionality.
But there are more things that you can do in TTS: Make a item more transparent quickly to see what is underneath? Change the color? Or simply copy and paste items to get more of the same type if you run out? All possible in TTS and Tabletopia leaves you hanging with the feature of “feeling like a real game”.
User interface – easy vs. overwhelming
But all of that also has a (for myself minimal) cost: The user interface of Tabletopia is much more tidy and has a lot less distractions than TTS. You can do less in Tabletopia – but what it can do, it can do in a good way. For example counters: Right click it and select how much you want to add or subtract from the counter. Cards: Draw 1, 3 or 10? Right click and select the amount. All of these things are also possible in TTS, but less out of the box and Games must implement a few of these via scripting themselves. I am missing this radial right click tool from Tabletopia in TTS – but the advanced tool and features I miss much more in Tabletopia.
For me as a designer, TTS is the much better solution, allowing a lot more flexibility in designing components and even uploading as much content as you like. As a publisher, I can understand why Tabletopia is preferred, but would recommend for all the publishers out there: Also create your game for TTS and ask Berserk (the TTS makers) to change their model so you like it more (I imagine something like a category “Games created by the publishers/designers for 2 USD a month” or similar).
As a gamer: I still prefer TTS for all the content I made myself. And I love checking out games in the workshop before I buy them. For me this is like hearing a song on the radio: If I like it, I will buy the CD. So, my recommendation to publishers would be: Let players test it out and make sure the best version is out there by creating it yourself (instead of the multiple copies by several users created to just be able to play the game remotely).