Tabletop Simulator is a great way to preserve out-of-print war games - but you still have to put in the work

By Bill Gray 15 May 2019 2

I’m sure it was coincidence, but about the same time as a pervious article on Tabletop Simulator (or TTS) popped up here on The Wargamer, the software went on sale for a few days. Obviously I picked up a copy to see what all the fuss was about, and in doing so downloaded about 30 commercial wargame adaptation DLC type modules (a lot unlicensed, but more on that later). Here we are talking SPI, Decision Games and a LOT of stuff from GMT. Thus the customer created DLC on GMT’s Borodino Napoleonic boardgame is the case study yours truly has decided to review for this week’s tome.

Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF). So long as you remember that TTS is NOT, repeat NOT, really a game but an alternative digital interface for board and miniature wargaming, you would be well advised to grab this little gem for your conflict simulation tool chest. Just don’t get the idea it’s something it’s not.

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Preliminaries

TTS is published by Beserk Games and lists for $19.99 US. Although TTS does have some ready made “games” for purchase, the primary focus of the software seems to be as a toolbox allowing end users to create their own DLCs, and most importantly for the wargaming community, as a platform for importing and playing customer made DLCs off Steam. Because TTS is really heavy on graphics vice actual gaming functionality, the hardware requirements are a bit heftier than you might expect. They include, minimum:

OS: Windows 7 SP1+ (but amazingly, MAC OS and Linux are also supported)
Processor: SSE2 instruction set support.
Memory: 4 GB RAM
Graphics: Graphics card with DX10 (shader model 4.0) capabilities.
DirectX: Version 10
Network: Broadband Internet connection
Storage: 3 GB available space

Once you sign into Steam, the place to be is TTS Community page and then under the Workshop tab where you click Browse and then click Collections. This will bring up a list of bards who have programmed their own – FREE – modules for the software. There are 11,598 boardgames available not to mention 8850 so called strategy games. Of these very few are reproductions of legitimate computer games, although I did see one for Star Citizen. Instead there are a lot cardboard and counter games, and not surprisingly, far more miniature wargames. Why? Well although there is plenty of content for historical miniature gaming such as the Bolt Action World War II franchise, and to my surprise, quite a bit for the Battletech Universe, the 800 pound gorilla in the room is – wait for it – Warhammer 40K so we are talking of hundreds of TTS modules, maybe thousands. Seriously, this should be a veritable Cease and Desist litigation magnet for GW, but so far it hasn’t happened.

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However, if you are reading this, its likely you’ll want to go to a collection like TTS Wargames as of 5/2018 which has a pretty lengthy list of traditional wargames, to include more casual offerings such as Axis and Allies. Click on any game that interests you, say the Avalon Hill 1975 game Tobruk, and then click the button to Subscribe to it. Or you can just click on the small green box with a “+” by every game in the original list and it will change to a check mark, thus allowing you to subscribe to multiple modules at a single shot. Now the games selected will appear in your copy of TTS.

And bringing up your stash in TTS couldn’t be easier. Once you open the game (and stifle the Legend of ZeldaSuper Mario Brothers music), you will see a white box with two square buttons. Click on the button with the green icon that says CREATE, then hit the popup icon that says SINGLEPLAYER. This will take you to a second screen with several line items, one of which sports a light blue icon labeled WORKSHOP. Click this and every TTS module you subscribed to will appear as an icon, normally the game’s original box cover. Click on one and it will import the game from Steam, load it and you will invariably find yourself in a Victorian parlor looking at a nice table with the game map, charts and counters all laid out and set up. In most cases the actual rulebook from the original game is not available, but this is not always the case. You are ready to begin.

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La Bataille de la Moscowa

I downloaded a lot for TTS, but I finally decided to play GMT’s Borodino – Battle of the Moscowa 1812. First, I have the game, so I have the rules (trust me, this is important), and second it’s relatively simple to play so it provides an excellent entry point into using TTS for wargaming. It’s also not a particularly large game so this makes easier still. Yes, there is larger and more complex modules available, such as GMTs Three Days of Gettysburg (think Terrible Swift Sword on steroids), but I wouldn’t tackle something like this first.

With this game the first thing TTS shows you is an exact copy of the GMT Borodino hex map with on-map charts and all counters deployed, laying flat on a table. The screen has several icons along the top and on the left edge. Most, but not all, have to do with designing your own DLC so can be ignored. Also along the table’s edge are stand up combat charts (tinted too dark IMHO), some dice, reinforcement and admin counters, timers, a calculator and an ominous looking bag. This bag holds order and corps activation chits as well as an artillery bombardment chit. Borodino uses a random chit pull to determine what formation, regardless of side, will play next and these are contained within the bag. Right click and select either Draw or Deal and one chit will display, such as Constantine’s Russian Imperial Guard Corps. Also on the table is a small notecard giving the URL for a free PDF of the rules, as Borodino is part of GMT’s Living Rules program.

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From that point you play the game, literally, with little to no assistance from the computer, as if you were playing solitaire with the map and counters set up right in front of you on the kitchen  table. Yes TTS will roll the die and give you a numerical result. Yes, TTS will let you move counters with via mouse elevated drag and drop with the shadow of the hovering piece showing precisely the hex it will land in when it falls. Yes you can change the facing of a counter by rotating it hexside by hexside. Yes, you can flip the counter to its other side when taking a step loss and yes, the game will black out a portion of the map for you to produce a Fog of War environment. TTS will also save the game for you so you can return later and continue play.

You do everything else, to include cheating if you want. You have to manually determine DRMs during combat to adjust for tactics and terrain and apply them yourself to the die roll, then apply the results. You have to adjust movement for condition and terrain, because the software will not stop your advance when you run out of movement points. Thus if you want to, you can move father than the rules allow, over-stack in a hex, so on and so on. If reinforcements are due, you the player, must place them on the map because the software will not automatically do it for you.

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Like I said at the top, not a real game, but an alternative graphics package allowing you to do it yourself on the screen vice in person. Its like TTS is providing the table space, but you are still doing most of the work. And while this was my first stab at the system, I have to say it worked pretty well. There really wasn’t any great difference with me playing the game solitaire this way, or with paper and cardboard. It took about the same amount of time, and the map was small enough I didn’t have to worry about zooming out to nothingness or excessive map adjustments to see what was off screen.

Good, Bad or Ugly?

So what’s my verdict? Well it works. While the idea is novel and delivers on what it promises, its not like TTS advances some radical new style of gameplay or rules philosophy. And there are a couple of areas I think are candidate for improvement. First while TTS will let you zoom, spin and tilt the map, there doesn’t seem to be a way to simply scroll on the map from left to right or top to bottom. Also, a good help section keyed to each module would do well given you have to translate common wargaming into TTS-ese. In Borodino, you pick a chit to determine corps activation, but it might be real nice to know that the poker concept of “Deal” to all participants is the way you make that happen. Trial and error works, but can be annoying.

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On the plus side, however, TTS does recognize that many boardgamers, to include solitaire gamers, simply do not like using computers and many more simply do not trust the AI as an opponent or die roller. Yet there is always the problem of having to leave a game up, vulnerable to the machinations of the household Flerken Kitty going nose to nose with the French Imperial Guard and swatting them back to Fontainebleau. TTS fixes this and it is also nice to see a lot of out of print classics showing up as TTS modules, complete with rules. Some of the best games I ever played – cue Avalon Hill’s France 1940 – are out of print and near impossible to find. This can really suck. One of my own military PCSs saw the moving van burn to the ground with all my games inside, so ask me how I know. For these two issues alone, TTS is worth a look.

But now copyright. There is a lot of infringement going on here, but in a lot of cases nobody cares because the games in question are the paper version of abandonware. Likewise GMT and other firms have given their permission for such antics so long as one user has a paper copy of the game. Given their Living Rules program, that’s a lot of trust. Other companies, not so much. Under the US DRMA (Digital Rights Management Act) it is perfectly legit for end users to download this stuff, but not for the community to design and upload the stuff without permission, nor for firms like Steam to maintain it if hit with a Take Down request. So with the GWs of the world still lurking around, if you are interested in what TTS can do for you, make haste. Otherwise if something disappears at least now you know why.

So in conclusion, TTS may not be the greatest thing since sliced bread, but what it does it does well. It’s a neat little option to have and I heartily recommend you give it a whirl.

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