Musings on Running On-Line Games: The Four Rules

 We (that is, the Monday Night Group) have been wargaming on line for about 9 months now, fitting in a game a week plus one or two extras here and there. Whilst it isn't the same as face to face wargaming it has kept our group ticking over, and we have made a new friend along the way.

That new friend, Jon, ran his first on-line game this week, and you'll probably have seen my report on it. Over on his blog part of the discussion was about how to go about doing this and how much of a challenge it all is. It was suggested that a blog post might be of use, so here one is. NB This blog post is about playing straight table top games with figures where all the players are remote. I'm not looking at hybrid games, or non-figure games or games with commanders out the room and players in it or any of those combinations.

Is on-line tabletop wargaming difficult?

No. I would say not. It is different, but it isn't hard to do. I will admit that I wasn't interested in the idea until one of our group punted it as a proposal and ran his first game back in September 2020. What may be a problem is trying to overthink it or wanting it to be exactly what you normally get. There are reports on people's blogs of highly detailed games with multiple camera angles and so on. I don't know how many test games people try before they get to that point, but I wouldn't want people to think that all that stuff is essential: perfect is often the enemy of possible. Those multi-camera, very clever games are like those highly detailed painted 28mm figures. Those ones that are way better than you could ever possibly paint. If I felt I had to produce something as good as a professional painted every time I picked up a brush then I'd never paint anything. Which brings us to rule 1:

Rule 1: Just give it a go. The worst that can happen is that it's a complete failure, but at least you'll have had an evening talking wargaming with your friends. And you will have learnt something about the process. By putting the idea off you will never make progress. Learn By Doing.

What do I need for Software and Cameras?

Our first game was done by Skype, and we persisted with it for a while. We chose Skype because sessions are free and unlimited in time. It's also pretty easy to use. The major issue is picture quality and also that it isn't really meeting software as such. One of our members couldn't use it as he's a Firefox fan, and apparently they're incompatible. In January we switched to Zoom, and I took out a monthly licence. It's £14 a month, so that's less than £5 per game, which is better than not gaming at all. The picture quality is better and it is easier to handle the participants and "pin" the main view for all to see. It is easy to use, and no one has had problems running it. Picture quality is much improved. We have looked at Discord because it is free and feature rich, but frankly there's too much going on with it for some of us, so we're sticking with Zoom for now.

Most of our games have used a single camera. Rather than use the camera built into the PC/Laptop/device both me and Richard have used cameras on cables, so they can be better positioned and easily moved around. As I was trying things out and didn't want to break the bank my initial camera was one of these. I paid £20 for it. It served its purpose, but the lack of autofocus was a big problem. I eventually up-gunned to one of these. You can now get one for £70, and it comes with a mini tripod. Other people have used an old mobile phone and had it dial into the meeting, and from what I've seen that works well, I just haven't tried it.

Most of my games have used a single camera on an old camera tripod I bought 40 years a go. I have tried to get the whole table in from one position, and this has mostly worked. Good enough for running a game. Going forwards I will be switching to two cameras on opposite corners of the board. The cheapo camera works much better low down and close to the table, so I'm guessing the depth of field / focus is about 3 - 4 foot from the camera. I then have the third camera in my PC which I use as "umpire cam" when I want to talk to the players on screen. Zoom lets you switch the camera spotlight for the players, or in another mode enables players to chose which camera they want to look from.

Finally, a good wi-fi signal is essential. We've had some issues, but mostly been okay. If your wi-fi is patchy, these work well, and were easy to install.

Which brings us to Rule 2:

Rule 2: Start simple and build up, and use what works for you. A tablet on a pile of books might be the correct solution. "In action " cams and so on are great - but you don't need them on day 1. If you are putting off the game hosting because you can't work out how to do multi-camera angles, refer to Rule 1.

Do I need to change the format of my games?

The main change will be that you aren't in the room with other people, so you'll be pushing all the lead round at your end. As a group we tend to play multi-player umpired games. That has transitioned really well. Players are asked for their orders by the umpire, and these are then translated onto the table top. Players usually describe their intentions with the orders ("I want to wheel to the right, so I cover the Guard's advance but without exposing the unit's flank"). 

For my first game I used playing cards to indicate units and locations on the board. Honestly this proved to be unnecessary, and in future games I haven't usually bothered. Players keep track of where their stuff is once the game gets going.

Our games started with three of us, two players and an umpire. We've since had up to 6 or 7 plus an umpire, which is a challenge and everyone needs to be a bit patient and wait their turn, but it does work - just don't try it on day!

We've run games with tape measures and with squares/hexes. Squares have a lot going for them, as movement and facing is really clear, which are the same benefits you get from face to face, only increased. Having said that, "For Whom The Dice Rolls" doesn't use squares, and was developed and play-tested using on-line games.

My experience is that a table size of 6' x 4' works well, but that was with one camera. Two cameras allow for a bigger table to be used.

The umpired game works well, as no one is using the set up to gain an advantage in any way. We're a fairly laid back group, and generally take winning and losing with equanimity. I have played a few two player games with the table set up in Shedquarters, and my opponent calling in orders via Zoom. That worked well too, although I suspect if you are hyper competitive and want to use ambushes and little tricks you may find it doesn't work so well.

For two players simple games on a gridded board work okay, and I have seen it done where both players have the board set up and the figures, and call out moves like a chess game, replicating the moves on their own tables. I've not felt the need to do this. Another group have also refined this further, and use a Powerpoint slide with a grid on it, and small pictures of units moved about. I've played in one of these and it worked well, but it wasn't like pushing lead about. Same with Tabletop Simulator. I want some tactility.

So, rule 3:

Rule 3: Play games in the way you want to play them. Grids work well, and so do tape measures. You won't know what you like until you try it, and if you are worried it won't work, refer to Rule 1.

Do I need to simplify my rules? What about player briefings?

We have used simple rules (Neil Thomas' OHW), and rules with a bit more complexity (like all of mine, and Richard's WotR rules). Players sometimes follow along and ask questions, and sometimes just go with it, trusting the umpire to tell them when to roll dice or give them rules advice when required. We generally supply a QRS to players or a simple summary. I'd recommend, if hosting for the first time, that you go with a simple set of rules you really know so that you aren't worrying about them as well as the tech. However, simplicity and fast play is often in the eye of the beholder, as I wrote in this blog nearly 10 years ago. Going with what you know is the key. As I've noted above, I developed and published a moderately sophisticated set of rules through the medium of on-line games.

Pre-game prep and briefings add the the fun. One of our issues is that we don't know how many people will be able to make it, so we tend to keep things flexible. Putting out maps and briefings beforehand, especially in an attack/defend game can improve things and get the game moving more quickly, but then pre-game prep will do that for f2f games as well, so "quelle surprise". Rule 4 therefore is:

Rule 4: Go with what you know, at least at first. Once you have your "sea legs" raise the bar and your ambition. Don't overthink things, and as always, refer to rule 1.

What will it be like?

If you are a regular umpire you'll know it can be tiring GM-ing a game. Running on-line games is even more so. I put in more steps running a 3-4 hour game game than walking round the village it feels like, dodging back and forwards from side to side of the table. Add to that you need to concentrate a lot as well so you can hear what players are saying, and make sure everyone gets a fair crack of the whip.

But mostly, it'll be fun.

And if in doubt about anything, refer to rule 1.


  1. Thanks for putting this together, Graham. A lot of good information and practical advice that many will find useful for their own virtual endeavors.

    1. The best advice is just to be brave enough to give if a go. After all, what's the downside?

    2. Being tabletop warriors, we ought to show some bravery in taking that first step even if one steps off into a deep void. Taking that first step is an important hurdle to cross towards growth.

    3. The idea that is "brave" to try and have some fun where no one gets hurt always makes me smile. I guess my ego doesn't get bruised that easily, and I'm always happy to shrug off a failure and have another go (although the session I put on at a conference when nobody showed was a bit crushing, to say the least).However, generally I have more hits than misses, I think, but we all learn from what we do, and if things don't sometimes go awry we don't really learn and grow. And if I don't try, I don't get the hits to compare to the misses.

  2. This is really interesting and useful. Thank you very much for the breakdown! I will definitely try at least a simple game this way.

    1. Start simple, but whatever you do, start.

  3. All excellent thoughts Graham. As you say, the most important thing is just start doing it.

    Ive been running these things for fifteen months, and it feels entirely natural now, but it was certainly a bit scary at first. The players were very understanding and helpful. Outside of the tech, I'd say the most important thing is to stage manage it so every player gets to contribute. Nothing worse than ten people trying to talk over each other on a Zoom call.

    1. Agree on your last point. Basic meeting management helps a lot. As I'm about 6 months behind you in terms of running games, I really fixate on the "just have a go" point, looking at all the games that I missed by not being brave enough to try.


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