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Comparison of Three of the Best Sites for Playing Board Games Online For Free – Ask The Bellhop

Today we are talking about the best free ways to play board games online that don’t require you to download anything to play.


This topic comes from Sigurd Langseth who commented on our The Table Sat Empty article all about Board Game Arena.


They wrote, “You should do one of these for Yucata and Boiteajeux too, and do a comparison after doing so.”


Playing board games online is a great way to be able to game with your friends when you can’t get together to play games in person.

Being able to play board games online still feels fresh and new and honestly quite odd to me. Growing up, if you bought a game and then couldn’t find someone in the neighbourhood to play it with you were out of luck. You could maybe convince your immediate family to play but that was hard if they weren’t into playing tabletop games.

As gaming became more popular, game stores sprouted up. That was great as it meant that there was now somewhere to meet other people who were also into gaming. The good games stores even had a place to play and regular events. Even with this resource, it wasn’t game night every night and you often still couldn’t find people to play with.

With online gaming, you never have this problem. I can hop on any of the three sites I’m going to feature in this article at any time of day or night and find plenty of people to play with. This may include friends I’ve made in person or online or total strangers. 

Another advantage of being able to play games online is the ability to play and try games you don’t own without any investment required. Online board game sites are a great place to try before you buy. They are also a good place to refine your skills and practice playing your favourite games. 

While digital gaming is never going to replace the joy of a real face to face game for me, I love the fact that there now exists a way for me to play my favourite games, or try out new ones, at any time of the day any day of the week.

What follows is a look at three of the most popular browser based online board game websites. All of these sites are completely free to use (though they do offer additional options and benefits for those who chose to pay) and don’t require any special software or app to use. You just need a browser, which also means that they work cross platform. It doesn’t matter if you are on a PC, an Xbox, a Roku, smart TV or phone, you can access and play games on these sites.

One other important aspect is that all of the games on these sites are being used with the legal permission of the proper rights owners. 


Board Game Arena or BGA:

Board Game Arena can be found at https://boardgamearena.com/.  This site features 175 games covering a wide variety of complexity, weight and playtime. Some of the most popular games on BGA include 7 Wonders, 6 Nimmt, Kingomino, and Terra Mystica.

Pros: 

  • BGA has the largest selection of games out of these three browser based gaming sites. 
  • With a free account you can create both public games and private games and can invite your friends through email to those private games.
  • The game rules are present right on the site, on the game page, while playing, no need to go anywhere else. In addition, many games have online tutorials.
  • In addition to the rules, every game features on screen tool tips and additional information when you mouse over or click on game elements.
  • The digital versions of the games look like the physical version of the games. In many cases, the games use digital assets from the publishers. These aren’t scans but digital representations of the game boards and pieces.
  • There is a unified look to the site and the games, with a shared interface for all games. You look in the same place for the in game chat, the rules are at the bottom of the page, the go to next table arrow is at the top right, etc.
  • BGA is not just a virtual tabletop, it does a lot of the work for you. It keeps track of tokens, number of cards in decks, ongoing scoring, resource exchanges, etc. You are basically playing a video game version of your favourite board games.
  • A ton of people use BGA which means plenty of people to play with. The site has boasted over thirty-eight thousand active users.
  • BGA is actively being developed. You can see that the subscription money is being used to improve the site. They are always adding new games, new interface options, etc. Most recently they added an XP system which is tied to a new achievement system.
  • Tournament play is available and all games are ELO ranked. You can also create and play games based on player ranking so that you play people with similar skill levels.
  • The premium member subscription is very affordable.
  • If one member of your game group is a premium member they can invite non-premium members to premium games.

 

Cons:

  • There is a premium subscriber system and you do not get access to all of the games or features without being a premium members.
  • Without a premium account, two or more people from the same household cannot play in the same games. 
  • Due to the site’s popularity, there is sometimes a waiting period to even be able to log into the site. Premium members get preference over non-premium members for this waiting list.
  • Sometimes the interface is not nearly smart enough. It will pause the game and wait for input from a player when they have no input to make. For example, asking if you want to Settle or Develop in Race for the Galaxy when you have no cards in your hand. 
  • When completing an action in the game, BGA jumps immediately to the next action. There is no way to undo anything you have done for most games unless they specifically include an undo action in the rules (see Through the Ages). 
  • While the interface for each game is similar there is always a learning curve, sometimes a steep one, in trying to figure out where exactly BGA wants you to click to do the action you want to do.
  • Most games do not have a tutorial and start off assuming you already know how to play. I do not recommend trying to learn a game for the first time on BGA if you can avoid it.

Subscription Benefits:

A subscription for Board Game Arena costs $4 a month or $24 a year and provides the following benefits:

  • Access to premium only games and the ability to invite non-premium members to premium games.
  • Preferred access to the site when there is a waiting list.
  • Multiple players can be from the same IP and play in the same games.
  • Video and voice chat access.
  • Set your personal preferred player colour.
  • Access to in-depth statistics.
  • The ability to create tournaments.

Overall:

I have been an extremely pleased and active member of Board Game Arena for a number of years. I have been a premium member for the majority of that time. The low cost of going premium is a huge benefit and I find it is more than worth it. 

Of the three sites, I’m looking at today BGA is the most modern, clean and easy to use. BGA has the best onboarding and is the quickest place to set up and start playing a game right away. Games are all well presented and have a unified feel to them. 

My biggest complaint, and the one thing that drives me nuts on BGA, is the fact that there is no confirmation of your moves or undo button. Far too many times, in far too many different games, I have lost a game due to missing a piece of information (due to the site design) and making a bad move because of it or actually clicking on the wrong thing and making a move I didn’t want to. 


Yucata:

Yucata can be found at https://www.yucata.de/.  This site features 118 games that lean heavily towards the Euro side of gaming, and also being the only place online to play many heavier games. That said they do include some lighter games as well. Some of the most popular games on Yucata include The Castles of Burgundy, Trajan, Marco Polo, and Carcassonne Hunters & Gatherers. 

Pros: 

  • Yucata is a 100% free passion project. There is no cost to use any of the site features or to play any of the games.
  • Many games (but not all) feature in game rules that can be brought up during play.
  • Most of the games (but not all) feature actual artwork from the physical versions. On Yucata most of the artwork comes from scans of the actual game components, so everything looks just like the game. 
  • Yucata is not just a virtual tabletop, it does a lot of the work for you. It keeps track of tokens, number of cards in decks, ongoing scoring, resource exchanges, etc. You are basically playing a video game version of your favourite board games.
  • Each game played opens in its own browser window which can be resized and manipulated. 
  • You must confirm each move after you make it, and you can undo most moves. When a move would result in new information being presented you are given a warning and the option to not take that action. When you take an action resulting in new information you cannot undo.
  • There are many in game customization options that only change what you see and not what the other people playing see. One of these I find the most useful is to set the player colours for all players. This also means that you always get to play your favourite colour on your screen.
  • You get a significant amount of statistics for both games and players and can use those to choose which games to play.

Cons:

    • What you get for each individual game is a mixed bag. Some games are obviously better developed than others. Where one game will have a full tutorial, look exactly like the physical game and feature on screen game rules, another will use abstract graphics and not even have a tool tip to tell you how to interface with the game.
    • Some of the scans of game components are not very high quality and can be difficult to see or read. 
    • Some games instead of featuring scanned artwork have abstract digital artwork. While this doesn’t affect the gameplay it does mean the Yucata version of the game doesn’t really look like it’s physical version.
  • Due to the mix in art styles, Yucata lacks any overall look or feel. It feels like playing different digital games created by different people and all gathered in on place.
  • The Yucata homepage site feels very archaic and hard to use. It’s not intuitive and there is no on-boarding to show you how to set up and join games. All aspects of this system just feel dated and there is a significant learning curve.
  • There is an odd system for notifying you when it is your turn in an active or non-active game. Sometimes you will get a notification, other times you won’t. Sometimes hitting next game will bring you to another game other times it won’t. There seem to be some bugs in the system.
  • Some of the games take interesting choices for how the display the current score totals for the players. For example, Carpe Diem includes end game scoring elements like chimney scoring but did not include fountain scoring. Note also in Carpe Diem player scores are meant to be hidden during play, not public information. I found similar scoring oddities in other games as well.

Subscription Benefits:

While there is no premium account you can play as a guest or register. The benefits of registering include all the basic stuff. Getting your own user name and ranked stats etc. The main reason though is so that you can invite friends to games instead of always playing with strangers.

Yucata also has a donation system which gives you a bit of flair on the site and nothing else. You get a unique online icon and the word “sponsor” next yo your name. This actually looks almost identical to the system Board Game Geek uses for supporters and is obviously based on that.

Overall:

The thing I like the best with gaming on Yucata is the fact that I need to confirm all of my actions and get the option to undo what I’ve done before that. This alone has me wanting to play certain games that are on all three of these sites on Yucata only. 

What is most frustrating about Yucata is that it’s a mixed bag. Some games look amazing, play amazing, and are basically just as good as playing at the table with friends, but then other games feature ugly abstract art and I find I’m fighting with the interface just to finish a game. Due to Yucata being a passion project you just don’t see the level of unity and development that you find on the other sites. 

What this means is that there are some games that I love to play on Yucata and will only ever play on Yucata and then there’s a bunch of games I will never touch again on Yucata. 


Boite A Jeux:

Boite a Jeux can be found at http://www.boiteajeux.net/.  This site only features 61 games all of which are Euro-games including a solid mix of heavy Euros and Abstracts.  Some of the most popular games on Boite A Jeux include Concordia, Dungeon Petz, Dixit, Jarnac, and TZAAR.

Pros: 

  • All games are accessible with both a free or premium account.
  • Some (but not all) games include a tutorial to show you how to play the game and how the online interface works. 
  • Some (but not all) games include on screen, in game, rules reference.
  • Many of the games (but not all) feature actual artwork from the physical versions. Most of this artwork was created by scanning the original game components.
  • Boite A Jeux is not just a virtual tabletop, it does a lot of the work for you. It keeps track of tokens, number of cards in decks, ongoing scoring, resource exchanges, etc. You are basically playing a video game version of your favourite board games.
  • Boite A Jeux is actively being developed. Subscription money is being used to add new games to the site. Most recent games added include Alchemists, Kanban and Rally Man
  • Games are ranked and game set up can be done based on rank so that you play with players with similar skills. 
  • Boite A Jeux started as a board game forum and the forum roots are still there. The site is very communication driven with a separate forum for each of their games.  

Cons:

  • Only a premium account lets you have a friend list and play private games. With a free account, you are stuck playing with random strangers.
  • While each game has a link to get to the rules for the game most of these rules are not actually on site and will send you somewhere else to find the rules. 
  • What you get with each game is a total mixed bag both in terms of interface, graphics, and onboarding. 
  • The scans for some of the game components were done at low quality and are thus hard to read on screen.
  • Low user base, with only 800 people online on a Saturday afternoon. I have created games and had to wait days for strangers to join. 
  • While there is a forum for every game most of the discussions on that forum are happening in French as this is a French site. 
  • The forum base for the site gives it a very dated and clunky feel and look. There is a significant learning curve to just figuring out how to join a game or create a table. 
  • Many of the options and tools that are included with free accounts at other sites are only premium options on Boite A Jeux.

Subscription Benefits:

A subscription for Boite A Jeux costs $5EUR a month, $20 EUR for 6 months, or $35 EUR a year and provides the following benefits:

  • Subscribers get auto refresh and turn notifications. Otherwise, you need to hit refresh on your browser to see if it’s your turn.
  • Ability to create premium member only games or friends only games
  • Ability to create non-ranked games with friends
  • Ability to limit players based on speed.
  • Creation of parties so you can play multiple games with the game group of players. 
  • Friends and Foes 
  • Email notifications
  • A ton of customization options including some profile settings that are unique to premium
  • Private game notes for each game.
  • Online status of players – again this is a premium thing?
  • Access to premium exclusive forums.

Overall:

The biggest problem with Boite A Jeux is that many basic features, things I would expect to be able to do for free, require you to pay for access to them. I don’t think being able to set up a game to play just with my friends or the ability to have the site tell me when it’s my turn should cost me additional money. These are features that should be part of any online gaming interface.

Due to this, I would only consider using Boite A Jeux if I bothered to pay for a premium account. The problem with that is that a Boite A Jeux premium account would cost me as a Canadian double the cost of a Board Game Arena account and I just can’t justify that when I look at the two sites side by side.

What Boite A Jeux does offer are some unique games that you won’t find anywhere else online. It’s the game selection that still tempts me to come back to Boite A Jeux. 


Overall thoughts on these three online board game sites:

If it’s not already obvious, I listed these three gaming sites above in my order of personal preference. Of the three sites I get the most benefit from using Board Game Arena, it offers the best interface and the widest verity of online gaming options. It has been and so far will continue to be my prefered place to play board games online. 

In the end, I was very surprised with just how much I enjoyed gaming on Yucata, once I found the right games. Yucata really is a mixed bag in a number of ways and there are things I love about gaming there and things that drive me nuts. The biggest advantage to me is the ability to undo your moves on Yucata.

If I could get someone to add the end of turn confirmation and undo to Board Game Area I would be a very happy man. That feature alone will have me going back to Yucata. The main thing with Yucata is that you have to try a variety of games and find the ones you like and that work best on that site. 

This leaves me with Boite A Jeux. I wanted to like Boite A Jeux, I really did. Boite A Jeux features many games that aren’t available anywhere else online, including some games I really love. While the implementation of some games may be subpar, a couple of my favourite games were perfectly implemented here. 

The problem with Boite A Jeux is their membership model. Many of the features I expect from any online gaming site are hidden here behind a paywall, a paywall that’s double the cost of any of the other options we looked at. I can’t see wanting to play on Boite A Jeux without a premium account and I’m not currently willing to pay the cost for one.

What may matter the most for most people though are the games. That’s what is going to dive you to one of these sites over another. If your favourite game is only available on Boite A Jeux, then you are probably going to want to get a premium account and play the heck out of that game. 

What I recommend doing is finding a game you want to play and trying it on each site that has that game and then deciding between them which version of the game you have the most fun playing. This will be based on interface, graphics, onboarding, etc. 

There’s no right answer for everyone on which of these three sites really are the best. It’s going to be about your personal tastes and preferences. Yes I very much prefer Board Game Area, but there are some games I will only be playing on Yucata, and maybe sometime I will even return to Boite A Jeux just to play a game of Dungeon Lords which is implemented there so well.


Do you play board games online? Where do you get your digital board gaming fix? Let us know in the comments!

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