From the Game Room: Asynchronous play

An occasional post from Robert

It can be hard to find time to sit down to play a board game, particularly if a game takes an hour or more to play. But if you have a place where you can leave a game set up, you don’t have to play a complete game in one sitting, or even with all the players gathered at the same time. 

The history of asynchronous play
Asynchronous board game play has been around for a long time – two or more people playing a game, not at the same time and not all in one sitting. Asynchronous chess has been a tradition for decades, with enthusiasts even playing games across long distances by mail, email, or by message board post. This involves two players each having a chess board set up at their place and taking turns sending each other their moves using a naming convention for the pieces and squares on the board. 

Asynchronous online and mobile games
In recent years, the term “asynchronous game” has become most strongly associated with online and mobile games. Many online or mobile app games are designed to play asynchronously (such as Words with Friends). There are also many app adaptations of board games that can be played asynchronously. However, many physical board games can be played asynchronously as well. 

Many modern board games are ideal for asynchronous play
Many modern “euro” board games (and some thematic games and board wargames) don’t involve much player interaction and are thus well suited for asynchronous play. These games are often described as multiplayer solitaire, so it follows that one player can take their turn without other players present. And if a game includes some mechanisms whereby one player’s actions affect other players, setting up a system to communicate these effects can be straightforward. 

In our house, we have played countless games of Splendor, Azul, The Builders, and other similar board games asynchronously over the last couple of years. These games do not involve player interaction, other than which cards, chips, or tiles one player takes on their turn restricts the resources available for the other players. We usually have at least two different board games going at once and take a turn whenever we are taking a break. Sometimes, especially if we know that the game is coming to an end, we’ll sit down together and play several turns together in synchronous mode. It’s an exciting way to finish the game. 

Other games may need special agreements to play asynchronously
We’ve also figured out how to play a few games asynchronously that do include some player interaction, including Wingspan. Most of the bird powers in Wingspan only affect the player who activates them, but a small set of bird cards have pink powers that activate when other players take actions, and some other cards provide a benefit to all players. With a game like this, it’s important to agree on an etiquette and communication system before playing to handle such situations. For example, with Wingspan, agreeing that players will let each other know when they have pink power cards and how they trigger, or that when a player activates an “all players” power, they will let the other player(s) know that they also receive that benefit. 

Solutions to these types of issues will vary from game to game. It also helps if all players are familiar with the game and have played it at least once synchronously, but that’s not necessary. We have played a few board games asynchronously that were new to us. 

Asynchronous roleplaying games?
There is also a long history of play-by-email or play-by-forum with role play games such as Dungeons and Dragons. These gained new adherents during the COVID pandemic, using online forums such as Discord. This is a very different experience than playing in person, or synchronously online, but it may be a good fit for you if you do not have long chunks of time available for gaming. 

Photo by AARN GIRI on Unsplash