Strap on a headset, grab some controllers, and get ready to play some card games. Using virtual reality to enhance online tabletop gaming is a tempting proposition, but how does it work in practice? Today, we’re going to take a closer look at AltspaceVR, a virtual meeting space that also serves as host to online VR implementations of card game hits Love Letter and Boss Monster.
A quick primer to those who may be late to the party: Yes, VR is real, it works, and is fantastic. We’ve come a long way since Lawnmower Man, and modern VR technology is a fresh entrant to consumer electronics, having only debuted in the spring. To try out the games covered in this post, you’ll either need a Samsung phone with the GearVR headset accessory, or a powerful gaming PC complete with a $600-800 VR headset (my impressions here will be based off of the HTC Vive).
As for the platform, Altspace VR is best described a free 3D chat app. Individual meeting rooms serve as host to everything from casual chat among friends to live events such as concerts and weddings. The whole thing comes off as a modern reincarnation of Palace chat.
AltspaceVR works, but it’s a bit rough around the edges. The chat provides a very accurate representation of talking among friends in an actual room, positionally-adjusted sound volume and all, but navigating menus can be a challenge. The Vive provides very accurate hand-tracking controllers, but unfortunately, AltspaceVR doesn’t feel optimized for the point-and-click of the Vive.
The virtual meeting spaces are where AltspaceVR shines. The environments are well-detailed, and come complete with their own set of ambient noises. Oh, and in some of these spaces, a card game is waiting to be played. Love Letter’s environment looks like a museum garden, while Boss Monster is played in a medieval tavern.
When you pop into a game room, the first things you’ll notice are the helpful game references posted on the walls. Love Letter and Boss Monster are not the most complicated games, so most players needing only a quick refresher will get all they need from these signs. Boss Monster takes things a bit further by giving players a personal screen with a how-to-play YouTube video already queued up.
When it comes to gameplay, the AltspaceVR platform seems to serve as a good host for game night. To give a proper review, though, you’d first have to get an actual game going, and here is where things get difficult. As a niche technology, you can’t expect to pop into a VR tabletop game and get matched up with a waiting player. In fact, I logged in several times over the course of a month in anticipation of this write-up, and I’ve yet to catch anyone hanging out playing a tabletop game. At one point, two people appeared in the Love Letter room while I was grabbing some screenshots, but rather than step up to the table, they enjoyed the garden scenery while catching each other up on the latest happenings in DC comics. Oh well.
Fortunately, Love Letter does allow single players to mess around a bit with no other players at the table. You won’t be able to play a game to completion, but you can fly solo in checking out the mechanics of card draws and plays. The good news here is that like most good VR, the experience is highly intuitive.
For what it is, AltspaceVR offers as much as you could ask from a free platform that uses a niche technology. The games seem like a nice diversion for those who are already using the app, but by no means are they enough of a draw to attract board gamers into VR.
In coming weeks, I’ll be checking out some of the more fully-featured VR board game options, such as Tabletop Simulator’s slew of VR-enabled games, and Stoneblade Entertainment’s standalone Ascension deckbuilder VR app. These games come at some cost, but it will be interesting to see how games with prior app-driven success can translate to the VR environment.