The world of online tabletop gaming experienced a new story in community mismanagement recently with the online platform Board Game Arena.
For those not aware, Board Game Arena is a lesser known digital tabletop platform where players can meet online and play various supported tabletop board games. It is one of many platforms that provide this service such as Tabletopia, Tabletop Simulator, and Yucata.
This is important for what happens next. On September 25, users on the platform reported something unusual. Whenever users would refer to another digital platform, usually by stating their preferred game of choice is supported on it and not on BGA, it would immediately be flagged by chat bots. The bot would then respond with the following message, "WARNING: this service has been disapproved by games designers/publishers and is illegal. We strongly discommend you to use it or to promote it on BGA. Thanks."
This situation has lead to a major forum thread on Board Game Geek with multiple users reported on this incident. The thread boiled over as a user who works for BGA began dismissing and justifying these actions. The user even claimed that "some other services are using techniques like this."
Except that statement is spurious at best. Worse still, these automated messages can be read as libelous, actively mischaracterizing other platforms as fraudulent or illegitimate. Just to highlight how unfounded these messages were, game designer Peer Sylvester, the designer behind projects like The King is Dead and King of Siam, mentioned that he actively supports and endorses Yucata's hosting of his games, even stating that publisher Osprey gave their express consent. Furthermore, Tabletopia's Community Manager spoke up, stating that they get written express permission from the rights-holder for any game hosted on the service.
Compounding this issue has been the fact that Board Game Arena was recently purchased by major tabletop publisher Asmodee. While this acquisition has shown no problems up until this point, it is notable that the company's owners are attempting to sell it for $2 billion.
How Did Board Game Arena Respond?
We reached out to Board Game Arena for an official statement on these claims. While they didn't respond to us, they did issue an official statement on their website on September 29. In addition to a formal apology to its users, BGA claims that these automated messages were the result of a programming bug with their spam filters. Generally speaking, these filters are made to stop users from quickly making bot accounts and then filling up chat rooms and forum posts with links to sites full of malware or illegal practices. The BGA post explained that the filter distinguishes between legal/illegal services as well as ethical/unethical services. If the filter recognizes a legal business referenced, Board Game Arena does nothing, but it helps them recognize spammers. If the business is flagged as illegal, a warning is issued stating this to the user. According to the post, the error occurred on September 22 when an update messed with this spam filter, the reports came in on the 25, and an official update to the service has since fixed the issue.
This explanation raises several questions. If this is a case of avoiding spambots or duplicitous businesses being traded, filters are usually made to recognize outgoing links or URLs, not just specific keywords tied to competitive tabletop platforms. On top of that, the warning message explicitly states that game designers and publishers specifically have disparaged the business advertised, a far cry from a general statement. There are hedge cases, Tabletop Simulator is a great example with its mix of official paid support and unauthorized community-made additions, but those are more the exception than the norm.
Finally, this isn't the first time Board Game Arena has dealt with this. Going back to November 2020, a user reported a similar issue when they mentioned another platform by name. The only explanation given as to why it was flagged was a link to an answer from their FAQ board which stated, "do not use Board Game Arena communication resources to advertise other gaming websites. If you want to talk about your experience elsewhere, please just say something like 'on another gaming website'."
All in all, the situation appears to be resolved. Nevertheless, it does beg the question of how exactly BGA's spam filters are handled and why it so aggressively targeted what it did in its choice of phrasing. For now, we'll have to wait and see how this develops.