Going Solo

It’s become a common site on the boxes of tabletop games – 2-4 (5,6…) players; includes rules for solo play. But that hasn’t always been the case; games were seen as a medium for interacting with friends and family, and yet people have always found ways to play these games by themselves. Which leads me to the question… ‘How can you play games on your own?’

Before answering that, let’s take a quick look at the main reasons why people play solo. For many it’s a lack of a gaming group, or the time to get together with friends. For others it’s to perfect their game play, to ensure they have the upper hand when they next take on their arch nemesis at the local tournament. And, of course, there are some who enjoy playing games… all on their own!

First off there’s the pure solitaire games, the ones for one player only. These are for the people who enjoy taking on the ‘game’; pitting their wits against a structured rule-set specifically designed for solitaire play. They games are often simulations, very thematic and can be quite complex – war-game simulations, Phantom Leader by Dan Verssen Games for example, feature a lot in this category. Sometimes they are abstract puzzles, which require deep thinking logic to solve, and are very rewarding when you do. Solitaire games are not a new phenomenon, after all the card game Solitaire (or Patience as it is commonly called in the UK) dates back to the mid 18th century! They are still a niche market though, and will probably remain so, mainly because they can only be played on your own. In the Board Game Geek (BGG) top 50 games, not one is a single player only game!

A lot of people wouldn’t buy a solitaire game; for most the enjoyment comes from playing with others, and what a better way then, than playing co-operatively? In 2008 a game was released that, even though co-op games weren’t something new, would start the ball rolling for the explosion of the genre. That game was Pandemic. As a great gateway game (bridging the gap for non-gamer to the more complex games) it flew off the shelves, especially when Z-Man released the 2nd Edition in 2012, with new artwork and extra characters. The great thing about Pandemic is the artificial intelligence (AI) that runs the game, previous co-op games tended to feature one player running the game against the others who acted together cooperatively. The AI is simple and effective, ramping up the tension as the game develops, causing an outbreak in that city you’d just cleared, and suddenly things start to grow out of control! Now, the thing about the majority of co-op games is… you can play them on your own. It’s easy, you just decide how many, and which characters you’re going to use, and hey presto your off! The only downside to a lot of these though, is the bookkeeping. Trying to keep tabs on what each character has (health/items) and what they are doing, can be a logistical puzzle all in its own; if you’ve tried playing Gloomhaven or Arkham Horror: The card game with four characters, you’ll know what I mean. The majority of co-op games nowadays all say 1-x amount of players on the box; though strangely, not on Pandemic’s!

Then you’ve got the strange thing of playing against your self – This is for the perfectionists, well, not so much perfectionists but those who strive to be the best they can at a certain game; usually, but not always, tournament players. These are often two player games, Magic and X-wing spring to mind, where there is a great emphasis on building your deck/fleet, picking from thousands of different combinations in order to overcome any obstacle placed in your path. Playing against yourself is good way of testing your ideas and finding out how to defeat certain plays. Taking Magic as an example; you have a deck, which you know is weak against certain types of play, so you tweak it and play yourself, working out which card works best against the types of play you’re likely to meet. This fine-tuning, building the perfect deck, is where many get their enjoyment from – for some it’s the best part of the game! Surprisingly more people than you may think play games in this way; it’s a great way to learn a game, and find out what would happen if this were done instead of that! Historical miniature wargamers have been doing this for years; trying to figure out… if Blucher hadn’t turned up, would Napoléon have won Waterloo?

Now imagine you’ve just purchased your latest £60+ multi-player game; unboxed it, read the complicated rules, realized that the 2hr time to play mentioned on the box is per person… what do you do? You introduce it to your game group of course! You play a marathon game and everyone loves it, but it’ll probably be another 3 or 4 months before everyone is prepared to commit to another game (at which point, you’ve forgotten how to play!). This leaves you with a few options; Shelve it, it’ll get played again… eventually; sell it, but it’s a great game and you’ll lose money on it; or you can adapt it for solo play! People are putting a lot of time into converting games to be played by just one person. Take a look at the likes of BGG and you’ll find tons of mods adapting games. In their most basic form these are ‘roll and act’ adaptations, you roll a die and consult a table or two. The result is what actions the opposition would do. Not very satisfying in it’s simplest form, but taking it a step further, where the table you roll against depends upon what you did last turn, can get better results. It doesn’t stop there; many clever souls are producing flow charts for how the (AI) should act, programming active PDF’s, and even creating Aps that take on the role of the other player(s). There appears no end to the lengths some people will go to so that they can play on their own, it makes the statement  – people really want this kind of game.

So, how about a game that can be played with your friends, and on your own too? Straight out of the box, no adapting the rules, no having to play several characters all at once, just read the solo rules and everyone’s a winner! Designers and publishers have twigged; a game that is relatively expensive and aimed for 2+ players is only going to be purchased by those who can get it to the table relatively frequently. But, if solo rules are included, hey, the market for the game has just been increased, massively! I know I’m more tempted to buy an expensive game if I can play it solo, and if that can be done straight out of the box, even more so. And, many of these included solo rules are reminiscent of those people have been making up themselves, as mentioned above, just with a little production polish on!

Finally, lets take a look at some statistics taken from the BGG top 50 games. Of the 50 only 16 of them state they are for 1-x players, of which half are co-op and half released in 2016 or later. Plus there’s another 4 co-op games which can be soloed, but don’t state it on the box. Amazingly though, out of the other 30 games, 24 have some type of adaptation listed in the files for playing them solo – people really do want this kind of experience out of their games, and I believe it is a trend that is set to increase, which makes me wonder… ‘How long will it be before we pick up a game and it says – for 1 player, rules for 2-4 players included?’

Going Solo was written for, and published in, the UK Games Expo Programme 2018. Unfortunately it was given the wrong attribution in the programme. UKGE rectified the mistake by sending out an apology through social media.

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