What makes a GREAT Solo game?

So, what is it that differentiates a good game, from a great game? Is it how often a game gets played? Is it the story it tells? Is it because it stretches your mental capacity to the very edge of your intellect? Or, is it simply because you enjoy playing it?

Well, It’s all very subjective; what one person thinks is great, another three people may dislike altogether; therefore, this will only ever be my opinion, see if you agree with me.

For me, a great game needs to meet certain criteria. These are different for a solo game compared to one played with others. Player interaction can make an average solo game in to something brilliant – take Mice & Mystics for example. It’s okay as a solo experience but, add the wife and kids, and it comes alive!

Here are my criteria –

  • It should be immersive.
  • It should place me in the story – it should be thematic.
  • It should be progressive.
  • It should be a challenge.
  • It should be addictive.
  • Playing the game has to be enjoyable.

Lets look at these points individually.

It should be immersive

What do I mean by that? When I play a game solo, I need to be drawn right into the game. It needs to either make me concentrate, or daydream. Now, that seems to contradict itself – concentrate or daydream!

So, let me elaborate. If I’m deep in concentration, the game has got me – its making me think things through – making me plan my next move (or maybe the next three or four), and work out all the possibilities that go with the ‘what ifs.’ If I’m deep in concentration then, for me, the game has set a good puzzle to solve, and boy, do I want to solve it!

Likewise, if I’m playing a game and I’m daydreaming – daydreaming with regards to the game, not off on some imaginary summer jaunt! – It also means the game has got me. Because by daydreaming, I mean that it is making me tell a story in my head. I’m playing out what is happening, entwining the plot and characters together to tell my own story, a story that will be unique, all of it my own.

This is connected to my next point –

It should place me in the story – it should be thematic

Now, this might not be on everyone’s list of what makes a great game. I really enjoy thematic games, especially if they are tied to something with a bit more complexity than some of the Ameritrash games.

Games like Arkham Horror: The card game, are great for this. The stories and plots of the game are very strong, and the H.P. Lovecraft setting is a perfect place to submerse it all. And yet, it also has a complexity that keeps you on your toes, so you’re constantly passing from concentration to daydreaming, and back.

The story a game tries to tell also has certain requirements. It needs to be interesting, it has to have pathways, and it must be consistent.

Interesting, obviously, if a story isn’t interesting then it will never get you into that ‘daydreaming’ state, and if the rest of the game doesn’t match up to the other requirements on the list, then it’s dead in the water!

Pathways, at least that’s how I describe them. A lot of games can be very linear, which isn’t too much of a problem as long as it’s buried beneath a good story. But a great game is one that will provide you with a number of different ways in which to achieve success.

Gloomhaven is a perfect example of this, especially when played in campaign mode. The choices you make send ripples through the storyline, impacting upon the state of the world in which you adventure. This is even incorporated into the individual scenarios, especially once you have advanced a little into the game. As it’s a legacy game, I won’t delve into any more detail than that!

It should be progressive

There’s nothing worse than playing a lengthy game that is really difficult straight from the off, and I don’t mean difficult, as in getting to grips with the game play. I mean that the game is just downright, bloody hard to beat! It puts me off; I get frustrated, especially if the difficulty is down to the amount of luck in the game – This War of Mine, I’m looking at you!

Now, I don’t mind playing difficult games, ones where I can see that there is a skill to getting an end result, and I just need to learn that skill. But, if I just keep meeting obstacles that have been created by luck, and there is no way to mitigate that luck, then the game isn’t for me.

A great game should lure you in; it should make you feel like you can beat it, and the best way to do this is by making the difficulty progressive. It’s fine to play a really difficult game if it only lasts 20 minutes, because there is usually only one objective and a failure doesn’t leave you disheartened.

Play a game that lasts a couple of hours, and is extremely difficult straight from the start, then it makes you feel like your battling against the tide – Constantly thinking, ‘it’s difficult now, is it just going to become impossible later on?’ And then, half way through, you reach that point where your pretty sure you’ve lost – do you keep playing? Or do you give up now, and right the game off? This is a question you should never have to ask yourself when playing a game, ever!

No, a game of any length should give you a modicum of success early on, even if it is only perceived success. This gives you a measure of the game, enabling you to work out strategies to beat the game as it gets harder. It is this progressive difficulty that leads to a game being good in the following few points – challenging, and addictive.

Take Scythe for example. In the early stages of the game you decide upon your strategy, and work towards it. You can gain a few stars, maybe get the jump on the A.I. and this makes you feel good – you are sure you can win the game at this point.

Sythe - In play
The calm before the storm!

But, as the game moves forward things start to change, your strategy has gone to pot, the A.I. has pulled ahead, and your running out of time; but it’s still close. In the end you may, or may not, win. The fact that the game has gradually become more difficult has allowed you to think that you can win right up to point when you lose! Success was dangled in front of you, and you either grasped it with both hands, or fell short. It makes the game exciting.

Scythe - Player boards in action
Building your engine up takes time.

The other great thing that Scythe offers is the progressive level of the Automa. You start off with Autometta, which is aimed at beginners, and then move up through Automa (normal difficulty), Automaszyna (veterans), and finally, Ultimaszyna (nigh on impossible!). When you move up to a harder level, you do so with a confidence that you armed with the skills required; you just need to work out the best way of putting them into practice to meet the new challenge.

It should be a challenge

A solo game has to offer some degree of satisfaction upon completing the game. It’s not a shared experience, so you don’t get that interaction at the end, like you would playing with others – discussing what worked, where you went wrong, and the banter of winner against loser. No, when playing solo, it’s just you,

A game should make you feel elated when you win, but when you lose, you should be left with a sense of determination, ready to succeed next time round.

Any game can make you feel one of these emotions, but a great game should be able provide both.

For example, if I were to win at This War of Mine, then believe me, I would be doing cartwheels around the room! But when I lose, I just end up feeling frustrated, and usually just pack it away.

This is all about where the challenge of the game is set. Make it too difficult and you end up feeling like you’ll never win; make it too easy, and you don’t get any satisfaction from beating the game.

Admittedly, this perception of how challenging a game is will vary from person to person. But, if the game is progressive, then each person will reach a certain point in the game where, if they pass it, they will get that air punching moment, but if they fail, then they will be ever more determined to try and succeed next time.

There are a number of ways in which games control the correct level of challenge. Some increase the difficulty of the game as you move towards the final goal. This works best in campaign games, where you typically play one scenario at a time, each being more difficult than the last (you can see how this is linked to progression, and there should still be progression within each scenario).

In other games, the level of difficulty is decided at the start, as was described with Scythe above.

It should be addictive

There are certain games that, once you have finished the session and packed them away, all you can think about is, how the game went, and what you’re going to do next time.

This is a sign that the game has some addictive qualities – when you find yourself planning for your next game, be it working out different strategies, or planning your next steps of a campaign. It is making you want to play it again, it is calling to you from the shelf, and it won’t let you sleep until you’ve spent another day with it, caressing it, whispering sweet nothings into its…. er sorry, getting a bit carried away there – it’s a Gloomhaven thing!

It’s simple; you should want to play a great game over, and over, again – until you die!

Playing the game has to be enjoyable

Note – I said enjoyable, not fun.

I use the two words to distinguish between the emotions felt. If I’m having fun, then I think of myself has smiling, laughing, and generally upbeat. Whereas, if I’m enjoying something, then I’m having a good time, and appreciating what has been put in front of me, but not necessarily having fun.

For example: I can enjoy reading a book about World War I; I can appreciate the authors skill at telling the story, and I can empathise with the people who placed their lives on the line for their country. I can be totally captivated by the book, but I would never say that I was having ‘fun’ reading it!

The same applies to games. For a game to be great, then I must enjoy playing it – obvious really.

Conclusion

So, these are my main criteria for judging whether a solo game is great. ‘What about the components, the artwork, and all that paraphernalia?’ Simple, these things affect one of my criteria in some way or other – Bad components can affect my enjoyment of the game; the artwork can influence the thematic feel of a game.

As you will have noticed, many of the things I have mentioned can be directly linked to each other – especially the progression and challenge of a game. Get one right, and the other should hopefully follow. Though it is all to easy to have a progressive game that concludes just that little bit too soon, before it has become challenging enough, and the game just doesn’t quite reach its potential.

Games design is a balancing act, adjusting a game mechanism to create a more progressive game, can alter the enjoyment one gains from the game. That’s why designers spend so much time getting their games play tested, fine-tuning all the time.

Finally let’s see how it all works – I’ve selected five solo games in my collection, which all offer a different experience, either in genre or principal game mechanism.

Alien vs Predator: The Hunt Begins by Prodos Games (2nd Edition) is a Sci-fi dungeon crawl type game, designed for 1-3 players. It does work better with 2-3 players, but I play it solo. The rules are a shocker, but the components are stunning, especially the miniatures.

  • Immersive? – This does contain some of that ‘Daydreamyness’, as you start relating the game play to the films. It also requires a good deal of concentration, but it’s mainly to figure out the rules!
  • It should place me in the story – This game does a good job of this, especially once I’d re-written some of the problematic rules, making the game flow better.
  • Progressive? – Not really, the game can be very up and down, depending upon what environmental cards come out, and how the dice fall.
  • Challenging? – Yes, the game is definitely a challenge, and one that is pitched about right. I find myself beating the game often enough to gain some satisfaction.
  • Addictive? – Only to a small degree. The game play from one game to the next is too similar to want to play more than a few games every now and again.
  • Enjoyable? – It’s okay, the rules let it down, but handling the miniatures is a joy, and there are a few game mechanisms I’m just not keen on.
AVP In Play
Great components – shame about the rules!

So, looking at that I’d say this is a pretty average game for solo play. It ticks some of the boxes, but doesn’t really make a big enough impression in any of them to be called good.

Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective has been around since the early 80’s, and is a popular choice for solo players who like solving complex puzzles. You get a map and directory of London, then, after reading the case introduction, you’re on your own. Pick a location, read the reference, try and solve the crime quicker than Sherlock.

  • Immersive? – Oh yes! This game gets you concentrating more than sitting an advanced Physics paper! Piecing the evidence together, whilst trying to visit the bare minimum of locations, really gets the old grey matter going. You also end up sitting for an age, running the events through your head, so this one nails this category.
  • It should place me in the story – Whilst the writing isn’t to Conan Doyle’s standard, obviously, it is very good, and you feel like you’re actually in one of his stories.
  • Progressive? – It falls down here, but with this game it’s not an issue. The scenarios are set, they don’t get any more difficult as you work through one, and realistically, you can take as long as you want.
  • Challenging? – This is definitely challenging, but, because you can visit as many locations as you like, you will eventually solve the crime – only to be derided by Holmes, who managed to solve the case in three moves, and tells you exactly how he did it – It really makes you more determined to try harder next time.
  • Addictive? – Strangely I don’t find this as addictive as I think I should. Solving a crime can be mentally exhausting, and I find I need a good break before coming back to it.
  • Enjoyable? – Very much so, especially if you’re a Holmes fan like me. The game play is perfect for the setting, and you really get a blast when you finally twig the significance of some minor detail.
Sherlock Holmes - Consulting Detective
This will keep you busy!

Anyone reading the above would say this must be a very good game, and they would be right. Many a solo player would class this as one of the greats, but using my criteria it just falls short. I have had it for years, and I still haven’t played through all the scenarios. I really enjoy playing it, it ticks all the boxes as far as solo game play, it’s just that, when I’ve solved the crime I put it away, and forget about it – shame really.

Eldritch Horror, a fantasy horror board game set in the world of H.P. Lovecraft. This has been a consistent game in the Boardgamegeek ratings, and sits at a comfortable 47 overall. It has a large amount of expansions, and is a popular game amongst solo players.

  • Immersive? – This game always gets me concentrating, as the game develops, the puzzle starts to require a lot of though. It never really gets me into that ‘daydream’ state though.
  • It should place me in the story – Yes it does, usually! In the majority of play throughs things happen which help create a thematic story. But every now and then, things happen a bit to randomly to be joined together into a meaningful story line.
  • Progressive? – This definitely ramps up as you progress. You start off feeling relatively secure, with little happening on the board. From there you go from things looking okay; damn I didn’t want that to happen; oh, God, what do we do now? I think we’re going to die! Yep, we’re dead! Great stuff.
  • Challenging? – For the most part it works out at just the right level, you often win or lose by a hairs breadth. But, occasionally, you get overwhelmed quite quickly, and characters start to fall quite quickly. On the whole though, it tends towards the former.
  • Addictive? – To a large degree I’d say yes, this is addictive. I find myself wanting to play a lot more often than I actually do. Mainly due to set up and play time.
  • Enjoyable? – Very, I love this game, and really should make more of an effort to play it more.
Eldritch Horror Box Art
Eldritch Horror has proved very popular.

My last point says it all – if this were a truly great game then I would make the effort to play it more often! It is a very good game though, and one of my favourite co-op games to play solo, or with others.

Mansions of Madness (2nd Edition) is my daughters favourite game, she loves everything about it, and it amuses me no end to see her arming herself to the teeth, picking every weapon up in sight. The game is driven by an app, doing away with the Games Master (GM) of the 1st Edition. In the same setting as Eldritch horror, this one sees you moving miniatures around various locations, trying to solve the selected case.

  • Immersive? – This one gets it right here – the need to concentrate on what needs to achieve with the limited actions you have, is interspersed with moments of imaginative story telling.
  • It should place me in the story – Any game that uses a GM usually has an emphasis on story telling, and this one is no different, despite using an A.I. – There are atmospheric mythos phases, and descriptive combat scenes. It’s easy to imagine the story taking place.
  • Progressive? – The majority of the scenarios are progressive, not only building up the to the selected level difficulty, but also progressively increasing the tension. Things usually start off sedate, with you exploring the immediate area and discovering your ultimate goals. But, by the end of the game, you’re frantically running around avoiding monsters, whilst trying to find a way out of the madness!
  • Challenging? – The scenarios are all graded for difficulty, and represent a variety of challenges.
  • Addictive? – My daughter would say a definite yes to this one. I, on the other hand, am not so sure. Without adding expansions to the game, the number of scenarios is limited to four or five, and I found that once I’d played one I was reluctant to play it again, even though there would be some differences.
  • Enjoyable? – For the most part I would say yes. The miniatures can be annoying, being a poor fit on the base, and the length of the scenarios can be off putting.
Mansions of Madness 2nd Edition
My daughters favourite game.

This is a great game, at least in my daughters opinion, whilst I rate it as good, maybe even very good – if there were more scenarios included in the core set, and some were a little shorter, I may even think about rating it higher!

Finally – Gloomhaven. Anyone who has read my previous posts can guess where this one going – let’s see if you’re right.

Gloomhaven has sat at the top of the BoardGameGeek chart for some time now, and is very highly regarded. It is a strategical combat game set in a fantasy world. The scenarios are played as part of a legacy campaign, and the world evolves depending upon your choices. The characters and races are unique to the Gloomhaven world, and the way that cards are used in combat, instead of dice, is also a unique mechanism to this game.

  • Immersive? – The game comes up spades in this category – playing solo really sees you concentrating to get the best from the characters you are using, and the story builds in your head, both during the scenarios, and carrying out road/city events.
  • It should place me in the story – Gloomhaven places you right in the middle of you’re own story – being a legacy game it will be a story unique to you. You can play the good guy; you can play the bad guy; or you can be little of both – either way, it will be a great journey.
  • Progressive? – Gloomhaven, if played without any previous knowledge of the game, and using the recommended level setting for solo play – as per the rules – Is very difficult to beat, even the initial scenarios. But, it is really easy to adjust the difficulty to suit your current skill, and once you have it right, the game flows exceptionally well.
  • Challenging? – Is it ever! There is only a small degree of luck in this game during combat. As you progress you can mitigate the luck by adjusting your deck. It turns into a very skilful game, every scenario challenges you, and some offer the option of greater rewards for clever play. It doesn’t come any better than this.
  • Addictive? – Massively addictive – the box should contain a health warning!
  • Enjoyable? –  I love playing this game; the thrill of investigating a new scenario, and the surprises the story throws up, is only exceeded by the buzz you get when you retire a character and get to open a new box.

Gloomhaven Box Art

Yes, I rank Gloomhaven as a GREAT game, maybe even the greatest? I’m lucky, I have a place where I can set it up, and leave it up, from one scenario to the next. This cuts down on setting up and packing away time, and with this game that can be a chore – especially if you’re not very organised! Maybe, if I didn’t have that space, I may look at things differently – but probably not!

So, there you go, that’s how I rate a solo game. But what good is it all? Well, to have an outline in place like this, helps you to justify saying a game is great. It also gives you a valid starting point when arguing that a game isn’t great. Too many people will place the mantle of greatness on a game without giving it due thought, but armed with something like this you can point at them and say, “No, you’re wrong, and this is why.”

Everyone will have a different opinion on what makes a great game, you’ve read mine, now let’s hear your thoughts – there is no right or wrong answer – just great games!


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