Playing solo isn’t everyone’s cup of tea; it takes a certain mentality to play games on your own, and I think you’ve either got it, or you haven’t.
Many people play to enjoy the experience of sharing something with others; getting together with friends and family with plenty of chat, banter, and laughs. Others like the competitiveness of trying to beat a fellow human being, knowing that, unlike an A.I, their opponent can think on their feet, changing playing styles to suit the situation, and offer a far more involving tactical game.
But for those of us who, by choice or necessity, choose to play alone then a certain mental approach is required.
My approach depends very much on the game I’m going to play. Games like Pandemic, Tiny Epic Galaxies, Steamrollers, and Viticulture, which in my mind are nicely dressed up complex puzzles to solve, I play wanting to win. I play wanting to understand how the mechanisms work and how to use them to best advantage. I want to discover the games nuances and eventually be able to beat the game on every level, every time.
On a side note here – when playing these games against other people I rarely play ‘hard-core’, out to win at all costs. Don’t get me wrong, I like to win, and always play to win, but it’s much more fun for everyone involved to play at a level that will give a close and exciting game. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than to see my daughter’s face light up when she beats me, because she knows I was playing to win and she’s earned it. It’s getting to the point where I do have to put everything in to it to beat her – there’s even the odd game that no matter what I do, she wins!
Playing games along the lines of Gloomhaven, Mice & Mystics, Arkham Horror: The Card game, and any of the many others in the Arkham Files collection, I play to immerse my self in the story. It can be akin to reading a book, only you, the star of the show, are creating the story as you play. Again, I like to win, but with these games, as long as the thematic experience is an exciting and rollercoaster ride, I don’t mind losing, especially if it turns out to be a close run thing.
Playing the puzzle-based games is probably easier for a non-solo player to understand, after-all, most people enjoy solving puzzles. These puzzles are just hidden within a game and can often prove to be quite complex, but usually it’s just a case of working out how the game mechanisms interplay with one another, and how the A.I. of the game operates. These two things can be a fairly simple problem, such as that posed by Forbidden Island, or something more complex like Viticulture, which requires multiple run throughs to grasp its idiosyncrasies!
I personally love puzzles like this, and I’ll put in repeated plays until I understand how the game works – then it becomes a battle between the game and myself, as I aim to try and beat it consistently. Once I do, I tend to move on to another game as the solo fun then diminishes. Of course there are many games out there that defeat me, and I really don’t mind, as I’ll keep coming back to them every now and again to do battle once more – that is if I feel the game is giving me a fair shot at winning!
There are games that just don’t work for me in this manner, and they are the ones with too much randomness, making it nigh on impossible to form a strategy to beat the game, at least one that my little brain can come up with – I prefer problems with more logical solutions.
Thematic games though, are much more my preference when solo gaming. Creating stories has always been something I enjoy doing, and what better way than combining it with a puzzle, because at the end of the day the majority of games we play are puzzles of one sort or another, but these come buried within an absorbing and entertaining (hopefully) plot.
Even though these games contain a puzzle, and often very complex, intertwining puzzles, it isn’t that that I focus on, it’s the story. Playing games like Arkham Horror: The Card Game, I hardly give any thought to the games mechanisms in terms of how to beat the game. I build my decks thematically, and I make the choices of the characters like that too – thinking, ‘what would they do in this situation?’ This usually leads to very exciting and close games, ones I really don’t care if I win or lose.
I approach Gloomhaven in a slightly different manner. Again I try to make the choices for the characters thematically – would the character who needs to collect lots of gold to retire go and help the Brute, or collects all this lovely loot that’s just lying around? (Loot, loot, loot!) But I also love the puzzle the game presents when in combat, so I’m always analysing the best way to use the cards for the current situation. It’s games like these that are a solo players Eden – a garden full of delights to explore, wondering what will happen if you just take a bite out of this here apple!
Many non-solo players question how you can play a thematic game without others to bounce the story around; each player making their own decisions and evolving the story in ways a soloist never would. When playing alone the story tends to take a fairly narrow, predetermined path – the player has an idea how to progress and thematically plays the characters in a manner to walk that path. Multiple players however, often have their own agendas and ideas, and though each may play their character realistically, they may all be pulling the overall story in different directions, and the game can play quite differently.
This is one of the joys of playing thematic games solo, you have control of the story, it is all your own, individual creation and experience.
So, how does someone become a solo player? Often it isn’t a conscious decision, and is something drifted towards through lack of time or available participants to play with. In this case they tend to start with the games they already own, either multi-player games with inclusive solo rules, or co-operative games where one player can control everything.
From here it really depends upon what type of person they are – playing thematic games solo, requires imagination, whilst the puzzle type needs more focus and patience, though most games fall between the two and require a little of everything!
I know a lot of people who state that a lack of imagination keeps them from playing solo – they need others to bring out their creative spirit, and they often approach thematic games with the mindset that it’s just another puzzle to solve.
I have been blessed (cursed?) with a very active imagination, far too active, as I often find it difficult to stay fixed on one thing before my mind wanders off onto something else! I started playing games like Monopoly and Risk on my own when I was probably around 8, playing against myself just to see what would happen, but then I am a little odd!
The pure solitaire game is often the domain of those who choose to play alone; maybe they prefer their own company, or just like to be in control all the time, the reasons are many and varied, but you can bet they are very good at solving complex problems. Solitaire only games tend towards being a challenging proposition, they have to be to retain any form of replayability, though it is a fine line between too easy and too difficult – the best ones have some sort of difficulty scaling built in, gradually increasing as you progress through the game. These games require a certain amount of determination to play over and over again, as you often have to go through the same procedures to again and again to get to know and understand the game.
So, can anyone play solo games? Well, obviously yes! Maybe I should rephrase that – can anyone play solo games, and enjoy them?
I would say no, not repeatedly anyway. A person may play a solo game once or twice, and think, ‘Yeah, that was okay,’ and then never play again. Certainly there’s a higher chance of someone getting into the ‘puzzle’ type games, as these can often prove to be a pleasant distraction, especially the ones that are quick to set up and play. Thematic games though, you really have to have imagination, and that’s something I think you’ve either got, or you haven’t – I mean, how would you try and teach someone to have an imagination? Sure, you can teach them to use it, but if they haven’t got one, they haven’t got one!
I know several people who, at the mention of even playing a thematic game, go running to hide in a corner until I’ve gone. And I know for a fact they have no imagination at all, plus they all have similarities – They pretty much only read factual books, they dislike Sci-fi and fantasy films, but they do enjoy games of skill.
In conclusion then: A solo player, especially one who plays by choice, has certain characteristics depending upon what they play.
Puzzle type games, which are often abstract in nature, and present a problem whose solution is hidden within the way the mechanisms and A.I. of the game play out, are the domain of the thinker – the ones who like to experiment with game mechanisms through logical thought, determination and patience.
Thematic games, the ones where the puzzle is hidden beneath an intriguing and absorbing storyline, draw those who have an active imagination to them like moths to a light bulb. They don’t need to be good at logical puzzle solving because, by playing thematically they actually unravel the puzzle until they reach the goal. A really good thematic game should never make the player even think that what is going on underneath the storyline is just a load of maths and clever game mechanisms!
I have a little of all these traits, and hence play all types of games solo, though sometimes I can’t help myself examining the mechanisms that propel a thematic game along, often to the detriment of the game.
Take a moment to think about yourself, do you have any of these traits? If you do, but have never tried playing a game solo, then give it a go. You never know what you might be missing out on!