A provocative title?
Well, before you start jumping to all the wrong conclusions, I’m still talking games here!
Specifically, I’m talking about games that aren’t meant to be played solo – maybe, ‘Playing against myself’ would have been a more correct way of putting it, but I grabbed your attention there for a moment didn’t I?
I regularly play multi-player games against myself. Sometimes it’s just me versus me, but on other occasions it might turn out to be me vs. me vs. me. vs me!
Now, I know what you’re thinking… why?
Why play a game in this manner when there are so many to choose from that offer a true solo experience?
Playing competitive multi-player games solo, is a common occurrence across the gaming world, and many people who do it would never class themselves as a solo gamer, as we shall see.
So, I thought I’d explore the reasons why by looking at my own experiences…
I first started playing games in this way when I was a mere strip of a lad, and to be honest, many of the reasons I did are still valid today.
One of the biggest challenges I had when I was a kid was trying to find someone to play games with, and it can still be an issue even today.
I was an only child, my Dad worked away from home for much of the week, and very few of my friends were into board games, at least none of them would admit to it, anyway!
When we did sit down to play games as a family, which was actually quite common, it was usually cards or dominoes. At Christmas Monopoly might appear. Risk might have come to the table once, but only once, and Frustration would have made it more often, but I hated to lose, which happened far too often for my liking!
There were a few other games that got a look in now and again – Ker-Plunk, Operation, and a game called Stay Alive, which involved moving levers to try and drop your opponent’s marble through holes – but these were few and far between.
When it came to Dungeons & Dragons or wargaming, though, it was an adamant NO! It would be another decade or so before I finally found someone to share my love of D&D with.
In those days there didn’t appear to be such a thing as a proper solo board game, at least one never crossed my path, and we were yet to see the invasion of the co-op game, so I just played against myself.
I played a lot of Risk, often with the full complement of ‘players’, Monopoly was also a regular, and Subbuteo a firm favourite – being ambidextrous I could flick a player from each team at the same time, which helped!
I made up characters for D&D and would design my own dungeons – later I moved on to towns – and played both the DM and all the characters at once.
I played out many a battle on the living room floor, French against British Napoleonic battles they were, and look back with very fond memories, even those when the dog decided to join in.
The love I had for games was just beginning back then, and I simply played on my own. I didn’t play thinking to refine my game, or do it to challenge myself, I simply played because there was nobody else to play with, and because I enjoyed it.
Nowadays, whilst I do regularly get to sit down and play games with others, there are certain games that I want to play that no one else is interested in, so I resort to playing alone and I’m quite happy to do so.
To be a winner!
I’m a competitive person; I like to win. I will always give it my best shot, and I will always play to win.
Fortunately, I’m also not a bad loser. The only person I beat up about losing is myself, but only if I know I didn’t give 100%.
I firmly believe that the best way to improve your game is to play someone better than yourself, someone who is going to push you, make you think about every move, and by doing this you’ll learn from both your own mistakes, and the from strategies/tactics your opponent uses.
Not everyone shares this mentality, though, and the majority probably play simply to have fun (as do I, I just like to win at the same time!). If you are looking to improve your game, then playing in a non-competitive field isn’t the way to do it, and hence, it’s time to look for a different kind of opponent.
The opponent I have in mind is one that knows my every thought, blocks me at every opportunity, and never fails to drive the spike in at just the right moment. I’m talking about me, myself, my ultimate nemesis!
I really love to explore games and how their mechanisms work, and I get all excited when the penny drops on just how clever the designer has been.
I’ve just started getting into Great Western Trail, by Alexander Pfister, and part way through the second game a broad smile came across my face as the cleverness of the tactical decisions and the ‘tightness’ of the game became apparent. To concentrate on a specific strategy, and to get the best from it, involves a certain amount of willpower, as it’s so easy to get distracted by other things just dangling within your reach; it really is a great game.
Anyway, I diverge. Games that have a lot of depth to them, or offer a number of differing approaches, require a certain amount of study to become good at, and I often find the best way of doing this is to play myself.
When doing this I will usually elect to play as many players as I can get away with. Sometimes I’m limited by space, as some games require each player to have a player board and a few hundred other bits and pieces (I have been known to exaggerate occasionally!), on others the amount of bookkeeping can be just too much for a single player to keep tabs on and so I have to adjust to what I can handle.
I will also arm myself with a pad of post-its, and I use these to remind me of what approach I’m taking with each player. For example: In Great Western Trail I may be using one player to explore a building strategy, whilst another may be concentrating on Cowboys and buying cattle. Depending on the game I will add notes on whether they are playing aggressively or defensively, and also my thoughts on things as they occur, such as, ‘this tile placed here caused this to happen,’ I can then reflect on these and fine-tune until I get a few different strategies that I’m happy with.
I learnt a lot about Dominion using this approach. I played dozens of 4-player games, and each player would have a note saying exactly what cards they would be buying from the market. Whilst I’m by no means a particularly great Dominion player, it helped to the point that I don’t feel out of my depth playing against most people.
One of things that I really love about this technique is that I can explore every nook and cranny of the game, whereas, when playing another player(s) I often find myself reflecting upon ‘what ifs’.. Playing solo I can rewind and try those ‘what ifs’, or set up a game that specifically sees me attempting a set approach – for me it is the best way to discover the game fully, which leads nicely into…
I’m not a great teacher of games. It stems from the way that I learn games, and the fact that I’m rarely taught to play by others.
Every time I teach a game, I feel I could have done much better. Maybe the order I introduce things is confusing, or I miss things out and have to go back – I find it very trial and error, and I don’t get a lot of practice.
So, how do I learn games if I don’t get taught by someone else?
Firstly, I always read the rules through. It doesn’t matter if I fully understand them at this point, but it gives me a heads up about what to expect and what to think about.
I then set up a multi-player game, usually at the 3-player count, as I find this gives the best balance between learning and housekeeping – trying to take on the role of too many players can prove overwhelming first go round.
I do this irrespective of whether the game has a solo mode or not, as many in games the solo aspect tends to be a bolt on and you need to know the main rules in order to play it.
Learning a game in this way has its advantages. You’re not holding people up every time you need to consult the rules, and if you get something wrong you don’t feel like you’re letting everyone down and wasting their time. If you make a mistake you can go back and reset the board, nobody will complain, and you can take as long as you like thinking about things.
There are two big advantages, though, that I find outweigh being taught the game.
Firstly, repetition. When you’re taking on the roles of three or four players, you will constantly be repeating the core aspects of the game, i.e. the turn structure and most, if not all, of the game mechanisms.
This is an ideal way to cement the foundations of the game in your head, and they quickly become routine. This helps tremendously when you come to play the game again later, as you should be able to recall the basic game elements and get up and running so much quicker.
Secondly, you can explore more of the game. Usually, when being taught a game, you play the game through by making decisions and going where they lead. At some point you will start to see the diverging strategies but will be unable to see how they would work, as you concentrate solely on the one you’re following.
By teaching myself whilst playing multiple roles, means I can try taking a different path with each player, and get to really know how the game plays. This way I can explore several strategies in one game, thus saving time and giving myself an idea how I would approach the game playing as a single player.
This method does have its drawbacks. If I get a rule wrong, or even miss something out, then I could be playing the game incorrectly for some time – there’s nobody to point out the error of my ways!
I also have nobody immediately on hand to discuss things with, and I do find myself buried in the forums trying to decide on a rule interpretation. There’s also the fact that some games just don’t lend themselves to this method, such as games that include a lot of hidden information that is vital to the game play, and of course, social deduction games are impossible!
The biggest drawback that I come across, however, occurs when I go on to teach and then play with others new to the game.
You see, I’ll get a new game, and we might decide to play it a week later, so I will learn the game. I use my method of learning, which stands me in good stead, and then go on to teach the others.
I’ll inevitably make a hash of the teach, and then we’ll sit down to have our first competitive game. In theory we should all be at the same level, as it’s everyone’s first proper game, but I usually find I have quite a large advantage over everyone else, as I’ve been exploring every inch of the game whilst learning it.
This really shows when the game has a variety of strategies, especially if they involve deck or engine building, where it can be difficult to correct any strategic mistakes you made at the beginning.
All-in-all, I find it a terrific way to learn a game, and for anyone who doesn’t mind playing solo I highly recommend giving it a go.
There is one manner of solo play that even hardened competitive players turn to, and that is refinement.
If you play a lot of Magic The Gathering or Star Wars: X-wing, then there’s a good chance you’ll have done this at some point. It is the act of trying out your deck/squad in various situations and adjusting it until it meets your requirements.
I don’t posses a particularly large collection of Magic cards, but whenever I create a new deck, I try it out against the others I have. I then cast cards away that underperform and add ones that I feel will be of benefit. In some cases, certain cards will work better against certain decks, and so I’ll make a note to add them if playing against such a deck.
The same goes for X-Wing or Star Trek Attack Wing. Here squads are formed of ships and their upgrade cards. Playing against myself I can see what works and what doesn’t, and I can try to focus on finding weaknesses within my build, or I can experiment with differing formations.
Most tabletop wargames are the same. It is usual to build an army to a certain point value, and in doing so one aims to put together something that has synergy, is enjoyable to play, and falls within the one’s budget.
I tend to start by looking at what I’ve actually got available to me – what troops, mechanised units, leaders, and upgrade cards (if applicable). Then, it is a case of deciding on the strengths and weaknesses of the units and how they would best be employed. I would then work out a basic strategy for employing all the units together, and the tactics they would use on the battlefield.
After this it is a case of testing. I then select an opposing force that I know is well balanced and play against myself. It can often take a dozen or so games to refine things to my liking, though many of the games are cut short, as I restart after some tinkering.
Here’s an example.
I may decide that a certain unit of elite, fast moving light troops, would be handy for seizing an objective, but would be unable to hold it for more than a couple of rounds, as they are lightly armoured and susceptible to taking casualties. I also have a couple of powerful heavy units and three or four below average mechanised units. My strategy then, is to use the light troops to rush forwards and seize an objective, whilst my heavies plod on behind to take over from them. The mechanised units I split in two, half will cover the light troops, trying to draw fire and harass any enemy units in the vicinity.
The other mechanised unit will bring up the rear, acting as a quick reaction force primarily for defence of the heavies.
I would then play this strategy out against myself with a standard enemy force. After several games I end up ditching the two mechanised units I had and replacing them with a single, heavily armed and armoured one. This I advance along with the light troops, as I found they just didn’t have the firepower to keep the enemy at bay long enough. The heavy troops then form a perimeter around the objective allowing the light unit to regroup and then function as a reserve
It is a progressive thing, always changing, as I come across something different or that plainly doesn’t work. I find it fascinating, absorbing, and quite enjoyable… to be honest, I often get more fun out of this than I do playing against real opponents – but I think that may just be me!
So, that’s a quick round-up of how and why I play competitive games on my own, but I’m sure there are other ways and means of doing so – please share your experiences in the comments below, or maybe, as it isn’t for everyone, it’s something you just can’t see the point in? Well, let me know your thoughts on that too!