Gaming Lonely as a Cloud

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lonelyAs a general rule one of the things I usually look for in a game is some direct player interaction. I don't much mind if its heavily moderated by action selection or some similar Euro-style mechanic, indeed some of my favourite titles solve the perennial problems of multi-player conflict in this manner, so long as it's in there somewhere. My tolerance for low interaction games is very low - something I'll only bring out once in a while when the occasion demands it. So it's no great surprise that for a long time I found the idea of solo boardgaming bizarre to say the least.

One of the key reasons that I found it an odd proposition is the existence of computer games. Back in the halcyon days of my youth, when all I had was a crappy little ZX Spectrum with a mighty 16k of RAM, the idea of playing solo boardgames such asChainsaw Warrior held a lot more appeal. Indeed I'll wager that if it were not for the parlous state of home computing at the time, that utterly dire solo effort from Games Workshop would have bombed with the nuclear-level detonation it deserved. However with the advent of decent, affordable 16-bit machines the value of these games fell away. And indeed up until relatively recently the number of solo-specific games (as opposed to wargames designed for 2 players which can be, and often are, played solo) was very small indeed. The reasons should be obvious: a computer game is faster to set up, and often rather more absorbing than a solo board game, plus since they're actually designed to be played solo you don't feel like a complete freak for playing it by yourself. If you don't want to get into a twitch game and you value the cerebral component of playing a board game then that's no problem. There are plenty of highly demanding strategy games you can play on a computer, from implementations of the classic abstracts that could beat any casual human player to war simulations that do a far better job than their board-based counterparts by implementing terrifically complex and highly accurate combat systems and doing a superb job of replicated the fog of war. If you're on your own, a computer game always looked to me like a better bet than playing a board game by myself, and for the life of me I couldn't see why anyone else would think differently.

What eventually changed my mind was playing Arkham Horror, a game which also opened my eyes as to the potential value of co-operative games (a value which remains almost entirely missed by nearly every other co-op title on the market, in my opinion). The initial reason was very simple: playing Arkham Horror solo was an experience as captivating and as immersive as any computer title thanks to the incredible atmosphere and sense of narrative that it generates turn after turn. In some ways, I have to say, I think Arkham Horror solo would work better as a computer application than it does as a boardgame thanks largely to its relatively high level of administrative overhead. If you're fond of playing with a lot of expansions (I'm not: I just have two big-box expansions and leave it at that) then a computer version of the game would save absolutely bags of time and fiddle factor in play. Indeed I'm slightly surprised Fantasy Flight haven't released a computer version: perhaps they've considered it, I don't know. But anyway, although my initial example might not actually be the best it did succeed in opening my eyes to some other advantages that solo gaming has over playing against the computer, which in my previous ignorance I had hitherto failed to appreciate.

Alert: the following paragraph contains several unintentional double entendres which I only noticed on re-reading and may shock those with a low threshold for bad puns. You have been warned I have no idea why they all slipped into the same section of the article: obviously I was thinking about board games at the time. Personally I think it was the strain of trying to avoid cliché and not titling this article "playing with yourself". The pressure was bound to slip out somewhere.

Some of the things I'd missed are, in retrospect, pretty obvious. For one thing the impressive eye-candy available in playing the latest video game is really nothing compared to the real-life eye-candy of great artwork and components in a board game. To say nothing of the pleasingly tactile nature of actually physically handling your pieces during play. A board game is also an awful lot more portable than most computers and gaming consoles and you don't have the annoyance factor of small equipment making the play experience less satisfying. In the past I've had to take several week-long trips away to London on various work assignments and after an evening meal and a bottle of wine, the evenings tended to stretch ahead interminably. Had I been able to take a game back to my room and play with it all night, those trips would have been a whole lot less boring.

But the biggest difference between a computer game and a solo board game is rather more subtle than the simple physical differences between paper or card and silicon. I suppose it may just be me but personally, I have a tendency to treat stuff that's going on on the computer with a lesser degree of importance than stuff that's actually happening in reality, as it were. Probably not the best trait for someone who makes a living programming computers to have, I suppose, but it's just me. I first noticed it when, as a youth, I got heavily enough into playing Chess to obtain my own little chess computer. Whilst I was moderately not-awful at Chess I had a hard time playing against the computer on anything other than the easiest difficulty settings. The problem was simply that because I was playing against a machine, I expected instant gratification and was just not willing or able to put in the same level of time and effort as I would against a real person. Beating a machine was an ephemeral, throwaway achievement in comparison that could be completed in a fraction of the time it'd take to play a face-to-face game and I just couldn't be bothered. I'm the same with modern strategy titles and even playing board games that I love against AI opponents: I'm particularly aware that when playing games that have even minor luck elements (which is basically everything in my case) I'm far more likely to take huge risks and gamble on a lucky draw or roll when playing against a computer.

I've also belatedly realised that while hiving off lots of administrative work to the computer in a strategy game has many advantages, particularly for conflict simulations, there are ways in which it can work against you. Hiding the calculations and information away from the player makes for a more naturalistic game but it means you're making less strategic decisions. You can't make proper decisions unless you're fully aware of the rules the game engine is playing by, something you always know in a solo board game. This adds to the feeling of triviality that hangs around playing computer games for me, and exacerbates the problem of my not taking them seriously.

The final proof of this particular thesis came a few months ago when I found a computer version of one of my favourite solo titles, the soon to be reprinted Dungeonquest for download. Of course I had to give it a whirl but after a couple of trips through the dungeon I found the game totally flat and lifeless, in complete contrast to the thrilling sessions I'd had with the physical board game. The reasons were simple: the board game looks a whole lot better than the amateurish graphics in the remake, and being able to rapidly click through to resolve every room tile, card turn and combat in lightning speed just robbed the game of any tension and atmosphere. If the dungeon kills my character while I've been sat playing on the living room floor I've just spent a half-hour of my valuable gaming time without getting a result. If the computer does it to me then I wasted 5 minutes and I can just reload and start again.

Although it seems like I came late to the party when in comes to solo games I can at least offer in my defence that I wasn't the only one. Until relevantly recently seeing a solo option on a game was a relative rarity, let alone the existence of professionally published solo titles like the excellent Phantom Leader for gamers to enjoy. Given this renaissance in the genre it is therefore something of a fat irony that in roughly the same time period, the original refuge of the lonely gamer, video games, have become increasingly focused on a multi-player experience. Perhaps I'm getting old but I just can't get into this scene at all: I fail to see the appeal of wandering round a maze being killed repeatedly by hyperactive twelve year olds all souped up on amphetamines. Could it be that the two groups of games are going to do some mass-swap in terms of player number focus? It seems unlikely. I suspect, instead, that as I grow older I just come to appreciate every facet of my favourite hobby more and more. 

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There Will Be Games

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Matt has been writing about tabletop games professional since 2012, blogging since 2006 and playing them since he could talk.


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