Readers who have met me in real life know that I live for social interaction in games. It doesn’t even need to be an element of the mechanics, just present at the table in some form. If you’re the table that’s laughing and cutting up, that’s where I want to be. So I didn’t understand why so many gamers were so taken with playing games solo. On some level it defeats the entire purpose of playing games, which is to spend time with friends.
But as I’ve gotten further along in life I’m beginning to see the value of games that you can play by yourself. A lot of it has to do with family life. Once you get a couple of children in the picture, it’s harder to just up and play a game with your buddies. Also, I now have enough games in my collection that every new addition means every other game will get played just a little less. Effectively everything is in competition with everything else, so something that works with just one player stands a better chance of seeing some action. But the problem is that a lot of games that are supposed to work well solo don’t seem to work that well for me.
A lot of this has to do with personality. My mind tends to get bored when there are a lot of game phases to track at once, especially when I am the only one responsible for tracking them. That right there crosses a lot of games off of the list. Most of my experience with Arkham Horror has been solo, but I find that it’s a little more trouble than it’s worth these days. I still am glued to that lovely flowchart to keep it straight what goes where, particularly once expansions get involved. It’s this constant upkeep that does in a lot of solo games.
Arkham Horror is on the right track in one regard though: it’s cooperative. Since cooperative games literally are multiplayer solitaire, they have a tendency to be much easier to play when there’s only one brain to coordinate. But it’s easy for a game to fumble here as well. Euro designers have embraced the “co-op as puzzle,” which limits my interest significantly. An over-emphasis on planning and efficiency makes a game that much more finite. What else is there to do after you’ve beaten it? Make it a little harder and do the same thing again? This eventually sank Pandemic as a solo option for me. (Not surprisingly, I think it’s an issue with co-op games in general, but that’s another article.)
No, it’s far more interesting to have a game that allows for a little wildness in its structure. This is one lesson that Victory Point Games has learned in their solitaire titles like Swing States. They rely heavily in dice for outcomes, and it makes them much harder to solve. Another game that got this right was Death Angel, the Space Hulk card game. The die-rolling in that game is truly deadly, where a single roll can kill a Space Marine and hobble your game. A lot of people might find that irritating. I find it thrilling. It does want for a little variety, but it doesn’t feel solvable.
And on a personal note, I don’t like feeling like the game is smarter than me. There is much to recommend Mage Knight as a solitaire game, but after about eight solo sessions I still haven’t come close to beating it. It doesn’t help when I read online about people defeating it with alarming regularity. The solution here is obvious: quit reading online forums. But it is a little discouraging to know that it’s apparently possible, but something that has so far eluded me. It hasn’t killed Mage Knight for me, but it does mean that I am one of the few people who actually prefers the game with another person.
But if these are all problems with solo games, how do we make it work? I’ve already touched on one way: stop thinking of luck as a factor to be mitigated, and start embracing it for narrative flair. Almost all of my favorite solo experiences are insanely random, which usually makes them a breeze to play and memorable even when I lose. A good example is Dungeonquest, which is so quick and brutal that I’ve played six or seven games of it in an hour. It’s also important to keep the structure of the game simple, without bogging down in process and rules. One game that does well this way are the D&D Adventure series, of which I think Wrath of Ashardalon works best solitaire.
A particularly freeing realization was that with some games I could just set up two sides and play it out. It’s a good way to learn rules, but some games are a pleasure to simply play, even if you are playing two sides. Just this weekend I set up FFG’s redesign of Merchant of Venus, and played it through to completion. It works very well in this regard, because it has no hidden information between players, and not a lot of interaction either. I also like to do this with Talisman, where you can create those wonderful stories without much fuss. I can easily sink a good 90-120 minutes in either one of those games without ever getting up from the table.
So I guess I came around a little bit on solitaire gaming. It’s taken some practice, but now that I know that I enjoy straightforward narrative over thinky analysis, it’s far less distressing to go a couple of weeks without being able to get something to the table. It’s always better to have a friend with you, but gaming is a rich enough hobby that you can still enjoy it by yourself.
Nate Owens is a weekly columnist for Fortress: Ameritrash. He drinks too much coffee and likes the Star Wars prequels. You can read more of his mental illness at The Rumpus Room.