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My Golden Age of Solo Gaming
Like many, I grew up playing games with my family. Rummy 500 was my family’s bread and butter, but many other games crossed our table over the years. Games were a social activity; a way to bond and spend time together. When I got into the hobbyist side of games almost 10 years ago, I scoffed at the notion of playing games solo. Why would I want to do that? I have plenty of solitary activities I can do. Besides, playing a board game by yourself seemed kind of sad. Sure, I gave the original Thunderstone solo mode a try. Once. It was cool enough, but nothing I ever pursued past that initial curiosity. I borrowed Friday from a friend and was over it after one play. I even toyed with Lord of the Rings: The Card Game when it first came out, but quickly traded it away after a solo play. I was certain solo gaming was not for me. Games were to be played with others. I held onto the social aspect of gaming for a long time. Then Arkham Horror: The Card Game came out.
Star Trek: Encounters and Desolate are the best I’ve played thus far, set up primarily as solo games. There’s others that people probably think of first ( Nemo’s War is a standout) as all co-ops can be solo played.
Some games are just meant to be solo, and those are usually puzzles that gamers like to call "co-ops".
I'm at odds with solo games. While I will play games solo in order to learn them, and play games like mentioned above solo, it seems somehow counter to the intent I perceive boardgames to be. Which is a social lubricant. An excuse to gather together and share experiences.
I'm not sure why I have a problem with it, since when I play video games, it rarely involves more than me. It's a matter of perception I suppose. A hangup I need to get over.
But I'll sit with legendary encounters sprawled out before me, enjoying the unfolding of the puzzle, and I can't help but feel I'd rather be playing Alien Isolation on my PS4 instead as that is far more immersive of the setting. I don't enjoy the mechanisms of legendary encounters enough to play that over Alien Isolation. Perhaps that's why I don't understand the allure of solo boardgaming. There are so many better experiences than flipping cards in hope of an engaging analogue AI experience.
My other hangup is browsing any given game entry on To say, and seeing the beggars banquet lamenting the fact that a game whose critical and fundamental design is based around a conflict involving a minimum of two players. I have yet to see a game entry that doesn't have such a request made, with the obnoxious words "No solo, no buy".
I feel those asking are quite oblivious to how submitting to their entitled requests changes the foundation of a game to be something entirely what it is not.
I'm not without compassion to their plight, yet it gets tiring seeing such predictable posts.
I think part of it is setup and upkeep. This sort of stuff seems fine when playing with others, I guess because that's the bit where everyone is chatting about what's just happened or anything else, but on my own, it just seems kind of onerous to be laying it all out and then going through upkeep phases etc etc. Occasionally I'll get something out to solo and start setting it all up and just sigh and pack it away.
This probably explains why I'm happy to solo stuff via vassal or in some other digital format though.
I recently tried Sentinels of the Multiverse on steam, I can't even begin to imagine what the upkeep on a physical version of that is like.
Solo board gaming doesn't slot into quite the same experiential territory as video gaming for me. I often approach a solo session with a craving for board game tactility and an openness to spinning my own narratives and visualizing scenarios that no video game studio could really conjure for me. I set a game up on my long-term "do not disturb" table as a sort of imaginative refuge from other media when those start to fatigue me or begin to feel hollow. It almost feels like a self-soothing ritual, if that makes sense, so things like upkeep and setup are actually pleasurable.
Unlike many solo gamers, though, I actively dislike the intense "puzzle" nature of some designs. My slant is more along the lines of scrying cards & dice, maintaining a weird cocktail of roleplaying and fatalism, subjecting my choices to chance operations & rolling with the narrative this creates.
It gives me a quiet space that feels like it lives at the intersection of Tarot, I Ching, RPG, and straight up escapist fantasy, wrapping everything in component tactility. I'm not always in the mood for it, but when I am, solo board gaming fits a very specific role in my gaming space.
I think it's weird that some folks look at solo games or playing MP games by yourself and are all like "why would you do that, there's no opposition, how can you play when you know what the other side is going to do blah blah blah". Don't fuckin' care. If I like the mechanics, and I like the way a game plays...then I'm totally down with setting something up and playing even just a few turns to enjoy it. I played a 3 player game of El Grande a couple of weeks ago just because I really wanted to play some El Grande and no one was around. Did I have a fulfilling and competitive experience or whatever? No. But I still had fun because I like the game so much and enjoyed just having it out, drinking a cocktail, and with a movie on in the background.
I would rather play solo games than most video games anymore, to be honest. I've really been surprised at how much solo gaming has exploded over the last several years too, despite video games. Nemo's War, Navajo Wars, Renegade, Silent Victory, Four Against the Darkness, all that stuff...some really neat designs just for one.
I do admit to grinding my teeth when people on KS hound designers to add solo variants to games that are clearly meant to be multiplayer. As in, "I know you've designed a great game, but I demand that you spend time that could have been spent refining the main game and insert a solo mode to appease me, because I demand it." That is the ONLY issue I've ever had with solo gamers, and I realize that is a vocal minority of them.
/obligatory Ken B. Post
//Barney once posted rules for a solo Shower Rescue variant. Sad.
///If Pete stops in and accidentally teaches us all some Cosmo sex move while humble bragging about how long it's been since he solo gamed, could have ToTY potential.
One major exception: GorillaGrody introduced me to a grading method whereby you set up a game, grade a few papers, take a turn, grade a few papers, take a turn, and so on. It's a really nice way to make that slog feel more humane.