Whilst nothing beats the shared experience of gathering around the table with friends for a board game session, solo gaming does a good job of coming a pretty close second. And let’s face it, it can often be hard to synchronise everyone’s diaries and find an ideal gaming slot, or persuade others to play when they are not in the mood, so why not go it alone!
My First Time
My first experience of (non-digital) solo gaming was as an excited 10-year-old flicking through the pages of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, The Citadel of Chaos, and The Forest of Doom (the holy trinity of Fighting Fantasy game books), and a little later on striding out as the titular Chainsaw Warrior in the Games Workshop solo board game, but other than that, good solo board gaming experiences were hard to come by.
So, between the long days of Talisman and longer nights of Dungeons & Dragons adventures with my friends, I had to mainly make do with playing on my Commodore 64 when I was on my own, which wasn’t a bad thing, but it didn’t scratch the board gaming itch!
Fast forward a few decades, and after a lengthy gaming hiatus, I decided to get back into board gaming several years ago, and found that things had changed very much for the better for those of us that like to go it alone.
So, with a few years of solo gaming experience behind me, I thought I’d try to provide some good reasons why people should explore this interesting side of the board gaming hobby, and hopefully convince more people to give it a try!
For a start, board gaming in general is no longer a geeky thing to do - actually, it is, but now geek is the new cool!
If you tell your non-gaming friends that you play board games regularly with other people, they’re, nowadays, unlikely to bat an eyelid, and more likely to ask to join in at some point, after all, they’ve seen Sheldon and friends playing Catan on The Big Bang Theory, or noticed people having fun in the new board game cafe in town.
But most non-gamers experience of board games doesn’t prepare them for the concept of solo gaming, so if you say you play board games on your own, you may still get some confused looks (despite the fact that it is perfectly acceptable to play computer games solo).
I think a good place for non-gamers to start enjoying solo gaming is through gateway games like Pandemic and Forbidden Island - once they’ve played co-operative games like these in a group a few times, and got used to the characters and the mechanics, they could easily be encouraged to try them alone.
Co-operative games like those just mentioned (provided there are no ‘traitor’ mechanics), are always great solo, and give a great alternative to ‘beat your score’ solo games. In fact there are lots of different types of solo games nowadays beyond the basic ‘do better than you did last time’ variety:
- Beat your score - Whilst this is the most basic type of solo game, and typical of competitive multi-player games with a solo variant, these can still be fun, and tend to be more thoughtfully put together with modern games, rather than an afterthought. For example, Uwe Rosenberg’s gorgeous Cottage Garden has a pretty simple beat your score solo variant, but combine that with the Tetris-like flowerbed arrangement (and the beautiful artwork), and you have a very satisfying (and zen like) solo experience.
- Beat the game - Typical of co-operative games, this type of game tends to give the most satisfying solo sessions. Losing to the game itself (rather than losing to yourself as you don’t beat your own personal best) is such a liberating experience - once you realise the game is more clever than you are, you simultaneously feel humbled, and determined to beat it next time! And once you finally manage to beat the game, it gives a genuine sense of achievement. A good example here would be Pandemic, where clever interlocking mechanics often leave you feeling that the game is playing you rather than the other way around!
- Solo first - A lot of games are developed nowadays with solo play first and foremost in mind, and increasingly with solo play at the expense of a multiplayer option. Obvious, but complex examples include Vlaada Chvatil’s Mage Knight, Ignacy Trzewiczek’s Robinson Crusoe, and more recently This War of Mine, all of which I am very keen to get hold of!
- Suggested solo - If a game doesn’t have solo play included in the box, more often than not a solo mode may have been suggested by a user on BoardGameGeek. I have found several really solid solo rules variants for games on here, that have allowed me to make the most of games that I love playing with other people but which don’t make it to the table nearly often enough. One that springs to mind is a solo mode called ‘The Lonely Delver’ for Brotherwise Games’s stunning Unearth. This is such a simple variant, but it very effectively adds a thematic opponent, and is not easy to beat!
Take your Time
I find that that I really enjoy the ritual of the set-up of games, and this can often be rushed and less enjoyable when you are trying to set up quickly when playing with friends. For me, game set-up is never a chore, I love preparing the play area, opening the box and sorting out the components, so playing on your own means you can take your time over this.
The same applies to break-down, making sure all the parts are in their respective bags in the correct place in the box is very relaxing, but I suppose that says more about me than about solo gaming!
Of course the opposite situation can also be true, there are times when you have only a few minutes to kill, and/or you have no friends around to play games with, so a quick solo game can fit that gap quite nicely.
I think there are fewer ‘filler’ solo games than there are ‘epic’ solo gaming experiences, but some of the better ones for when you are short on time include the wonderfully quirky Onirim, a solo card game which sees you navigating a labyrinth of dreams, plus other games set in the Oniverse, such as Castellion (castle defense) and Sylvion (forest defense).
More recently, I backed a resource management game called Palm Island on Kickstarter - due out in July, this game offers the ultimate in convenience, a solo game (with two-player option) that can be played in-hand with no gaming surface, no need to put the game cards down at all, and all resource amounts recorded by using the cards themselves. If this is as handy to play as it seems, I don’t think I will ever leave home without it!
Print and Play
You can't beat the quality of professionally produced solo games, but the growing sub-genre of print-and-play gaming caters disproportionately well for solo gamers. The number of print-and-play solo games available by talented indie designers is increasing rapidly, and they are pretty damn good! These games are usually easy to find and grab the file links for on BoardGameGeek, so all you need is a printer and some paper, and a few dice and accessories, and you’re away.
I think print-and-play is a perfect, low risk way to encourage new designers onto the scene - several games that I have printed and enjoyed have ended up running successful Kickstarter campaigns as a result of positive feedback from their fans.
A few of my current favourite print-and-play solo titles include:
- D100 Dungeon - Designed by Martin Knight, this solo dungeon crawler is fantastically crunchy, with loads of tables for quests, encounters and items to roll on (with a d100), plus mapping, and a character sheet that is as complex as any role playing game, with item slots for all body parts and various modifiers. It is clearly a labour of love and that shines through in the gameplay. I've spent hours and hours playing through, and I'm only just past the training quests, but it has a very strong ‘just one more quest’ pull to it!
- Desolate - Jason Glover’s (Grey Gnome Games) latest solo title has you exploring an abandoned space station trying to find the fuel to recharge your ship and escape whilst fighting off aliens. In contrast to D100 Dungeon, this is a light and fast solo game, but very atmospheric, with some nice decisions to make along the way.
- Barbarian Prince - Released in 1981, the files for this game can be downloaded from the Dwarfstar Games website. You play the titular prince, exiled from your homeland, trying to gain 500 gold pieces to raise an army and take back your land. A bit like a choose your own adventure book mixed with a role-playing game, and some ‘realistic’ rules for map exploration and encounters. I've ploughed many evenings into this game, having missed it ‘back in the day’, and despite showing its age, I’m glad it’s been given a second chance.
- Pocket Landship - This quick and simple little game puts you in control of a World War One era tank, taking on the enemy to clear an area of tanks and mines and troops by chucking dice. Simple but loads of fun!
Recommended Games for Solo Gaming
I have tried to recommend solo games below that cover a broad spectrum of themes, different mechanics and game length:
- Eldritch Horror - This is my all time favourite game to solo, hands down. It appeals to my love of the set-up and break-down, and is deeply thematic which really appeals, and tells a great story. Plus, with such a large number of expansions, there is endless replay-ability. Because it is such a big game, both in table presence and gameplay time, it doesn't make the table anywhere near as often as I'd like, but when it does it is a real pleasure to play. Not a game for everyone, but more accessible than many would think.
- Elder Sign - I’ve also solo played a lot of Eldritch Horror’s younger sibling Elder Sign, and whilst I much prefer Eldritch Horror, I don’t think Elder Sign deserves the ‘Cthulhu Yahtzee’ tag it is stuck with, it is a lot of fun solo, and the dice rolling is great (and they are very, very nice dice indeed!).
- Pandemic - I’ve solo played basic Pandemic plus some expansions, which is great introduction to solo gaming, but my personal favourite is Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu (sorry, last Cthulhu themed game I promise!). The adapted mechanics in this one seem to make a little more sense to me than in regular Pandemic, plus the idea of running around Arkham, Dunwich, Innsmouth and Kingsport defeating tiny cultist minis is so appealing!
- Samurai Spirit - Antoine Bauza’s slimmed down version of his game Ghost Stories (another great solo game) pits you as a samurai against hordes of villains attacking a defenceless village. It is simple to learn, and plays quickly (about 20-30 minutes), and the mix of different samurai to choose from and combine gives lots of replay-ability.
- Maximum Apocalypse - I recently reviewed this game, and I can’t get enough of it. A different, but no less doom laden theme than Eldritch Horror, you lead a band of survivors through the apocalypse of your choice (zombies, mutants, aliens or robots in the core game). This game has a puzzle like feel to it, and a random set up that gives no end of replay-ability.
- Onirim - Games set in the Oniverse are great fillers, playing in 15-30 minutes. The artwork is very unique, and helps to immerse you in the imaginary worlds.
I’ve probably missed loads of solo games out from these lists, but that’s great because it shows there is so much choice out there! Hopefully this has given a bit of food for thought about solo gaming, so go give it a try!