Some people have family and friends who live nearby and love to play boardgames all day long. Some people live near vibrant Boardgame cafes and game clubs with brimful libraries holding an eclectic mix of the best games and, more importantly, a pool of willing opponents. Some people, like me, are not so lucky. This solo feature is for them!
Sure most games these days come with some sort of solo option unless they rely on hidden movement, bluffing or trick-taking but if you buy one of today’s top games, knowing that you are most likely to be playing on your own, how true will the experience be to the “real” thing?
So we are looking here at the biggest and the best boardgames, and by that I mean they are all in BGG’s Top 50, and selecting the ones we feel give the best experience as a Solo player. There’s a wide range and a wide feel to them all. From pre-war farmlands through bird and widlife habitats, magical islands and ancient ruins, to the edges of our Solar System something for everyone. On their ownsome.
Released in 2016 and now having sold over 1.5 Million copies TFM has established itself as one of the Greatest of All Time Board games but what if you can’t find anyone to play against. It’s quite complex with a lot going on and some don’t want that level of commitment. So does the solo mode give you the full game experience? Yes!
I’m not detailing the basic game mechanics, covered elsewhere, but just looking at Solo. There are four key differences:
1. You use the Corporations from the Corporate Era cards to give you any starting resources and production.
2. You start at only Level 14 on the Terraforming Scale instead of the usual 20.
3. Your “opponents” only contribution is to have two Cities and adjacent Forests on the map board before you start.
4. You have to do all the terraforming yourself and get the 3 scales raised to maximum in just 14 turns.
The first time I tried this I was so far short I thought it was impossible. Then I tried again. This time I focused all my energy on the Heat and Trees and Oceans and less on the cards that scored points because you ain’t gonna score anything if you don’t finish the Terraforming and there’s no Milestones and Awards to go for. Hey, I won! Now I know how, I can start to try and get a better score. And so it goes.
Is it worth buying Terraforming Mars for the Solo experience alone? Well that’s up to you. It is quite expensive but it’s lovely to have and the solo experience is pretty challenging. Enough so that when you do manage to find other players to play against you will be well equipped to either teach them or match their terraforming skills.
So go on treat yourself!
In Spirit Island you play as spirit/s whose island has been invaded. They are trying to clear their island of the invaders. The base game has eight different spirits of varying complexity. Each spirit has strengths and weaknesses in different areas. Some excel in defending an area from invaders. Others create fear to convince the invaders to leave. Whilst Spirit Island is a game which can be played with two, three or four players, I prefer to play it solo.
There is a lot of complexity within the game. Although you know which areas are going to be built in and ravaged by the invaders, that does not mean it is easy to stop. Also, spirits have slow and fast powers. The type of power depends when it is played and that can have a real impact on a turn. That is even without the adversaries in the box, which add further difficulty into the game.
When I play Spirit Island solo, I play with two spirits. I find the interaction between the spirits interesting. You have to work to try to balance out their strengths and weaknesses. But, there is a lot of information in Spirit Island. Sometimes, when playing with more players, information can get overlooked. This means you don’t always optimise how you play. When you are playing solo, you have that information available to you. There is no concern about the level of communication needed. Also, you can take as long as you want to decide the best move for a turn!
I have played Spirit Island solo a lot and still have some spirit combinations to work through. But I can say for certain that Spirit Island is a great solo game!
Alone again, Naturally
We all know that Scythe is one of those visually impressive, strategically immersive and overwhelmingly massive playing experiences… that can scare people off. It is, however, very much aware of its daunting nature, and comes with a solo play mechanism. Which is handy.
Playing people face to face would be preferrable, but fortunately the solo play makes a smart alternative. Using a card-based automata with four levels of difficulty, the game will play against you as you will play against it. It has a character board but doesn’t need a player board and will carry out its actions according to the cards.
It starts off gentle, with limited access to the map at first and, if you are playing at the beginner’s Autometta level, limited movement full stop. Once it does start moving, the automata’s pieces can ‘teleport’ around the board according to neighbourhood rules (with nary a Mr Rogers in sight) which makes their advance pretty relentless. As well as movement, they will also ‘get stuff’, like Mechs and workers, but not the Mech abilities. This is determined by the automata’s Star Track, advanced by the cards, which also shows how close they are to winning and when their play will improve by flipping to the other side of the cards and the more advanced play. Combat is also determined by the cards and when six stars are achieved by either player, the game ends and the automata scores according to a given framework.
Compared to playing against real humans? Well, first off I can win against Autometta, definitely a plus, but the ‘leaping around the map’ tendency of the automata can make for a challenging experience. Human players can also make brilliant plays or make hideous mistakes, while the automata will play it safe, mostly. It also removes the amusing consequence-based encounters for the automata – when human players have to choose what to do in an encounter… well, it’s just funny. Kill the cows as spies, indeed. As a solo euro experience though it is a tight and efficient one… and you still get to play with the minis.
A lot of things have been said about Wingspan whether you believe the hype or not. However, as you will probably gather I love Wingspan as a solo experience (arguably it’s better than the multiplayer experience but that’s a topic for another day). When I started out, I lost so much to the robot. But I genuinely think I’ve improved because of it. Sometimes the Automa gets a bad bonus card (basically Backyard Birder), but on the whole it puts up a good fight. It can be truly devastating to see the Automa get that final cube that beats you in the round bonuses.
The solo gameplay is largely the same and you compete with the Automa. The Automa only scores face up birds, face down birds (worth between 3-5 points depending on what difficulty you set), round bonuses and eggs. But you get to play nearly exactly the same as a multiplayer game. A minor difference would be that it feels like you get less value from birds with pink powers as the Automa doesn’t trigger them much.
I’m not a lover of downtime (few are), and that’s something that’s resolved in the solo version of Wingspan. Doing the Automa’s actions can be fun too (especially when it benefits you). You get the fun of building your aviary without having to wait for other people! I can spend weekends tearing through games, going through the bird deck over and over. I have favourite birds now, shout out to Anna’s Hummingbird and the Eastern Bluebird.
There can be an element of frustration when you don’t get your bird engine working the way you want it to. But all those failed engines mean that when it’s really humming, there’s nothing quite like it. It’s one of the reasons I’ve played over and over again, just to get the unique satisfaction of a fantastic bird engine. For example, I had an egg engine that was producing food, flocking birds and giving me extra eggs which I could discard for more food and birds. I got 99 in that game, and I had a great time laying eggs the whole game.
Wingspan is a wonderful solo game as it accentuates everything good about the game, allowing you to explore how to make the most efficient engines with beautiful watercolour birds.
Lost Ruins of Arnak was a massive 2020 release with a solo campaign being released in 2021. The Search for Professor Kutil is a four-chapter, story-driven campaign utilising an app/web browser. Arnak had a solo mode built into the core game which employed several tiles to determine which actions your Rival performs and several ways to increase the difficulty. The Rival AI effectively occupies spaces on the board, defeats Guardians and collects items/relics.
In the Search for Professor Kutil expansion, you will be playing against your Rival to uncover the story and the secrets of Professor Kutil’s lost expedition. Arnak has been a long-time favourite of mine and the solo campaign elevates the game to lofty heights. It takes the core concepts of Arnak and changes them up enough to keep the campaign fresh and interesting, whilst retaining all the exciting and interesting elements of Arnak.
Without giving away too many spoilers for the campaign, the story is decent, although it does not change from game to game, but the way certain rules are changed, components used and objectives to complete, make you play each chapter very differently. The campaign offers more than just playing four games of Arnak with a story and if you have not yet ventured into the campaign then I highly recommend you do so.
The added competition of your Rival means you will be navigating the challenges of the campaign as well as trying to beat your Rival. With the variability in difficulty you have with respect to the AI the campaign offers a lot of replayability. Story wise, it will be the same and this is probably one of the weakest points of the campaign. However, this does not detract from a truly wonderful experience.
High recommendation from me.
I am not a zen person. I can’t meditate or switch off. Life is too short for slow yoga. I am an one-hundred-mile-an-hour-er and that doesn’t leave much time for faff. So when I solo a game, I want it on the table and up and running NOW!
Cascadia by AEG and Flatout games is one such game. It’s a tile laying area majority, placement optimisation game which is both beautiful to look at and play. In Cascadia, you are trying to create habitats that suit 5 different indigenous species who call the Pacific Northwest USA home. Each animal type has its own preferences, and you get points for keeping them happy as well as building out connected territory types.
Rounds in solo mode are fast and simple. Stacking up half the habitat tiles (42) and giving yourself one starting tile, you lay out 4 entwined pairs of habitat tiles and wildlife tokens. Each turn, you pick a pair comprising a habitat tile and a wildlife token from the pool. After placing the habitat tile (adjacent to a previously laid tile) and laying the wildlife token on top of an empty tile that shows a matching species, the right most tile pair in the pool gets discarded, the remaining two pairs get moved along, and two new pairs are drawn randomly from the bag. When the tiles run out, its time to score for territory corridors (areas) and the 5 wildlife scoring objectives chosen at the start of the game.
No complex AI to manage. No long and drawn-out single player set up. Just me, my tiles, and my scoring objectives. Balancing what you want to take right now against what could be discarded if you don’t grab it before it’s too late adds the perfect amount of synapse sizzle in a game that plays in under 30 minutes. Without doubt, Cascadia has become one of my favourite games to play solo.
So there you have it: Ruins in the jungle; Agro-mechanical warfare; American wildlife; Birds: Spirits or Space off you can go on some great adventures!