Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Solitaire Gaming Experience

Most people view games as social activities where several players gather to partake of an entertainment involving boards, dice, pieces, and a common set of rules. “Solitaire” gaming seems like an oxymoron; to play a game, one naturally needs more than one player, especially when one must be the winner and the other the loser. But a developing gaming sub-culture revolves around a variety of solo game experiences.

Solitaire gaming brings back memories of early solo experiences from the “Dawn of Roleplaying” (otherwise known as “The Early Eighties”): Choose Your Own Adventure books, Endless Quest books (gaming giant TSR’s entry into the field), the occasional “solitaire tutorial” adventure in roleplaying game rulebooks, Tunnels & Trolls solo scenarios, and a handful of classic wargames like B-17: Queen of the Skies. Each provided its own enjoyment for a brief period, especially when gathering a group of players wasn’t always possible.

What makes a solitaire game more than simply a means of passing the time? Is it an exercise in storytelling? Does it have any educational value? Is it a poetic self-exploration of a particular genre or theme? (These questions don’t even touch upon the fact that plenty of digital computer/console games offer graphically fulfilling play experiences for lone players, thus drawing them away from the analog game pool.)

Solitaire Across the Genres

Some solitaire games stand as self-contained game experiences; the addition of rule for solo play in traditionally multiplayer games allows players to engage their enthusiasm for a new game and become immersed in the fresh setting and rules. Solitaire play has its purpose in several genres and forms:

Historical Wargames: Presenting a system so players can run skirmishes on their own enables lone gamers to explore the historical period and elements of combat characteristic of that era. The solitaire game acts as an educational experience. Solitaire rules also allow wargamers to test out the nuts and bolts of a new game system before facing other live opponents or introducing the game to a new audience (much like “Tutorial Scenarios” below).

Story Games: Games relying on storytelling -- including Choose Your Own Adventure books, Fighting Fantasy-style adventures (with minimal game rules primarily geared toward combat and spell-casting), and roleplaying games -- can provide a solitaire experience, some as their primary mode of play. These often rely on “programmed entries” detailing the player’s options and results of their choices. Such games provide a complete storytelling experience thanks to descriptive text and plotted action despite offering several endings.

Tutorial Scenarios: Some roleplaying games provide introductory scenarios in a “programmed entry” format that offer insights into the rules and setting for new players, allowing readers to try the game system and explore the setting before seeking a broader roleplaying experience with other players later. In these scenarios, entries rarely leave combat and skill test resolution up to players, but walk them through such rules procedures through numbered paragraphs based on both choices and game mechanic die rolls. While they allow a player to run a short adventure, they primarily teach rules and explain the setting.

Solo Game Experiments: A recently developed game sub-culture focuses on independent solitaire “exercises” that try to evoke a theme or atmosphere. These explore different ways to provide a roleplaying game experience using innovative solitaire mechanics. The results of this movement are probably best characterized by entries in the RPG Solitaire Challenge.

The Game as Opponent

All elements must work together to provide a fulfilling game experience for the single player, a responsibility usually divided among the mix of players and the game itself. For solitaire games, an engaging theme and enjoyable mechanics must evoke a satisfying game experience from the lone player. While themes depend on interest and inspiration from both author and player, creating a mechanic that enables gameplay while simulating a challenging opponent remains the more difficult aspect, one that hinges greatly on the kind of game and the traditional rules employed. To borrow a term from digital gaming, solo games must create a convincing “artificial intelligence” (“AI”) to simulate an opponent familiar enough with the rules to provide a challenge.

Some games rely on the lone player to roll dice and adjudicate combat as an opponent; the Fighting Fantasy-style games and many hack-and-slash roleplaying games often rely on this approach. Wargames sometime use this technique with guidelines on how enemy forces deploy, attack, and react to player moves. Roleplaying and story games frequently use the “programmed entry” method, similar to pick-a-path books, to walk players through choices and consequences. Perhaps cooperative games like Gamewright’s Forbidden Island offer the best insight into rules system as an opponent, since the players must work together to defeat the game before it conquers them. These basic generalizations barely touch on the different ways solitaire games simulate opponents; the systems solo games use could easily inspire a comprehensive discussion on their own.

Stay Tuned…

A recently established blog, Solo Nexus, covers solitaire gaming across the spectrum in its goal of “promoting the pursuit of solo tabletop gaming.” The blog has declared November 2011 as “Solo Tabletop Gaming Appreciation Month” and has challenged readers and designers to create and submit solitaire resources to inspire solo gaming. The blog includes news about upcoming solitaire games, interviews with those involved in solo game design, and links to fan-created solo alternate rules. Though it includes links to other blogs with occasional posts about solitaire gaming, Solo Nexus remains the primary blog dedicated entirely to the subject, and one to watch for new developments in the field.