I’ve always felt gamer culture stigmatized playing against oneself and I’ve taken some comfort in James Dunnigan’s assertion, “Playing wargames solitaire is by far the favorite mode for most wargamers” (which I’ve quoted frequently) for both a lack of fellow players and the urge to explore a game’s rules and scenarios. For much of my 40+ years playing games I’ve occasionally indulged in this kind of solitaire play. Purely “solo only” games remained rare in the industry’s early days, the aforementioned B-17 being one of the earliest board wargaming exceptions (though roleplaying games embraced gamebooks and modules early in their history). I’d thought the recent renaissance in purely solitaire game experiences would satisfy my urge to game when no willing players were at hand. And I have blissfully immersed myself in those reasonably priced ones that engage my varied interests.
But I’ve found balanced, satisfying solitaire play is a finicky thing. I’ve played enough games now to know some present reasonable challenges while others, even after numerous games, seem so impossible to achieve victory conditions that my frustration overshadows my enjoyment. If only I could discern this before investing money and time. I’ve learned to preview games through such venues as Board Game Geek and Watch It Played. While these can offer insight into how to play, how different mechanics work, and other commentary about the overall quality, even these tools cannot provide full insight into whether or not I’ll find entertainment or frustration. (I’ve found my experience with these research resources applies to multi-player games too.) So I’ve explored solo only gaming on my
Casually reminiscing about my past solo only gaming shows uneven levels of satisfaction with game difficulty balanced with possibility of winning. This is by no means a comprehensive or quantitative analysis, but provides some general impressions of games I recall playing and the gratification they offered:I played this for hours after discovering it in my high school days. As frustrating as it seemed, with enemy fighters appearing where my crew could least handle it, the game still provided an engaging experience. Maintaining the roster with named crew members put the historical experience in perspective. Although my aircraft had numerous close calls, I don’t ever remember having a B-17 shot down. While some folks might think gameplay was a bit too procedural with few player choices, I recall having lots of fun with it; I might revise my assessment if I revisit it all these years later. (As an aside, part of my fondness for this game comes from my Great Uncle George, who, during World War II, served as ground crew with 8th Army Air Corps working on B-17s and B-24s.)
Friday: A solo deck-building game based on Robinson Crusoe where the solo player acts as the castaway’s companion, Friday. I immersed myself in the game for a week or so, playing numerous times after learning the rules. No matter how many different strategies I tried the luck of the draw always seemed against me. I don’t think I ever came remotely close to winning, so I set it aside. Perhaps I’ll return to it someday after reading up on different success strategies that worked for others.
Agricola: I’d heard folks speak highly of this popular Euro-board game, so I snatched up the revised edition at a used book store when I saw it at a great price. Although intended for multi-players in competition, it also worked with slight modification as a solo game of gathering resources and building a sustainable farm in the 17th century. It offered different strategies to explore in achieving different point-scoring goals. I somehow didn’t feel discouraged when I didn’t do very well when comparing my final score to the point ranges indicating how well those goals. At times I found the game situations frustrating compared to my intentions, but I never felt so thwarted that I just wanted to walk away.I’d explored Worthington Publishing’s game offerings before, but this one by Maurice Suckling covered my interests in the American War of Independence (AWI) and solitaire wargaming. I backed it in the Kickstarter and played it more than 30 times when it finally arrived. I was intrigued by the interesting dynamic of card play and block deployment to contest different regions. But in all those plays, I came within one point of victory only once, despite trying various strategies. As with Friday, the luck of the draw was often against me, particularly in deployment of British forces. While I thought the German mercenary rules seemed quite accurate given their discipline and reputation, the Loyalist forces and dragoons seemed far too overpowered (though lately I’ve been reading more how Loyalists and Patriots fought more of a civil war in the frontier areas). I’ll return to this game at some point because I love the AWI and the card/block mechanics, but I don’t have high hopes I could win.
Chancellorsville 1863: Another solo wargame by Suckling using cards and blocks and area control, I played this several times not necessarily expecting to win, as one commands Union forces in an engagement the Confederates won (albeit at a high cost losing General Jackson to friendly fire). I enjoyed the gameplay with various elements interacting with management of different forces’ strengths. While at times it seemed like the Union might prevail – as in the historical battle – the Confederacy/solo rules procedure always beat me back toward defeat.In backing this Worthington Publishing Kickstarter I expanded my interests in World War II to the Pacific Theater. The Marine Corps assault on the Japanese defenses at Tarawa was a bloodbath (backing the game inspired me to read up on the battle) and the solo game really integrated historical elements with the combination of cards, blocks, and area control on the board (along with tracking unit strength on the board, as seen in Chancellorsville 1863 and other Worthington titles). My first two plays resulted in failure, but I slowly got the hang of the tactics and cards and prevailed on subsequent plays. Was it bloody and tough to achieve victory? Yes. But it was also a satisfying experience with a solid sense of connection to the historical elements.
The Fields of Normandy: A solitaire wargame in the form of a book (one of numerous such titles from Mike Lambo) requiring use of counters (easily downloaded, printed, and mounted from online sources) on different mission maps in the book. After learning the basic rules, the missions take your British infantry squad on different missions, each one more difficult than the last and introducing more complicated (but never really overwhelming) new game concepts. I’ve only played a handful of the scenarios, but they move quickly once you understand the rules. Some randomness in the commands you can issue to units provides unexpected challenges and creates a historically realistic feel to the uncertainty of small-unit land combat in WWII. The challenges never seemed insurmountable; replaying a failed mission always seemed possible given the relatively brief but satisfying play time.
Maquis: This game popped up on my radar for my interests in solo games and WWII. Sat down, learned the rules, and as I played, immediately felt the tension members of the French Resistance must have felt under German occupation. Over several plays with different missions I won half and lost half. The random elements (where security forces appeared) worked well to create tension. Even when I lost I felt some satisfaction of an immersive experience that captured the tense atmosphere of occupied France.
The Lucky Seven: My latest solo game acquisition and inspiration for this post. A card game with a war-theme overlay (it sounds contemporary, with mention of a helicopter in the intro, but, ignoring that, seems more appropriate in gameplay and artwork for a WWII game). The player commands a squad of seven different soldiers, each a stereotype of war-film characters with unique abilities, many of which play off each other. They appear on a 4x6 map grid (defined by numbered cards) and must endure and eliminate threats that show up by column and row each turn. The mechanics merge a lot of elements – random threat placement, soldier abilities, movement possibilites/limitations, soldiers being active or “down” – for some real turn-by-turn puzzles of deployment and attack. I loved the concepts. Although I won about half of my first handful of games, anything after that proved unsuccessful. Much depended on the luck of the draw (or lack thereof) in the random drawing and placement of threats. Games don’t take long, about 15 minutes average from set-up to conclusion, so I didn’t mind playing a few games before setting it aside. The short play time encourages me to return for a re-match all too frequently, but after three losses in a row, it’s time to move on. I love innovative little games like this, but can’t help my frustration and discouragement after so many losses.
This is by no means a comprehensive list. I’m omitting both Alien franchise games I recently featured, as well as a host of other solo games with which I’ve dabbled recently. I’m sure I’ve overlooked others. I’m always looking for more satisfying solitaire game experiences, despite my inconsistent record as outlined above. I still haven’t tried the copy of Worthington’s Malta Besieged: 1940-1942, Pandemic: Fall of Rome, or The Shores of Tripoli. I have a few solo wargame books still to try. I’m tempted to try more such offerings by Mike Lambo, though I’ve discovered other similar titles on the market. Certainly other solo board games appear on my radar, but they fail to balance reasonable cost and complexity for me to explore at the moment.
I’ve probably played just as many games solitaire against myself, if not more. Playing both sides of a mulit-player game, especially historical ones, helps me learn the rules and tactics as well as provides a satisfying experience. Is it as ideal as playing against a living, intelligent opponent or a solo-play “bot” procedure like most solo only games rely on? Not always. But it satisfies my urge to explore a game without waiting (or working) to find players and, ultimately, fulfills my gaming need.
The games I’ve played against myself to learn the rules primarily include titles that interested me in their gameplay or theme: Spearpoint 1943, Fighters of the Pacific, Manoevre, Airfix Battles, and numerous miniature wargame rules and periods Some of these I went on to play against live humans, but even if I hadn’t, they provided a few hours’ diversion learning and interacting with the rules in a meaningful way. Those I have enjoyed most playing solo against myself for fun fall into three general categories: Commands & Colors-style battle games, block wargames, and gridded miniature wargames.convince ourselves between turns we have little idea what the “enemy” intends. Perhaps the best illustration of this comes from my playing of Avalon Hill’s Kingmaker and Columbia Games’ Richard III, each of which covers the English War of the Roses in different ways. Kingmaker uses more traditional wargame chits on a board, providing more perfect information, though individual noble’s forces tally up on cards held by each player (or by the sole player, who can easily reference each noble’s strength). Richard III uses blocks to represent military forces on the board, meaning a solo player can only immediately reference his own forces and those he’s recently fought (and if you’re like me, you quickly forget who’s who on the enemy side). Both use area movement, with Kingmaker’s map of England a bit more granular than Richard III’s.
A lazy susan serves to assist in block wargame play – or any head-to-head solitaire gaming – to easily shift player position. I set up games on large felt-lined trays I constructed (they serve as “drawers” on the wargaming table) and set them on a large lazy susan (though I could really use a bigger one). The tray/drawers also help to preserve the pieces if I have to stop mid-game; our cats are notorious for jumping on the table, batting around pieces, and settling down right in the middle of the board.
Other block wargames I’ve enjoyed playing solo against myself include Columbia’s Liberty and Worthington’s Wilderness Empire, Holdfast: Atlantic, and Holdfast: Tunisia.
I also like Commands & Colors-style battle games, both ones from creator Richard Borg and others using hex maps, command cards, and miniatures or blocks to represent units, notably Hold the Line: The American Revolution from Worthington.Portable Wargame rules (including Gridded Naval Wargames) allow me to play out engagements on my gridded surfaces drawing from my diverse collection of miniatures (including marvelous Peter’s Paperboys) across historical periods. Though I usually require a refresher of the particular rules, they’re basic enough to run a battle against myself in an hour or two, yet offer good depth of play and numerous choices for commanders (even if they’re both me).
For me gaming against myself presents challenges, but also guarantees I have a positive game experience. No matter what luck I have with dice, cards, and other random elements, I’m sure to win with one of the sides I’m playing. Solo only games maintain the tension that one might not actually win...though when it seems one might never win much of the fun dissipates. Each solo play style poses difficulties. While I continue exploring solo only games, I can always set up a multi-player game to play against myself...with each one engaging me in my adventure gaming hobby.
Schweig on Solo
Over the past decade I’ve blogged numerous times about solitaire games (across the spectrum of the adventure gaming hobby) and my experiences with them. Here are a few from the distant past that still resonate with me: