Dancing with myself: Solo board games

Learning Greenland by myself, three handed. Somehow I still lost.

Occasionally a friend of mine will look at the spine of a board game in my collection and remark “Huh, 1-5 players. You can play this alone.” Indeed, solo board gaming is a growing trend, and more and more hobby games each year have the quizzical player count listed on the side of the box. My initial reaction when I started seeing this was to wonder why anyone would want to play a board game alone. I would laugh at the idea and considered it kind of lame, antisocial and, well, just a bit weird. There were plenty of hobbies you could do by yourself, so why would you seek out what always seemed like a social activity when you were alone.

I would occasionally bump through the rules of a game by myself, move the pieces and kind of play a couple of turns out. This was the extent of my solo gaming for the most part. But as it becomes more and more popular I have looked into it more to try to understand the appeal, and I think I am beginning to get it.

Many modern games are a sort of mental puzzle. They can have a lot of moving parts, but each turn players try to make the best move they can for how they are solving the puzzle of the game. In many cases, these puzzles are rather solitaire even when it is a multiplayer game. In other words, in a game of Wingspan which I talked about in my anticipated games list, each player is building their own field of different birds to accomplish their own strategy. These is some intersection here, maybe my neighbor takes a bird card I wanted, or my vulture card triggers when someone else’s bird hunts… but the analogy here is that we are mostly on our own island, with an occasional ferry back and forth.

All of these games can be played alone.

Wingspan is also one of these recent games with a solo mode. In fact the solo mode is designed by a different company from the main publisher, Automata Factory who consults with Stonemaier specifically to add these modes to their games. Essentially what they did here is to capture a little bit of that tension from other players, to form an AI sort of opponent that would create interesting wrinkles to the somewhat solitary puzzle the players usually deal with. Most importantly, solo modes in games give the players a score or win condition target that they can measure against. There needs to be some tension to make the puzzle still worth solving. In a game like this where the interaction between the players is not the focus of the game, it does not take a whole lot of modification to recreate this aspect of a multiplayer game.

Most importantly, the puzzle has to be interesting to solve. No one would want to play monopoly by themselves, because a lot of that game relies on the luck of dice rolls vs player decisions, and the fun of the game often comes from watching a friend land on your row of hotels and go broke. So here there is little puzzle and too much player interaction to make it a viable solo experience.

Ok, so there’s a reason people may play these. If the puzzle is challenging, then the game itself creates the opposition that usually exists in the form of other players foiling your plans, or just plain out thinking you. But why would you choose this option over another solo activity like a good Netflix show, or a book. Would you ever choose it over a game with other people?

An increasingly common player count listed on the box.

To the first question, I would say that solo board games present a very different experience vs media like a book or a movie. I have binged Netflix and torn through many novels, but those are enjoyable for being compelling narratives. Solo board games can ask you to stretch your mind in a different way than a passive narrative does. It is just you, the rules, and the luck of the game. Puzzle solving is a cathartic activity, and gives people something they can act on, and complete. Something that they can succeed at. It is a worthwhile puzzle that doesn’t have to do with the various conundrums many of us deal with in daily life, a puzzle that is self contained and does not have the stakes of a work decisions, or the banality of the choice of what to have for dinner. This can be a truly wonderful thing.

There is of course another reason these modes in games are becoming more popular much less tied to the puzzle itself, and that is the accessibility of a solo mode in a board game. People are often excited when they see a new game on Kickstarter, they love the theme, or mechanics or art and they back that game. But what if they don’t have a regular game group that they play with? Or what if the group doesn’t like that particular theme… or they themselves just don’t have the time to meet up with a group. Here the solo mode provides an avenue. A way to own a game, to make sure you can find joy in it, regardless of the circumstances. And so, these Kickstarter games usually try to include such a mode, to increase the reach of the game’s appeal. It is one more way to find a larger audience.

While it is not a way I usually play games, I do not scoff at that player count of one that is emblazoned on so many boxes these days. If a person wants to explore a game and revel in the puzzle that it provides, then this is a great thing that is good for the hobby.

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