But solitaire gaming is for those that don’t have any friends! This is a statement that has very little merit to it. Yes, solo gaming means that you are playing a game by yourself, but by choice, not necessarily circumstance. My wife always kids me a little bit when I tell her I am going to give a game a solo play. She pities me….but I reject her pity as solo gaming is an experience! I must admit up front that I am not a solo gamer at heart. I enjoy elements of solo gaming but really do miss the social interaction that comes from playing games with a group of friends. A lot of the times, the company is far better than the game itself. I enjoy friendly banter, rules discussion, as well as hearing others thoughts on the game as it is being played. But, I do enjoy a very good solitaire game. Typically, this means the game was designed either as a solo only experience or that the solo play option was carefully planned, designed and added to the game as a variant. In this edition of The Love/Hate Relationship, I want to change your mind about the stigma associated with solo gaming, but also tell you what I don’t like.
There are many things that I absolutely love about solo gaming. First off, I am a bit of a thinker and really enjoy surveying a board, looking for each crack in my opponent’s defenses that I can possibly exploit. During a 2-player wargame or a more traditional Euro game, this is referred to as analysis paralysis, and while a little bit of thinking is a good thing, it is nearly always frowned upon by your opponents to simply sit there in silence for 15 minutes going over option after option before making a move. This is one of the reasons that Alexander, my main wargaming buddy, and I tend to take 50% longer to play a game than is advertised on the box. But, I love that solo gaming is on my own time schedule and I can play as slowly as I would like. I often will play a turn or two, and then take a break to do other things as well before I come back to tackle the game again later. I feel like playing slowly and thinking about things allows me to better understand and internalize the rules for future plays. You know what they say. Slow and steady wins the race!
Second, I love the fact that solo games use an Artificial Intelligence or Bot that has been especially designed to work within the framework of the game. Part of the joy I find in playing against these AI’s is that I can always look for weaknesses that they have, or patterns that will develop over time giving away some of their future moves, and once again, exploit them. I will give you a few examples of what I’m talking about from recent solo plays of a few games.
Attack of the 50 Foot Colossi! is a great little solo game from Tiny Battle Publishing that I recently have played and really enjoyed. In this game, the AI is boiled down to a small deck of cards and is really simple, actually much more simple than I expected, but also makes sense and creates a challenge. How does it work? Well, the AI mechanic has some very simple priorities given to it. The first priority is during the initial part of the Colossi turn. Each Colossi Tribe stack will always move one hex closer to the nearest enemy unit. Simple. The Colossi are not sprinters and will simply move one step per turn toward the nearest enemy unit. Think slow and steady. I really like this element as it actually allows me to plan for the movement of the Colossi, much like when I lived on the farm growing up and we could drive our hogs into the pens we needed them to go in by anticipating where they were going to go.
The main focus of the Colossi Order of Action is the card that is drawn at the beginning of the round. This card is the key to the choices made by the AI, and is the unpredictable part of the design. As you can see from the card pictured above, there are two parts to the Order of Action. First, will be a listing of all the tribes that will act this round. You can see that there are 5 Tribes listed on the card. In the game, there are actually 7 Tribes so there are always at least 2 Tribes that could be on the board and in play that will not act because they are not listed on this Order of Action card. The player will simply activate each of the listed Tribes in order and perform their actions and attacks. So, using the card in the above picture, the Tombstones will act first, followed by the Blackstones, the Whitestones, Greystones and finally, the Brownstones. That is it. Pretty simple and this part is very unpredictable. You might get lucky and have only 3 or so of the 5 listed Tribes on the board so you will have an easy round. You might also see that the Tribes that are on the board are all listed and will have a field day as they pummel your Marines. Very unpredictable but a part of the design that I really enjoyed.
The second point of focus on the card is the Tie Breaker listed at the bottom. This is very important to the design. This Tie Breaker will tell you what will happen if the Colossi has two different enemy units that are the closest, or when there are 3 different targets that are in range of their attacks. You will simply refer to the bottom of the card and see whether you will break that tie using the lowest numbered hex or the highest numbered hex. Simple. I like simple and this game has a lot of these type of simple design elements that make for a very reasonable and logical playable solo game.
Another solo game that I have really enjoyed playing is Comancheria: The Rise and Fall of the Comanche Empire from GMT Games. In its design, an Enemy Instruction Display is used to determine the actions of your enemies. This Display is really very ingenious and have has four enemy columns color-coded with each of the enemies as well as an Inactive Column. At the start of the game during setup, these counters will be placed on this display and will be moved around during the game as play progresses. Each of these spaces can only contain one counter as there is no stacking allowed and different colors cannot be moved or placed in other colored rows. As you can see from the picture above, each of these counters has a name, an alphabetic ID and a numeric AP cost. These instructions may be executed as a part of several different actions which include during step 3 and 4 of the Operations Cleanup Phase, during step 8 of a Planning Operation or when an instruction is drawn from the Success Check Draw Cup during a Success Check.
I won’t walk you through that process, but if you are interested you can read my full review or check out this Action Point post on the AI. The simple explanation is that you roll dice to determine what actions the AI tribes will take, using action points that have built up from the actions you have taken during your turn (such as Raiding other settlements). Due to this, the available actions for the AI tribes will change each round giving the game a sense of uncertainty for the player as it will be impossible to truly plan for the actions that will be taken against them in future rounds. I really liked this “Fog of War” aspect as it made my decision making steps very challenging. You must also keep in mind that the AI is “learning” from your play style and is gaining more and more fuel to attack you as you attack it. See, each time you Raid, you are asked to draw counters from a blind draw cup and when you do this, you invariably will pull out at least 1 or 2 Enemy AP counters that are populated in the cup at the scenario start and these drawn counters are then laid on the Available Enemy APs track for them to use during their turn. If you give them too much, because you decided to Raid three times that round, it will lead to them overwhelming you with War actions, Culture Attack actions as well as Subjugation of your Allies. You cannot go all out in this game as you will simply be run over by the wave of APs you have given to your enemies. Tread lightly, always with a purpose and be watchful! A really well designed aspect of the game that keeps you guessing. Not only do you not know which column will activate (as it is determined randomly by a die roll) but those actions will change each round as die rolls will instruct you to flip a counter over to its opposite side. I have a good memory and can generally remember aspects about a game but I cannot keep track of all four of the columns so there is a really great sense of unease as you play. What will happen next? Well, you just don’t know because you will roll dice to determine that action. How will I deal with that upcoming Culture Attack? You will need to plan for it, and I would recommend planning for it each round.
As much as I have raved about the merits of a good AI in a solo game, and the pleasures of “cracking their code” so to speak, I kind of hate this aspect of solo gaming. I have played some solo games where the AI was simply not smart, too random and would make choices that simply made you scratch your head. This can take the fun right out of solo gaming and can make the process of playing such a game a chore. I have played many solo games that after playing, I simply put them on the shelf to use as trade bait or to gather dust. But, haven’t we all done this with multiplayer games as well? Yes, but a solo game is a special creature that requires a well designed AI. And one that is half baked and random doesn’t reinforce the need for solo gaming.
I also sometimes have a real hard time with poorly written solo rules. Remember above, where I talked about being able to discuss rules with your opponent to try and figure them out or at least come to a workable solution at the time that makes the game able to move forward? In solo gaming, the rules interpretation is solely up to me….and I really don’t like that. Ask Alexander about my rules interpretation from time to time. I typically will interpret a rule in the way that benefits me, right Alexander?!? I truly am an advocate of rules discussion. I really try to see a rule in the context it was written, to understand the situation it was envisioned to address and then come up with a realistic and reasonable interpretation. This process is helped immensely when you are playing a 3-4 player game as there are even more ideas and perspective to be shared. But, trying to adjudicate poorly written solo rules is a real pet peeve of mine!
A game that I actually enjoyed playing quite a bit, mainly for its great narrative of the action through the use of dice and random event card draws, was Merrill’s Marauders: Commandos in Burma 1943-1944 from Decision Games. Overall, the rules for the game were serviceable but they were very poorly organized. I played the game 2 or 3 times and was absolutely getting crushed with my scoring and was unable to win a mission because I was losing 2 KIA on the track each time one of my units was killed and 1 KIA when a unit was panicked. You see, the scenarios were typically considered victories only if your KIA track was over 5 or 6. After my third loss at the end of my third playthrough, I found a clarifying rule in the Merrill’s Marauders specific set of rules (there was a standard Commando Series set of rules for the basics of gameplay that I had read) hidden in a very obscure part of the rulebook that stated that the Commando Series rules would be overruled when playing Merrill’s Marauders and that you will only lose 1 KIA on the track for each of your US units that are killed and panicked units will not lose any KIA. This completely changed the outcome of future games and made it infinitely more possible to win. So I will blame myself here but this seems to be a problem in solo only games….the rules just aren’t clearly written enough or even worse are very poorly organized.
So, what do you think about solitaire gaming? Do you have similar concerns as me with the genre? Are you a true solo gamer? What are some of your favorite solitaire games? Let us know as we really want to hear your thoughts.