Hey everybody! At the time of writing, the movie Solo: A Star Wars Story has just released in theaters, and I am very (read: mildly) excited to see it. In fact, I am planning on going to the theater later this afternoon. Because of that, I decided to talk about a type of board game that has been growing massively in popularity for the last several years – the solo game.
Despite the name, solo games have nothing to do with our favorite scruffy looking nerf-herder. Instead, it is a category of board game designed to be played with only a single player. Designing a board game for only a single player presents a number of challenges, so in this article I am going to be looking at a number of strategies that are commonly used when designing these types of games.
Playing with Yourself
Before we look at how solo games are designed, lets first take a look at why anybody would want to design or play these types of games. Traditionally, board games have been a pretty social activity – in fact, the personal interaction created by these games is one of this medium’s biggest selling points. Why, then, would you take that away?
One of the biggest reasons for the recent success of solo games is simply convenience. While having a bunch of friends over to play a six hour game together can be fun, it’s not always practical. Solo games allow players to have a fun gaming experience anytime they
want without having to wrangle a group together.
There are many other reasons to play solo games as well. If the game has solo or multiplayer variations, players can play it solo for practice. Players may also play a game or two by themselve before taking it to the gaming group to simply get a better handle on the rules, or to test out a new game to decide if the group would enjoy playing it.
None of these reasons for playing solo games are new, so why has this category of games grown so much in recent years? The main reason, as with so many things in the world of board games, is Kickstarter. While solo gamers used to be considered a tiny niche market that wasn’t worth catering to, the advent and explosive growth of board game crowdfunding means that designers can more directly target the solo-gaming market.
Because the definition of a solo game is so broad, there is no single way of designing these games. However, there are a number of strategies that are used over and over again. These common strategies include:
- Dedicated Solo Games
- Solo-Cooperative Games
- Solo-Competitive Games
A Solitaire-y Endeavor
If you asked people to name a game that they could play solo, Solitaire would probably be the first thing that they name. Solitaire is a great example of a dedicated solo game, in that it only really works with a single player. This category of solo games is by far the
oldest (going back to at least the late 1700’s), it is also one of the rarest. While many games have variations or alternative rules that allow them to be played by one person, it is still quite rare for a game to only be playable by one player.
However, one reason for this may simply be that these types of games are not always marketed as games in the first place. Instead, these games are more similar to puzzles – go from a particular starting position to a particular ending position using these particular rules. If you follow this definition, then this category of solo games could include things such as the Rubix Cube or Perplexus.
It is also possible to take one of the cooperative or competitive strategies for solo games
(which I will talk about below) and optimize the game for single-player play. This is arguably the strategy employed by the game Friday. This game is a survival game in which the player helps Robinson Crusoe escape from his island. This game could have been designed as a cooperative game in which players work together to get off the island, but it was instead optimized for the single-person experience.
Multiple Personality Gaming
Another common form of single-player board games is the cooperative game. While most of these games are designed for multiple players, the fact that all players are working together for a single goal instead of competing with eachother means that they can be modified for solo play with
very few alterations.
While some of these games have dedicated rules for solo play, most of them don’t need them. Instead, you can simply play using the given rules or, if necessary, play multiple characters at once. This generally works for any truly cooperative game – if the game has traitor or betrayal elements it can still be done, but requires more work.
Man VS Self
The final main category of solo games include games that usually revolve around player competition, but can be modified for a single player experience. When developing a solo mode for these types of games there are generally two ways to go. You can either try to simulate competition, or create a “high-score” mode where the player competes against themselves to get the most victory points.
One common way of creating competition in a solo game is by adding a non-human “player” that the human player does not have control of. This can be done in several
different ways – the non-human player could follow a pre-determined set of steps each turn, they could have a decision tree which is included in a guide-book or app. While the competition never perfectly simulates the experience of playing with another human person, it does provide an obstacle that the player must overcome in order to achieve victory.
Another possible alternative is to simply allow the player to compete against themselves, and try to accumulate the most possible victory points. This works the best in games with relatively low levels of player interaction, where both players are trying to achieve the same goal while remaining mostly separate. In order for this method to work, the game must also provide a certain level of randomness to prevent every game from playing out exactly the same – a shuffled deck of cards or the occasional dice roll will do the trick.
Until Next Time!
That is all I have for this week! I hope you enjoyed this article about solo game design! If you did, check out the rest of the blog and subscribe on Facebook, Twitter, or here on WordPress so you will always know when I post a new article. If you didn’t, let me know what I can do better in the comments down below. And join me next week, where I will be writing about accessibility in video games!
5 replies on “Solo: A Board Game Story”
Do you have any tips on how to create a (good) solo game? Things to watch out for, things to be certain to add? And what would the difference be from designing a cooperative game?
Great question! I am by no means an expert in this area, but there are a few things that I think I can add. Because you don’t have other players there to create randomness you need to design enough random elements for the player to respond to so that every game does not just play out the same. Also, while many cooperative games can be played solo by playing multiple roles at once, a dedicated solo game may have different roles to add variety but should be able to play while only using one. Finally, in many games the goal is to either eliminate or get more victory points than your opponents. If you are playing solo this doesn’t really work, so you need a goal that can not only be achieved by a single player, but is a binary – you either won, or you didn’t, instead of the finer gradations provided my most multiplayer games.
Good answers as well 🙂
Especially the “adding randomness” is a good insight. I think this also happens a lot in coop games, where players don’t provide a lot of randomness (compared to player vs player games). Would it be possible to have a coop game where the player -do- provide most of the randomness?
I think it is possible. I think the key to that is hidden information – if nobody has full information about the current state of the board, then they will have to react to what other players are doing. You would need some randomness provided by the game to make this work, but not much – I think small differences in the starting conditions could ripple outward as the game went on.
Thinking a bit more, “Magic Maze” does this very well: There is some external randomness (which tile gets placed where), but almost all of the randomness (chaos even!) is from the other players.