Solo Games

Solo

Both my wife and son are away at the moment.  Noah is spending a week with his cousins and my wife has gone ‘wild camping’ with a friend of hers.  Apparently this means sleeping outside without a tent, rather than anything more hedonistic.

I find I can occupy myself very easily during the day.  I work from home, so I’m used to spending the whole day getting on with things by myself.  I don’t struggle to stay motivated – I always have so much to do.

However, in the evenings, when I’m not at The Dice Cup, I find myself unusually free.  What to do?  Play solo games!


I rarely play games solo – I’d always prefer to play with others if possible.  Particularly when I spend most of days alone anyway.  Having said that, on the rare occasion when I do play solo games, I really enjoy them!

Some games are definitely better than others for a solo experience though.  Let’s have a look at a few possibilities and I’ll recommend some of my favourites.

One-Player Games

There are some games that can only be played solo.  They usually tend to be small card games, but there are some very good ones out there.  My favourite is probably Friday by Friedemann Friese.

Friday is a deck builder where you play the character Friday attempting to help Robinson Crusoe survive and ultimately escape from the island.

On each turn you have to face a challenge card that requires a certain strength.  You can draw a certain number of cards for free from your deck and if you don’t get enough strength points from these cards, you can pay life points to draw more.  This can be risky though because some of your cards have negative strength points on them.

If you succeed, you get to add a useful card to your deck, but if you fail you have to pay life points again.  However, whenever you fail you are allowed to remove bad cards from your deck.

Some of the cards have special abilities on that might let you draw more cards or restore your life points.  There is a constant tension of trying to thin your deck and acquire good cards without allowing your life points to drop too low.  The game is obviously over if your life points drop to zero.

There are so many interesting decisions to be made.

There are so many interesting decisions to be made and there are the usual deckbuilding strategies to consider: do you try to thin your deck aggressively, or attempt to get lots of cards that allow you to draw more cards?  Etc.

It is challenging and there are various ways to increase the difficulty level.  I’ve played it a lot and would consider it an essential game if you play many solo games.  It’s great!

Another one I would recommend is Onirim.  It has a very surreal theme, which I don’t really understand.  You’re in some kind of dream world attempting to find doors to escape and these cats keep appearing and making your life really difficult!

It’s really quite abstract.  You have a hand of cards and you have to play cards with certain colours and symbols onto the table in front of you.  If you play the right combination of cards, you get to take a door from the deck.

However, if you draw a cat, you either have to discard your entire hand or discard five cards off the top of the deck.  If you run out of cards and you haven’t found all the doors, you lose, so discarding cards is bad.

There are a few special ‘key’ cards that will counteract the cats or allow you to look at (and re-order) the next five cards in the deck, which can be really useful.  If you find all the doors you win.

Once again, there is a great deal of tension in the decisions you need to make.  Should you play a key on the table to find a door or use the key to look at the deck or save it to protect against the dratted cats?  Man, I hate those cats.

All in all, it’s a great game and it comes with a bunch of expansions that add more special cards, which provide variety and/or make the game more difficult.

Co-ops

Of course, you can always play any co-op solo.  If the rules don’t specifically allow solo play, you can just play two or more characters yourself.

Games like Pandemic work very well here.  You have all the same decisions you would do in a multi-player game, but you don’t have to wait for other people to take their turns.  I miss the discussion involved in most co-ops where you’re trying to agree the best path forwards, but you still get all the puzzle-solving goodness.

If you have the space, I particularly like the longer, epic adventure games like Arkham Horror.  I just leave it set up on the table and play it for an hour or two each night.  The difficulty here though is the number of bits you have to keep track of!  Make sure the two character areas are clearly separated!

Every decision feels critical.

Robinson Crusoe is another co-op I’ve really enjoyed solo.  There are lots of moving parts in this one and the rules are a bit of a bear, but once you get the hang of it, it’s really quite immersive.  Survival is tough!  You constantly feel on the edge when you play, which makes every decision feel critical.

The Lord of the Rings LCG is excellent if you like the theme.  It’s not as good as it is two-player, where the player decks can complement each other effectively, but it still provides you with many of the same tricky decisions.  Trying to plan effectively for whatever might be drawn off the encounter deck next always seems to involve some kind of calculated risk, which keeps the game exciting.

The cream of the crop here is The 7th Continent though.  It’s an adventure game par excellence.  I gave a detailed review of it last week and can’t recommend it highly enough.  While you do have to make difficult decisions at times, much of it is pure exploration and story.

It really is like reading the old Choose Your Own Adventure books, but with so much more content, variety and scope.  The continent seems to stretch on and on, and keeping your energy levels up is a constant struggle, but it is so easy to lose yourself in the experience.  Where did the time go?

Competitive Games

There are a number of really good competitive games that provide solo variants.  The idea is usually to obtain the highest score you can – you can’t normally win or lose.  The rules will often add some kind of AI that will make the game tighter by restricting your actions or reducing the time you have.

There’s no objective way to assess how well you’ve done.

While I’ve tried this with a few games, I don’t often enjoy it that much.  It’s fine the first time, but the motivation to play again tends to be to beat your previous score and that never interests me.  I think it’s because there’s no objective way to assess how well you’ve done.  So you got 53 this time and 51 the last time – is that good or are you just becoming incrementally less mediocre?

If that doesn’t bother you, then games like Agricola, Race for the Galaxy and Viticulture all provide an engaging solo experience.

That being said, there is one competitive game that I love playing solo: Mage Knight.  I think that’s because I never really play it competitively, even multiplayer.  It’s a massive adventure game: you fight monsters, find loot, level up, attract followers, learn spells and try to take down an entire city by the end.

As long as I defeat a city, I consider myself to have won, even if another player technically beats me on points, and that’s very much the goal of the solo version.  If you like heavy games with lots going on and you like fantasy adventure, Mage Knight is amazing!

I think I’ve played Mage Knight more than any other game, and most of those plays have been solo.  It’s mentally challenging and thematically rich – a perfect combination!


Have you ever tried playing games solo?  Which is your favourite solo game?

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Jonathan Hicks

Jonathan is the director of Maven Games. He blogs and records podcast episodes several times a week. Whenever he isn’t doing anything else, he designs games.

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