I don’t play solo games that often. Life is frequently too busy and I usually prefer to play games with others if possible. However, every now and then when I have some free time, playing solo is a great way to unwind after a busy day.
So here are my top 5 solo games. These are the games that I’ve enjoyed the most over the years. Theme is a large component for me: what I’m really looking for in a solo game is an adventure. Something that will transport me away somewhere. The kind of game that leaves you wondering where the last few hours just went.
So without further ado, here are my picks…
If you’ve never tried playing solo before, I would recommend playing Friday before anything else. It is the perfect gateway solo game. It’s inexpensive, doesn’t take too long, has a small footprint and yet provides a very engaging gameplay experience.
Essentially, it’s a deckbuilder. You take on the role of Friday attempting to help Robinson Crusoe escape from the island on which he’s been shipwrecked. Each turn you have to defeat a ‘hazard’ card by drawing ‘fight’ cards from your deck. If you succeed, you flip the ‘hazard’ card upside down and it becomes a ‘fight’ card, which is added to your deck.
If you fail, you get to trash the useless cards that you drew that caused you to fail. It has the bits I like best from deckbuilders: upgrading and streamlining your deck. I love trashing bad cards! A lot of cards have special abilities that will let you draw more cards or reduce the difficulty of the hazard you are facing, for example.
Eventually, you take your upgraded deck and try to fight some pirates that show up. If you defeat them, you take over their ship and sail to freedom! The game is fairly simple, but provides lots of tough decisions and variations in possible strategy. For something so small, it really packs a punch.
This is a complete coincidence, but my next pick also features Robinson Crusoe trying to escape from an island! It is a very different game though. This is the big, co-op, adventure game. While you can play with more players, it works very well as a solo experience. You get extra help in the form of Friday (he’s back!) and his dog when you use the solo rules.
It’s a worker-placement game, with a nice engine-building, tech-tree element to the game. You have a limited number of workers with which to accomplish goals that vary from scenario to scenario. You use the workers to gather food, develop tools, build shelter, go hunting and deal with events that crop up.
You need to upgrade your tools, establish regular sources of food and protect yourself from the elements before winter arrives and the weather turns. The game can be really harsh if you don’t get yourself on the tech-tree growth curve quickly. It’s so tight, you really have to think carefully about every decision, which makes for a very engaging experience.
This is a pretty complex game with a steep learning curve (and the rulebook is a mess, which doesn’t help), but if you’re willing to put the time in to learn it, it’s well worth it.
3. Elder Sign
Elder Sign is the light, dice-rolling version of Arkham Horror, the giant, Lovecraftian, adventure game. You pick a couple of investigators and move from location to location within a museum full of occult artifacts.
In each location you have to roll a bunch of dice in an attempt to match the symbols on the location. If you fail, you lose one of your dice and get to roll again. You keep going until you succeed and gain the listed reward or lose all your dice at which point you’ve failed the location and bad things happen.
It sounds very luck-based, but there’s much more skill to it than first appears. Each character has a special ability and a number of items that they can use to help them that might provide extra dice or allow re-rolls, for example. The trick is careful choice of locations.
Some locations are much tougher than others. Some are easy, but don’t provide very helpful rewards. Knowing which locations are worth gambling on is paramount to success. Speaking of success, the way you win is by obtaining elder signs (as rewards) to seal away the ancient evil trying to invade our world. It’s very thematic and super tense! I love it.
Too Many Bones is my second favourite game of all time. It was a Kickstarter so it might be difficult to obtain though. I’ve seen a few copies on the aftermarket at reasonable prices, but it’s not cheap because the components are fantastic. It’s worth it.
It’s an adventure game with some really innovative mechanisms. You take a character who has a big pile of custom dice (each character is very different from the others) that you get to gradually unlock as you level up throughout the adventure.
Many encounters involve fighting monsters represented by really nice poker chips on an abstract ‘battle mat’. One nice element is that health chips are stacked under each hero and monster so you can see at a glance how much health creatures have by the height of their stack.
On your turn, you select some of your unlocked dice, roll them and then spend the rolled results to attack, block or use special abilities. And there are a ton of special actions that each character can take. Everything from constructing and throwing bombs to controlling mechanical spiders.
There’s an awful lot to it and the multitude of options combined with a big dollop of theme make for a fantastic adventuring experience. The levelling system is so satisfying. It’s a great multiplayer game, but works just as well solo.
1. Mage Knight
As if there was any doubt? Mage Knight is the undisputed king of solo games and has been for years. I’ve spent more time playing Mage Knight solo than any other solo game. For many years, it was my all-time favourite game. It works well with two or three players (never play with four though – you have been warned!), but it excels as a solo game.
Once again, it’s an adventure game – you take a fantasy hero and wander the land killing monsters and getting treasure – but it’s very complex. It has a deckbuilding element and it can feel very restrictive at first. You play cards to move, to fight, to heal and to recruit people to your cause, but until you get the hang of it, it can seem like you never have the right cards at the right time. Careful hand management is critical.
Combat is deterministic and very heady. You can use mana crystals to amplify the effect of certain cards. Effectively there are often multiple ways to use any given card, which means there are lots of possible combinations of cards for a particular fight. If you think long enough, you can often find a way of defeating a monster that may have seemed unbeatable at first.
For this reason, it can be very prone to AP (Analysis Paralysis), which is why it can suffer as a multiplayer game. However, this makes it perfect for solo play. You can spend as much time as you like thinking through the options. I’ve whiled away many hours doing exactly that. It has the highest escapism factor of any game I’ve ever played. It’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but for the right kind of person, it’s a magical experience.
Do you enjoy solo games? Which one would be your favourite?