The curse of living in the golden age of tabletop is that for many of us, our lives are busier than they've ever been.
Every week, there are more and more new games that we want to play, and as that pile grows, the time we can dedicate to each of them shrinks.
Not only do we want to try new games, we also don't want to neglect old favourite titles either. Suddenly, our weekly board game night becomes stressful as we decide which game to play during the precious few hours we have together.
If it's one thing that holds me back from dropping $80+ on a brand new, beautiful looking game, it's that I'm accutely aware it could be weeks or even months before I actually get to play it.
As such, single-player games offer something I'm not usually able to get: Immediate gratification, excitement, and fun. Some of you may not know many single-player games, and some of you might not even know they exist, but recently, more and more games designed with a sole player in mind have been hitting our shelves.
Playing a game alone is a strange experience at first. “Why don't you just cheat?” a friend asked me once. It might seem absurd but it is an aspect that crosses the mind of many people who don't play single player board games.
Seeking to challenge yourself, and using the skills you've honed against an increasingly difficult enemy can be a harrowing, but rewarding experience. For geeks the world over, solo board games aren't just an “only option”, they are a preference.
Nathan Cocks, former game critic (PC Powerplay, Hyper and Judge for the Australian Freeplay Awards), feels much the same way.
'Games get played.' Cocks said. 'I know that sounds silly, but I have a pretty intense day job and getting a game group together any more frequently than once a month often feels beyond my energy levels - my pile of shame is embarrassing.'
'Growing up as a fan of games, one of the biggest obstacles was not being able to find someone to play against.' French told me. 'I spent a lot of time reading solo adventure game books, and many solo tabletop games do the same things that those books did, but in a much more powerful manner.'
When you play alone, you set up the board, the pieces, you follow along the instructions and you embark on a silent experience all by yourself. There is nobody there to share the dizzying highs or brutal defeats.
You are there alone, and you play alone.
That has got to be the saddest thing imaginable, right?
Tabletop gaming exists for many as a social alternative to playing video games, so why is it you'd want a solo board game experience over a game with a group dynamic? For many, its the exploration of a game that you don't get when playing in a group.
There is no point in playing a game by yourself if you're going to breeze through it. You need a challenge, and the challenge spurs you to continue, and try your best to beat the game.
'In a competitive game with multiple players, much of the challenge comes from the opponent, matching your strategy against theirs.' French said. 'When designing a solo game, the game itself needs to create the impression of an opponent, and test the solo gamer.
'Cooperative games tend to get easier as you add more players, even with mechanics that aim to scale the experience.' He continued. 'Two heads are better than one, and three heads are better than two, and so forth. Rather than fight this too much, I often embrace the fact that many solo players are drawn to the game for the challenge, and if a scenario is a little more difficult with one player, I see it as a feature.'
'I much prefer solo games where you have to beat an opponent,' Cocks told me, 'or you have to achieve a set of goals within certain constraints- see Mage Knight. Ultimately, I want to feel I’m being directly challenged by the game rather than having to challenge myself.'
While games like Arkham Horror can be played solo, they are designed as a cooperative experience to be played with anywhere between 1 and 4 people.
'Designed well, a variant can be just as good as a game specifically designed for solitaire.' Cocks told me. 'However, if you were to put a solo variant and a solo specific game in front of me, odds are in favour of the game specifically designed as a solo experience being the better of the two.
'That said,' Cocks went on, 'I think developers are doing an increasingly solid job of adding solo modes to their games- and it’s not just co-ops. Scythe’s automata card system works a treat, and Martin Wallace’s Auztralia does an exceptional job of creating a solo experience that is barely removed from the competitive game.'
When the challenge doesn’t cut it alone, the experience of interacting with an unfolding narrative can be very rewarding. Not only does it offer an experience that can feel unique to you (you're playing alone, after all), it can help drive you to overcome those, sometime very tough, challenges.'
Playing a game like Arkham Horror or The Lord of the Rings solo is more like reading a book – a book with many individual choices as to how the game plays out.' French said of his games. 'Playing those games with a group is more like a group storytelling experience, in which everyone contributes to how the tale unfolds. Both experiences have value, and it’s more a matter of preference.'
'I think the reason we tend to see more solo games with a narrative focus,' Cocks said, 'is that with a solo game you can’t rely on the interplay between players driving the game’s enjoyment. You need a different hook and narrative is an obvious one. There is also the advantage of only having to cater to one person’s potential impact on a game narrative rather than multiple people.'
'All that said,' French added, 'I’m not trying to suggest that solo games need a narrative to be enjoyable. Before I started system design for The Lord of the Rings, I researched and taught myself dozens of solitaire games that people play with a standard deck of playing cards. Many of these games are quite popular, and enjoyable, and none of them rely on a narrative experience to work. It’s the puzzle aspect of such games that is appealing.'
'I think narrative focused experiences are becoming increasingly popular regardless of the number of players.' Said Cocks. 'We’re no longer limited to just the Tales of the Arabian Nights of the board gaming world.'
As we move further into this golden age of tabletop, games are adapting to our lifestyles and trying new things. I personally never would have thought I'd enjoy playing a board game alone, but now I find myself constantly recommending all kinds of solo games.
This hobby is vast, and there is so much to explore. You owe it to yourself to expand your horizons and try out a solo board game today!
Nate French is currently a Game Designer at Fantasy Flight Games.