Following on the heels of Shut Up and Sit Down’s heartfelt video, my article last week reflected on one of my favorite gaming moments and discussed the meaning of games and how they are enhanced by the community of friends, social interactions, and memories we form around them. As I was writing, it dawned on me that the entire discussion really posed an interesting question: what role do solo variants have in the board gaming hobby?
Solo variants have been around for a while. I mean, just look at solitaire. However, I think they’ve become even more prevalent in more recent years following the rise of the cooperative game market. Most cooperative games are well-primed to accommodate a solo gameplay variant simply because the game is already set up to pit the players against the game itself. Removing all but one player therefore usually only requires some minor gameplay tweaks, either in the form of nerfing the game itself, or buffing the player’s abilities. Recent examples include the outstanding Robinson Crusoe, and the punishingly difficult Space Hulk: Death Angel.
I’ll admit that because my enjoyment of board games generally comes from the interactions with others they promote, that I’m not altogether sure what the appeal is of sitting down and setting one up to play by yourself. If I feel like playing a game by myself, I usually boot up my PC or turn on a console and get my kicks that way. Even in those instances, since I’ve played MMOs since the original Everquest a majority of my gaming experiences are still social even if they’re not face-to-face, though I do still enjoy single-player romps every now-and-again. However, I suppose for people who do want to play something on their own and they don’t enjoy video games, that breaking out a board game to play solo is a similar and perfectly sound option.
In fact, my wife is a huge fan of solo variants. Or at least, she’s a huge fan of one solo variant in particular. I think she has more game playthroughs recorded for Ghost Stories than I do of most games in my collection put together. I come home occasionally to find her sitting in our living room fending off the hordes of ghosts on our coffee table, or sometimes I take a break from my own game session and wander into the living room to see what she’s up to and she’ll excitedly tell me she either got close to or beat her previous points record. Her frequent solo plays of Ghost Stories even increased when the digital version was released in her iPad’s app store, mostly because she no longer needed to trouble herself with the setup, and because the game took care of tracking all the rules. I’ve had the same experience with the Ascesion, Summoner Wars, and Small Worlds 2 digital apps, and while I sometimes play those games with other people I think all of these applications demonstrate that the increased ease-of-use and ease-of-access of digital copies of games means we’ll continue to see an increase in the number of games offering solo variants, or digital versions that allow solo play through the addition of NPCs.
So, where do solo variants fit in the board game hobby? My cop-out answer is that I really don’t know. On the one hand I don’t consider playing board games by myself to be a particularly appealing option, but I do recognize that there are many people out there who do enjoy occasionally sitting down by themselves and going through a game. I can’t explain why I’m perfectly content, however, with booting up a digital version of a board game, or a PC or console game, and playing that by myself. It’s a double standard for sure, and I figure it must have something to do with my approach to board gaming in general as being a social medium. But hey, whatever floats your boat, and if it’s supporting the hobby and getting more people into gaming I say GAME ON!
Have you played solo variants? What was your experience, or what is your favorite?