Why does solo board gaming seem to absurd to some?
Most games are multi-player. But aren’t the players a means to an end?
That end is interaction. Without interaction there is no game. But does it have to be human interaction? I find that it is becoming less and less true as the means at our disposal to design systems capable of interaction are getting better and better. On the computer as well as on the cardboard side.
It also has a lot to do with the kind of tabletop game we’re talking about. Some kinds of board games are more suitable to solitaire play.
Cooperative games. In Mage Knight as well as games such as Pandemic, all players (or most) are on the same side. The game’s mechanics are designed to provide the opposition and will do so in the same way regardless of the number of players. So that kind of game works consistently well in solo play.
In a similar fashion, some Eurogames, in which the interactions happen mostly between the players and the game’s mechanisms, the so-called multi-player solitaire games, are therefore often good candidates for solo play. Most of Uwe Rosenberg’s games are good examples of this category, and as a result require virtually no rule adaptation to be played solo, with great results: his Odin, Loyang or Caverna can be great solo experiences.
Maybe the games that are most conducive to fruitful solitaire play are games that use simulation. One way of doing this, and that we’ve been seeing more and more lately, is to include a “paper AI” (Artificial Intelligence), a set of rules that simulate (in some cases with surprising accuracy) the play of one or several opponents. We find that kind of programmed opposition, or robot (or ‘bot) player in most (Eurostyle) games by Vital Lacerda. In the wargame genre, the games in the COIN series by GMT games may be the more advanced incarnation of this.
But simulation isn’t limited to paper AI. Board games that aim at representing, depicting actual events, facts and circumstances, thus most historical or war games, are at their core simulation games.
And simulation games work consistently well as solo games because they contain a model.
Any model has its own autonomous existence and does not rely on the sequence of a script, but cannot be considered in abstracto, independently from what it aims at representing. A model encapsulates its own rules and translates them into behavior. So simulation tabletop games behave, do expose behavior. They react to our decisions, sometimes in surprising and interesting ways, and they keep presenting the player with hard choices. Simulation games are excellent consequence engines. And having to deal with the consequences of our decisions and our actions is the most basic, immediate form of interaction.
That may be why wargames have always been so frequently played solo. It’s totally normal, even kind of expected. Wargamers are known—and often mocked—for their willingness to sit alone in front of their multiplayer monster games, their military strategy sagas, quite happy to lend themselves to the schizophrenic exercise of playing every opposing faction in turn. Of course, the fact that it can be difficult to find opportunities and opponents to play those huge and complicated games could explain why they are often played solo, but certainly not why playing them solo is still very much interesting, let alone at all feasible. After all, there is no great tradition of solitaire backgammon.
Any game that exposes a strong, rich model, that a player can examine, study, compare and test under every angle, endlessly, is a game that will reliably deliver engagement and satisfaction, with or without the participation of other players. Such a game is a totally different kind of experience and represents a rather different way of engaging our curiosity; not to see who will win, but what can happen if…
Solitaire board games are sometimes dismissed with this snarky line: they’re mere puzzles, not games.
Well, that’s a bit short.
Such games are not puzzles, but models. We don’t always recognize that it is the model that drives them as well as engages us. The source of pleasure is the model, not the game. Let alone the other players, the “social experience”.
A model is way much more than a puzzle; it resists, it amplifies, it surprises; in Dan Verssen’s words, it’s a puzzle that fights back.