How Solo Games Have Stepped Up

Over the past year and a half with so many people around the world being restricted to their homes for extended periods of time, smaller, more intimate games began to come to the fore.  Notably, games that made people feel calm, comfortable and able to be played on their own, or with the one or two other people in their household who enjoy gaming. What was traditionally a social hobby, began to evolve into a pass-time people could enjoy by themselves. This resulted in a paradigm shift in the industry and we are only now beginning to see the results of this change.  More game companies are including solo and 2-player variants of their titles as the pandemic continues to rage, seemingly unchecked in most parts of the world.  While life has more or less returned to normal here in New Zealand, it can be easy to forget that not everyone is so fortunate.  

Good times.

Solo games have always been important to me.  Back when I first started out in the hobby I didn’t have a group of friends who shared my interests, so I basically ignored any game that didn’t include a dedicated solo variation. This limited my exposure to a lot of popular games for the longest time and caused me to miss out on some fantastic titles, but it allowed me to try board games out at my own pace.  Playing by myself on evenings and weekends took on a therapeutic quality and I came to value these moments.  Eventually I joined and formed groups of my own and was able to expand my gaming horizons, but through it all I still found my eyes drawn immediately to the player-count on the box of any new game to check out if it has that vaunted 1 on there.  To my delight, I see it more and more often.

Someone forgot to tell Sleeping Gods it's actually 1-4 players. Oops!

Playing on your own can provide a sense of tranquility seldom offered by multiplayer games, you can play at your own pace, use house rules to alter the play experience to suit you and, depending on your situation, you may be able to leave an epic game set up on a table in your home for days or even weeks as you slowly take your time with it. Another aspect I enjoy about gaming alone is trial and error. I can test out multiple strategies, try different skill or card combinations, roll back a turn or even start the entire game again if I mess up in the first round or two. While a few may view this as cheating I see it more as learning the ins and outs of the game in a way that helps me to understand how all the pieces fit together so that my next play through can be even more satisfying.

Indeed.

What are the challenges of going it alone? Well, for one thing, there is only ever one voice present at the table, no one else to bounce ideas off of or the ability to consider choices beyond your own. Of course you can play and replay turns as I alluded to earlier, but that’s still just one person’s approach. Collaboration plays a huge part in gaming, most notably in co-operative games, even in competitive games people tend to throw around ideas and help one another out. In solo gaming, there’s no banter, no witty repartee, just you alone with the board before you and your own thoughts. Not a bad thing, but it can get a little lonely.

Mark Ruffalo's knocking it out of the park today!

During lockdown I often played games while watching YouTube videos or listening to podcasts of streamers playing the same game.  This not only helped me to learn, but offset the feeling of isolation, replacing it instead with an uplifting sense of peaceful solitude.  Just hearing voices discussing the same thing I was experiencing, listening to them talk and strategise and joke around was settling, like leaving the radio on for your pet while you’re at work.  Other times I listened to thematic music to help set the tone. It wasn’t so much being alone that was uncomfortable, but the silence, so anything that could lighten the atmosphere helped as such,  I’m now a big fan of creating a little ambiance even when playing with others.  An example of this is after I introduced Mansions of Madness to my regular game group, the game utilises an app to direct the set up and events of the game, the players commented on how the app’s sound effects, voice acting and music elevated the whole experience for them. While not many games have dedicated apps like Mansions of Madness or Descent, I’ve found Spotify has some great user-made playlists for many popular board games which can add a great deal to the experience. Soundboard apps can allow users to play around with atmospheric effects too.

Pictured: Michael Winslow, the original soundboard.

While the gaming industry is still being held back by the pandemic, some game publishers have drawn the ire of the gaming community by releasing games that require three or more players, one such example is the upcoming Unfathomable by Fantasy Flight Games, a reworked version of the lauded and out of print Battlestar Galactica system re-skinned with a Cthulhu theme.  The decision to produce and release a game with a higher player count when so many are still unable to gather together has been called out by some as tone deaf. Why produce a game most people won’t be able to get to the table when you could create a game that’s more refined in scope and playable by one or two players?  Having said that, I’m quite excited to get my hands on Unfathomable, but that’s a luxury I have by living in a country where I can gather with my friends to play, for which I'm grateful, however I understand why those who have been unable to get a group together for months may feel slighted by it.  

It'll be worth the wait....

One result of this shift in the industry has been that many game companies, while slow to respond, are finally beginning to do so, as such, solo gaming is seeing an increase in popularity in the past 18 months, a trend that looks set to continue beyond the upheaval of recent times.  I for one am thankful for the advent of solo games, they’ve certainly helped a lot of people get through some very difficult times of late, myself included.  If you’re looking to explore some single player gaming options, Baxter’s Top 10 Solo Board Games includes some amazing titles, and if you have a favourite solo game, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.  Until next time, enjoy gaming whichever way pleases you best! Take care.