Thematic Solitaires for the Spare Time Challenged

A blog about solitaire games and how to design them. I'm your host, Morten, co-designer of solo modes for Scythe, Gaia Project, Wingspan, Glen More II, and others.
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My top 10 solo and non-solo games – Part 1

Morten Monrad Pedersen
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Board Game Designer
Automa Factory
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A couple of months ago Jamey Stegmaier asked for my top 10 board games, because he was doing a YouTube series on the top 10s of the people closest to Stonemaier Games.

This blogpost is a tweaked version of Jamey’s video with my top 10, so if you watched that, then there’s nothing new to see here.

I’ve cheated a bit to create variety. If I just listed my Top 10 games, I might have 3 games from the same series on the list: Onirim, Nautilion, and Aerion from the Oniverse series and Nusfjord might join Loyang as a second Uwe game. That would be boring, though.

10. Pandemic: The Cure (solo and multiplayer)

During these COVID-19 times some might find it distasteful to talk about liking a game about pandemics, but I’ve decided that to me it’s OK – perhaps even a good thing.

The Pandemic series of games are very popular but there’s a core system in the games that I dislike and that’s the logistics puzzle with its route planning.

Pandemic: The Cure overcomes it by boiling the logistics down to handling just 6 locations. This retains the challenge and puzzle of moving around while removing the detailed route planning that I dislike.

The game also changes up other elements of Pandemic while still retaining the original’s feel. Action selection is done via custom dice, choosing how to use them and when to reroll. Disease spread is similarly done via die rolls instead of cards.

To me dice are among the components whose tactile feel sets board games the most apart from video games. There’s just something inherently satisfying about the tactile feel of rolling dice that beats flipping cards by a mile.

Board Game: Pandemic: The Cure

Pandemic: The Cure. Image credit: Charles Polenzani.

9. Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective (solo and Multiplayer)

If I were to describe Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective in one sentence it would be: An open world choose-your-own-adventure detective story in Sherlock Holmes’ London. Quite a mouthful ?.

When I dig through newspapers to look for clues, talk to people who may or may not be related to the case, find evidence, and piece together what happened, then I feel that the game comes pretty darn close to being Sherlock Holmes in a box and I have a blast in a cozy way every time I dive into that box.

The rules can be taught in two minutes but therein also lies its limitation: You can choose where to go, but you cannot choose what to do there, there’s no time system, no evolving world, etc. On the flipside this prevents the game from going on forever which is good because otherwise I (sometimes play it with my wife) would never get out of that box. We want to explore everything the story has to offer instead of trying to solve the case as fast as possible – which is the opposite of what the game incentivizes you to do.

Board Game: Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective: The Thames Murders & Other Cases

Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective. Image credit: Montgomery Van.

8. Mental Blocks (Multiplayer – well, I also played it solo once as a puzzle)

In Mental Blocks you cooperate to build a 3D structure out of simple building blocks like those you likely played with as a child.

The mechanism that makes the game interesting is that you each have a card showing the structure as it looks from one of the four sides with no depth (there are tweaks to this at 5+ players) and you’re not allowed to show your card to others. You have a time limit to figure out together what the 3D structure is and you each have a limitation, such as “you can only touch triangles” or “you can’t talk”.

It’s harder than it might sound with lots of frantic arguing and rebuilding as each side view seems incompatible with each other and it culminates in high-five moments that has worked well when I’ve played with non-gamers and core hobby gamers alike.

I should add that because of errors on some of the cards there’s at least one of the challenges where the cards not only look incompatible but actually are, so that it’s impossible to build a correct structure. Let’s just say that that didn’t lead to a high-five moment.

Board Game: Mental Blocks

Mental Blocks. Image credit: W. Eric Martin.

7. At the Gates of Loyang (Solo)

I love Uwe Rosenberg’s games. He’s such a great designer that three of his games are in my top 10 solo games even though his solo modes are the opposite of what I prefer (beat your own high score instead of win-lose criteria with an artificial opponent).

My favorites are: At the Gates of Loyang, Nusfjord, and A Fest for Odin and I’ve been a part of fanmade solo modes for three of his games.

Loyang is a tad above the others. It has enough meat on its bones to offer, well, meaty decisions without being so complex and long that it’s hard for me to get to the table

It somehow achieves to combine brainburn with a calm feel and there’s something Zen about the tactile feel of the vegimeeples and arranging them on your fields.

Board Game: At the Gates of Loyang

At the Gates of Loyang. Image credit: MarcelP.

6. Legendary: Marvel (solo and 2-handed solo)

I’m starting to burn out on deck builders, but Legendary: Marvel keeps on going for me. I suspect, though, that my love for is rose tinted because it was the first big deck builder I tried.

I actually like its younger sibling Legendary Encounters: Aliens better in many regards because of its 3-act encounter decks that gives the designers control of the story arc and tension. Its retelling of the movies helps because it activates my memories of them and so adds to the immersion and cinematic feel.

The Marvel version is very random in the order of the cards which come out, which can lead to weird story and tension arcs. On the other hand, that randomness makes the game feel fresh much longer and with the huge number of expansions it keeps feeling fresh while I’ve moved on from Aliens.

If you play this one solo, I strongly recommend playing 2-handed and ignoring the semi-coop nature of the actual rules, which feels completely wrong to me and it seems that it does so too for the publisher since they (AFAIK) removed this feature from later games in the series.

Board Game: Legendary: A Marvel Deck Building Game

Legendary: Marvel. Image credit: Pete Here.

I'll post the rest of the top 10 in a day or two - see you there?
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