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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What veggie burgers can teach us about designing solo modes

Morten Monrad Pedersen
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Can vegetarian burgers teach us about solo modes for board games? Read on and get the answer to that existential question .

I recently read a discussion here on BGG about different kinds of solo modes for board games and one of the arguments that stood out to me was a comparison to veggie burgers.

The poster talked about how veggie burgers had sucked for the first many years of the concept’s existence because they tried to emulate something they weren’t – meat burgers – instead of playing to the strength of vegetarian food.

This was then compared to solo modes that try to emulate the multiplayer game:

it devalues solo gaming in general for the highest honor that a solo mode can achieve to be nothing more than a simulacrum of a supposedly more authentic experience.
The conclusion is that solo modes shouldn’t be made to mimic the multiplayer game they’re based on but play to the strength of solo gaming with little regard for what the multiplayer game is.

On the surface this seems reasonable and as someone who tries to pick vegetarian food when given the option, I completely agree with the poster about veggie burgers and vegetarian food. I’ve been preaching for years that vegetarian food shouldn’t try to emulate meat but play to its own strength. All “simulacrum” burgers I’ve eaten have been boring while I’ve had some awesome veggie burgers that didn’t try to emulate.

That’s as far as my agreement goes, though, at least when it comes to games with low(ish) interaction and they’re the ones that interest me the most because they’re the kind of games I make solo modes for.

What’s the patty and what’s the bun?

Let’s take a step back and look at the burger analogy: What’s the important part of a burger? I assume we can agree that it’s the patty, dressing etc., the bun is just the frame that allow you to enjoy the good stuff.

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Image credit: Comidacomafeto

The argument given is that veggie burgers go wrong when they try to emulate a meat patty, but the question is what’s patty and what’s bun in a solo mode?

Asked in another way: In a game with low(ish) player interaction are the other players the patty or the bun of the play experience?

When I play a multiplayer game, the most important thing to me (while ignoring social aspects) is my own play of the game, not the other players’ play. Their presence provides a frame around my play.

In Viticulture, for example, the important part of the game for me is running my own vineyard according to the rules of the game and the other players’ vineyards are of limited interest to me. What interests me about my opponents is their placement of workers, because that restricts my own worker placement and thus opponents are the frame around my play experience.

So, to me a bot-based solo mode of the kind I try to make (Automas) is not trying to replace the patty, quite the contrary it tries to keep the patty, dressing, etc. the exact same but replaces the bun with another one by replacing the other players with a bot.

Trying to modify the game played by the player, on the other hand, is changing the patty.

So, in my opinion a solo mode should let the player play the game by the exact same rules way as they would in multiplayer (keep the patty intact) and replace the other players (change the bun).

Throwing away thousands of hours of work or reusing it?

A board game has typically had thousands of hours poured into it while the solo mode will typically be at most be in the hundreds of hours. By retaining as much of the multiplayer game as possible, the solo mode uses the thousands of hours of development instead of tossing out a major part of that work and trying to create something new using an order of magnitude less time.

Compared to keeping as much as possible the same, trying to mess with a game that’s been carefully built over thousands of hours in a fraction of the time is much more likely to unintentionally break something or lose major parts of what’s good about the game.

So, to me bot-based solo modes not only keep the patty intact, they’re more likely to be polished and less likely to have major issues.

Other kinds of games

As mentioned, this post should be seen in the context of games with low(ish) interaction. In games with no interaction the equation changes and high interaction games can be very hard to make bots for without ending with a solo mode that’s as complex and time consuming as the game itself, so the veggie burger analogy is just the first bite from a complex menu of highly complex and subjective dishes.
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