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 games such as Scythe, Gaia Project and Viticulture.
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Variation or tenseness?

Morten Monrad Pedersen
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My best experiences of solitaire gaming come from playing games where I’m constantly teetering on the brink of oblivion, where I feel like I could lose the game every single turn, but manage to hang on until I finally succeed or is crushed. On the other hand I also like games with a lot of variation, and it recently occurred to me that tenseness and variation has a tendency to be at odds with each other in solitaires.

This occurred to me because I’ve been playing Soviet Dawn (SD) and Legions of Darkness (LoD) lately. Both are from the States of Siege series and so they share the same basic game engine and are of roughly the same complexity, but they go in very different directions in relation to tenseness and variation.

Two very different states of siege

Before going on I should explain that in States of Siege games the basic concept is that you’re defending a central location against a number of enemies marching down a number of linear tracks and if they reach the central location you lose. A deck of cards determines random events and movement of the enemies. Each turn you have a variable number of actions to push back the enemies, improve your defenses etc.

In LoD there’s a choice between two sets of enemies, but other than that it basically throws everything at you each game. I normally end up getting nearly all the spells, I get 4 or 5 of the 6 available heroes, all the tracks are pressuring me at some point in the game, and I go through nearly all the cards, so each game basically shows you all there is to see. This means that the all play sessions are from a high level perspective fairly similar, but my initial impression is that it’s pretty tense (though admittedly my latest games have been fairly comfortable wins).

SD on the other hand plays out very differently each game. In my first game I got extremely lucky and won after only 17 of 48 possible turns, while the second game saw me get my ass kicked in half that number of turns.

In LoD all 5 of the 6 enemies are active all the time while in SD only 3 out of 6 starts active and the number can change throughout the game, and you’re even able to knock out some of them for good. This variation in the number of active armies leads to vastly different sessions.

SD also has a lot of variance built into a bonus system called the Red Army Reorganization system. You can spend an action to roll for one and if you succeed (normally a 1 in 6 chance) you get a random bonus out of 7 possible ones and some of them can make a big difference. This system results in most sessions being played with different bonuses than all other sessions.

Finally there are a few major events whose result will significantly influence the rest of the game, such as the Czar being rescued.

Combining all these factors leads to vastly different outcomes each session.

The price of that variation is that the level of tenseness is all over the place. Sometimes you manage to knockout 3 of the 6 enemy armies leading to a fairly easy game, and other times you’ll basically be wiped out before you’ve gotten started, and from my limited experience it’s fairly seldom that a game of SD stays tense for long.

So in these two games that share the same basic engine we see a tradeoff between tenseness and variation and it seems clear to me that in general it’s hard to design a solitaire game that’s both constantly tense and very varied, because it’s hard to design a set of challenges for the player that’s just the right difficulty all the time even though the situation and the player’s power can vary a lot.

Money matters

For fairly cheap games like the States of Siege games I think that I prefer games that are tense but samey, because to me tense = fun, and given the low price I can just buy a new one when I get bored by the sameyness.

On the other hand I have enjoyed my nine sessions of SD. It hasn’t been the edge-of-my-seat-excitement of LoD, but instead it has been more of an I-wonder-what-story-will-be-told-this-time-enjoyment and this element is strongly supported by the historic flavor text on the event cards. So far though I’ve enjoyed the tenseness of LoD more than the variation of SD.

Another solitaire game that faces issues with a lot of variation is Lord of the Rings LCG (LotR). It’s a deck builder where the player builds his deck from a large number of cards. The variation of decks that can be built is enormous, some great, some bad, some good at one thing, some good at another. This means that it’s basically impossible for the designers to make the game so that it’s tense for everyone.

As mentioned one of the things I like about SD was the fun of seeing what story would play out, and LotR is similar, but it has a huge advantage in that there’s more than 30 (if I remember correctly) different scenarios meaning that the stories told keeps being surprising and exciting for a very long time, which makes it matter much less to me that the tenseness can be a bit hit and miss. The down side is of course that if you want all the scenarios it’ll cost you so much that you could have bought most of the games in the States of Siege series, which arguably would have given much more varied storytelling.

As an example of another cheap game that's tense, but lacks variation let's look at Friday (which I recently reviewed). Once I grokked the game all my sessions played out in one of similar two ways:

1 During the first part of the game I aggressively spend my life tokens to get rid of poor cards. Then gradually I start focusing more on gaining good cards and rebuilding my stock of life tokens. Finally I confront and fight the pirates and again start to deplete my life tokens to draw extra cards for the pirate battles.

2 Exactly the same flow as above except that I don't succeed and run out of life tokens somewhere along the way.

The great thing about the design of Friday is that you'll basically always take your life tokens close to zero (unless I'm missing a better strategy of course), and thus the game is almost guaranteed to have a tense period. The downside is that there's little variation in the overall story told by the game.

Mutually exclusive?

So the thesis of my post is that there’s a conflict between variation and tenseness in solitaire gaming and if a designer goes for variation in a game then tenseness is hard to achieve, while if the designer goes for tenseness then variation suffers.

One way out of this dilemma is to use rubber banding, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen that in a solitaire board game, perhaps because it would be too explicit what’s going on since it’s the player who has to carry out the rules, and it could also lead the player to game (yes, I know that’s an ironic choice of words ) the system.

Do you have any examples of games that go against my thesis and combines high variation with high tenseness or games that implement rubber banding? If so I’d love to hear about it.
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