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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The 3P-Principle - or what the craft of storytelling can teach us about solitaire game design

Morten Monrad Pedersen
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Multiplayer games have something that solitaires don’t.

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OK, that might not seem like a huge revelation, but bear with me, I think that I actually have a point that is often overlooked in discussions of solitaire game design. Multiplayer games have a built in tenseness generator: Your victories, defeats, stupid mistakes, and brilliant moves will be observed by other people, and the “I want to beat the others” or “I really don’t want to lose to X” factor can be strong. This ups the ante for most players and can make a game feel tense even in quiet phases.

Solitaires are inherently different: No one’s there to observe you, and few people feel as strongly about winning/loosing against a stack of cardboard as they do about human opponents. This means that lulls in the gameplay that wouldn’t be a problem in multiplayer can be boring in a solitaire: If the player can tell that nothing really bad is going to happen the next ten turns, then the tenseness will disappear taking the entertainment value with it.

The craft of storytelling

Let’s take a step away from board gaming and think about storytelling for a while. Imagine a story where there’s an epic showdown with the evil ones at the end, and this is known from the beginning, but for all the rest of the story the heroes are never in any danger and they’re never challenged. Will this story be exciting? No it won’t. We’ll probably get bored and skip the story, and even if we get to the end, the epic showdown won’t feel very exciting, because we’re most likely not invested in the heroes of the story.

The heroes need to be challenged, be threatened, and bad things must happen to them in order for us to root for them and get emotionally invested in them, when that happens we’ll need the heroes to win.

With that said there are also limits. If the story is relentless threat after threat after threat then we end up growing numb and stop caring. To avoid this stories must allow us room to breathe every once in a while and it needs threats of increasing scale – it doesn’t work if the final showdown is less epic than challenges faced earlier – that’ll feel anticlimactic.

The 3P-Principle

Now you might expect me to talk about how solitaire board games should be made to tell stories in order to keep them exciting, but while I love games that tell stories that’s not the point of this post. Instead the point is that we can learn from the threat arc of well-crafted stories: There must be immediate threat except for a few short pauses and the threat level should rise over time.

Just like we won’t care for the heroes in a story if they haven’t been challenged and threatened, then we won’t care about the outcome of our game if we haven’t been challenged. If we haven’t survived by the skin of our teeth, the climax won’t feel important and winning or losing won’t matter to us, there’ll be no elation of victory or the damn-I-want-revenge of defeat.

From this I infer what I call the 3P-Principle of solitaire game design: Pressure, Pause, and even more Pressure.

So when you’re designing a solitaire game keep asking yourself: Is there pressure on the player? Does he feel like a Stark?

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Keeping the player under pressure not only keeps the game exciting it also opens up for some very tough choices. These choices come because the player will be forced to choose between reacting to the imminent threat and what’s optimal for his long term strategy, which in my opinion is the kind of choice that is the linchpin of good game design.

The pressure cooker of solitaire games

If there’s one series of games that I’ve seen take the 3P-Principle to heart, then it’s the States of Siege series of games, and for this reason I’ve dubbed it the pressure cooker of solitaire games.

The States of Siege games are at their heart lane based tower defense games. You defend a central location against enemies progressing towards you down a number of linear tracks. The random march of the enemies down the tracks means that there naturally come peaks and valleys of various magnitudes in the pressure level. The fairly short tracks mean that the enemies can reach you quickly, and since you lose immediately if an enemy enters the central location you’ll feel threatened most of the time

Some of the games in the series fall short of increasing pressure towards a final climax, and instead has the pressure distributed randomly over the course of the game while others like Dawn of the Zeds has mechanisms built in that somewhat controls the amount of pressure over time by having a specific procedure to build the deck of event cards, that gives the designer some control of what happens when.

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The exception of quick games

Very quick playing games are a bit of a special cases in relation to the 3P-Principle, they don’t need to give the player room to breathe, because they’re short enough that the player doesn’t become pressure numb, and for them we can rephrase the 3P-Principle as: Pressure, Pressure, and even more Pressure.

My own entry in the 2013 Solitaire Print and Play Contest (Endless Nightmare) was designed with this version of the 3P-Principle front and center: A few turns into the game the pressure becomes relentless and it increases until it breaks you. One of the ways it does this is by turning the game into a race, where you’re trying to outrun “The Shadow”, which runs faster and faster as the game progresses, and if it ever catches up to you, you lose. This mechanic makes it so that there’s always a fairly immediate threat of The Shadow, and this threat grows all through the game, thus making the game tenser and tenser until the climax.

In this case, however, it wasn’t only a game mechanic choice, it was also a thematic design choice because for thematic reasons I wanted to instill a sense of relentlessly increasing threat in the player. For both mechanic and thematic reasons I wanted the game to be a pressure cooker.

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This also goes for the States of Siege games. The 3P-Principle is an integral part of their theme and for Dawn of the Zeds this works out fantastically since the high pressure and resulting barely controlled chaos really helps the hopeless zombie apocalypse scenario come to life. So you shouldn’t only consider the 3P-Principle from a game mechanic perspective, but also from a thematic perspective: Can you make a thematic virtue of the mechanic necessity of immediate pressure?

Engine building games

One genre of games that to me really highlights the difference between multiplayer and solo games in relation to the 3P-Principle is engine building games: Games where you build up a production engine that becomes more and more capable over time and in the end the winner is the one whose engine has produced the most victory points or whatever you’re supposed to produce.

This works well in multiplayer games for the reasons I outlined above: Competing with the other players makes the game feel tense even though you usually lack any immediate threats that you need to deal with.

For solitaires the situation is different. Engine building in solo games can suffer from the same problems as stories where the heroes face no threats until the end. E.g. if things go wrong your engine might be a bit less efficient, but you don’t feel that much here and now, so there’s little tenseness and the game can end up feeling like an abstract optimization puzzle instead of an exciting game.

This is the reason why I have never bothered with Agricola. To me it seems this game’s solitaire mode would leave me feeling more like I was solving a math problem in school than like I was playing a game, and it seems that a deterministic solution for winning the solo mode has been found.

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Adding pressure to engine building games

I’d like to mention another engine building game that’s very close to my heart: Viticulture. Viticulture is a worker placement game, where you build up a victory point producing engine. It’s designed purely as a multiplayer game, and it’s very good at that, the games I’ve played have felt tense and exciting, but if one was to play it naively as a solitaire, by simply playing for high scores without other players it would turn the excitement into a boring optimization puzzle.

So when I set out to create a solo expansion for the game as part of the Tuscany expansion pack I first of all added some variation to the game in the form of an extremely simple and randomized “AI” opponent called the Automa, so that there wouldn’t be one single optimal solution to the game and so that it felt a bit like you were playing against someone. Second I added in a rule that if you end any year (of which there are 7) with fewer victory points than the Automa, then you immediately lose, which added pressure to the game.

As an aside during the development of the Automa we did a small change that had a very nice effect of the sense of threat. Initially I had made it so that the victory point marker of the Automa moved at the end of the year. The result of this was that throughout the year it would be standing behind yours. At some point Jamey Stegmaier suggested changing it so that the Automa VP marker was moved at the beginning of the year instead. This small change had no game mechanic effect (the test of whether you lost or not because you were behind the Automa was at the end of the year no matter what), but psychologically it was a nice improvement, because the threat suddenly became visually clear: The Automa VP marker was physically ahead of yours, so the gap you had to cover and thus the threat you faced was visualized. So it’s worth not only considering the 3P-Principle from a rule mechanic perspective, but also from a visual perspective.

While the rule often produced pressure all game years, the length of the years in Viticulture and the fact that they’re structured so that you normally produce the most points at the end, meant that at the beginning of each year you felt like you got a small reprieve after having caught up the previous year and then the pressure mentally increased throughout the year.

Not only did the rule add tenseness to the game it also forced some agonizing choices on the player because he would have to consider making decisions that were less than optimal for his engine building in order to increase the chance that he wouldn’t be defeated by the Automa before the end.

As a further aside, I’d like to draw a parallel between Viticulture Automa and Endless Nightmare. While the two games are nothing like each other they share the same mechanism for building tenseness: A race where you lose immediately if you don’t stay ahead of the enemy.

3F’s 3P implementation

Another interesting way of adding pressure to an engine building game can be seen in designer Friedemann Friese’s Friday. Friday is another kind of engine building game, it’s a deckbuilder (of the kind where you build your deck while playing like in Dominion, not one where you build it before playing like in Magic the Gathering).

Friday adds pressure by including a limited supply of life points: If you run out of those you lose immediately. What makes the game really interesting in our context is that the life points also act as a currency. You can gain them and spend them on actions, which let you trim bad cards from your deck and thus make your engine more efficient.

This makes it so that you’re encouraged to hover as close to zero as close to zero life points as possible and so there’s a constant threat making the game feels exciting and tense. Thus by adding the death-by-lack-of-life-points rule and at the life-points-as-currency mechanic Friedemann Friese has applied the 3P-Principle to an engine building game in a neat way that opens up for some interesting game choices.

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End notes

When I started writing about the 3P-principle it was intended to be just an one or two paragraph aside in another post, but as I typed it became clear to me that I had spent a lot of time thinking about the principle and needed to write it all down to make my own thoughts on the topic more clear to me and that it would probably make a good topic for a blog post, so the words started flowing faster and much more numerously than I would have thought – I hope you found them interesting and I’d love to hear your opinion on pressure in solitaire games.

Before everybody rushes to the keyboard, however, I want to stress that I’m quite aware that the 3P-Principle is not for everyone. There are players out there who prefer building stuff methodically without pressure and people who love to optimize for the long haul instead of constantly putting out fires, but to me the 3P-Principle is a core principle of solitaire game design.

I’d also like to note that while I think that the principle is more important to solitaires than to multiplayer games, I do think that designers of multiplayer games can learn from it and from the craft of storytelling – particularly designers of coop games.
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