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Thematic Solitaires for the Spare Time Challenged

Do you enjoy board games, but due to family, work, health or other reasons have trouble finding the time for a gaming group? Are you interested in solitaire game design? If so, this blog is for you. I'm your host, Morten, designer of solo modes for games such as Scythe and Gaia Project.
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The Automa Approach I: A method for making solitaire modes for multiplayer games

Morten Monrad Pedersen
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I’ve argued elsewhere that adding solitaire playability to a multiplayer board game can significantly increase the number of buyers/crowdfunding backers of the game. As a follow up to that I thought that it could be interesting to present the methodology I’ve developed while creating solo modes for Stonemaier Games.

This is meant as a help to multiplayer game designers who want to add solitaire playability, but if you’re interested in solitaire game design in general, then this series of posts might also be for you.

Now, I don’t claim to be the most experienced or knowledgeable person on this topic, but I’ve analyzed solitaire game design the past three years and have spent some time developing an approach for creating solo variants. So far, it seems to have worked well for me, but it’s not a silver bullet or a detailed cookbook recipe.

Before we get started, I should also make it clear that what I describe here is my approach, based on my experience and subjective preferences. Every time I make a statement about how things should be done or about what solo players like there’ll of course be solo players who disagree vehemently with me. What I’m trying to do however, is to point you in a direction that I think will make the most players happy and thus give you the most buyers or backers.

The above disclaimer is not meant to stifle criticism – if you’re one of those who disagree vehemently with me, I’d love to hear your reasons in the comments, so that I and other readers can learn from you and gain a wider perspective.

The Automa Approach

The philosophy behind my approach is that playing the solo version of game should feel like playing the multiplayer game. This doesn’t mean that every detail should be the same, but the soul of the game should be intact. Thus you should strive to avoid cutting out important parts of the game, and the solo player should face roughly the same choices and the same win-lose criteria as the multi-players.

This is of course not the only way you can go about making a solo variant, but it’s the way I prefer and it’s my impression that you’ll lose a lot of potential backers or buyers in the solo community if you fail to adhere to this philosophy. Not adhering to it also has the downside that you’ll basically end up designing two different games with the same components, which can be quite a challenge.

An added benefit of staying true to the multiplayer game is that the solo version can act like a fun way to learn the game for the player who’ll later on teach it to her gaming group. Learning the game ahead of game night suddenly becomes a game in itself instead of a boring trudge.

The main ingredient in my approach is one or more artificial opponents and at some point during my work on a solitaire mode for the game Viticulture, which is set in Italy, J. M. Lopez-Cepero suggested the name “Automa” for the opponent, since that’s the Italian word for automaton. The name stuck and has been applied to the two other games I’m currently converting to solo play for Stonemaier.

In the next sections, I’ll explain The Automa Approach and in a follow up posts I’ll give some concrete examples.

Step I: Grok the game

Play the game - either with others or by pretending that you’re multiple people. Then experiment with simple solo modes. It doesn’t matter whether you know before you try them that they won’t be fun. It can be as simple as just playing with one player and ignore all rules that refer to other players.

Step II: Find the soul of the multiplayer experience

Step I will hopefully lead to you get a feel for what makes the game tick. Now ask yourself:

1 Which effects of the other players’ presence are the soul of the play experience?
2 Which aspects of the other players’ presence are less important to the player?

These two question are at the heart of my approach and they should be considered from the point of view of one player.

As an example imagine a game, where all players have a hand of cards that they can play at specific times to achieve in game effects, and this hand of cards is unknownable to the other players. From the point of view of player X the contents of the other players’ hands aren’t a core aspect of the play experience, but the effects of the cards that impacts X are.

Step III: Create the Automa

Now introduce one or more Automas to the game:

1 Use simple mechanics to that lets the Automas mimic the effects identified as crucial in Step II.
2 All aspects of the other players determined not to be core should now be abstracted away from the game.
3 The Automas take the place of other players in the game using the multiplayer rules where the actions of the Automas are governed by the rules developed during 1 and 2. The fewer Automas you put in the game the better, because the human player will have to do the legwork for them,

In my example of the game where all players had a hidden hand of cards, the hands of the Automas should be abstracted away and instead a simple system should be made that causes effects like those of cards played by other players – and all effects that doesn’t directly impact the human player could probably also be abstracted away. One very simple solution that could work in some such games would be drawing and playing one card each Automa turn.

This example illustrates a central point: Very often you’ll be better of abstracting away the internal state of the other players’ setup and instead only mimic the effects they have on you.

Step IV

Playtest the game yourself and tweak until you’re reasonably satisfied with the result. At this point the game doesn’t need to be perfect – just in the right ballpark. You shouldn’t replay and tweak the game until the repeated plays make you want to throw up, because if that happens, you’re likely to run out of steam before the project is done. Instead, you need to stop at a point where you’re still enthusiastic about the game, but have something workable.

It’s still to early to do this. Image source:

Step V: First external playtests

1 Have a couple of people whose opinion you trust playtest your new solo mode.
2 Obtain feedback from them. Are they having fun? Do they feel that the variant is true to the original game? Is the difficulty level in the right ballpark?
3 Repeat 1 and 2 until your playtesters are answering in the affirmative on all three questions tweaking the game at each iteration balancing their feedback with your vision for the game.

Step VI: Get the difficulty right

1 Decide what win rate you consider ideal for the game.
2 Identify which parts of the game you can tweak to alter the difficulty.
3 Get as many people as possible to playtest the hell out of the game and have them report their results.
4 Use the information and decisions from 1-3 to approximate the win rate you want. Your own results should mainly be used to tweak the difficulty of a hard mode, since by now you should have played the game so much that you’re likely to be much better than most of the players who’ll try the final game.
5 Repeat 1-4 until you’re satisfied or you’ve worn out everybody you could cajole into playtesting. At this point it’s quite OK to have had it up to here with the game.

Coming up next…

So that’s my approach – in the next post in the series I’ll give some guidelines and tips for aspects not covered in the approach itself and in the final posts I’ll give some concrete examples of adding solitaire playability to existing multiplayer games.

Other posts in this series:
2 The Automa Approach II: Guidelines and tips for making solitaire modes for multiplayer games
3 The Automa Approach III: A concrete example of making a solitaire mode for a multiplayer game
4 The Automa Approach IV: Making a solitaire mode for a game with mechanical interaction
5 The Automa Approach V: Making a solitaire mode for a game with social interaction
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