Morning Table Talk

This is a weekly blog to talk about different aspects of games and gaming ranging from specific genres to more specific game design problems.
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The Solo Game Experience

Trevor Harron
United States
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So far in Morning Table Talk we have looked at and talked about games that play with multiple people and this morning let us look at solo games and solo variants of a game. Since solo gaming is a drastically different experience than playing with other players, let us examine why players might choose a solo experience, some different types of solo games, some examples of these types, and finally what about them makes for a good solo game.

First the important question: why play a solo boardgame? Surely if a player wants to have a solo experience there are any number of video games to choose from? Well the short answer is yes and no. Yes there are great computer games for solo gaming but to look at solo boardgaming we have to look at why people play board games to begin with. Generally people play to have fun (and there are several ways people have fun), be social, and to prove one’s skill. While the social aspect is not relevant in solo gaming (for self explanatory reasons), the other reasons still stand though emphasis is on the challenge is paramount. In a solo games, like cooperative games) there is a always a singular win condition and multiple ways to fail, stacking the deck against the player. To be safe, one could say that the similar reasons for playing solo games as cooperative games BUT for the wish to conquer the goal by themself.

With the various games out there there are two types of solo experience games: ones who are designed to be solo games and multiplayer games that are adapted to be a solo experience. Both of these games have their own advantages and disadvantages but try to accomplish the same solo experience. Games that are designed to be solo games initially have the benefit that the main intent of the game’s design is around the solo experience. Traditional solitaire and the Onirim cycle of games (Onirim, Sylvion, Castelion, and Nautilion) are all examples of this kind of game. For each of these games there is a singular objective to accomplish and multiple ways to fail and ways to make the game more challenging for experienced players. All of these aspects fit into the idea that solo board gamers want to overcome the challenge of the game. The second type of solo games are games that were designed with a multiplayer experience in mind and a solo experience was added as well.In these games (such as Mint Works and Viticulture) the challenge of the game is taken on by a ‘AI’ (a set of preferences of actions and abilities) to control the other player. This AI is interesting for two reasons, one it implies that you are trying to beat the AI and not the game (as other solo games try) and that the AI is a player essentially keeping the feel of the experience similar to the core game. As one could suspect the core design focus in these games is on the multiplayer experience and, while I have enjoyed some of these solo modes, they don’t quite capture the same experience as the core game and make me wish I was playing the core game. These games are interesting though in how they try to automate the other player and still try to capture the aspect of overcoming challenge that solo games seek.

Now shortly, what makes a good solo game experience? As previously mentioned the core of a solo game experience is overcoming challenges that the game puts forward whether from the board itself or an AI player. In the mentioned games, there is also a singular goal the player is trying to accomplish and multiple ways to fail. As previously mentioned there are several ways that the solo and cooperative experiences are similar and rely on the same patterns. However, with the basic actions and the game’s actions a designer should think about what actions the player will be repeating multiple times and how that affects the experience. If a single turn takes a long time to execute (not decide on mind you) then the solo experience could suffer as the player becomes frustrated or (even worse) bored with the game. As with other kinds of games players should make meaningful choices to further the goal they are trying to accomplish as well as the game responding well to players taking the actions that are key to the core gameplay. As a final difference between most games and solo games (though similar to cooperative games) is that the player should be at a disadvantage. That is not to say that it is not unfair but that a player can look at how they failed and how they could have succeeded instead but realize that the game is a challenge to beat. If the game is too easy then it becomes trivial to beat it and the satisfaction is lost. If the game is impossible, then frustration will keep the player away. In short several of the same principles of good game design carry over to solo experiences but a great solo experience will keep the physical execution of a turn to a tight loop of actions that don’t take too long but will still be challenging to the player.
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