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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Guest post by Scott Allen: Automa Alternatives in Solo-Only Games - My Experiences

Morten Monrad Pedersen
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Automa Alternatives in Solo-Only Games - My Experiences

Morten has done an outstanding job creating automa opponents that allow us to solo-play many games originally designed for multiple players. And Morten’s blog posts in this space have educated and entertained many of us who are interested in solo games and the design of solo games.

I think when designing a game from the start to be a solo only experience, the design process is a bit different. So, in this post, I will take a bit of a random walk (as opposed to Morten’s somewhat scientific approach) ”behind the curtain” on a few of my solo game designs in hopes of providing maybe a small bit of wisdom to this community, or at least maybe start an interesting discussion.

Please be aware that I am a hobbyist game designer that has been designing print and play (PnP) games for the last few years. I have no formal training in game design, and my total number of games designed is less than 20.

The three games I am going to dig into are:
Count of Nine: A 9 card, solo, Euro game,
Pocket Landship: Free Trial Version: Another 9 card, solo game, but this time a World War 1 theme tactical battle game.
Highlands: My attempt to make a simplified, solo only Scythe-like game.

Count of Nine was my entry in the 2018 9 Card Nanogame Design Contest. It was born as a good-natured rebellion against the pre-contest discussions of how many and what types of components should be allowed in the contest. “I’ll show them”, I said to no one in particular, “I’ll design a 9 card game with ZERO other components”. I know this has of course been done before, but not by me, so I had my design challenge.
From gallery of Narrow Gate Games

The goal of Count of Nine is to maximize victory points by building the best and most structures. Structures are built by “Crew”s using Resources. Some structures, when built, provide one Crew or one Resource per round (playthrough of the remaining deck). So far, that sounds like a typical Euro game. The challenge in the game comes from the fact that all those resources and available structures are crammed onto both sides of 9 cards. 31 structures (some duplicates), 8 Crews, and 15 Resources are contained on the 9 cards.
From gallery of Narrow Gate Games

There is no opponent in this game per se. The “opponent” is the scarcity of resources and the fact that when you build one structure (one half of one side of a card), you are removing up to 3 other structures and up to 4 resources from the game. It provides a classic “If I do this, then I can’t do that” feeling throughout the game.

After one playthrough of the deck (to see which resources are on the top of the card (active, useable), the game is technically a solvable puzzle. But, after many dozens of plays, I can say that the game doesn’t feel like just a mechanical exercise.

So, how did I design this game so that it is (hopefully) a fun challenge?

First, I made sure that there was more than one solution to the puzzle. I am a big believer in giving the player choices. I did this by making sure that there is at least 2 ways to build every structure in the game. That means that there are 2 of every structure that may be required to build a higher level structure. And to do that, I needed to make sure that there were no conflicts of having the needed structure on the same card as another needed structure. For example, to build the Harbour, you need 1 Crew, 1 Market (structure), and 1 Shipwright (structure). So, I had to make sure that first of all, no Markets or Shipwrights were on the back of the Harbour card - easy enough. Then, I had to make sure that there are at least two ways to build 1 Market and 1 Shipwright - hopefully without needing anything on the Harbour card. This design process was a puzzle in itself. When people suggest that I should expand the game to more than 9 cards, I sort of smile nicely on the outside, but on the inside I start stressing just thinking about how I could keep everything straight on 18 or 27 cards.

Second, I introduced multiple ways to score victory points:
Gain 3 to 6 VP for each major structure you build
Gain 1 VP for some of the other structures that take 3 resources to build instead of the usual 2 resources
Gain VPs for building duplicate structures (thematically, the town is more prosperous if it has two Blacksmiths or Quarries, or Taverns, etc. instead of just one).
This makes that solvable puzzle a bit harder for a mere human brain to solve.

And third, I added a -1 VP penalty for each round played to discourage the player from just playing through the deck in order to remember the card order and set up successes for themselves.

The game worked but was very dependent on the luck of the draw - the order the cards were arranged in the deck, and their orientation in the deck, since resources on the bottom of the card are not useable. So, a final tweak was to allow players to do one of the following between each round:
Shuffle the entire deck (to change the order of the cards)
Flip the entire deck (to keep the order the same, but bring the bottom resources to the top to put them in play), or
Flip one card during the round.

I think the game is a fun and portable puzzle-like game. Each turn gives the player a real decision to make: Do I build this, or that, or wait for the next card? And, it gives the player a sense of accomplishment of creating something. The game is not perfect, of course. I think it suffers from sort of a reverse engine building syndrome: Rather than getting more powerful and having more choices, as the game goes on, the player has fewer and fewer choices. It has a bit of that frustrating constrained feeling that some other games provide (like Kingdom Builder).

Pocket Landship was my entry in the 2017 9 Card Nanogame Design Contest. It was inspired by the WWII tank movie “Fury”, but I couldn’t find any good public domain WWII tank art. I then stumbled upon the fantastic WWI sketches of artist Muirhead Bone, and I quickly changed the theme to WWI tanks. My design challenge here was to use input randomness: roll dice, then decide what to do; rather than: decide what to do then roll dice to see how things turn out.

I set out to design a tactical battle game, but looking at it now, Pocket Landship is an abstracted combat game, and sort of a tower defense game: an onslaught of enemies coming at you that you need to fight off. The player has a landship made out of 3 cards that battles 6 enemy units - 3 in the front row and 3 in reserve behind them. On the player’s turn, roll 3 dice, assign them to your 3 cards to damage the front line enemy units or repair your cards, or a combination of both. On the enemy’s turn, roll 3 dice, assign them low to high, left to right, then carry out the actions that match the die values on those cards.
From gallery of Narrow Gate Games

So, in Pocket Landship, there is an opponent, but it is not an equal to the player. The opponent cannot technically win. If the player defeats all enemy units you win, if you lose your hull or cannon card, you lose.

I consider this an automa-like opponent since it is operated by the player and it acts in a similar way to a human player - on its turn it does some combination of attacking you and repairing itself. There are a few details to how the AI operates that make it behave in a way that seems like a real opponent.

From gallery of Narrow Gate Games

First, almost every enemy card has a “sweet spot” of which dice values will cause the most damage to the player. For example, let’s say a certain enemy card does most of its damage to you on roll of 1, 2, or 3. These actions will most often occur when that card is positioned on the left of the enemy grid, since the enemy dice are arrange left to right, low to high. So, in this example, this card would have an action at the 5 or 6 spot saying “Deploy Left - Swap with card to left”. So, if this card is positioned away from its “sweet spot”, it is likely to get that deploy action, and move toward its sweet spot during the game.

Second, and this one is a bit more random, most enemy cards will have a “Retreat & Repair” action where the card is swapped with the inactive card behind it and it gains back 1 health. The effect of this is that the enemy cards aren’t just static, they will back off and get stronger. It’s simple, but it does provide at least sort of an illusion of a thinking opponent - an artificial intelligence (AI).

Separate from the enemy AI, another small design detail is the actions for both the player and the enemy are dispersed across all 6 possible die values. Put another way, there aren’t good numbers to roll or bad numbers to roll - a 6 isn’t always good or bad, neither is a 1. I did this to avoid the feeling of “Man, the dice just weren’t rolling my way this game”. That may still happen, this game is fairly luck dependent, but you never walk away from the game thinking “I just wasn’t getting the 6es I needed in that game”.

I am very happy with how Pocket Landship turned out. Of the dozen or so games I have designed and posted on Boardgamegeek, it is the most popular. I think part of that is the uncommon theme (WW1 tanks), and part of it is the feeling of control, thanks to the input randomness, dice allocation, whatever you want to call it.

Highlands was my entry in Chris Hansen’s 2017 Solitaire PnP Design Contest. It is my unashamed attempt to create a solo only, quicker set-up, smaller footprint, less Automa-maintenance, Scythe-like game. (Scythe is my favorite game, but it takes me 10 minutes to set up and takes up half of my dining room table - about my only complaints for the game).
From gallery of Narrow Gate Games

Quick aside: What do I mean by a Scythe-like game? I would say a game that uses a map board and minis (for that great tactile sensation), has some combat but combat is not the main feature of the game, and is “multi-dimensional” with regard to winning the game. In Pocket Landship, there is only one way to win: destroy all the enemy cards. In Scythe and Highlands the player can take many paths to victory - usually some combination of: military, economic, exploration, upgrades, etc.

Highlands uses chess pieces for its units, replacing the character and mechs in Scythe. The game was actually originally designed to be played on a chess board with just the addition of a handful of cubes, a couple small decks of cards, and a player mat. I still think that would be a cool.option: a game playable on a chess board with chess pieces, plus a small handful of additional components.

There is an opponent in Highlands, but it is not the only thing the player is up against in the game. The player is gathering resources, building an army, going after encounters, and trying to accomplish missions. The opponent is just trying to surround your castle and fight you if you get too close to him. This opponent is needed in the game to add tension to the game. One of Todd Sanders’ game design philosophies that I try to follow is: “Do too much, in too little time”, and having this opponent getting in your way during the game helps accomplish this, I think.

Unlike Scythe, the opponent is not an equal or symmetrical player in the game. This was part of my attempt to make a simplified Scythe-like game. Rather than have an automa opponent mimic an equal opponent to the player, could the opponent be simplified to basically just be a nuisance to the player?

The opponent in Highlands is an army of 4 units (2 rooks and 2 knights). Their purpose in the game is twofold:
1) Get in your way as your pieces travel around the board going after encounters and/or trying to complete missions/objectives. If you get within striking distance of an enemy unit, on its turn, it will attack you.
2) Try to defeat you by surrounding your castle with 2 of its pieces. If this happens, you lose the game.

To make this work, I needed to develop the decisions for the AI opponent. After a bit of trial and error, I came up with the following. The opponent’s decision on which action to do on its turn consists of a simple progression:
1)If an enemy unit is adjacent to one of the player’s units, the enemy will attack that unit.
2) If an enemy unit is one space away from your castle, move it to be adjacent to the castle.
3) If an enemy unit is one space away from one of your pieces, move it to be adjacent to your piece and attack your piece.
4) Draw a card and take the movement action on the bottom of the card (which moves one enemy unit one space closer to the player’s castle).

These rules are fairly straightforward so that the player doesn’t have to think for the AI, he/she just needs to follow these rules. The downside here is that the player knows the exact strategy of the opponent: attack adjacent, surround castle, move to attack, then move to surround, so the player can plan their moves accordingly. This is not ideal.

Scythe has 5 decks of cards, Highlands has two. Scythe card decks are: factory, combat, encounters, objectives, and automa. For Highlands, there is a mission (objectives) deck, and a combined encounter + automa movement + automa combat deck. I did this for simplicity and ease of build, since this is a print and play game. Automa movement and automa combat strength are each single items of information, so they were easy to add to the encounter deck. This takes away a bit of hidden information, since as cards are played for one purpose, the player can see the other information on those cards that will no longer be in play that round. But, this is not unlike the Scythe automa cards, where as they are played the player can keep track of the combat card quantities on the played cards to get a better idea of what is left in the deck.

The combined encounter deck is 27 cards. The game length is 2 playthroughs of the deck. But, that doesn’t mean the game is 54 turns. Each encounter will deplete the deck by one card, and each combat will deplete the deck by 2 cards. So, a typical game may last about 40 turns.

So, does the game work? I think so. I would say Highlands accomplished my goal of making a Scythe-like solo only game in a smaller footprint, with less set-up time. Is Highlands an equal to Scythe? Of course not. The one thing I would like to tweak further is replayability. Since the opponent is predictable - starts far away and marches toward your castle - it is fairly easy to outsmart. I am thinking of ways to improve this part of the game, perhaps a “Mad Fenris” type of addition? A wandering dragon may add the right amount of chaos to the game.

So, there you have it, a peek at a few alternatives to automas that I created for three of my recent solo game designs. I think my conclusion on all of this may be: automas are great for making a multi-player game into a solo game. But, if designing a solo only game, there are some other options available to the designer.

Thanks for reading, and thanks Morten for giving me the chance to say a few words.
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