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Byron Campbell
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http://www.rantgaming.com/2012/09/24/the-problem-of-solitair...

I'm a blogger for Rant Gaming, which is mostly a video game-oriented site. However, every Sunday, I do a column called Not So Old School, which is intended to bring the worlds of electronic and analog games together. Most of the time, it's reviews, but this week I tried to do a more analytical piece. It's about why single-player games are at such a huge disadvantage when they don't make use of a computer.

I'm not really satisfied with the ending (which is a little meta, since the whole article is about being dissatisfied with how solo games end), but I suppose that if I had a satisfying and uplifting solution to the problem, I wouldn't have had to write the article to begin with.

Enjoy!
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Jeff McCarroll
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Good read. Valid points. Mage Knight is a good solo if you can get past the handful of games it will take you to master the rules.

What was the game you did't name? Sounded interesting to me.
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Byron Campbell
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It was a winner of a solitaire design contest recently--Shadows Upon Lassadar by Todd Sanders. I really need to give that game another shake. Ironically, I bought it (edit: from Artscow, since it is so purdy) for solo play, but I think I'll need to play it "cooperatively" before I feel comfortable playing by myself.

I just picked up Friday in a trade. Hope I get some enjoyment out of that one!
 
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Ryan
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Byron, thanks for putting your thoughts to paper. Or to the keyboard as it is nowadays. As someone who buys and plays more solitaire games than other games, I have some thoughts.

I've been a solitaire gamer since I was a wee kid. I think it comes from having an overactive imagination and wondering, "what else is out there?" Some people like to experience new tastes be it food or wine; I like to experience new systems, plots, and settings. Books or games, doesn't matter.

Necessity forced solitaire gaming on me. Most people I've known don't have 2% of the gaming bug that I do. So early on it forced me to adapt. I played HeroQuest exhaustively as a kid...by myself. I designed quests and played through everything in the game & expansions because there was no other way to experience this awesome world. Yeah I know, it requires a "dungeon master" and playing without perfect knowledge to enjoy as intended. But I bucked the system and enjoyed it anyway for the story it created.

Fast forward to adult life. I have people to occasionally play games with, but not enough to suit my desire. Reenter solitaire gaming. Now with many options. Games designed for solitaire play, cooperative games easily played as solitaire, and wargames with little to no hidden knowledge where I play both sides. I have tried different games in each category and I have found that I appreciate the solitaire gaming experience many of them offer.

I don't agree with what I see as your main assertion, that solitaire games offer either too much randomness or too much internal consistency. I find that many games of the above three categories in bold offer a satisfying mixture of each. Here I will lump solitaire only games together with cooperative games played solitaire. Arkham Horror, Defenders of the Realm, Lord of the Rings, Hornet Leader: Carrier Air Operations, Where There Is Discord: War in the South Atlantic, Struggle for the Galactic Empire, Space Hulk: Death Angel – The Card Game, All Things Zombie: The Boardgame, Thunderbolt Apache Leader, and Race for the Galaxy: The Gathering Storm, to name a few I have played, offer randomness that can be planned for and partially mitigated by skillful use of the internal game processes. Success in these games, like most good multiplayer games, depends on an understanding of the game mechanisms to improve, though not guarantee, your odds of success. While it would be unsatisfying to win often by repeatedly playing an opponent with a poor understanding of the game, it is unsatisfying to win against a solitaire system with little in the way of random elements that you could quickly learn and master easily. So we must add randomness, though not complete randomness, to give uncertainty to the game that would be present if you were instead playing against an opponent with a good understanding of the rules and good cognitive skill. I believe the above mentioned games are comprised of an acceptable mixture of both randomness and internal consistency, through different mechanisms, that allow a player's decisions to influence, though not ultimately guarantee success. Much like a multiplayer game that incorporates some degree of randomness in the game mechanisms to ensure that the most skilled player won't win 100% of the time, while he can be assured that his ability will increase the odds of victory in his favor.

I hope that made sense. I realize part of it I just agreed with but rephrased some of the ideas in your blog. The point being though, that I think there are games out there that successfully implement what you claim solitaire boardgames cannot do.

In regard to another topic which I described earlier in my post, the ability of a game to create a compelling and engrossing narrative is something I greatly enjoy in any of my gaming experiences, whether solitaire, multiplayer, or even video games. Especially so in solitaire games where there is no social interaction, I need more than tense thought processes to ponder through, I need to feel a story being created around my actions. That story gives my gameplay more validity than just simply trying to calculate the best decisions to make. It tells me that my decisions are important, and why.

Ultimately, I think the correct blend of randomness with what you term internal consistency create tension. And the narrative tells me not only that this tension is important and stimulating, but why it is important. Even if at the end of the game I'm the only one who ever hears of the story I lived in for a short few hours. I believe that there are games that offer these experiences, and I also believe that not only are they alive and well, but that they are growing in quality and breadth.

Now I haven't even touched on playing wargames solitaire by playing both sides, but this post is already long enough. There are already many threads on this topic available in the Wargames section on BGG.

Thoughts?

Ryan
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I liked the article, and I think the problem you present is something designers may really struggle on when making a game have solo play.

I play Space Hulk: Death Angel – The Card Game solo (though it's a co-op game too), which relies on multiple random elements (set-up, dice rolls, decks) in its 'engine'.
I think for a solo game to work, you need to have enough options to be able to handle the random elements, and 1 bad play should not cause an instant failure or impossibility of winning.

I'd like to add my own problem with the solo play (Also played Zombie in my Pocket) being that upon completion, or defeat, there sometimes lacks a sense of accomplishment or enjoyment, and this usually happens when the randomness fails to deliver enough challenge (eg. "a 4 turn victory" in Zombie in my Pocket), or the randomness gives too much/an impossible challenge (eg "every card is detrimental and you keep rolling 0s" in Death Angel).
And because the 'engine' is random, next time you play you may feel that your win came, not because you improved, but because you got a better draw.
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Byron Campbell
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Hey Ryan--thanks for the detailed reply. I'm glad you have so many solo games you enjoy playing! It gives me hope. I haven't read your entire post yet, just skimmed it before bed, but I did want to clarify one thing. I believe that a good solitaire game is possible, and I agree with you that it requires a good blend of randomness, consistency, and narrative. The main point of the article was to explore why it's so much harder/rarer to achieve that balance with a board game as compared with an electronic game. My answer is that the computer, in the latter case, performs a lot of the behind the scenes work of "stacking the deck" in a way that the player can see is consistent without being completely transparent. I'd say that's where most of the narrative tension of a good single player game comes from, but it's so much trickier to manage in a board game. I'll give a more detailed response tomorrow.
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kittenhoarder wrote:
Hey Ryan--thanks for the detailed reply.


That's a polite way of putting it. Thanks!

kittenhoarder wrote:
I haven't read your entire post yet, just skimmed it before bed, but I did want to clarify one thing. I believe that a good solitaire game is possible, and I agree with you that it requires a good blend of randomness, consistency, and narrative. The main point of the article was to explore why it's so much harder/rarer to achieve that balance with a board game as compared with an electronic game. My answer is that the computer, in the latter case, performs a lot of the behind the scenes work of "stacking the deck" in a way that the player can see is consistent without being completely transparent. I'd say that's where most of the narrative tension of a good single player game comes from, but it's so much trickier to manage in a board game. I'll give a more detailed response tomorrow.


Sorry that I misunderstood. It seemed to me you were fairly absolute in your belief that solitaire games could not succeed. That's what I took from most of the text in the section "Why Single Player Board Games Stink". Rereading it again I see in the last paragraph that you don't declare the search for the solution over and express hope to find some games that meet your needs.

I hope that my misunderstanding coupled with the length of my post didn't take away from the idea I was trying to get across. I know well designed solitaire games with great replayability do exist. Also, I think there has been a steady growth in the number of solitaire and cooperative games available on the market in recent years that. These games aren't disappearing into the forgotten gaming mists of obscurity, but are doing well and influencing future solitaire designs. But those are thoughts for another post.

Anyway, looking forward to you reply, and those of others!
 
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kittenhoarder wrote:
http://www.rantgaming.com/2012/09/24/the-problem-of-solitair...

I'm a blogger for Rant Gaming, which is mostly a video game-oriented site. However, every Sunday, I do a column called Not So Old School, which is intended to bring the worlds of electronic and analog games together. Most of the time, it's reviews, but this week I tried to do a more analytical piece. It's about why single-player games are at such a huge disadvantage when they don't make use of a computer.

I'm not really satisfied with the ending (which is a little meta, since the whole article is about being dissatisfied with how solo games end), but I suppose that if I had a satisfying and uplifting solution to the problem, I wouldn't have had to write the article to begin with.

Enjoy!


Byron,

Really cool write up. I've not thought of comparing solo board games to the mainstream solo computer games that come on every PC. Fascinating read.

I too, recently wrote about solo games from a publisher/designer perspective - the main idea being I am a fool for designing/publishing such games.

I'd love to send you a copy of the recently released If I'm Going Down... for you to give it a whirl. Perhaps I've overcome the challenges of designing a solo effort, perhaps not. Either way I'd love your perspective and feedback, but most of all the chance to offer you a rewarding solo experience.

If you are interested, shoot me a geek mail with your info and I will send a copy over. Also, the blog I mentioned may be of interest, that can be found here: http://boardgamegeek.com/blogpost/12931/designing-solo-games...

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Jeff McCarroll
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Ryanmobile wrote:
In regard to another topic which I described earlier in my post, the ability of a game to create a compelling and engrossing narrative is something I greatly enjoy in any of my gaming experiences, whether solitaire, multiplayer, or even video games. Especially so in solitaire games where there is no social interaction, I need more than tense thought processes to ponder through, I need to feel a story being created around my actions. That story gives my gameplay more validity than just simply trying to calculate the best decisions to make. It tells me that my decisions are important, and why.


Just curious on your thoughts of the Leader series after reading this. There seems to be very little narrative in the Leader games other than the one created by the player. For example, I tend to pick my pilots based on name even if they have lower skill because I refuse to fly a pilot named Daddy-O.

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hmm i read your post a few days ago and didn't realize it was my game you were playing. happy to explain some of my thinking behind the AI mechanics i created if you like.

thanks for giving it a try. yes you are correct there are a number of things, especially the spells, you have to keep track of and a fair portion of AI issues you have to decide for yourself.

since i releaed that first games i've done 4 more in the Lassadar series, each employing different AI tactics. i feel i am on the right side of the learning curve and can provide a more robust experience with some of the newer games.


always an experiment though. i know what i want in a solo game and am working through how to create that experience
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Pojopep wrote:
Ryanmobile wrote:
In regard to another topic which I described earlier in my post, the ability of a game to create a compelling and engrossing narrative is something I greatly enjoy in any of my gaming experiences, whether solitaire, multiplayer, or even video games. Especially so in solitaire games where there is no social interaction, I need more than tense thought processes to ponder through, I need to feel a story being created around my actions. That story gives my gameplay more validity than just simply trying to calculate the best decisions to make. It tells me that my decisions are important, and why.


Just curious on your thoughts of the Leader series after reading this. There seems to be very little narrative in the Leader games other than the one created by the player. For example, I tend to pick my pilots based on name even if they have lower skill because I refuse to fly a pilot named Daddy-O.



I find TAL to have as much narrative as Chaos in the Old World, Space Alert, Mage Knight, Eclipse or any other game which I love.

I grow attached to certain pilots and losing a member of your air group is an awful feeling. I also tend to play linked campaigns where I choose the same characters (and stop myself from picking those who have been KIA).

In TAL, I find it comes natural to develop a narrative in my head when I'm sending my AC-130 piloted by Vet Neon, with my Green Apache pilot Scuttle to hit a Command element in the enemy rear. I know the mission's going to be a gamble and I'll have to be careful as my Green pilot weaves in and out of canyons trying to avoid SAM and AAA fire.
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Pojopep wrote:
Ryanmobile wrote:
In regard to another topic which I described earlier in my post, the ability of a game to create a compelling and engrossing narrative is something I greatly enjoy in any of my gaming experiences, whether solitaire, multiplayer, or even video games. Especially so in solitaire games where there is no social interaction, I need more than tense thought processes to ponder through, I need to feel a story being created around my actions. That story gives my gameplay more validity than just simply trying to calculate the best decisions to make. It tells me that my decisions are important, and why.


Just curious on your thoughts of the Leader series after reading this. There seems to be very little narrative in the Leader games other than the one created by the player. For example, I tend to pick my pilots based on name even if they have lower skill because I refuse to fly a pilot named Daddy-O.


You can find my comments here. I don't have much time for a response, but here's the short version.

I find the narrative in the Hornet Leader: Carrier Air Operations to be engrossing & compelling (for a boardgame). The narrative develops through the first mission and develops with each subsequent mission. My pilots pull of amazing hits or an experienced pilot whiffs a can't miss shot with an advanced munition and the target remains active. Or I send a strike team in, they are adversely effected by an event, I consider aborting, but continue on and succeed by the skin of my teeth, pulling out a victory where failure appeared unavoidable. Or my star pilot gets shot down out of the blue and goes MIA, never to be recovered. My pilots improve their skills over time and are able to contribute more to the team.

I care little for pilot names as I don't think they add much to the narrative by themselves. Basically I think the story develops through your choices as modified by the random elements. Personally, I think the two Leader games I have provide great tension and create an excellent narrative.
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Thank you for linking your article; it was a nice read.

I play mostly solitaire games as I only get to game group once per week, and that's simply not enough gaming time for me. I think you identify the main problems of a solo experience, namely that the game's systems and processes fall entirely on the player to enforce. To me, a good solitaire game is very challenging (as in I only win maybe a quarter of the time if that), does not require much if any "if/then" AI micro-management, and requires a degree of risk management though it may still rely heavily on luck. Also, the bits can't be too fiddly. One of my big problems with Elder Sign right now as a solo play is that there are so many bits and mechanics to physically move around on each turn that I easily miss things that I wouldn't have missed with a group.

I think my favorite solo play experience so far has been Knizia's Lord of the Rings. Setup isn't too painful, and on a given turn the player isn't messing with too many bits for my taste. It doesn't try to do too much but it does offer a great narrative and a high level of tension towards the endgame. Elder Sign isn't bad either but the difficulty is highly dependent on the initial rooms the player draws.
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Byron Campbell
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First of all, I'd like to apologize to anybody who posted in this thread expecting a reply and hasn't gotten one yet. It's been an incredibly busy week.

Now, let's see about those replies...

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Some people like to experience new tastes be it food or wine; I like to experience new systems, plots, and settings.


Sounds like me.

Quote:
I'd like to add my own problem with the solo play (Also played Zombie in my Pocket) being that upon completion, or defeat, there sometimes lacks a sense of accomplishment or enjoyment, and this usually happens when the randomness fails to deliver enough challenge (eg. "a 4 turn victory" in Zombie in my Pocket), or the randomness gives too much/an impossible challenge (eg "every card is detrimental and you keep rolling 0s" in Death Angel).
And because the 'engine' is random, next time you play you may feel that your win came, not because you improved, but because you got a better draw.


This is exactly the problem I was trying to point out with using pure randomness as the main source of unpredictability in solo games. The opposite problem is with no unpredictability, the player can play a "perfect" game and, at least theoretically, wouldn't even need to play the game, since they can predict the results of all their actions with 100% accuracy.

Quote:
Sorry that I misunderstood. It seemed to me you were fairly absolute in your belief that solitaire games could not succeed. That's what I took from most of the text in the section "Why Single Player Board Games Stink".


Well, you can blame my writerly tendency to overexaggerate. It makes a better hook than "Some single player games are not very good, you know?" In reality, I'm a fan of solitaire gaming...in theory. I believe that the balance you described in your post does exist in some games, but that the ease of achieving that balance is massively underestimated by many designers. Some designers don't even seem to see that balance as one of their design goals.

Last month, I made the decision to find, or come up with, a solo variant that would satisfy me for every game in my (still small) collection. This might not seem to jibe with the tone of the article, but it makes sense if you know that, like you, I love the systems as much as I do the game itself. There are two waves of enjoyment I get from a game--the fun I have while playing the game, then the fun I have from figuring out why I had fun the first time--or didn't. That's the place where most of the ideas in the article came from--from somebody who wants to know why every board game can't have satisfying solo play built in.

Quote:
I'd love to send you a copy of the recently released If I'm Going Down... for you to give it a whirl. Perhaps I've overcome the challenges of designing a solo effort, perhaps not. Either way I'd love your perspective and feedback, but most of all the chance to offer you a rewarding solo experience.


That's a kind offer. You'll definitely be hearing from me. In fact, if the game's been released and you sent me a review copy, I'd be more than happy to post a review on the site. Also, I'm certainly going to click on that link, for the reasons listed above.

Quote:
For example, I tend to pick my pilots based on name even if they have lower skill because I refuse to fly a pilot named Daddy-O.


I love it.

Quote:
hmm i read your post a few days ago and didn't realize it was my game you were playing. happy to explain some of my thinking behind the AI mechanics i created if you like.


Well, I didn't mention the game by name in the article because I wanted to give it a fair shake before I commit my opinion to print. I felt comfortable mentioning Zombie in my Pocket by name because it's been published by CGF, has an iPhone app, and is making money (at least I hope it is). I don't think my problems were specific to your game, either; rather, I felt like my experience was illustrative of what happens when you insert too much complexity into a solitaire game, to the point where the AI's behavior can't be predicted by the player because the player isn't even sure what the AI is supposed to be doing on a turn-to-turn basis. I haven't played Shadows Upon Lassadar enough to say if my initial two experiences with it were exemplary of the game as a whole, but they definitely felt like a potential pitfall for solitaire game design, so I kept the anecdote but left out the title. I think that what you're doing with your Lassadar and Aether Captains series is great, and I didn't want to do you any undeserved slander.

I'll definitely be trying the game again, probably with a wingman to help me keep track of everything. Also, having actual eurocubes instead of little beans that slide everywhere when you bump them would probably help. If I still can't make sense of it, I'm sure you'll get a GM from me.

Quote:
Also, the bits can't be too fiddly. One of my big problems with Elder Sign right now as a solo play is that there are so many bits and mechanics to physically move around on each turn that I easily miss things that I wouldn't have missed with a group.


Come to think of it, that might have been part of the problem I had with Lassadar--physical fiddliness more than mental fiddliness. I hear Elder Sign makes a great app...been wanting to get it for my Kindle Fire, but I can't without jailbraking it.

Hey, thanks for all the responses, everyone. Maybe in my next article, I won't sound like such a cranky old codger.
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Byron Campbell
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toops wrote:
The big factor for me is the space required (anyone else on the dining room table?), time it takes to set up, play and dismantle.


The further I get in the solo play challenge I mentioned earlier, the more I come to agree with that point of view. I love long game sessions in games with a lot of player interaction. 2-3 hours is not a problem for me, and I've had an 8 hour game of Android before. With solo games, though, I think max 20 minutes is just about right, and it's best if I don't have to clear off the entire table before I start playing. Sometimes, all I want to do is feel cards moving around in my hands while my mind wanders other places, but I haven't found the perfect game for satisfying that itch yet. So far, my best game for small and quick-playing solo is Carcassonne score attack with a limited grid, but there's no cards in that one . Maybe Friday will be the one?
 
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Friday is very popular - give it a whirl.
 
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Friday indeed seemed to capture a very good luck/skill balance.
 
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Interesting article. I've designed an unpublished solitaire card game - tower defense with a standard deck of cards - and the four elements that required balancing seemed to be, as you point out, luck, skill, rules complexity, and playing both sides (AI).

There's a pretty complex dynamic between these. For example, right now there's an AI algorithm when the enemy is picking which player cards to attack. Say we make a rule that the AI chooses targets randomly instead of according to an algorithm. We've reduced our rules complexity since there's no algorithm, added to luck, and probably reduced skill. (Then again, this might create a new strategy in itself.)

On the other hand, we could reduce rules complexity and add skill rather than luck by allowing the player to choose which cards to defend with. Ultimately though, I decided the more complex algorithm-based rule made for proper balance in this case.

Too much luck and the game's unfair; too much skill and the game's predictable; too much complexity and you forget to do everything you need to do. Each of these factors into the AI issue too. If there's too much luck, the AI isn't very interesting; if the AI relies too much on player skill, you get that dilemma where you don't know how tough to go on yourself; if the AI rules are too complex to remember, the game gets unbalanced toward one side or the other.

In any case, it's a fascinating design problem and I'm glad to see someone else grappling with it.
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Wind Catcher Games wrote:

Too much luck and the game's unfair; too much skill and the game's predictable; too much complexity and you forget to do everything you need to do. Each of these factors into the AI issue too. If there's too much luck, the AI isn't very interesting; if the AI relies too much on player skill, you get that dilemma where you don't know how tough to go on yourself; if the AI rules are too complex to remember, the game gets unbalanced toward one side or the other.


This is absolutely what I've seen as well, and is a good summary of the crux of the problem. Thanks for your input!
 
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solo games in PC are better because you don't need some1 to play with but it is always nice to play with another player rather than an AI...

bottom line in depends on your mood.....
 
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