by Mitch Freedman
Like a lot of gamers in this time of social isolation, I miss the fun of being with other people and playing something we all enjoy.
Board games, of course. Metal miniatures, sure. Strat-o-matic baseball? Well, someday we will have a draft. I just don’t know if our games will start before the regular baseball season.
But there is one little bright spot in all this isolation. I have the time to play a lot of my games by myself. And, I’ve learned some stuff, that I will happily share.
Now, some games are already designed to be played solo. Others are for two or more players, but you can easily play both sides and have a good match-up.
Then there are games that will be a challenge to play alone, but do it once or twice and you end up being a better player. How? Well, I tend to be competitive when I play – I also tend to eat more potato chips than I should – but that means I am always concentrating on just my side. Where can I attack? How can I get a victory point?
But play both sides and all of a sudden you get more strategic. You see weaknesses in positions that you ignored when you only had one goal. When you roll the dice and apply the result – elimination of an enemy unit, or withdraw from a hex – it opens up new opportunities for your opponent.
While I hate to say it, it’s a little like playing chess. All of a sudden you have to figure out what is going on with both sides of the game every time you move. See, you play better but it might not be as much fun.
Happily, other games are easy to convert to solitaire play and will give you many hours of enjoyment,
Fortress America is a good example of a multi-player game that makes a fine one-player battle. Why? A couple of reasons. It has two equally-matched sides – America and the three attacking powers. America and the three invaders start out with equal armies. The invaders choose reinforcements each turn, while the Americans get them from cards that are drawn randomly.
I never thought much about it before – our group generally agrees that it is amazing how the Americans get just the reinforcements they need right when they need them – but those cards can really change the game.
Now I see that instead of a mad dash to the heart of America and victory, the invading army has to consider the haunting shadow of bad luck. When you advance with a helicopter to get an extra space under your control, you better expect that you will probably lose it, especially if the wrong American reinforcement card is pulled.
See, you’re already starting to play differently. Another lesson learned.
There are also lots of games designed for solitaire play. They don’t all work. The quality of the artificial intelligence controlling the enemy – the rules, not some computer code – and randomizing of moves will make the game a great success or a complete flop.
My friend Fred Manzo (who is the publisher of The Boardgaming Way) did a pretty good job developing a solitaire game with Invaders from Dimension X, in which a squad of marines has to get past some powerful aliens. He did it again designing Space Vermin from Beyond! and Escape From Hades. But, enough of the commercial.
The point is that Fred is very good at devising random movement and attacks for the enemy. The humans in those games have a real struggle and are always fighting the unknown. You just can’t plan for random movements or attacks.
In Invaders, the Galactic Marine units have different strengths, movement, and special abilities. The invaders are simply all-powerful. But, rolling dice each turn determines where the aliens are coming from, which units will be arriving, and which of them will be attacking. All you know is that you have to get past them to win, and you have the option of moving or shooting. It’s fun figuring out that puzzle, and it’s never the same game twice.
Now, for me, the master of board game design is Martin Wallace. If you’re not familiar with his work, look him up. It’s worth it.
Wallace designs lots of different games, from spot-on economic studies to massive fantasy battles to serious battle simulations. I just want to mention one of them – a two-player game called Test of Fire – Bull Run 1861.
The first time you play it, you will probably hate it. You have no chance at all of doing what you want. You won’t be able to move your units, attack with them, or put together a decent artillery barrage.
But do it again and you will find yourself right where the Union and Confederate generals were, with lots of troops who don’t follow your orders, who show surprising stamina when attacked, and who can’t see the big picture because bullets and cannon shells are whizzing around them.
Designed as a two-player game, it works well for solitaire play because of the command structure. You roll some dice, and one number lets you move, another lets you fire, a third lets you draw a card that will give you more actions in a later round of battle. Roll a 6 on a D-6 and you can move or shoot, but you can’t move more units than the terrain will allow.
Play it a couple of times and you will find out Test of Fire does pretty much the same thing that happened at Bull Run. I can’t explain it. I can only watch in amazement, and since the goals are pretty simple, you can handle both armies by yourself with no conflict and no secret strategies.
Not every game is suitable for solo play, of course. And, even the best game played alone doesn’t give you the friendship you get from playing with others. Solitaire play denies you the joy in defeating someone who has beaten you over and over again in a particular game.
I last won a Settlers of Catan game about three years ago, and I want my revenge. But, somehow, I never seem to roll the right numbers to get the supplies I need. Enough said.
So, put this enforced isolation to good use. Dig out some old games from the back of your closet, learn the rules all over again, and see how well it plays solitaire.
Hopefully, you will enjoy the experience. Some of the old games might surprise you.
Just watch the potato chips. Remember, no one is watching but the bathroom scale.
Test of Fire – Bull Run 1861 BGG page
Invaders from Dimension X BGG page
Space Vermin From Beyond! BGG page
Escape from Hades BGG Page
Settlers of Catan BGG Page