Sunday, October 20, 2013

Rambling about single player games

As it gets harder and harder to play games as often as I'd like with people, I find myself more and more attracted to solitaire games.  Especially games that are specifically designed as solitaire games, as opposed to multiplayer games with a solitaire scenario.  At first I was incredibly resistant to the idea of playing a board game alone.  It seemed like it crossed a very shameful line.  Plus, why play a solitaire boardgame when you have video games?

Well, it's been a few months now that I've explored various single player games, mostly the Field Commander series, and the States of Siege series.  And this is what I've learned about the solitaire boardgame experience.

Solitaire boardgames are more thoughtful.

Video games tend to move at their own pace.  No matter how hard you resist, you tend to get pulled into going at their speed.  You may even be on autopilot through good portions of the game, not really thinking, just reacting.  Even in turn based games, like Civilization, you mostly just place your orders without really thinking about it, and wait for the game to execute them.  Plus the value of a single turn just isn't as high when a game has hundreds of them.  You find yourself hitting the turn button as quick as you can, and who cares if you made the most of it or not?

Where you move Alexanders army of less than a dozen
units is a thoughtful decision.  You can't just throw numbers
at the enemy.
I've found that with solitaire boardgames, I naturally think more before I pull the trigger on any particular action.  The Field Commander series frequently only gives you 5 or 6 turns to accomplish significant objectives.  The States of Siege series tends to have 40 to 60 events you need to navigate, and poor play over just 2 or 3 events can end you in a hurry.  Boardgames also tend to carry a smaller scale, since there is no computer to handle 100's of combat units per side.  No to mention the fact that when you are dealing with that many units, you simply can't work with each individual unit.  You just make broad decisions for all of them.

The shorter time scale, and fewer individual resources combine to create a wonderful environment for thoughtfulness.  Each turn, and each action inside it, just carries so much more significance.  The game really can hinge on a relatively small number of decisions.  To borrow phrases from Real Time Strategy games, the micromanagement game is more significant than the macromanagement game.

Keeping a record is critical

I played Field Commander Alexander probably a dozen times before I bothered to start keeping score.  I really wish I'd kept score from the start though.  Winning or losing a solitaire game is a rather boring proposition.  Once you've won 3 or 4 times, it gets old.  But when you keep score?  The game is elevated to a whole other level.  It reminds me of the old arcade games you'd play forever, constantly trying to top your previous high score.

Here comes a Doomsday Machine in Space Empires 4X.
If I beat it I win, if I don't I lose.  That's it.
Now I keep a spreadsheet on my computer to log my scores, along with a few notes about each individual game.  It really makes things more interesting.  One area the States of Siege series especially excels in, is it's diverse scoring system.  It keeps even your loses significant and interesting.  In fact, the scoring system in States of Siege puts the scoring system in Field Commander to absolute shame.  

Of course, any scoring at all is still preferable to no scoring.  The solitaire scenarios to Space Empires 4X just have a simple win/loss condition and that's it!  Now thats no fun.

Arbitrary randomness is no fun

It's really difficult for a solitaire game to keep from just being a simple puzzle.  Randomness is often the tool used to prevent this.  But it can't be just arbitrary randomness, which leads to arbitrary difficult.  And nothing is worse than arbitrary difficulty.  I'm specifically reminded of the Decisive Defeat rule in Soviet Dawn.  When you roll a 1, the enemy gets to advance.  You then roll again, and if they roll under their current location number, they advance a second time.

That's how I roll
This resulted in a string of 5 games in a row where I lost on the first turn of the game.  The Baltic front advanced.  I needed to roll a 5 or a 6 to push them back, and would fail on every roll.  Eventually I'd roll a 1, causing them to advance, then another 1 advancing them into Kiev.  This would cause me to lose a political level, and I'd lose the game.

5 games in a row of instantaneous loss, with absolutely nothing I could do to mitigate it besides not roll 1's so much.  Awesome, I'll get right on that.

I contrast this sharply with the combat system in Field Commander Napoleon.  I love it.  You pull a limited number of order chits for the enemy's best units.  They are all somewhat effective, at least as good as the default orders, and under the right circumstances better than yours too!  So sometimes they manage to get the perfect order on just the right guy at just the right time.  It really feels like someone just outwitted you.  It doesn't feel arbitrary at all!  It's quite an accomplishment of game design.

It can't outstay it's welcome

The one thing that keeps me from playing Field Commander Napoleon more is it's length.  A game of it can easily be 2 hours long!  This is likely personal preference, but I just have a hard time mustering up the interest to play a game alone for that long.  The occasional flashes of brilliance from the game's AI just doesn't make the experience rewarding enough for a 2 hour investment.  And honestly, I've found the same to be true for the solitaire scenarios in Space Empires 4X.

I love the tactical AI in Field Commander Napoleon, but the strategic AI can
be a little dense.  In this playthrough they let me waltz right onto their final city.

So I almost exclusively play the shorter Field Commander Alexander, or the States of Siege series.  I can easily knock out games of those in under 30 minutes, which is the perfect length for me.  The shortcomings of the AI don't really show themselves in games that short.  Plus even when they do, the game is over quickly.  You can maintain your suspension of disbelief long enough to get through the game.  Unlike a game that lasts over an hour.

What would make a perfect solitaire game?

I love these event cards
I have bits and pieces of all the various solitaire games I've played that I absolute love.  I can't get enough of the tactical battle system in Field Commander Napoleon.  It occasionally fools me into feeling like I'm playing against a very wily opponent.  And I especially love the card driven nature of the States of Siege series.  It adds much needed narrative to the experience.

I don't know if a game exists like it yet, but I'd love to play a solitaire game that lasts about 45 minutes, has challenging tactical play, plus a solid event driven narrative for the strategic level.  That really would make my day, and likely consume many of my days as well.


  1. I haven't played it myself, but D-Day Dice seems to fit a lot of the criteria you mention.

    1. Good to know! It hadn't been on my radar before. I'll have to try it out. I think my FLGS might have a demo copy.