In Gameological Unplugged, Samantha Nelson looks at trends and new developments in the vast world of tabletop games.
There are plenty of video games that are best played with a group, but usually, it’s expected that you can play a video game by yourself, too. The presence of computer-controlled opponents and solo campaign modes means that even if you can’t meet up with friends at your house or online, you can still play. That’s not the expectation for board games, which are almost always viewed as a social activity. But that’s changing. More and more, digital board game apps are letting players compete against online opponents, and if you still crave the feel of laying out lots of pieces of cardboard, board game developers are offering ways to make traditional games into solo experiences too.
Pandemic: In the Lab, the second expansion for Z-Man Games’ iconic co-op board game, offers a solo mode for players who want to follow in the footsteps of Brad Pitt’s character in World War Z. While the base game has two to four players running across the globe trying to cure a series of plagues, this version has just one agent fixing everything with a little help from the CDC, which takes an action on your behalf each turn.
That help mostly takes the form of doing something your character could do if only you had the time, but in a new wrinkle, the CDC also allows you to change your agent’s role. This means that if you have a special ability that’s effective in the early stages of the game but weaker later on, you’re not stuck with it.
While the mechanics of the solo mode are otherwise nearly identical to cooperative play, the absence of other people changes the game remarkably. The friend who introduced Pandemic to me described it as a game about social compromise. We lost the first few games not because we didn’t understand the rules or got unlucky—though those were factors—but because we couldn’t work together properly. This is a game where you can’t just take the most effective action available to your character. Instead, you have to seek out the tactic that will fit best with the actions of every other player at the table.
That can frustrate people, especially when one veteran starts dictating how other players should take their turns and blaming them if their defection results in disaster. When playing with novices, it can be tricky to reach that delicate balance of nudging people toward actions that are beneficial for the whole group while still allowing them to feel agency as an individual.
This single-player take on Pandemic strips away that conflict. You’ll still need to plot several steps ahead to achieve victory, considering both your long-term goals and your immediate needs. But you call all the shots, making it a great option for people who want the thought exercise without the potential social conflict, or for those who are just looking to brush up on their skills before the next game with other players.
Ascension: Storm Of Souls, an expansion to the competitive deck-building game from Stoneblade, adds rules for a single player mode that pits you against the monstrous sky serpent Nemesis. You play the game normally, purchasing heroes to make your deck more powerful and defeating monsters to gain the points needed to win the game. When you turn is over, Nemesis defeats or acquires the two cards furthest to the right of the board. At the end of the game, you compare how many points you’ve earned against what Nemesis has eaten.
It’s nearly inevitable that Nemesis will pull ahead early while you’re getting your deck together, but unless you’re very unlucky, the game skews in the player’s favor. In the end, you’re facing a predictable opponent who can’t disrupt your strategy. Storm Of Souls doesn’t add any cards that are particularly suited for solo play. Many of the rewards for defeating monsters are worthless when they can’t be used against another player. I quickly got bored and went back to my preferred method of playing Ascension alone—using online multiplayer on my iPhone. On the phone, all my cards work as intended, and when I win, I have the satisfaction of knowing I’m beating someone, even if they’re not across the table from me.
But my husband had a different experience. After watching me play, he tried the solo mode on his own. While he was still soundly beating Nemesis every time, he found the game to be a fun mental exercise. He’s played against me a few times but likes competitive games even less than I do, especially when he feels like one player is significantly better than the other. He doesn’t even like playing against an artificial-intelligence opponent. But the solo mode provided a challenge without the frustration of having his tactics interrupted by another player. I’m hoping it will eventually give him the confidence to face me again, but even if it doesn’t, I’m happy he’s having fun.
While they can be played alone, both Pandemic and Ascension are still best with others. That’s not the case with Rio Grande’s Friday. The game is set on a deserted island where your character, Robinson, must survive all manner of hazards. You start out with a deck of terrible cards. If you win a challenge, you acquire a better card. If you lose, you can spend some of your “life” to discard lousy cards.
The trick of the game is assessing risk and reward. You can pay life to draw more cards in the hopes of getting what you need to defeat a challenge, or you can give up and just take the chance to get rid of a bad card. As soon as you’ve seen each challenge once, the difficulty ramps up, so you'd better hope you have enough good cards to deal with the next round.
Usually, learning the rules of a game and setting up the board will provide some extra time to socialize before everyone digs into playing. That can make setup pretty slow and result in a lot of repetition for anyone who wasn’t paying attention. Learning how to play Friday by myself, I missed the camaraderie. This was especially true when, about 20 minutes into my first game, I realized I was playing incorrectly and had no one but myself to blame.
Luckily, Friday is easy to learn, but mastering its tactics is tough. I found myself wanting to play the game with others to compare strategies. However, Friday is a game that’s only meant to be played by one person, and the experience gets lonely. Perhaps that’s part of the point. It turns out that while I’m happy to spend hours playing video games by myself, I can’t quite break away from viewing board gaming as a group activity.