Monday 17 March 2014

The Top Ten Solitaire Boardgames You might not know You own

According to the BoardGameGeek website, here are the top ten games that can be played solo:

1. Agricola
To play a solo version of Agricola you start with zero food and the left-hand spaces on the left game board remain empty. Adult family members must be fed 3 Food each at Harvest time and the “3 Wood” Action space only supplies 2 Wood in any round. 

To make the solo game “competitive” you start adding permanent Occupation cards each time you play a series of games. So when you reach the eighth game of the series you will have 7 permanent cards. In the first game, your goal is 50 points, then 55, 59, 62, 64, 65, 66 and 67 points.

2. Mage Knight Board Game
There is a Solo Conquest Scenario near the back of the book. It is suitable for a player who wants to understand the game, but it is also perfect for a solitaire game. It uses one standard Dummy player. When taking tactics, you always choose first. The Dummy player then takes one random card from those remaining. If you succeed in defeating all the cities, you win the game. If you fail, you can still count your score to see how good you were. It is possible to play other missions solo by using similar set up modifications.

3. Le Havre
Le Havre plays as a solo game with no real special rules. The objective is get a higher score each time you play. Skilled players can score 400 points in a game if the buildings come out right.

4. Robinson Crusoe: Adventure on the Cursed Island
Robinson Crusoe is the latest hotness for solo play. In a solo game you play either the Carpenter, the Cook or the Explorer. You take Friday and the Dog. When you build Shelter, Roof or Palisade you have to pay the same cost as a 2-player game. You are always the first player. At the beginning of the Morale phase, increase Morale level by 1--because you’re happy to stay alive.  

5. Caverna: The Cave Farmers
The latest game from Uwe Rosenberg, the creator of Agricola. It is a worker placement game focus on farming--in caves. The solo game is played according to the rules for 2 to 7 players with the following exceptions: In the Work phase, place one Dwarf after another. The goal of the solo game is to get the highest score you can. (Try to beat the “magical score” of 100 points.) You start the game with 2 Food. Use the game boards for the 2-player game and cover some of the Action spaces with some specified Overview cards.

There are no Harvest events in the solo game. Rubies will accumulate on the “Ruby mining” Action space from round 1 on. Before refilling the accumulating spaces, check if there are any spaces with more than 6 goods. Remove all the goods from all of the spaces where this is the case and return them to the general supply. For each Ruby you spend, you can prevent this from happening for one of these spaces. The goods on the accumulating spaces that you paid a Ruby for will be safe for another round.

6. Ora et Labora
Yet another creation of Uwe Rosenberg's. This time around you are the head of a monastery in Medieval Europe who acquires land and constructs buildings. The goal is to build a working infrastructure and manufacture prestigious items – such as books, ceramics, ornaments, and relics – to gain the most victory points at the end of the game.

In the solo version you use the one to two player game board and use the front side of the production wheel. Remove grapes and stone indicators from the game. Turn the district and plot piles upside down. At the start of the game you start with nothing, otherwise you follow the rules of the two player game. You also play with a neutral player who gets a heartland. When you want to use a neutral building, you pay 1 coin to the general supply. The game ends after the last settlement phase. The goal of the solo game is to reach 500 points.   

7. Pathfinder Adventure Card Game: Rise of the Runelords - Base Set
Another popular game for solo play. You must choose your character wisely since some characters only good when there are other characters around. Merisiel the Rogue is great for solo play because she gains bonuses when no one is at her location. 

You can also play multiple characters if you like, treating each characters as if they were played by a separate player. But if your character cannot get out of the Treacherous Cave, your game will grind to a halt. It is recommended to remove such a card and replace it with another card of roughly the same type.

8. Nations
Nations came out in 2013 and is an intense historical board game for 1-5 players that takes 40 minutes per player to play. Players control the fate of nations from their humble start in prehistoric times until the beginning of World War I. The nations constantly compete against each other and must balance immediate needs, long-term growth, threats, and opportunities. 

In the solo game you play against a shadow opponent represented by Event tiles and a die. You strive to maximize your victory points at the end of the game. Instead of drawing a normal Event Card you will draw a random Event tile from the current age. It shows what values the shadow opponent has for this round, and possible changes. 

The game is played normally and all comparisons are done with the current value of the shadow opponent. If the shadow opponent has no value you win any ties in that category (always passed first, always most Workers etc). You lose the game if you have negative VP. You start as player 1, with 1 Book. The shadow opponent starts with 2 Books. On the Progress Board, use 4 Progress Card columns. NOTE: Total VP in a solo game is not comparable to a multiplayer game.

9. Suburbia
In Suburbia you plan, build, and develop a small town into a major metropolis. Your goal is to have your borough thrive and end up with a greater population than any of your opponents. 

In solo game 1 you are the Lone Architect: Gameplay is just like the 2 player game, but you’ll only need one Borough Board. Use the 2-player tile stacks setup, but don’t place or distribute any goals. Moving past a Red Line results in a -2 to Income and -2 to Reputation. After your turn is over, you must remove an additional tile, using the same rules as if you had placed an Investment Marker or a basic tile. 

There is also solo game 2 where you are playing against Dale, the bot, who has no emotions; he’ll always play with you, because he has no other friends!

10. Space Alert
Space Alert is a Vlaada Chv├ítil cooperative team survival game. Players become crew members of a small spaceship scanning dangerous sectors of galaxy. The missions last just 10 real-time minutes (hyperspace jump, sector scan, hyperspace jump back) and the only task the players have is to protect their ship. 

In a solo game play with 4 androids (ignore unconfirmed reports). Deal each android a face-down heroic action for the first phase. Spread the entire action card deck face up in front of you. Start the soundtrack, and reveal the heroic actions. Begin planning first phase actions. Each android can use any action card, but only its own heroic action. Unlike androids in multi-player game, it is allowed to change planned cards until the soundtrack announces end of the respective phase. Ignore announcements like Data Transfer, Incoming Data, and Communication System Down.

How many of these games do you own? Have you ever played them solitaire? If not--then try it out!

Friday 14 March 2014

Solitaire Game Mechanisms - Simulating AI in Solitaire Games

Typically when you are playing a multiplayer you are playing against the other player or players. It's the other players who are making those dynamic, real time, unpredictable (or very predictable) moves that can either screw you over or give you the game. When you play a video game the computer controls the enemies or obstacles you are trying to overcome, and we call this Artificial Intelligence, or AI for short. In a solitaire boardgame there are no present human opponents, nor is there a computer there to toss hordes of troops at you. Instead it's just you and the game components set up on your kitchen table. But there still an opponent, still a form of AI to thwart you--the game designer. In essence the game’s designer is your opponent, and they have spent many days, weeks and even months preparing to do battle with you.

The designer’s challenge is to create all the decisions the enemy--or virus--will make to oppose you, and then box it up and ship it to you. A designer is like an old time clockmaker who builds a watch, winds it, then walks away and hopes it keeps on running without him.

So what are some of the mechanisms that a designer can use when designing a game to be his advocate or avatar in the game?

Purely Card Driven games

These are games that use one or more decks to drive the action of the game without relying on dice or other similar mechanisms. Decks are shuffled so cards come out randomly, so theoretically no two games are identical.
  • Generally the player has her own deck of cards which she might gradually grow--or the cards increase in power--through the course of the game. The player might start with no cards and must buy them/gain them. As the player gains in power, then they add better and better cards to their deck. They also might start off with a full deck that gradually gets less useful: They lose good cards and/or gain bad cards.
  • Then there might be another deck of cards representing the enemy/obstacle the player must overcome. Sometimes this deck is layered with progressively more challenging cards: Level 1 at the top, then Level 2 and Level 3, etc. These cards represent the obstacles the player must overcome using their deck of cards
  • There could be a third deck representing events, where one card is drawn every turn and it represents some change in the scenario, such as all fire weapon cards now do double-damage, or no virus mutation this round.
  • There could be other decks representing terrain types, treasure, victory points, etc. These cards could be shuffled and therefore come out randomly, or they could be laid out for the player to pick and choose from, depending on they can afford.   

Each card can have some combination of iconography, colors, numbers and/or text that determines what effects that card will have on play. There will of course be rules to supplement what is on the cards. “If you draw a pirate captain card, then draw 2 more pirate cards from the deck.”

So the challenge the game designer had to meet was to create a combination of different cards that:
  • Create a different play experience every time
  • Allows the player to come up with strategies/tactics to determine which card or cards to use from their deck to overcome the obstacles created by the opposing deck or decks.
  • Create a way to ramp up the difficulty as the game progresses. This could be done in many ways:
    • Progressively harder opposing cards come up
    • More obstacle cards stay active
    • The player runs out of cards to play from their own deck
  • Initially the player should lose more times then they win in order for them to keep coming back to the game
  • Reward players for coming up with better strategies/tactics as they become more familiar with the game through repeated plays   

Friedemann Friese’s top ranking game Friday only uses cards and wooden life tokens.
Fields of Fire also uses multiple decks of cards with no dice.

Dice Driven Games

These are games where dice are the primary source for randomness in the game. The player generally rolls dice for their actions.
  • Determining the success or failure for a given task, such as an attack or withstanding the freezing temperatures on the side of a mountain.
  • Determining what tasks the player can perform this turn: If they roll a 5 and 3 on a pair of D6s, they can choose to either search a room or activate an artifact.
  • If a player performs a successful search, the a die roll could determine what they find at the bottom of that musty old chest.
  • The player may also find herself having to roll for the enemy or obstacle: There are high winds on Everest now, or the German tanks do get to fire back, don’t you know?

So now the game designer has a greater challenge than the purely card driven game IMHO. In a card game, each card has an equal chance of being drawn as any other card. The designer can control the frequency of identical cards quite easily: The Monster deck as 5 Troll cards but only 1 Giant. With dice the designer works with the odds of probability, but let's face it--some people just suck at rolling dice!

Let's take the Monster Deck example: If the player has to roll two D6 to determine the monster, then you could say if you roll a 6 then it's a Troll you’re gonna fight, but if you roll a 4 then you find yourself having to face the Giant. Here luck can really screw you around because we have all played games of Settlers of Catan when nobody could roll a 6 to save their life.

But if the game involves a character who gets to add pluses to their die roll as they progress in levels, then generally bad luck can be mitigated.

Field Commander: Alexander is a dice-driven game with no cards, though it does use cardboard counters. The designer is also not just limited to combinations of  D6s. Where There Is Discord: War in the South Atlantic is a real dice fest with twenty D4s, D6s, D8s, D10s and D12s to determine the outcome of a game.


Some games use counters or tokens as the random factor. They can be pulled randomly from a face down pile or a number of them can be pulled out of a bag. Counters are essentially cards in miniature form as they serve the same purpose in creating randomness. The main difference is that tokens are more versatile so they can be stacked on a map or placed in slots on a player board to determine enemy units, ammo, special powers, etc.

Another big difference is that tokens can easily be thrown back into a bag to be possibly drawn again next turn. It would drive a player crazy if they had to reshuffle a deck at the end of every turn--No, no, in Dominion you are shuffling at least every couple of turns!

Use a Combination of Cards, Dice and Counters

Most games will use a combination of these mechanisms in order to create randomness for the player. My game Infection: Humanity’s Last Gasp has two decks of cards, a die used to determine success or failure, and multiple tokens that are drawn randomly to create the obstacles and resources for the player.

So how does the designer know if they have created a good AI for their game? By play testing the living crap out of it. Play testing just by themselves isn't enough, they need to get into the hands of people who are unfamiliar with the game and are going to play it based solely on reading the rules. Infection was played by over a dozen play testers over the course of several months. It was through their efforts that I was able to change a so-so game into one with a none-too-shabby average rating of over 7.5 on BoardGameGeek. Tweak after tweak of the cards and rules I was able to create an AI that a beginning player could still beat, but add another level of difficulty that would make experienced players feel challenged.

Reactions of the Game based upon the Player's Decisions or other Events

AI should not be equated with just randomness in a gem. AI can also be a decision path/tree where if A happens in the game, then the rules say that B happens.

For example, if I move my combat unit into a hex that borders an enemy unit, then the rules state that the enemy unit attacks your unit on its turn. This has nothing to do with randomness. This is the decision the game designer has made in advance, thinking this would be the best general move to make in the absence of other information.

Of course this could be granulated: If
            A) You move your unit adjacent to an enemy unit, and
            B) the enemy unit has a higher attack number than your unit, and
            C) you have no other adjacent units for support,
then the enemy unit attacks you on its turn.

The decision path/tree can also react to other influences in the game, not just to what the player does. If it is a pirate/sea faring game, the rules might state if there is a class 3 storm, then all enemy ships must head to the nearest friendly or neutral port. Again this may be a decision your opponent--the designer--made 2 years before you bought the game.

So what are your thoughts solitaire game mechanisms that represent the AI of the game? Do I miss anything? Did I mess something up? Fire away!  

Thursday 13 March 2014

Why do some people play solitaire board games?

1. The simplest answer is: More gaming choices. Why just play multiplayer games?
There is a wealth of games out there for solo play, of all sorts of themes and complexity, including free print-and-play games.

2. Some gamers do not have a regular gaming group they can play with
They might live in a small town where it is hard to form a game group, or they may have a busy home life and cannot attend a weekly game night. For some their only gaming partner is their spouse or their children, and they don’t always want to play when you want to play.

3. Then there are gamers who work with people all day, so they find playing solo is more relaxing.
Some players just need some alone time, and introverts can be more themselves playing solo games. Playing a solitaire game means not having to teach the rules to others, and there is no needless distraction of arguments about rules, cell phone breaks, pack up time, etc.

4. Solitaire games tend to have more of a puzzle aspect and there are gamers who really enjoy tackling these puzzles.
They see it as an enjoyable intellectual exercise. They like seeing the way a designer recreates an opponent in AI, like the deck of cards in D-day at Omaha Beach.

5. When you are playing a solo game you can go at your own pace.
You can stop and read the rules. Take your time to think about your strategy. You can get AP without pressure from other people to hurry up--for 3 days. Some players like having a reset button. (Oops, screwed that up. Let's just start the whole game over.) Try doing that during your next multi-player game.

6. Another big plus for Solitaire games is that you can play games that your friends don’t enjoy.
They could be war games or history games. Some players just aren’t interested in recreating actual battles from the Napoleonic Wars. They could have long play times or more complicated rules and mechanics. Solitaire gaming allows a gamer to get more plays out of the games in their collection. They can buy a game they will be able to play instead of waiting for group to play it. They just can’t justify playing $50 - $60 for a game that only gets played twice a year

7. So what about video games? Why wouldn’t you play Assassin's Creed 4 instead of setting up a game by yourself on the kitchen table? Or how about watching TV or reading a book?
Well, if you are like me then your job is spent all day in front of a computer, so some people don’t want to spend their leisure time in front of screen. Also you don’t need to learn tons of button combos or have fast reflexes to play a board game. Watching a movie is a passive activity, and books do not allow interaction with the medium--you can never change War and Peace. Solo gamers like the tactile feel of board games: They like pushing counters, flipping cards and tossing dice. They can exercise their minds more playing solo games.

8. Some players like to play multiplayer games solo so they can better learn the rules and strategies.
Gamers can dissect the strategy aspects of a game and then play each character to test each facet of it. They can learn to play a new game before they have to teach it. One player said he likes to improve his multiplayer game scores.

9. There are many solitaire games that are story driven and feel more immersive.

When a gamer plays a solitaire board game, they get more of a sense of the story of the game. Many solitaire games are character driven, and you can become that character. There is an improved immersion because there is no one else to break the atmosphere the game--and you--create. You can talk to yourself, your characters, and tell the story as you play. One player mentioned they write up stories based upon their gaming sessions, and by playing solo they get even more story out of each session.