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Game Mechanics: Creating a Great Solo Gaming Experience

Last week we talked about game mechanics frequently used in co-op games and how to design a great one. Many cooperative games often allow for solo play. Sometimes competitive games also include a solo variant. But there are also plenty of games that are meant strictly for one player. Solo games are a growing market, so it is important to understand how to use the right game mechanics to create a great solo gaming experience.

I also want to emphasize here that a solo variant shouldn’t be an afterthought. Far too many times we’ve seen a game launch on Kickstarter and partway through the campaign a solo mode is introduced, either as a new addition or a stretch goal to be unlocked.

If you want your game to be playable by one person, you need to ensure that it plays well solo and has been well-tested. Too many backers have been burned by a poor solo variant that was just tacked onto a game to extend the player range and appeal to solo gamers. Backers are now very wise to this and will question whether your game truly provides a great solo gaming experience.

Whether it’s because you live with others who don’t share your love for games, you’ve moved somewhere new and don’t have a gaming community, or you just love being able to take your time and work your way through a solo game, if you play solo games, you are part of a growing market and a smart designer will be thinking of you when creating their game.

This isn’t to say that every game can be played solo (game mechanics such as social deduction and negotiation, in particular, require more players and would fall likely flat as a solo experience), but designers should at least be thinking about this.

I’ve designed a couple of strictly solo games, including my Kickstarter success, Relics of Rajavihara, and I often try to find ways to implement a solo mode in many of my other games. So, I wanted to share my experience to help you design a great solo gaming experience.

First, What Solo Gamers Don’t Want From a Solo Gaming Experience

Over the last year or two, I’ve become involved in a number of solo gaming Facebook groups. I was surprised to see how large some of these groups are as well as the fact that there are multiple groups strictly for solo gamers. One of these groups has over 20,000 members!

One thing I’ve learned from other solo gamers is that most prefer objectives to simply scoring.

They would rather get to the end of the game and have succeeded or failed at completing their mission, scenario, or goals, rather than play “beat your high score.”

So, try to look at ways to create an objective or even a scoring threshold that players must surpass in order to win.

Some examples of solo games with solid objectives are:

  • Friday (survive all obstacles and beat two sets of pirates)
  • Unbroken (defeat all four boss monsters)
  • Sprawlopolis (beat the combined score on your goal cards)
Game Mechanics: Creating a Great Solo Gaming Experience 1
Friday (image: Shut Up and Sit Down)

Another thing that most solo gamers want to avoid is playing multiple roles.

Sure, you can play a game like Pandemic or Forbidden Island by playing as multiple players. However, this can add a lot of cognitive load, as you have to keep track of who’s turn it is, what powers each player has, and figure out the best move for multiple players rather than focusing on just one, which is a lot more reasonable.

Players also don’t want to have a lot of upkeep. This goes for solo gamers as well as most players, but keep in mind that if you have an automa (an AI opponent playing against you), you want their actions and scoring to be quick and straightforward.

Many Stonemaier games, including Scythe and Wingspan, have implemented elegant automas.

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Wingspan (image: Moregamesplease.com)

Also, make sure your game isn’t too easy. Solo gamers are looking for a challenge!

What Solo Gamers WANT From a Solo Gaming Experience

Now that we’ve covered what solo gamers don’t want from a solo gaming experience, let’s look at what they actually do want.

One of the reasons that players appreciate the solo gaming experience is that they can take their time. They don’t feel rushed by other players to take their turns quickly, so they can linger over their decisions more.

This means that many solo games are quite challenging. You often won’t win the first time you play (or sometimes even the first five times you play!).   

Instead of playing against another opponent, you are playing against the game, much like in a co-op gaming experience (however, you could instead be playing against an automa, as mentioned).

While there are some solo games or games with solo modes that are real-time and fast-paced like Fuse and Magic Maze, these are an exception to the rule (I’m actually working on a real-time co-op game that can be played solo at the moment). Most tend to provide a slower-paced experience. Many even allow you to walk away and come back to them at another time quite easily.

Puzzle-solving is a great game mechanic to implement in solo games to achieve this.

Now, puzzles can come in many different forms. Everything from figuring out the best combination or order of actions in a game, as you may see in Wingspan or Palm Island, where to best place your cards, such as in Sprawlopolis or Crystallo, or how to best manage your resources in a game like Friday or Unbroken.

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Crystallo (image: Oxeyemedia.com)

One of my favourite solo games is Maquis. It’s a solo worker placement game, where you play as part of the French resistance during the Nazi occupation of France and must collect resources to accomplish 2 goals before you get to day 15. It’s not a war game, rather it’s a game about strategy and resource management.

Game Mechanics: Creating a Great Solo Gaming Experience 4
Maquis (image: Boardgamegeek.com)

There’s also a strong element of push your luck, as patrols are making their rounds on the street and you must leave an unobstructed path to be able to get your workers back to the safe house or lose whatever you’ve collected that round (along with having workers arrested and removed from the game).

Maquis itself provides a puzzle that you have to solve, but it is one that changes with every game.

I went so far as to create a puzzle that players have to solve to advance to the next level throughout the game when I designed Relics of Rajavihara. It’s much like an NES-style puzzle game like Adventures of Lolo, Fire n Ice, or some aspects of Legend of Zelda, brought to life as a tabletop experience.

Game Mechanics: Creating a Great Solo Gaming Experience 5
Relics of Rajavihara

To increase replayability, I made sure that once a player beats all 50 levels of the campaign, they can return to some of the previous levels with all new combinations of challenges that will be different every time you play.

So, you can see that creating challenging objectives, puzzles for players to solve, and keeping plenty of variation in a game can create a great solo gaming experience.

Do you ever play solo board games? What is one of your favourites and why?

Please leave a comment and let me know.

Next week, we’ll be talking about the game mechanics behind a great party game. Until then…

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    The unlocked games or escape room games can be fun solo experience. The Formula and Squeek & Sausage can be played Solo. The box we got has three scenarios in it. The last one The Island of Doctor Soorse is a 2 player. The replay is not high on escape room games. So far this series doesn’t destroy components to solve the puzzles like some of the really enjoyable Exsit games, so you could pass it to a friend or play again in a year or more.

    Many of these escape room games are phone app assisted. I felt this would not be good as I want a board/card game experience and not a video game experience. I was totally wrong, it really doesn’t feel like a video game, and helps the fun experience.

    Thinking more about solo and 1-x in our upcoming game designs as well. Looking forward to getting Relics of Rajavihara.

    Thanks for these great articles Joe.

    Hey, Bill! The escape room in a box games are an interesting concept. I think a lot of the fun of doing escape rooms is having a good time working together with your friends to figure things out and solve the puzzles. Solo could be fun as well, but everything is riding on just one brain!

    Thanks for the great comment as always!

    I enjoy Lone Wolf and Cub game from Mayfair Games. It has a beautiful story, solo Campaign and has an option for 2 players.

    Other than the game I have mentioned about, that’s the only big box company game I have. I to have plenty of solo games I have designed in my collection that have different game mechanics for each solo game, though I am not a published game designer yet.

    Thanks, Jesse. I haven’t played that one but it sounds interesting!

    You may not be published yet, but I know how much work you put into game design, so I know it is only a matter of time before you are.

    Hi Joe,

    I had a grand time playing the “Official” solo variant of Terraforming Mars, as well as some fan-made solo variants posted on BoardGameGeek. I got to the point where I made my own, goofy flavors and spent many hours pulling cards, spending resources and getting those Oxygen levels up.
    The reason it’s one of my favorites is that there are so many cards and combinations of Corporations. No two games are alike and the theme is open-ended enough that my own variants are more like “Civilization: Brave New World” meets “Sim City.”

    Can you elaborate on “upkeep?” Does that mean having lots of moving parts? If you’re familiar with TFM, would the solo variant be considered a game with a lot of upkeep?

    Cheers,

    Mitch

    Thanks for your comment, Mitchell.

    In terms of “upkeep” (or “housekeeping” would be another turn), we’re talking about all the little things you need to do that are not necessarily part of your actions. For example, if after your turn you had to replenish all the coins, take one cube from each player, advance 5 different trackers, and draw 2 more cards between every one of your turns, you’d say that game has a lot of upkeep. Similarly, if you are playing a solo game and you play against an automa or AI, if you have to roll a die, move the AI that many spaces, take the action on that space, clear and reset the market cards, advance 3 trackers, etc., you can see this is a lot of upkeep (and clearly not the fun part of the game!).

    It’s usually a better experience when you’re not taken completely out of the flow of the game.

    I’ve actually never played Terraforming Mars (I know, shameful!) but I am familiar with it. So, I don’t know how much upkeep there is in this game, particularly for the solo version.

    Hi Joe,

    Well, there is a ton of upkeep! Strangely enough, it’s not a grind to me. But I understand how it might be for others. Thanks for explaining!

    Cheers,

    Mitch

    I am working on a solo/coop game myself called Escape from Stalingrad Z. I appreciate the good advice you have given above and I hit most of the points. One thing very different from above is that in EFSZ you are in fact controlling a squad of soldiers instead of just one character. I will have to see how that pans out. Also, what I really like about solo games is the story. I really like it when the missions/objectives have a rich background story and each new mission also advances the plot of the story. What do you think about the story elements of a solo game?

    Thanks for the comment, Marco!

    Yes, story definitely can be an important part of a game, depending on the player. Many solo gamers do enjoy a good theme and story, whether it is a campaign game or otherwise.

    Good point!

    I think a problem with some ‘best your top score’ solo games is it encourages ‘too risky’ strategies rather than ‘good’ strategies.
    For example, in the standard terraforming Mars solo you have to terraform in 14 generations. That’s usually not too difficult but if you are also looking at getting a top score as well, you may play lots of moves to increase your score and not focus on terraforming. Then if you’re lucky you’ll complete terraforming at the last possible moment and also have a really big score, but you’ve risked losing the game and got lucky that the cards dealt went your way. Over many many plays you’re eventually going to get fantastic cards and get a really high score but haven’t actually played particularly skilfully, just got lucky on that go!
    I don’t know maquis at all, but if there’s a push your luck element is that a problem for this game too? Perhaps not if there’s no points element!

    That’s a good point, Andrew!

    I can definitely see players throwing caution to the wind in order to rack up points in hopes of pulling something big off at the end. Many of these games can be very swingy as well. For example, in Cartographers, you could have difficulty even 20 points with a difficult combination of goal cards, but if they line up well together and are drawn in the right order, a very high score of 40 points or more may be easily achievable.

    In Maquis, it is a win-or-lose proposition. If you don’t accomplish both of your goals before the time tracker ends, it’s game over. You can certainly take some big risks though. If they work out, you can get ahead nicely, but if not, your chances of winning can decrease substantially.