My fellow solo gamer, Giles Pound, recently invited me to write a guest post for his blog, Both Sides of My Table. I chose to write about some of my early experiences traveling alone, and how they ultimately contributed to my current love of solo gaming. You can check out the post here.
Also, here's a photo from my first solo trip abroad. I went to Berlin, Germany in 2007 and it changed my life for the better! Here, I am posing with a bust of Heinrich Schliemann, a methodologically questionable archaeologist who discovered what we now believe to be the site of Troy.
Ah, to be that young again...
Yesterday, I tweeted a link to Amazon UK's bestselling board games, and I got curious. My own corner of the internet is full of people who have board game collections that look a lot like mine. Many of us have general agreements about what "good games" are, or what it means to have good taste in board games.
But if you aren't fully immersed in our hobby, the world will look different to you. VERY different. To get a sense of what "board gaming" means to the overwhelming majority of people, I created a table that juxtaposes the BGG top 25 with Amazon's top 25 best selling board games (as of today, 12/22/17).
Here are some decidedly unscientific conclusions that I will shamelessly draw anyway:
1. Ticket to Ride and Catan really ARE "new classics."
These games were my own "gateway games" back in the day, and it's clear that they have really broken through to the wider gaming public. Ticket to Ride is Amazon's #6, and Catan is #8. I find that very encouraging. How many more people can we bring into our already-booming hobby, if these two games are doing so well? I was also very excited to see Codenames come in as Amazon's #15.
2. Board games are still mostly being purchased for kids.
Many of the games on this list are skewed towards a younger audience either thematically or in terms of complexity. Most adults are not going to buy Yeti in my Spaghetti to play with other adults. Other entries like Candy Land, the Trolls game, and the Googly Eyes Drawing Game are strong indicators that most consumers are turning to board games as a way to entertain children. I would be very interested to see sales statistics based on age. What games are adults buying for themselves?
3. Old classics die hard.
Connect 4, Clue, Monopoly, Candy Land, Chutes and Ladders, Yahtzee... there are some familiar names on this list, and that trend continues past the 25 spot. There are several editions of Monopoly further down the list, as well as more than one iteration of The Game of Life. As much as hobbyist board gamers pooh-pooh these classics, they have such a strong place in our overall culture that they won't be going anywhere soon—especially if a lot of board games are being bought for kids. These board games are among the ones that parents buy. A new generation of children is at this very moment being groomed to start their own children off with old school games like Yahtzee and Monopoly.
4. Hobbyist board gamers are VERY different from the mainstream.
You might have noticed that there is very little overlap between BGG's Top 25 games and Amazon's top 25 bestselling board games. The only crossover game is Codenames. Further down the list there are a couple more overlaps. Ticket to Ride: Europe is #84 on BGG. The Dominion base game is in the 80s on Amazon, while Intrigue is #53 on BGG.
I see articles every year about alternative (i.e. "better") games to play with your family. In fact, I wrote my own holiday guide for 2017. But the fact is, the world of gaming looks very different to different groups of people. There are, however, a few points of contact. That's great news for the growth of our hobby.
What, if anything, should we do with this information?
I won't mince words—I want to see our hobby grow. I think everybody should play board games, and that there are games out there for everyone. I don't see Amazon's top sellers as a reason to bemoan the tastelessness of the hoi polloi or whatever. Instead, I think this list can give us perspective as ambassadors for board games. When we talk about games to newer players who want to know what else is out there, what connections can we make? What messages are we sending? Are we making choices that will include new people and help our community grow, or are we turning interested people away because we aren't able to connect with where they are coming from?
The best thing about the board gaming community is its ability to welcome anyone, to help anyone connect with other people. Knowing how other people might see the world of board games can only help with that.
On a recent episode of one of my favorite podcasts, Every Night is Game Night, Jason Perez got some interesting comments on solo gaming from the Dice Tower guys. Tom, Sam, and Zee.
Although Zee has always been friendly to solo gaming, both Tom and Sam have historically been more reluctant to embrace this facet of the hobby. Tom has softened his position considerably since discovering his love of playing Gloomhaven...gasp...SOLO! And while Sam has not developed a personal interest in solo gaming, he certainly supports it as part of the hobby—I would know, since I do a solo segment for one of his YouTube shows, Throat Punch Lunch.
Why, might you ask, is this a big deal? It's a big deal because publishers have not always catered to solo players. Perhaps we haven't seemed like a great investment. Why spend all of that extra development money on a niche within a niche? As a solo player, I believe the more publicity we can get for our part of the hobby, the better.
That said, now is a wonderful time to be a solo gamer, and it all seems to be going uphill from here. Kickstarter is a haven for board games with solo options, and I've picked up several traditionally published games this year that are either solo or cooperative (and thus playable solo). More public support and enjoyment of solo gaming may lead to even further great options down the line.
I would also like to point out that Board Game Geek's current Top 100 contains a surprising number of solo or solo-playable games. Whether having a solo option boosts ratings, I cannot say. But the main conclusion I want to draw from this information is, if you are even remotely solo-curious, odds are you already have a high-quality game on your shelf—a game you love—that you can try by yourself.
And if you try one and have a good time with it... mosey on over to the 1 Player Guild on BGG to discover a whole new world of gaming possibilities.
Here is a list of 37 solo-playable board games that are in the BGG Top 100, as of 12/3/2017. I did not include unofficial solo variants, but if I had, we'd have a much longer list:
Pandemic Legacy (Rank: 1)
Can't find a reliable game group? Who cares? You can save the world single-handedly! Well, okay, you can save it by controlling multiple characters. Also, if you are an unrepentant alpha player, this option may be very satisfying for you.
Gloomhaven (Rank: 2)
This game is long, involved, and absorbing. And again, if you don't have a game group to go with you through every adventure, that is totally fine. Gloomhaven can be played solo as long as you're okay with controlling two characters (more if you feel daring). In fact, Tom Vasel has said that solo is his favorite way to play this game.
Terraforming Mars (Rank: 5)
This game was a huge hit among solo gamers. Not only is it playable solo, but playing alone is an intensely satisfying experience. If you've already enjoyed this one with your friends, you might well enjoy it next time you have a free evening to yourself.
Scythe (Rank: 8)
Scythe comes with a dedicated Automa deck that allows you to compete against another "player." It is also possible to get more than one Automa deck and go up against two AI players for an even more challenging game.
Caverna (Rank: 12)
Uwe Rosenberg games almost always have great solo options. Maximize your victory points by maximizing your productivity during the game. If you enjoy testing out different strategies and solving complex puzzles, you're going to have a great time.
Agricola (Rank: 15)
Another great Uwe Rosenberg game. Not only can you experiment with different occupations and improvements to maximize your score, but you can play Agricola on your iPad because it has a pretty nice app. I get addicted to this one on and off.
Mage Knight (Rank: 16)
Still the best solo game ever. (Even if they vote it out in the Top 100 list over at the 1 Player Guild this year!) Brain burning, adventurous, intense... solo gaming wouldn't be what it is without Mage Knight. I will warn you though, if you don't already have and like this one (or its reskin, Star Trek: Frontiers), the learning curve is steep.
Arkham Horror LCG (Rank: 18)
This relatively new offering from Fantasy Flight games is a cooperative game for two players, or for up to four if you get a second core set. But its solo rules are wonderful, and the game might even be better when you play it by yourself. You can go pure solo and play as only one character, or you can build two decks and play two-handed. Either way, you'll have quite an adventure.
Mansions of Madness 2nd. Ed. (Rank: 20)
This is a cooperative game with good app support. You can definitely enjoy the adventure and story even if there's no one else around to join you. (It might even be more fun that way.)
Mechs vs. Minions (Rank: 21)
Technically a cooperative game, but there is nothing to stop you from enjoying this one solo.
Imperial Assault (Rank: 22)
Very recently made solo-able thanks to an app! You can now be on the cutting edge of solo gaming, if you so choose.
Orléans (Rank: 24)
The Invasion expansion offers several solo variants, all of which are fun. If you also want to try the intense, cooperative "Invasion" scenario, there's nothing to stop you.
Viticulture Essential Edition (Rank: 25)
The Tuscany expansion and Essential Edition both come with Automa decks, meaning you can compete to your heart's content against an AI player who still somehow knows how to frustrate you.
Robinson Crusoe (Rank: 29)
A solo gaming classic. There are specific rules for a solo player, or you can play multiple characters using the co-op rules. Experiment, die a lot, and have a great time.
Le Havre (Rank: 32)
Another Uwe Rosenberg game, another puzzle in which you maximize your resources. If you're into Rosenberg games, you'll have fun.
A Feast for Odin (Rank: 33)
Is this the most extravagant Uwe Rosenberg game yet? Imagine any of his other games, but on steroids. A solo player will spend forever just exploring all of the point-generating options in this game.
The 7th Continent (Rank: 40)
This is a choose-your-own-adventure book turned into a board game. You can play it with others, but you can also hog the story for yourself and make it entirely your own. (I plan to.)
Eldritch Horror (Rank: 43)
Choose two or more investigators and enjoy the ride! This is one of those cooperative games that works perfectly well as a solo experience.
Race for the Galaxy (Rank: 44)
If you pick up the Gathering Storm expansion, you will find an excellent and challenging bot to play against. I love this game, and I appreciate the extra development time that made it possible to play solo.
Kingdom Death: Monster (Rank: 49)
I haven't played KD:M, but from what I understand, the frustration of inevitable and constant death, the bookkeeping, and the general complexity of this game might mean that it's better when played alone. Also, you will find yourself deeply absorbed in the story the game generates whether or not others have joined you.
Dead of Winter (Rank: 53)
This is a cooperative game when played without the traitor mechanic, and it's still not always easy to survive all those zombies. If you've already enjoyed it with friends, give it a whirl on your own.
Fields of Arle (Rank: 54)
It's an Uwe Rosenberg game for 1–2 players. If you already know you like his stuff, knock yourself out!
Clank! (Rank: 56)
Playable solo with the app.
Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective (Rank: 58)
Probably better solo. Technically this game is billed as cooperative, but since it's a game that is heavy on reading and thinking, it's more enjoyable if you are solving the mysteries by yourself.
Pandemic (Rank: 65)
Pick your favorite characters with your favorite skills and save the world!
Descent (Rank: 68)
Descent has both an app and a few cooperative scenario expansions. You don't have to wait for other people to be in the mood for a good dungeon crawl.
The Gallerist (Rank: 69)
Battle it out against a bot player named Lacerda—after the game's designer!
Castles of Mad King Ludwig (Rank: 71)
This game comes with a simple solo variant, enabling you to still have the satisfaction of honing your skills and creating something beautiful even if no one else is there to see it.
Legendary Encounters: An Alien Deckbuilding Game (Rank: 79)
When played alone, this game is a brutal and deeply engaging experience. Also, Aliens. The only real issue is that you lose the power of cards with coordination abilities unless you play multiple hands.
Ora et Labora (Rank: 80)
More Uwe Rosenberg. If it's up your alley, you'll love it.
Star Realms (Rank: 81)
The Gambit (NOT Cosmic Gambit) expansion has two solo/co-op scenarios. These scenarios are a lot of fun, and I can't wait to have more of them to choose from. (More will be coming with the release of Star Realms: Frontiers.)
Suburbia (Rank: 82)
Enjoy Suburbia? Don't wait for your friends to agree to bring it back to the table—there's a solo variant.
Nations (Rank: 83)
The game comes with rules for a dummy player to pit yourself against.
Lord of the Rings LCG (Rank: 95)
Still one of the best solo experiences out there. Play pure solo or two-handed, but either way you're in for a great challenge. This game also scratches my deck construction itch, since I can't afford to keep up with Magic: The Gathering.
La Granja (Rank: 97)
If you like euro-style farming games, this is another good option. Solo play is smooth and gives you plenty of ways to explore the cards.
Anachrony (Rank: 99)
This game has a very well-thought-out AI system to play against. It'll take you beyond "score the most victory points" and into more challenging territory.
Age of Steam (Rank: 100)
I actually never hear anything about this one, but BGG lists it as a 1–6 player game. I'll have to look into it!
Recently I have seen a larger-than-usual number of tweets and blog posts about ethics in board game reviews. (And it's not like this topic doesn't come up all the time anyway.) Meeple Like Us published a particularly good post on the ethical problems with paid reviews in October, and that post also links to a Thoughtful Gamer podcast that I thought covered the topic very well.
I have started to think about ethics a lot as I begin to publish more board game reviews on this site and to add videos to my YouTube channel. I do this as a hobby, and for now I review games that I have either bought or borrowed. But if I could do it full time, I would—and that would mean somehow getting paid for the work.
I already know that all I will ever accept from a publisher is a free review copy. Once actual money has changed hands, everything is different, no matter how objective you think you are. There will always be that urge to be polite, to pull punches, especially if you want to get paid again down the line.
I am also not sold on the concept of paid Kickstarter previews. Even if you clearly label what you're doing, the line between "preview" and "review" is very thin. You are being paid to create marketing materials that may not look all that different from your normal board game videos. Plus, you have less control of your content if it's commissioned by someone else. I frequently see paid Kickstarter previews (according to the videos themselves) listed as "reviews" on campaign pages. That honestly makes my skin crawl.
Of course, I may never be in a position to make tough choices. My blog is small. And as many of us have noticed and discussed lately, board game coverage is overwhelmingly positive. While I would consider the written reviews I have published so far on this site to be pretty positive, I have also given most games three stars (out of a possible five).
Granted, I use the Goodreads rating scale—a 3/5 means "I like it." That's good, right? You cannot possibly be head over heels for every game you play. But we also live in a world where gamers get upset if a highly anticipated video game title gets a 7/10 on IGN.
I'm also always going to be honest when a game is just okay. In fact, I did this with the only review copy I have ever received—a copy of Quest: Awakening of Melior. It was just okay, and I said so. But when I chose to film my opinion and put it on YouTube, part of me thought, "Well, that was probably the last review copy I'll ever get."
Ultimately, I am focused on what matters the most to me as a board game blogger: I want Beyond Solitaire to cater to the people I write content for—and that means people who want to play and discuss good games.
If you're my reader and you spend your precious free time on my blog, know this: My loyalty is to you, and I won't forget it.
The Kickstarter campaign for The 7th Continent is coming to a dramatic close, and its second-to-last stretch goal has been revealed: An app-in-development that will allow some augmented reality exploration of the Continent. The response has been mixed.
Some gamers feel that the game is tarnished now, partially through the integration of an app when games should be analog, and partially because the addition of an app will make a portion of the game unplayable if and when that app is no longer supported.
I'm going to come out and say, however, that I think the addition of a few augmented reality cards is cool—we're talking a small add-on to the game (only 5 additional cards) that you won't even use unless you organically discover the "all-seeing eye" item organically while playing the game. The item will also have special rules that make it usable even without an app. That makes the entire tech integration part of this optional, so that the analog-committed can continue to enjoy their games in their preferred way.
To me, the fact that you won't even know how to download the app without the right card adds to the adventure and will keep me playing the game longer in search of interesting surprises. I missed the first Kickstarter, but I backed this round of The 7th Continent because I was promised that I would do things I have never seen or done in a game before. As far as I'm concerned, this app represents Serious Poulp continuing to deliver on that promise.
I am always curious to see discussions of how tech is integrated into board gaming, because I think our arguments about it are actually arguments about who we are as board gamers. Are we open to technology? Are we totally committed to analog play? And what do our answers to those questions say about us?
As someone who also loves video games and who plays a lot of app versions of board games, I think I am already primed for more gaming apps. I am open to what The 7th Continent is trying to do. That said, I will not be happy if down the line I need a separate app for every board game I want to play. Technology that does something cool in the service of a game, that makes sense within the game world, is something I can go for. But I also don't want to download a bunch of extraneous junk and clog up my phone. We'll see how board games continue to develop in the coming years!
This summer is a time of transition for me as I prepare to move to a new city and teach at a new school. But the students I work with are always in a state of flux as they evolve into their best selves. I am lucky because I get to watch the process for a while, at least until they graduate.
One of my favorite seniors this year, Aquilah, was a student I have known and taught for three years. It's been a privilege to watch her grow. As this school year came to an end, we had plenty of stuff to reminisce about: "Dr. D, do you remember the time I ate all of that candy back in Math I and I went soooo crazy?" (Yes, yes I do.) But what amazed me most was how many of our memories are anchored by board games.
Aquilah was not one of my game club regulars. I taught her how to play Jaipur during finals week a couple of years ago because she was done testing and had gotten bored. I figured we would play a few rounds, but then she'd move on once testing was over and she could use her phone again. Instead, she surprised me: The following year, when we had lunch at the same time, she would drop by for another round of "our game." I had never thought of Jaipur that way before, but then I realized that she was right. Of all of the games of Jaipur I have played, the majority of them have been with Aquilah.
During her last finals week of high school, Aquilah showed up even after she was finished with her classes and didn't technically have to be there. Why? So she could play Jaipur with me. So we played... and played, and played. Even better, she killed me in our final game, and I couldn't have been prouder.
Board games may be "just for fun," but they have the power to create and deepen relationships. No matter who plays it with me in the future, Jaipur will always have a special place in my heart as "our game." It will always be able to transport me to another time and place, to when I was a new teacher navigating my first job and becoming attached to my first batch of students. I hope that the games we played conjure happy memories for my students, as well.
Aquilah has since moved to another state, where she'll be starting college in the fall. But I did manage to get her new mailing address, and I'll be heading to the post office later today. What am I sending her? I'll give you three guesses. ;)
I am going to say this outright: I LOVE to play Magic: The Gathering. One of my grad school buddies and I used to unwind by playing round after round of it, trying out different decks and admiring each other's chosen strategies. I also appreciate Magic for the role that it plays in gaming culture. Game stores might sell a lot of board games, but Friday night Magic and regular set releases almost certainly keep the money coming in.
Now that I'm about to move, though, I think the time has come to offload most of my Magic cards. The sad fact is that I can't keep up with the game financially, especially since I have other, stronger gaming interests. I also love to invest in games that I can play solo. Magic sets are now rotating more quickly than ever before, meaning that cards quickly become outdated. There are always new cards and mechanics to focus on, especially if you want to walk into a game store and play with other people. The problem with a CCG (collectible card game) is that you have to really commit to it if you want to be at the top of your game.
If I actually work up the nerve to sell my Magic cards, I am going to miss them. They don't hit the table very often anymore, but I have strong positive memories attached to MtG. There is something very special about meeting up with your friends to test out your own unique deck, the one you built yourself. (I don't love duel decks because the fun of MtG for me is concocting my own.) I can get a little bit of that feeling from LCGs (living card games) like Lord of the Rings, and if I want to duel it out with cards, I can play Ashes or Summoner Wars. But it won't be quite the same.
Although I love my MtG cards, I want to be realistic about my actual gaming habits. I haven't played Magic regularly in a long time, and I don't foresee myself starting up again. So aside from a few choice decks, I think my MtG collection will stay behind when I move this summer.
Ave atque vale, MtG.
I haven't posted in a while, but it's for a good reason. I have accepted a new teaching position, and over the summer I will be moving from Durham, NC to Atlanta, GA. That will mean new classes, new students, new friends, and a new life. Right now, the future looks bright—especially because the cursory research I have done so far suggests that there are many board gamers in Atlanta!
My radio silence doesn't mean that I haven't continued to think and read about board games. Yesterday, Quantic Foundry posted an interesting piece that sums up data they have collected about why board gamers are motivated to play. Gamers reported their primary motivations for gaming, and the options included need to win, immersion, accessibility, social fun, discovery, etc. Nick Yee, the author, broke down these motivations by gender and by age, then presented seven overall takeaways from the data. They are pretty interesting.
What struck me the most is that the biggest differences in motivation are between people with different gender identifications: male, female, or non-binary. Although motivations were varied across the board (hee!), the data indicated that women more strongly prefer the social aspects of gaming. Only 6.3% of men listed "social fun" as their primary motivation for gaming, compared with a whopping 16.1% of women. Survey respondents who self-identified as non-binary had a strong interest in social fun (10.6%), but placed an even higher premium on immersion and the experience of "getting into" a game (14.7%).
Data is informative, but it's never clear to me what it really means. Self-reported motivations can only tell us so much. Men may seem to prioritize winning, but winning is also part of a social experience, even if they choose not to label it as such. Women were more overtly social as a group, but let it be noted that roughly the same percentages of women and men listed "need to win" as their primary motivation. Primary motivations are not sole motivations—there is a lot of complexity there.
One set of data can't do everything, but I would also have been very curious to see the motivations supplied by primarily solo gamers. It's easier to understand concepts like playing to win—and especially social fun—within the context of group play. Are avid solo gamers wired a bit differently? Or are our motivations roughly the same with or without people to play with?
A Google search for board games and literacy inevitably turns up information about overtly educational board games, specifically designed to teach reading skills to kids. I find this trend interesting, because my students never really like games when they are designed to be more educational than fun. Review games in class usually meet with a lukewarm reception, almost as if the material I'm trying to teach automatically taints the games with boringness. They are like little kids who know that mom is sneaking them extra veggies on pizza night.
That said, I can teach my students a lot—and learn quite a bit about them—by playing games. Students who are reluctant to read will try much harder when deciphering in-game text than they would on a standardized test. When we are playing games, students will ask more questions and take more risks. To them, there is no pressure because it's "just a game."
One of my favorite games to play with students when I want them to read is Sentinels of the Multiverse. The comic book theme attracts a lot of teenagers, plus the fact that it's a co-op game encourages good behavior. But in order to succeed, players must be able to read the text on a card, connect it with other cards in their deck or in the game at large, and find a way to effectively do battle against a common enemy. (Plus, if they like the game, I can direct them to the comics.) Other card games like Magic: The Gathering and even Dominion are interesting to play with students because their interpretations of card text tell you so much about what information they process and how they process it.
Although I haven't played old school RPGs or visual novels with my students, and will probably never have the time to, I suspect that these games naturally promote literacy because they are compelling. Several of my early vocabulary words were picked up from video games, and I can't be the only one. I believe that games, both analog and digital, have a lot of potential as tools for literacy... as long as that is not overtly what they are about.
This makes me wonder. I am a public high school teacher, and my lesson planning focuses on concrete objectives that my principal can immediately understand if he comes by for a walkthrough. I also teach at a Title 1, where there is extra pressure for teachers and students to "work bell-to-bell." But students only want to play games when they genuinely feel that they are getting to play, no strings attached. I'm still looking for that happy medium with games based on class material, where it truly feels like we are having fun.
I wanted to try a 10x10 in 2017 because I thought it would help me get to know some of my games more deeply and ultimately get more enjoyment out of them. We're now a month and a half into 2017, and I haven't made much progress.
Here is the original list of games I wanted to play this year (and I still want to!):
Runebound (3rd ed.)
Castles of Burgundy Card Game
Legendary: Alien Encounters
Race for the Galaxy
Valley of the Kings
Sentinels of the Multiverse
Terraforming Mars (still waiting on copies of that one to be available again)
Unfortunately, I've only managed about six plays of Castles of Burgundy, one of Sentinels, one of Valley of the Kings... and that's it. Because my students love it, I've probably played Splendor about eight times so far this year—more than any of the games I set aside because I wanted to play them for myself.
In all honesty, I haven't been playing as many games as I want to play at all recently—no board games, no video games. I'll have the occasional exuberant burst of playtime, then go weeks without playing much at all.
What concerns me most about this is that game time is me-time: When I'm not playing games a couple of times per week, that is a sure indicator that I'm not taking enough time out of my day for myself. I'm a teacher, so it's no great surprise that I'm slammed now that we have started a new semester with new classes. And my busy life extends beyond my school day. Still, how is it that I get home every night and it's all I can do to throw some dinner together and read in bed for maybe 30 min. before I crash?
I know I am not the only gamer who has this problem—it's probably more common than not. But it makes me sad. I need to figure out a way to step back a bit, rest up, and make time for fun again.