"That's... kinda sad."
"Won't your boyfriend play board games with you?"
"Why wouldn't you just play a video game?"
These are all actual comments I have received after telling people I am an avid solo board gamer. Although solo gaming is on the rise, it's not a universal thing. Yet.
For me, though, solo board gaming is a liberating experience. In fact, doing anything by myself is freeing. I've always been the sort of person who will take myself to dinner and a movie. But board gaming alone is particularly fantastic for several reasons:
1) I get to pick the game. The last two times my friends and I had game night, we spent most of it playing Munchkin. I adore my friends, but I honestly hate Munchkin. When I'm gaming by myself, I get to play anything I want, for as long as I want. I can even change my mind midstream and switch games if the mood strikes me.
2) I get to pick the time. My friends are busy people, and my boyfriend likes to do things on his own schedule. To me, "Sure, we can play Pathfinder this afternoon!" means that we will eat lunch and play Pathfinder. To my boyfriend, it means that we will eat lunch, go on several errands, go have a coffee, catch up on a TV show, realize we need to eat dinner, cook, eat, and THEN play Pathfinder. They say that true love waits, but I beg to differ!
3) I can let my imagination run wild. There is a lot of vulnerability in playing highly imaginative games with other people. I usually like that. But sometimes, when I play a solo game, I find the imaginative experience more immersive because I don't have to lay myself open to anyone else. Playing solo means that I can talk to myself, imagining crazy situations or conversations, and no one is there to judge me but the cats. (I have said some terrible things to the Genestealers of Space Hulk: Death Angel.)
4) I call the strategic shots. Solo games are a great way for me to test out strategies that I don't want to explain to or negotiate with other players. When playing alone, I can experience all the brain burn I want without feeling any pressure to rush or to compromise. I buy myself the time and space to test different game strategies until I feel satisfied.
5) My competitive instinct can come out. I have been highly competitive since birth, and it's taken me years to truly be a graceful loser (rather than pretend to be one). Even now, if you trash talk me enough, our game is going to get a lot more serious than a board game ought to be. Siphoning off some of that competitive drive while playing solo makes me a better gamer when I'm playing with other people.
Most of all, I game solo because I just like it. That's probably the best reason to do anything. But if you add up all of the specific reasons I provided, what you can probably conclude is that I also need an outlet to be selfish. Not only is playing alone satisfying on its own, but it puts me in a better frame of mind when playing with other people. Even if I spend International Tabletop Day playing Munchkin—again—I'll know that I can always come home and have it my way.
Castle Panic is a cooperative game in which you (and possibly some friends) work together to battle evil monsters who are trying to destroy your castle. Every turn, random monsters are drawn from a cup/bag. You use a die to determine where the monsters will be placed when they begin their assault. To battle the monsters, you deploy castle cards from your hand. You can discard or trade limited numbers of cards to battle the monsters more effectively.
The Castle Panic base game has been a big hit at social gatherings, even for people who don't play games very often. According to the box, the game is for 1-6 players, but the last time I experienced it in a group, four couples got together and each couple controlled one hand of cards. Before long, we were high-fiving each other every time a monster bit the dust and collectively groaning when a roll of the die determined that we had to place ANOTHER troll in the blue zone. One of the friends I played with bought her own copy of the game to play with her parents, who also loved it. Castle Panic definitely has potential as a staple on family game night, or as a fun gateway game for new board gamers.
Castle Panic is also finding a place in my life as a solo gamer. I love tower defense games, and Panic comes with a set of rules for solo players. Because it is a cooperative game, I can also play two-handed if I choose to, although I typically stick with the solo variant.
The base game by itself, however, is not going to satisfy the dedicated soloist (or group of regulars who play together). Although Castle Panic offers some fun challenges, it can feel a little too simple once you are familiar with all of the monsters and castle cards. There are a few things you can do with the base game to make it more challenging:
Draw Three Monsters Per Turn: This option puts more monsters on the board at once (you typically draw two per turn). The monster overload definitely increases the chances of you getting your butt kicked.
Towers Only, No Walls: When you build your "castle" at the start of the game, you typically put up six towers and six walls. If you lose all of your towers, you lose the game. If you start with zero walls, the odds of this happening go up quite a bit...
Allow Only One Discard Per Turn (Solo Only): In the solo game, you have no one to trade with. To compensate, you are allowed to discard up to two cards from your hand and draw replacements from the castle deck. Only allowing one discard leads to fewer options and tougher choices.
The truth is, though, that Castle Panic will eventually need some variety, no matter how much you love the base game. Purchasing an expansion is essential for your continued gaming pleasure.
Fortunately, Castle Panic has two expansions: The Wizard's Tower and The Dark Titan. So far, I have only played Wizard's Tower, although I own Dark Titan and will be testing it out in the near future.
In my opinion, Wizard's Tower is a must buy. It takes the base game and turns it into something more challenging and also a lot more fun. The premise of the expansion is that a friendly wizard has agreed to help you, in exchange for getting his own fancy wizard tower. As long as his tower is standing, you can benefit from his powers. When you discard castle cards from your hand, you can choose to draw from the regular castle deck or from the wizard's deck. The wizard's deck arms you with powerful spells that you use to battle the powerful and interesting monsters that also come with the expansion. Plus, it's possible to set monsters on fire. Who doesn't enjoy setting monsters on fire? (Alas, it is also possible for your castle walls and towers to catch fire, but we won't worry about that right now...)
Even though Wizard's Tower adds several new challenges and mechanics, including a boss monster with its own special movement patterns, the new rules blend seamlessly with the base game and they are very clearly explained. Actually, Castle Panic rulebooks in general are some of the clearest I have ever seen. It makes adding expansions a lot less intimidating, and it's easier and faster to get to the fun.
Once you have played Wizard's Tower, the original version of Castle Panic will seem simple and a little dull—I will probably never play the base game on its own again, except for the purpose of introducing new players. I also have high hopes for Dark Titan, and I will be updating you about it once I get a chance to test it out!
I've always played games of one sort or another, but video games—not board games—have dominated my spare time. Many of my most vivid childhood memories involve playing video games with my brother, and my college friends and I took great delight in playing through a shared file of Ocarina of Time on my N64. My boyfriend and I have an embarrassingly large collection of Nintendo and Playstation games.
One of my main reasons for initially preferring video games is that they are easy to play alone. Although multiplayer games are increasingly popular, you can still have an intense solo experience with something like Witcher 3, Dragon Age: Inquisition, or Fallout 4. Even games that focus on multiplayer mode typically offer solo campaigns. I have always preferred to play video games by myself, immersing myself in the game world and emerging several hours later, often with great reluctance. I thoroughly enjoyed my 200+ hours of pretending to be a Khajiit assassin in Skyrim, and I wouldn't take it back if I had the chance.
Over the past couple of years, I've started making an important transition: the shift from controller to cardboard. Until relatively recently, it seemed to me that board games were something you should do in groups. Throughout grad school, I would enthusiastically play Settlers or MtG or whatever else as long as I had someone to play with. But I love to spend a lot of my downtime alone, and board games didn't seem to fit with that preference. It wasn't until I discovered solo board games were a "thing" that everything changed.
When I first experienced games like the Lord of the Rings LCG and Mage Knight, I exulted in the fact that I could sink into other worlds and enjoy interactive storytelling without my Playstation. I actually prefer imagining my own story to having a fully-imagined world provided for me. LotR combines the deck construction of MtG with the adventure of saving Middle Earth. And every time I break out Mage Knight, I get to decide all over again just what kind of person (or elf, or draconum) I am going to be. Do I burn monasteries? Or do I only anger the locals when it's absolutely necessary? Even more importantly, I don't have to ignore hours upon hours of work invested into another version of my character to make that change.
This leads me to the three main benefits of cardboard over controller:
1. Board games can be long, but not that long.
Even if I end up playing a board game for three hours or so, that is nothing compared to the time I am capable of investing in a video game. I don't think I'm the only one who has slipped into a video game world only to emerge ten hours later, unable to understand how the day went by so quickly. Now that my work life is so busy, I need a hobby that is absorbing but manageable. After a long day, I can play a quick solo game like Onirim. On a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, I can enjoy a long session of Robinson Crusoe with time to spare for napping, picking up groceries, and having a leisurely coffee date with my boyfriend. Even though I enjoy board games just as much as—if not more than—video games, I also prefer them because they provide experiences that I can pack up and walk away from.
2. Sometimes Video Games Feel Like Work
I'm not talking about Farmville, which some people would say is not much of a game at all. One of my biggest pet peeves about video games is that you can get stuck for a really long time, unable to make much progress. In action games, it can be a difficult boss who stymies you. In an RPG, you may need to go and grind out a few more levels or collect some rare items before the story can continue. Although these game elements tap into the natural human desire to make progress and achieve something, I can't say they are always fun.
The sense that video games are becoming more work-like has only gotten worse with the advent of trophies and achievements. At first, I enjoyed trophy hunting and admiring the growing collection displayed on my PSN profile page. But then I realized I was going out of my way to do things in games that I would never have bothered with otherwise, and that I did not necessarily enjoy. I eventually turned off trophy notifications, which helped for a while, but it still felt weird to log onto the PSN and see that a game I had beaten and felt great about was showing up as only 32% complete. Trophies make me feel like someone else wants to dictate my gaming experience and direct what I should want out of it.
Board games, on the other hand, are more freeing for me. If I mess up a rule, so what? I'll get it right next time. And if there is something I really don't like about how a game works, I can devise my own house rules and play the way I want to. If I lose, I don't sweat it too much, because a totally fresh game is only moments away. My epic wins are not trumpeted out on the internet, but instead remain private victories for me to savor.
3. Board Games Offer Fresh Starts
Although Pandemic Legacy is much beloved these days—and I am interested in trying it myself— what I generally like about board games is that every game offers a fresh start. I'm not bound to the permanent changes I caused in the game world fifty hours ago, and I can use the wisdom I've acquired from previous experiences with the game to make better (or at least more interesting) decisions each time I play. If I've invested too much in developing a video game character, it can become difficult to let go and start again, even if I desperately want to make some changes. Starting over in video games can be terrible, because you have to repeat a lot of the same story events to get back to where you were before. With board games, restarts and renewals are natural. Life itself is full of permanent decisions, and part of the fun and fantasy of games—for me, anyway—is that you can always wipe out your past mistakes and try again.
I'm not saying that I don't love video games (I do), or that I am not eyeing my PS4 and wondering when we can get some extended time together (I am). But focusing more on board games has allowed me to keep gaming in a way that works for my life right now. The shift to tabletop gaming, both alone and with friends, has allowed me to think hard, to imagine intensely, and to do it all on my own terms.
Although I do a lot of gaming--especially hardcore gaming--by myself, I also love playing with other people. Because I am a high school teacher, I play a lot of games with students. At first, when my students think of games, they usually think about Connect Four or Uno. A delightfully large number of them also love to play chess. But few of them have ventured off of the beaten path.
One of the best "gateway games" I have discovered so far is Reiner Knizia's Ivanhoe. Ivanhoe is a card game in which players are knights competing in a tournament. The cards come in different colors, which represent different types of contests, from the lowly melee to the prestigious jousting match. The first player to win four types of contest (out of five) is victorious.
Ivanhoe is a blast because while the premise is simple, the special cards and strategies enable more complicated maneuvering. Nothing is more satisfying than destroying all of someone's purple cards with "Break Lance," or preventing them from doing the same to you by putting down a well-timed "Ivanhoe." My students love the game so much that other teachers have overheard them arguing about who will win next time we play. Sometimes, students who have barely talked to me will suddenly open up over a round of Ivanhoe, and it changes my relationship with them forever. At the end of the semester, my classroom becomes a hub of activity for students who have already finished their finals and need something constructive to do. When that happens, Ivanhoe becomes the most in-demand game in my collection.
I also have a soft spot in my heart for Ivanhoe because it was my high school gateway game. My European History/Model UN teacher had a copy and would let us break it out during downtime. It was the first game I ever really loved. Playing games in his class also exposed me to Axis & Allies, a more complicated strategy game. Although I took a hiatus from gaming during my college years, my experiences in high school primed me to fall in love with Settlers of Catan and Ticket to Ride when I first tried them at a grad student party.
When my boyfriend tracked down Ivanhoe for me for Christmas, it was one of the best gifts he could have given me. Not only did I get to experience a rush of nostalgia as I unwrapped one of my favorite childhood games, but I've now had a chance to share Ivanhoe with a new generation of kids. Maybe, fifteen years from now, my own students will still remember playing Ivanhoe with me.
Most of the games that I play solo are actually multiplayer games with a solo option. Friday, on the other hand, is explicitly designed for one player. As a quick game with a tiny footprint, it's a great choice for busy gamers. Work has kept me insanely busy since the new year, but it's easy to find time for Friday.
The premise of the game is that you are Friday, and you live on the island where Robinson Crusoe is shipwrecked. In order to reclaim your old life—especially the peace and quiet you once cherished—you must help Robinson train to survive the island and eventually to escape it by battling two nasty pirates. Unfortunately, Robinson starts out as a complete idiot, and he has a long way to go before he is ready to make a break for it.
Robinson's interactions with the island are represented by two card decks: the fighting deck and the hazard deck. Each turn, the player draws two cards from the hazard deck and chooses one for Robinson to confront. After selecting a hazard, the player draws the number of "free" cards indicated on the hazard card to see whether Robinson's fighting score is greater than or equal to the number on the card.
If Robinson wins the fight, he also wins the hazard card, which then flips and becomes part of his fighting deck. If he loses the fight, he must pay the difference between his fighting score and the score demanded by the hazard card. Robinson can also use life points as a resource, spending one life in exchange for drawing one more card. If, however, you reach a point where you need to spend a life point but you don't have one, Robinson dies and the game is over.
You'd think that losing would be a bad thing, but it's actually a necessary evil in Friday. When Robinson loses a fight, he "learns" from it, and you have the option of discarding undesirable cards from your deck—something that will help you win future encounters and build a strong deck for your ultimate battle with the pirates. Robinson will go through the hazard deck three times, at three levels of difficulty, and over time he must perfect his fighting/survival skills. At the end, he must battle his pirate nemeses.
Of course, the game won't let you off that easy—Robinson does not just get to learn a bunch of awesome abilities and then waltz off of the island. Time is passing, and every time you have to reshuffle Robinson's fighting deck, you also have to add an aging card. And trust me, aging cards suck, especially if you cycle through your deck too many times. At the bottom of your aging deck are some "very old" cards that suggest Robinson might be getting a little too crotchety to return home.
I have played Friday many times now, and I definitely don't win every time—or even most of the time. I am consistently impressed by how balanced the game is. Friday has four difficulty levels, which involve either adding aging cards to the game or removing them from it. But adding a single aging card to your fighting deck in the first round makes a huge difference to your chances of survival—testament to how delicately Friday has been constructed.
Friday is an impressive game in a small package. Its challenging mechanics also make perfect thematic sense, given that it's a game about a guy trapped on an island. Every turn involves several strategic decisions that have consequences later in the game. The art is lighthearted and fun, which keeps me grinning even when the game presents brutal challenges. Even if you don't typically play solo, Friday is a great game to try. It is currently awaiting a reprint and is overly expensive, but I picked it up for $10 while it was on Amazon. I don't think it will be too long before Friday is readily available again.