To watch a full solo playthrough of Agricola, click here.
What is the game about?
Agricola, designed by Uwe Rosenberg, is a worker placement game in which you grow your farm and your family as much as you can over the course of seven years (rounds). You can acquire building materials to add to and upgrade your house. You can acquire livestock, plough fields, and even take the "family growth" action—sexy! But be careful, because you need to pay attention to your food supply every year. You get "begging tokens" that decrease your score by every portion of food you fail to provide, and the years get shorter and shorter throughout the game.
How does it play solo?
In the multiplayer version of Agricola, competition stems from the fact that not only are you trying to score higher than others, but you are competing for limited action spaces on the board. Do you want to pick up some sheep, or vegetables to plant? If someone else has already used that space during that turn, too bad for you!
In the solo version of Agricola, you are competing against yourself for higher and higher scores over the course of several rounds. To help boost you from round to round, you can keep occupations and get food bonuses that give you a head start. The solo mode turns Agricola into a puzzle where you are wringing every action for all that it's worth to see how high you can get your score to go.
For me, Agricola is extremely absorbing. I love the satisfaction I feel as I watch my farm grow, or as I learn to exploit new occupations and generally maximize the resources provided to me. You can play the game with different sets of cards, meaning that you can experiment with different improvements to your farm and with different occupations that add a bit of variety to the game.
However, Agricola can also get very repetitive, especially in the earlier rounds of a given game. Before long, I developed set patterns to follow in the beginning, which made the game less interesting over time. Agricola will give you a lot of pleasure when you are first playing it or when you come back to it after a break, but it's probably not going to sustain a solo player for all that long. You can definitely get to a point where you feel like you've "solved" Agricola, at least to a point where most of your decisions in the game are set before you even begin.
Do I recommend it?
For the joy that I got out of it during my initial obsession period, I recommend Agricola. It's a great choice for you if you're the type who will push for a high score again and again, or who likes to pick apart how different actions work together for maximum advantage. You will need to take a break from this game after your first big burnout, but there are enough different occupation and improvement cards to offer some variety over time.
Also, if you want to keep solving the puzzle but you are tired of performing the same actions and moving the same animeeples around repeatedly during early rounds of the game, Agricola has a pretty good app that includes the solo campaign mode. It's easier to speed through the early turns that way. Definitely give it a shot if that sounds interesting to you.
Overall Score: 3 stars
5 stars — I love it!
4 stars — I really like it.
3 stars — I like it.
2 stars — It's okay.
1 star — Meh.
For a full playthrough of Shahrazad, click here.
What is this game about?
Shahrazad is an abstract tile laying game for 1–2 players. The premise of the game is that you are Scheherazade from 1001 Nights, and you are spinning a tale for your murderous husband. Your story, however, needs to be coherent—which means that you score based on how well the tiles that comprise your story "make sense."
To simulate coherence in a story, the game requires that as you place your tiles in columns from left to right, numbers need to ascend (for example, you can't put the 17 tile to the right of the 18 tile). You also score points for making sure that cards of the same suit/color touch each other, a goal that symbolizes well-integrated themes within your overall story. The game is played in two rounds. After the first round, you calculate your score and remove any tiles that were improperly placed from the game. Then you reshuffle the remaining tiles and play a second round. Your combined score determines how well you did in the game.
Coherence can be difficult to achieve. As you draw your story tiles—only two at a time—you need to place them in ways that ultimately create a properly woven tapestry of tiles. The order the tiles come up in changes every time, so you can end up with some terrible draws. If you want to change the placement of a tile, you can replace a tile in play with a tile from your hand, but you have to play two tiles the following turn.
How does it play solo?
Given that Shahrazad is explicitly designed for 1–2 players, it is custom built for low player counts. In fact, I would only bring out Shahrazad for solo play. Getting your tiles placed well is difficult enough without having to factor in another player's hand—especially because in the co-op rules, you aren't actually allowed to discuss what tile you should play before you make your choice. As a solo game, Shahrazad is a more meditative experience where you can relax and enjoy the art. Shahrazad is, at heart, an abstract game, so enjoying the art—and imagining what kind of story you are trying to tell—is key to turning it into something more thematic.
Shahrazad is not a bad game, but it's not a game you're going to play a million times in a row without getting tired of it. For the price and size, it makes an excellent work night or travel game. You can be done with it in as little as 15 minutes, if you're just playing it to get a game in. I also love the Arabian Nights theme and the beautiful art.
That said, there isn't a ton of variety in the game. There are only 22 tiles in the whole thing, so before long you will have admired all of the art. From there, it's just the repetitive activity of drawing tiles and figuring out where to put them. If you get the game and experience burnout, put it back on your shelf for a few months and it should regain its appeal. (That is what happened to me!)
Do I recommend it?
If you want it for what it is, I recommend Shahrazad. Expect a cute, short puzzle that you can pull out when you want to get a quick game in.
Overall Rating: 3 stars
5 stars — I love it!
4 stars — I really like it.
3 stars — I like it.
2 stars — It's okay.
1 star — Meh.
To see a full playthrough of Onirim, click here.
What is this game about?
Onirim is a card game designed by Shadi Torbey and set in the "Oniverse." There are several games in this series, but Onirim is probably the best known. In this game, you are asleep and lost in a labyrinth of dreams. Your goal is to find all eight doors (two of each color) that will enable you to escape the labyrinth and return to wakefulness. However, as you draw cards from the deck, you will encounter nightmare cards that work to trap you forever by forcing you to get rid of your cards or your hard-earned doors. If you run out of cards in the draw pile before you discover all of the doors, you lose the game.
How does it play solo?
Onirim, like all games in the Oniverse series, is designed for solo play. There is a co-op variant as well, but Shadi Torbey definitely caters to solo players.
Onirim is a compact, quick-to-play game that nevertheless offers interesting choices. To win—and you will not always win this game—you need to pay attention to whether the draw deck is getting low and whether you are sacrificing cards of a color that you need to win. As you play, you will encounter versatile cards with a key symbol that be played normally, but that can also be used to defuse a nightmare card or to trigger a "prophecy" that lets you manipulate the draw deck. How you choose to play your cards can make a big difference to how the game progresses.
The joy of playing Onirim is not its complexity, but its meditativeness. The card art truly is dreamlike, and there is just enough decision making involved to keep you focused on the game. Onirim is ideal for travel or for busy nights when you want to unwind with a quick card game.
If you need a further challenge, the current printing of Onirim includes several expansions in the box, some of which are very challenging. There is also a delightful app version of Onirim available for Android and iOS, which is great for people who don't like to repeatedly shuffle cards. (Onirim involves a lot of shuffling.)
Do I recommend this game?
If you like short, quick card games that require a combination of luck and strategic decision making, then yes. Onirim is definitely a good choice for you.
Overall Rating: 4 stars
5 - I love it!
4- I really like it.
3 - I like it.
2 - It's okay.
1 - Meh.
Last night, I posted a review of my first ever review copy of a game. Quest: Awakening of Melior was successfully backed on Kickstarter a while back, but went to backers around August. Check out my review below! (And feel free to skip to my final thoughts by clicking the link in the video description.)
To see a full playthrough of Triplock, click here.
From the moment I saw the art for Triplock, I was sold on it. I was crazy about the steampunk theme, the cool characters, and the fantasy of pretending to be a badass picker of locks. As the Kickstarter campaign developed, I became even more excited. Triplock not only came with a dedicated one-player mode, but had plenty more content in the pipeline to keep solo games fresh.
I'm still waiting on some of the solo expansions, which should ship in November. But I am more than entertained by what I have for now. Triplock is a challenging game that demands creativity and focus. It may also be a game that shines even more in solo mode than it does as a game for two players. If you want an intellectual challenge, as well as a game with the capacity for tremendous growth over time, I think Triplock is a great choice for you.
The essence of Triplock is that you set up a lock by creating poker chip sandwiches: put one yellow mechanism between two brown failsafes. Your job is to manipulate the chips by rotating, swapping, and flipping the stacks until you have achieved a specific combination of symbols. Your goal combination is determined either by a win condition in a solo scenario or by cards that you draw called diagrams. Diagrams give you a few choices of mechanism combos to pursue, each of which is worth between one and five points. (In the two-player version of the game, players race each other to ten points for the win.)
As always, there are a few catches: Your actions are somewhat limited by the roll of two dice. Sometimes you roll the actions you want, and sometimes you have to use special skills to manipulate the dice as well as you can. Not only that, but a real-life or AI opponent will constantly mess with you, making it difficult to set up the lock combinations you want. And on top of that, you have to rely on your memory: You can only peek beneath (or remove) the failsafes under certain circumstances, and then you have to remember which mechanisms are located where. The result is a delightful puzzle that you won't successfully solve every time. But you will very much enjoy the effort.
Triplock also has something to offer beyond puzzles, and that's a storyline. Each character has a developed backstory, and in the solo version of the game, you encounter a masked stranger whose secrets are more difficult to crack than any safe. The cards have the occasional typo or clunky sentence, but I'm still hooked and hungry for more. I have completed the first set of solo scenarios, called "The Station," and I am excited to find out what will happen next. The storyline grounds the otherwise-abstract gameplay for me, and places the increasingly difficult solo challenges into a context that makes sense and that makes me want to keep pushing to find out what happens next.
The one caveat I have about Triplock is that it is absolutely not the game to play if you want to game while watching TV or in settings where you will be interrupted a lot. This is a memory game, and you have to hold so much information in your head to succeed. That means that Triplock is quick and fun, but it isn't exactly casual. Make sure you set it up in a place where you can really concentrate, or else you'll end up frustrated.
Overall verdict: If you're into games for 1–2 players and you enjoy memory challenges, Triplock is a must-buy.
I just got back from seeing Queen of Katwe, and as I expected, I really enjoyed the movie. The acting was fantastic. Madina Nalwanga's portrayal of Phiona Mutesi looked natural and effortless, while adult actors Lupita Nyong'o and David Oyelowo nailed the roles of Phiona's mother, Harriet, and her chess coach, Robert Katende.
What impressed me the most about the movie is that it successfully treads the line between realistic and inspirational. It's a Disney movie, so you know it's going to have a happy ending, but I also didn't feel lied to about Phiona's economic situation. At various points in the film, the family is kicked out of their home, they have to sneak out of a hospital because they can't afford the bill, and Phiona's sister is (tastefully) depicted as relying on sugar daddies for money. Madina Nalwanga does an amazing job of portraying a young girl who has had a glimpse of a better life and can't reconcile it with her current reality, while Lupita Nyong'o delivers a stunning portrayal of a loving mother who is under severe stress.
Obviously, this movie is about a lot more than chess, and I think that's what makes it an excellent chess movie. This isn't a film about geniuses who are dancing on the brink of insanity. In Queen of Katwe, chess is what keeps the main character sane.
Queen of Katwe is also an important film because it's a movie with no significant white characters. We need more movies that tell stories about non-white people and non-westerners, which makes Queen of Katwe more culturally valuable than the usual Disney fare. I hope that its presence on the scene breathes new life not only into the film industry, but into the game of chess.
I write a lot about the games I play with my students, but the fact remains that I do the vast majority of my gaming alone. Most of the time, I will not purchase a game if it doesn't have solo rules, because I know that I won't be able to play it. Ironically, although I have played board games for a long time, I began to get more serious about them as a possible way to spend more time with my boyfriend. As it turns out, he typically prefers to unwind by watching TV or playing a video game. Plus, he dislikes deckbuilding games but enjoys Munchkin. Woe.
Recently, however, I bought a game that we've played together more than once or twice: Mice and Mystics. Initially my boyfriend wanted to try it because he used to enjoy tabletop RPGs and because he thought the mice looked cute. Then, when we actually played it, we got really into the story. If you aren't familiar, Mice and Mystics is both a game and a story. At key moments, you read aloud from a "storybook" that propels the narrative forward and gives you setup information for the next "scene" in the game. Reading from a storybook feels corny at first, but then it adds a lot to the experience. And although Mice and Mystics doesn't have a particularly complicated combat system (move mouse, roll dice), it's fun to decide who will take on which roach or rat, or to help each other fight a giant spider. It's also easy to get attached to specific characters. Certain mice in the box are "mine" and others are "his" because we each have our favorites. (Lily forever!)
What is interesting is that I adore Mice and Mystics, but I'm not sure I would if my boyfriend didn't love to play it. The game is fine, but it's only fine. The idea of playing it alone doesn't have quite the same spark for me. Mice and Mystics is somehow both simple and very fiddly because there are so many specific rules. I often find myself improvising rules on the fly because I'd rather keep the flow of the game going than go back to the rulebook to see whether I am playing 100% correctly. Frankly, I'm not convinced it makes that much of a difference. None of the mechanics in Mice and Mystics are new or special, and there aren't any interesting tactical decisions to make. Also, because each session is part of a story, you really only play each scenario one time. Unless you enjoy revisiting the same story over and over, you can only get limited play out of the box. And to be completely honest, I wouldn't revisit this story over and over—it is just okay so far. We haven't come across anything that has blown my mind.
But now that Mice and Mystics is one of those things that my boyfriend and I do together, every time we play feels special, and the story means a lot more to me. We now have "memories" of the time we disguised ourselves as rats and gambled with our enemies to get intel, or of the time we thought a huge spider was going to get the best of us. Whenever we play this game, I know that my boyfriend and I are going to spend 2–3 hours of quality time together, without interruptions from the TV or cell phones. That alone makes this game magic, whatever its shortcomings.
I guess all of this goes to show that the "best" games aren't always the ones that win your heart.
When I found out that Disney was about to release a movie about a girl who plays chess, I was very excited. Who doesn't love a good heartwarming movie? And one about chess, to boot? Since the movie isn't out yet, I decided to read the book: Queen of Katwe by Tim Crothers. I have only said this about The Godfather before now, but... I think I will like the movie better.
I will be real with you: The book itself is not written very well. The beginning is super jumpy, and it takes forever for us to be introduced to our young chess enthusiast. I think the book should have started with Phiona, rather than with full descriptions of the lives of several people connected with her. I also would have loved to see much more in-depth discussion of Phiona's chess playing and her place in the chess world. I am glad I had some gift card credit, because $11.99 is a lot of money for 200 pages, a large chunk of which aren't even about Phiona.
But if you can navigate through those choppy waters, you will find a very interesting story. Phiona Mutesi has grown up in Uganda in such crushing poverty that she is not able to eat every day, much less afford to go to school. However, she becomes so captivated by the game of chess that it changes her life and eventually her circumstances. Phiona has no understanding of formal chess theory and no training beyond her Ugandan coach and teammates, and yet she is able to put up strong performances at international events in Sudan and later in Russia. Sure, she loses to other players who have more experience and better training, but she is smart enough to figure out mistakes on her own without the formal education from which those other players have benefitted.
Today, Phiona is thriving. She is going to school and has dreams of working as a doctor and of becoming a chess grandmaster. Phiona's talent has also brought tremendous hope to her family and to her community. I have no idea how Phiona's chess game has developed since the book was written, but I would love an update. Has access to new resources allowed her to improve her play? Did that game with Bill Gates ever really happen? More importantly, how did she do with Kasparov the other day?
One thing I can say for the book is that it's honest: Phiona is a talented chess player, but because of her circumstances, it's not clear whether she will have the opportunity or access that she will need to fully blossom. (Uganda cannot consistently afford to support a women's chess team at international events.) Hopefully, the publicity from The Queen of Katwe, both the book and the film, will give her the boost she needs. But no matter what, her story is inspirational: Phiona Mutesi proves that young girls can be brilliant and determined, that they can dream, no matter where they come from.
Elder Sign is obviously a beloved game that winds up on many lists of recommended games for solo players. It was #24 on Ricky Royal's 2015 Top 100 and #15 on Board Game Geek's People's Choice Top 100 for solo games for the same year. The game is intended to be a shorter and more manageable version of the massive Arkham Horror, with a Cthulhu theme but also with stripped-down dice-throwing mechanics. Each player takes control of an investigator, and investigators work to complete "tasks" by traveling to different locations and successfully rolling certain combinations of dice. Successes are rewarded with special items and/or Elder Signs. Failures are punished with loss of health and/or sanity. The ultimate goal is to collect Elder Signs that will prevent a Lovecraftian Ancient One from awakening.
I love a wide range of games, but Elder Sign is not for me at all. I've played it solo and groups, and found it lackluster on all occasions, even when everyone else gloried in a last-minute victory over an awakened Ancient One. The only reason I haven't traded it away already is that my boyfriend would be disappointed. (He, too, inexplicably loves the game.)
So what is it about Elder Sign that fails to move me? Part of it is that I don't enjoy dice games. I happily roll dice during RPG battles, and can accept dice mechanics as part of the games that I play. But a game that is all dice? I don't have that kind of luck, and I usually end up very frustrated. It's not satisfying for me to achieve victories purely through the vagaries of fortune. Even though Elder Sign gives investigators special abilities that allow them to manipulate the dice a bit, I prefer to play games that give me a greater sense of control over my own victory (or defeat).
But beyond that, by boiling down the mechanics of Elder Sign, the game seems to have lost a lot of the theme along the way. The game's art is great, and there is some pretty good flavor text, but the Elder Sign doesn't give me that feeling I wanted, the feeling of exploring a sinister museum where hidden dangers lurk in the shadows of the display cases. For me, the mechanics and the theme do not work together well enough for to provide an immersive experience. The dice tasks listed on the location cards feel meaningless—what exactly am I trying to do, anyway? And why is it so random? Although I don't always have the time, I'd rather pull out Eldritch Horror for a fuller, more story-laced ride.
I don't always need a lot of theme to make a game enjoyable, but if the game is going to be light on theme, I want it to be heavy on strategy--Dominion's theme is super pasted-on, but I still adore it because I can get creative by combining different card mechanics. My brain has something to chew on the whole time.
Elder Sign can't be a bad game, given how many people seem to love it. But I can't stand it, and I dread the next time I am asked to play it. Perhaps I can collect Elder Signs to prevent Elder SIgn from reawakening.
Although the new school year means a lot more social gaming with colleagues and students, I am still maintaining my solitary habits. One of my solo favorites at the moment is Ascension. I love both Magic: The Gathering and deckbuilding games, so it was inevitable that this game would become addictive for me. Ascension is a card game invented by two MtG Pro Tour champs, but it isn't a collectable card game like Magic. Instead, the game comes in one box and has many (many!) expansions that add layers of strategy. In Ascension, players acquire cards that are pulled from a draw deck and placed in the center row. The goal of the game is to be the player with the most honor at the end, and acquired cards either provide immediate honor when you defeat them or delayed honor when you calculate the value of your deck at the end.
What is best for me, though, is that the solitary Ascension experience can be had in two forms, each of which is strategically different. I can either play a hard copy of the game with solo rules, or I can play on my iPad against the AI. Each is really playing solo, but the rules and resulting strategies are different enough that I get a lot more out of my game.
When playing on the iPad, the game is more "traditional." The AI isn't brilliant, but it's good for learning and studying the cards. I can play with my own deckbuilding goals in mind, looking for card synergy and focusing on particular factions. In other words, the iPad version of the game mimics a real game with another human—and can turn into one if you want to play online. This is also a great way to get used to each card, especially since the app offers so many expansions.
In a lot of ways, the official solo rules make Ascension more challenging. In solo mode, your "enemy" is guaranteed to acquire two cards per round—the two cards that are furthest to the right on the center row. Denying your shadow opponent any advantages forces you to acquire different cards in different patterns. Cards you might not normally be interested in—especially those that allow you to banish valuable center-row cards that you can't currently acquire for yourself—suddenly become hot commodities. True solo play is also harrowing because in the early game your deck is weak and you don't have much buying power. This usually turns the end of the game into a frantic attempt to catch up to your automated nemesis.
As I get better at Ascension and come to know the cards and what they are capable of, I am glad that there are two ways to play the game by myself. Playing on my iPad helps me to hone my skills for when I eventually find face-to-face opponents, and playing the analog solo variant forces me to work my brain and exploit my cards in new and creative ways. Ascension is definitely a new favorite for me.