In his coverage of tile-laying games, Quincy Rhoads wrote something that stuck with me:
This Town isn’t a game of winners and losers as much as it is a great excuse for friends and family to sit down together and spend some time with one another, which, now that I think about it, is sort of the best part of the holidays, and, as far as I’m aware, what this series of posts is trying to highlight about gaming: its ability to bring everyone together, especially on cold winter nights.
Indeed, that was the point of the 12 Days of Gaming series–one of them, anyway. It might sound odd, then, that as I originally conceived it, most of my 12 days would be spent gaming solo. I am, as I mentioned previous, a primarily single-player gamer, which probably sounds doubly odd: somebody who’s not only obsessed with board games but also plays most of them by himself. It may sound less strange to a literary community; I’d be willing to bet that most of us read and write alone, but that doesn’t stop us from forming a community, perhaps a more tightly knit one because of the solitude of our shared passion.
Single-player board gaming works the same way. In fact, while it can never hope to compete with the joy of sharing a gaming experience with a group of equally enthusiastic friends, solo board gaming has its own distinct perks, just like reading a book at home has certain advantage over attending a reading by the author. As a matter of fact, it offers many of the same benefits as solitary reading: you can stop and start as you please, move at your own pace, the atmosphere lends itself to a greater sense of immersion, et cetera.
Returning to Quincy’s observation, though, it’s my hope that you do have friends and family who’d be happy to share a game with you, and I’ve tried to skew my coverage toward games that would work well under those circumstance. I’ve also shown some of the ways I manage to connect with people despite my isolated gaming life, such as attending monthly game meetups and Skype gaming with my mom, who lives in Seattle. I’ve also formed connections simply by embracing the fact that I’m a solo gamer, by choice or by circumstance, and entering fully into that community–although I had my misgivings, at first.
Shortly after I discovered tabletop games, I wrote an article called “The Problem of Solitaire,” in which I highlighted the primary distinction between single-player video games and solo board games, a concept I’ll call “reliable randomness.” Because of reliable randomness, single-player video games have a much easier time creating challenging, satisfying, and immersive game experiences. By created a complex but internally consistent system of rules–for example, the rules dictating the behavior of the AI or how the environment reacts to the player character’s presence–and enacting those rules in secret, video games create a sense of learnable unpredictability, and a great deal of my pleasure, at least, comes from figuring those systems out in a direct and tactile way. In contrast, board games are incapable of self-automation, so any rules that drive them are, by definition, already known by the player. This means that any unpredictability in a board game comes from pure randomness: the roll of a die or the draw of the card. A difficult video game requires skill; a difficult board game requires luck.
That’s what I thought at the time, anyway. Friday was the first game to prove me wrong. Designed exclusively for solitaire play and published by one of the biggest American distributors of Euro-style games (Rio Grande also does Dominion, Puerto Rico, Power Grid, Caylus, and many others), Friday was the first ripple in what’s looking to be a sea change in the tabletop game industry’s perception of single-player gaming. While previous major releases, especially Uwe Rosenberg’s designs like Agricola and Le Havre, had featured official single-player variants, a major publisher releasing a solitaire-only game was a risky move. However, Rio Grande’s confidence in Friedemann Friese’s design paid off–the game placed second in the BoardGameGeek 1-Player Guild’s top 100 solo games, with 56 voters placing it in their top 20, just behind the frankly unassailable Mage Knight Board Game.
Designed by Friedemann Friese of Power Grid fame, Friday retells the story of Daniel Defoe’s castaway narrative Robinson Crusoe from the point of view of Friday, Crusoe’s native companion. Friese’s vision of Robinson Crusoe is humorously postcolonial, depicting Robinson as a bumbling, weak-willed, gangly fool totally unfit for survival in nature. As Friday, you must essentially make Robinson’s decisions for him, introducing him to the hazards of the island in an attempt to toughen him up enough to beat the two pirate ships that patrol its waters, at which point “he successfully leaves the island and you will have your beloved peace back….”
Friday represents this re-education effort through a deckbuilding mechanic. A fantastically popular mechanic popularized by Dominion, deckbuilding generally sees the player begin the game with a small deck of weak, bland cards then use those cards to buy more powerful cards, which get added to the player’s deck for the remainder of the game, becoming available after the next shuffle. Like the character growth and tech trees found in many roleplaying games, this narrative of progression is innately satisfying; it also mirrors the monomyth of the hero’s journey. In Friday, the mechanic works exceptionally well, narratively speaking, thanks to Friese’s one big innovation: by succeeding at a challenge, Robinson gains a new, more powerful card, but by failing a challenge, intentionally or otherwise, you have the option to remove cards from Robinsons deck; he essentially learns from his mistakes. This is especially useful because, every time you shuffle Robinson’s deck, you must add a horrible, awful “aging card” representing the deleterious effects of time spent on the island.
Friday is an exceptional solo game. In a small five inch square box, available for under $20, it’s the ideal starting place to explore solo board gaming. Its rules suffer a bit in the translation, but once learned, they’re simple enough that they’ll stick with you forever. At the same time, with four difficulty levels, it will take some time to master. Most importantly, though, Friday features reliable randomness. Because the contents of Robinson’s deck–a known quantity at all times–represents his ability to overcome the island’s hazards, the player can frequently make informed decisions about which hazard to tackle and when to cut his losses. At the same time, Robinson’s unpredictable–you never know exactly how he’ll act at any given moment, especially once those aging cards enter play. Although he’s the only pictured character in the game, it’s clear that Robinson isn’t you, but rather some erratic jester you’re trying to shepherd toward survival.
I’m currently stuck on Level 2–although the shift in difficulty between Level 2 and Level 3 seems minor enough to be unnoticeable (in fact, the only difference is that Level 3 includes the Very Stupid card in the aging deck, while the easier difficulties don’t), it’s proven unexpectedly difficult to overcome. Since it’s been a while since I revisited Robinson’s Island of Despair, I played on the more manageable Level 2 difficulty. I took it hard on Robinson, giving him an unbeatable challenge out of the gate so that I could remove as many of his bad qualities as possible. This left him on the brink of death for most of the game, but I managed to defeat the second pirate vessel by spending my last life pip. Robinson seldom gets much stronger as the game progresses; rather, you start to gain useful deck-manipulation abilities that help you outwit the tough challenges in the game’s final third. You won’t always make it as far as the final pirate battles, but when you do, they can get quite epic, as this picture shows:
(That aging card near the bottom right is one of the worst in the game–“Suicidal”–and it took some very clever cardplay to get rid of it.)