Session Report is a monthly series that explores the intersection of narrative and broader themes of game design by focusing on a specific tabletop game each month.
This month’s Session Report covers selected games from the annual Solitaire Print and Play Contest on hobbyist website BoardGameGeek. Playing a tabletop game by yourself might sound like a strange proposition, but these self-published, free-to-play games make it easy to try out. This Session Report includes several guest reviews from Morten Monrad Pedersen, a game designer and critic who runs the fantastic blog, Thematic Solitaires for the Spare Time Challenged, on BoardGameGeek. Morten, a proponent for easy-to-assemble games, has covered several Print and Play Contest entries in the past, and he won Best New Designer for his debut entry, Endless Nightmare, in 2013.
The Solitaire Print and Play Contest, officiated by BGG user Chris Hansen, has been running annually since 2011.
Supermarché by Ryan Mayes
(Supermarché won Best Overall Game, Best Medium-Sized Game and Best New Designer in the 2014 contest.)
The Grand Opening has come and gone, and I’m still in the red. Hey, baked goods are cheap this week…let’s hold a Bakery Sale! Although one customer spent plentifully on the sale, we ran out of produce and a customer left the store, disgusted. Another was only appeased after the manager handed them a coupon for baked goods and milk. At least we got good word of mouth…the next week, the customers flocked to the baked goods, even at full price. I had cautiously stocked up on produce, only to see it rot. Produce was overpriced the next week, but what can you do? Even if I’m not making a profit, I can’t afford losing customers, like that time $35 walked out the door because I was too proud to restock the freezer case while a customer was shopping. But hey, at least I’m finally in the black!
Supermarché, from first-time designer Ryan Mayes, is the only game you’ll ever want to play about managing a small, struggling grocery store. Where this theme came from, I have no idea; as far as I know, the designer isn’t a grocery store clerk in his waking life. Yet here I am, stocking the cereal aisle and hoping my lettuce doesn’t get all wilty…again.
Supermarché takes its cue from other “this is supposed to be fun?” games in the German tradition, such as Uwe Rosenberg’s Agricola and At the Gates of Loyang or Friedemann Friese’s Power Grid. That is to say, it’s all about the wily management of tight funds and manipulation of colored cubes (represented in my copy by charming tokens depicting quarts of milk and boxes of cereal) to, with Teutonic efficiency, transform a very small amount of money into a slightly larger amount of money.
It begins at the distribution center, where you must buy the goods to stock your shelves for the coming round. Prices fluctuate from round to round, so you’ll want to take advantage of a bargain when it appears…but your food will eventually spoil, wasting your initial investment and costing you extra man-hours to dispose of it. At the same time, if you don’t have a little of everything, you risk your customers walking out in disgust, abandoning their baskets in the middle of the aisle, its contents destined to be smashed or stolen. Oh, and your tiny stockroom can only hold 20 items at a time, while the shelves only have space for 15.
Once you’ve lined your shelves with (hopefully) a bit of everything, the customers come, five per round. Each customer has different tastes, represented by a table showing all possible values on a roll of two six-sided dice. So, for example, Chad will buy from the Bakery on a roll of 4-6, Produce on a 7-8, and Frozen on a 9, with the remaining values assigned to Dairy and Dry Goods. He’ll keep shopping, rolling the dice again each time, until all 3 spaces on his cart are filled, and then he’ll check out. If Chad goes shopping for, say, Dairy, and there are none on the shelves, you’ll not only lose the money from the other items Chad abandons in the aisle, but also from the negative word of mouth. In desperate situations, you can convince certain customers to use a coupon, buying two items instead of one based on another chart printed on the board. They get a small discount off their total purchase, but it gives you a bit more control over the whims of the shoppers. You can also hold a sale–for instance, to move a large amount of inventory that’s close to its expiration date.
While the shoppers’ purchases ultimately depend on the die roll, you start each round with a bit of knowledge about who’ll be visiting the store, so you can try to play the odds. Possibly the biggest decision you make each round, however, is when to restock your shelves with goods from the stockroom. You can restock once each round, either during a customer’s visit or between customers. Restocking during a customer’s visit ends their shopping trip (and earns you the negative word-of-mouth penalty), but restocking between customers costs you an entire, unknown customer–not always a bad thing, if you’re running low on supplies already.
The customers cards, named after the designer’s family and members of BoardGameGeek’s 1-Player Guild, are full of personality, like the bachelor who won’t buy anything except frozen food or the kid who just wants a box of strawberries. So, too, are the rules full of thematic charm: my last game ended with a final score of $62, which the rulebook defined as a “Very Minor Victory,” letting me know that, while I’ve made a little profit, my sleepless nights are haunted by the fear that a customer might slip on a wet floor–“If you have to pay your insurance deductible, you won’t have enough to pay your employees.”
Reviewed by Byron Alexander Campbell
Elevenses for One by David Harding (II)
(Elevenses for One took home second prize for Best Overall Game and was the top-rated Small Game in the 2014 contest.)
To be honest, I wasn’t too thrilled when game designer David Harding asked me to playtest his solo game Elevenses for One. I’m into epic quests, gritty sci-fi, and horrors of the Lovecraftian persuasion, so David’s game about preparing morning tea was about as far from my thematic preferences as it could be–and no, I’m not going to make a pun about it not being my cup of tea.
On the other hand, David is a nice and enthusiastic guy, so I gave it a shot. Luckily, the barrier of entry is low: Print and cut 13 cards and read a short rulebook.
In the game, you must get ten random cards into numerical order. What makes this challenging is that each card has a special rule that’ll activate when you use the card (such as swapping the positions of two cards), and you only have a limited number of actions to get everything lined up.
The mechanics don’t mesh with the theme (e.g., why do the biscuits allow you to swap two cards?), and it’s more puzzley than gamey. Thus, the game is the opposite of my preferences, and so it was completely unexpected that I got hooked. It came together with just the right level of complexity to make it easy to learn and quick to play while still offering interesting decisions and fun gameplay.
Every time I sat down to play, this five-minute game gave me a sense of coziness, and if there’s one thing that I associate with having tea, it’s coziness. So in a surprising turn of events, the game ended up feeling like its theme, even though the mechanics themselves aren’t thematic.
An added bonus is the fact that the game is so small that my sleeved prototype fit in my back pocket, and I took it on walks in the local forest and park and sat playing it there, which was rather neat.
Reviewed by Morten Monrad Pedersen
Everything Except Air by Caroline Berg
(Everything Except Air won Best Thematic Game, Best Large Game and Best Grayscale-Printed Game in the 2014 contest.)
Most of my spacesuit’s components were busted in the meteor storm that scattered the artifacts from the alien ruin on Mars and obscured my ship’s location behind a massive cloud of red dust. The only suit systems that still worked were the gyro-stabilizers, the radio receiver, and the headlamp. I had 9.5 hours of air weighing me down, and I had to bring at least some of the alien artifacts back to the ship, or the Mars Exploration mission would be a complete bust. 8.5 hours of air remaining: the Martian surface was like an endless dust field, and the headlamp just made the dust appear thicker. I lost an extra hour of air wandering in circles. 6.5 hours of air remaining: I stumbled on a large equipment cache from the mission. With the headlamp, I quickly located a toolbox, which might come in handy later on. 6 hours of air remaining: Wandering aimlessly in a network of canals, I found a crate of well-packed alien artifacts! However, it was heavy; I could only carry it by releasing an extra 2 hours of air from my reserves. This had better be worth it….
I’ll be honest: I cheat at Everything Except Air. I cheat hard. The rules state that you begin the game with five hours of oxygen in your tank, with a maximum capacity of 9.5. Screw that, I reply; I’m starting with a full tank. The way I play, they should call the game Everything, and Also Some Air.
That’s because the contest-ready release of Everything Except Air feels half-baked. The rules are full of typos and gaping holes–for example, at no time does it describe how more map tiles enter play adjacent to your starting, random map space. Some rules are nonsensical–the weight tracker is described as “the inverse of the oxygen chart,” but does it measure the weight you can carry, or the weight you’re already carrying? I tend to ignore it completely during play; better to just keep in mind that each hour of air weighs one pound, and the player is limited to nine pounds of weight, including items. And finally, the starting five-hour oxygen supply suggested by the rules tends to make the game last about three turns, barely worth the time it takes to set it up. Give yourself a full tank, and, by the designer’s admission, the game becomes “winnable.”
It’s a testament to Everything Except Air‘s ability to create atmosphere through minimalist text and monochromatic art that, despite the fact that the rules entered into the contest result in a barely playable game, it still managed to sweep several categories. As well it should have. Everything Except Air, at least the way I play it, is more of an interactive storytelling experience than a “game.”
The meat of the game is the deck of event cards, things like Martian Sunrise, Sudden Rockfall, Icy Precipice. Each of these events has three possible outcomes based on which of the spacesuit’s abilities survived the meteor storm; you draw three random Ability cards from a deck of 15 each game, ensuring that every story will play out differently. It’s a clever system to keep the story from becoming stale and predictable. As these events unfold, your spaceman will slowly wander a randomly generated Martian maze as your air supply dwindles. You might discover some items, you might find your ship, and you might even do so while carrying the alien artifacts needed to win, but Everything Except Air does a wonderful job of making winning not really matter. In fact, with the bleak, lonesome atmosphere the game evokes, it’s almost disappointing for it to end any other way than breathing in the last of your oxygen while staring up at the clear, untwinkling stars.
Reviewed by Byron Alexander Campbell
Maquis by Jake Staines
(Maquis won Best Overall Game, Best Small Game and Best Artwork in the 2013 contest.)
Listen very carefully, I shall say zis only once! In two weeks, ze Nazis are driving a train carrying Panzers past your village. You and ze worker meeples of ze French Resistance must stop zem while keeping ze underground newspaper running.
You must send your workers to ze grocer’s action space to get food, zen bring zat to ze black market action space to sell it for money. Use ze money to set up an action space as a chemist’s lab and bring chemicals acquired at ze pharmacist to ze lab to make explosives. Finally, go to ze railway at ze right time to blow up ze train.
Remember to place workers strategically to keep watch for patrols and secure paths home to HQ after ze curfew and sneak workers to ze underground newspaper. If you are able, zen send someone to ze secret radio to ask ze Allies to airdrop weapons so zat your workers can shoot zeir way out if caught by ze patrols.
The above is an example of how the solitaire worker placement game Maquis plays out. In the game, action spaces are arranged in a network on a small board. In most cases, assigning a worker to one of these spaces either gives you a resource or converts one kind to another in ways that make thematic sense, e.g. converting food to money on the black market. After each worker placement, a police patrol is placed by drawing a card listing three locations. If one of these is unoccupied, the patrol is placed there. If none is empty and you have a worker on one of them, then the patrol captures that worker unless you choose to spend a weapon resource to fight your way out, but that will cause the Nazis to post soldiers in the village.
When you’ve placed all workers and patrols, your workers must return to your HQ. To do this, they must have a path back that’s not cut off by patrols. Workers with no path back are captured. The result of this is that you can play it safe by making chains of workers that’ll keep a path open to HQ, but this makes you inefficient, so you have an interesting balancing act between worker efficiency and worker safety. The patrol/worker chain mechanics make the theme of trying to accomplish a secret mission while avoiding patrols come alive rather well.
The one major problem in the game surfaces if you lose three of your five workers, since then, chaining workers from HQ becomes impossible, which limits your choices and lets Lady Luck rule. Nonetheless, Maquis is a very good game and was a deserving winner of the 2013 Solitaire Print and Play Contest. It shows that print and play games can be every bit as good as professionally published games, and the components can be crafted in less time than it takes to visit your local game store.
(Morten has previously written a detailed review of Maquis on his blog.)
Reviewed by Morten Monrad Pedersen
(Your Name Here) and the Argonauts by Mike Arlington
((Your Name Here) and the Argonauts took third place in the 2012 contest, but the formatting back then was really confusing, so I thought it came first. It’s a great game, regardless.)
The fourth voyage of Byron and the Argonauts wasn’t off to an auspicious start. I had defeated the manticore, but I sacrificed one crew to the whirlpool Charybdis and lost two more in the fight against the dreaded Colchian Dragon. While I dispatched my main force to recover the Sword of Peleus, a harpy picked off another of my men, leaving me with a crew of 8. As they wrestled the Nemean Lion for its pelt, a skeleton and the sea monster Scylla killed three more. And I still had 24 adventures to go….
(Your Name Here) and the Argonauts is a game about myths and oral history; specifically, it’s about the way they change in the retelling. As such, it’s not a game you can play only once.
Set in the world of Grecian mythology, (Your Name Here) is about as straightforward as a sword to the face. Loosely following the story of Jason and his quest for the Golden Fleece, you play as a nameless hero of legend who must command his crew of 12 men and endure an arduous journey represented by a deck of Adventure Cards. Each turn, you flip over the top three cards in this thirty-something-card deck, arrange them in the order you’d like to encounter them, and assign your crew among them as you please. The Adventure Cards can be either treasures or monsters; in either case, you resolve them by rolling a single six-sided die, adding the crew you’ve assigned to the adventure, and comparing it against the card’s difficulty value (usually ranging from 6-10). If you meet or exceed the adventure’s difficulty, you’ve recovered the treasure or slain the beast. Treasure cards stay in front of you to provide lasting or single-use benefits, while slain monsters simply go to the Victory Pile. Any adventures you fail to complete get sent to the Discard Pile instead; if it was a monster, it takes out a few of your crew before skulking away. Once you’ve dealt with all three Adventure Cards, you regroup your crew, draw three more cards, and continue until all your crew are slain or, preferably, you’ve dealt with every card in the deck. If you can do this with at least one crew remaining, you’ve won.
Which is exactly when things start to get interesting. If you lose the game by failing to survive the gauntlet of adventures, nothing happens, except that you mark down a loss on your Player Card. If you win, you take all the Adventure Cards in the Victory Pile, plus any treasures still in play, and level them up by checking off a little box near the top of the card. This is almost always bad, increasing the difficulty to overcome the adventure, the deadliness of the monster, or even adding additional cards to the Adventure Deck from a separate deck called the Reserves. The rules state that this process represents the myth of your voyage becoming embellished over time. As slight recompense against this injustice, you get to check off a box on your Player Card; one or more check marks will add new treasures to the Adventure Deck (also from the Reserves), increase your starting crew for each journey, or add Blessing cards, which do nothing but dilute the draw, allowing you to devote more of your crew to the non-blessing adventures. Once you’ve finished this upkeep, you play again…and again, and again, until you’ve checked off every box on your Player Card. Only then have you truly completed the game, at which point you add up your total losses for bragging rights.
Although it’s not immediately apparent, this system creates an interesting tightrope dance in which you want to actively avoid doing well on the adventure: every treasure you recover, every monster you slay will just make your next voyage more difficult. It’s not like they pay you for all this heroic shit. Instead, you want to do just enough to get by, failing adventures whenever you can, as long as you’re able to make it through the deck with one of your original crew by your side. It’s a satirical, perhaps unintentional, take on the real men whose deeds inspired these myths.
Although every adventure plays out basically the same, the cards are full of nuance in the form of special abilities or different rates of progression that will force you to tackle each three-card draw differently. There are also lots of fun tidbits for fans of Greek mythology: leveling up the Nemean Lion enough times adds the Cloak of Heracles treasure to the deck, while slaying the sea serpent Ketos adds the Wrath of Poseidon. The Hydra gets more powerful each time you kill it, while bringing home the legendary Golden Fleece gives you no bonuses during the game, but lets you check off an additional box on your Player Card at the end.
And just think: this is the game that came in third place.
(This game was played using VASSAL engine, a freeware, open-source tabletop game simulator.)
Reviewed by Byron Alexander Campbell
Morten Monrad Pedersen: A gamer for three decades with a current interest in thematic and narrative solo games, about which he has been blogging for a while at Thematic Solitaires for the Spare Time Challenged, Morten had the pleasure of having his entry in the 2013 Solo PnP Contest soundly trounced by the above-mentioned Maquis. His first commercial design is the solitaire expansion included in the soon-to-be-released Tuscany expansion pack for Viticulture from Stonemaier Games, where he’s a member of the advisory board.