Wednesday, March 07, 2007

The Holy Grail of Solitaire Gaming

(Apologies for the late post. I couldn't connect to upload in the airport. I can claim its still Wednesday in the time zone where this was written!)

I’ve been traveling a lot lately and, ever hopeful, I bring along a game or two “just in case” I rustle up a few people to play a game. Unfortunately, I’ve spent most of my time in hotel rooms monkeying around on my computer or reading fiction, with no gaming opponent in sight. I came to the realization that what I really needed was a good solitaire game. However, after analyzing the situation further I understood that what I was truly looking for probably didn’t exist. While there are some solitaire games that will satisfy my gaming itch, the aspects of boardgames that excite me the most just don’t translate over to solitaire play. The simple explanation lies in the joy of interacting with friends and acquaintances. A solitaire game just can’t provide the fun of hanging out with friends, and it can’t provide the challenge of playing against a creative, responsive human opponent. To further complicate things, I pride myself on being a rather persuasive gamer, which gives me a slight edge in games requiring direct player-player interaction and adding to my enjoyment of them. Ignoring the glaring lack of human interaction, there has to be some sort of optimal solitaire game. Here is a small attempt to qualify what that Holy Grail of solo gaming might include.

I always claim that I enjoy games because it gives me an opportunity to analyze a set of rules and try to put together an optimal strategy. If that were wholly true, a solitaire game would be just fine. It could contain a set of rules and I would simply do my best to “solve the puzzle” as it were. Unfortunately, I’ve never been much of a puzzle-lover and comparing a boardgame to a puzzle makes it far less attractive to me. Clearly, a solitaire game needs a random element for it to be satisfying. If the entire game is laid out in advance, the game can be completely “solved” using a single method and there is no room for responding to the game itself. Too much randomness will also doom a game. Planning and developing a strategy is a very satisfying experience, one that just won’t happen in a game where chaos reigns at every turn. Solo Yahtzee is not for me, so an optimal solitaire game must employ some randomness to force the player to respond to situations, but not so much that it eliminates any possible forward planning.

Closely linked to small amounts of randomness are multiple paths to victory. Having multiple victory paths allow players to specialize in one or more areas. Hopefully, they are trading strength in one area for corresponding weakness in others. Thus, the random events will affect the overall play of the game. One player may favor the generalist route to a cautious victory, while another may prefer a riskier specialist strategy leaving open the greater possibility of failure. While multiple victory paths will definitely increase a game’s complexity, it doesn’t preclude solitaire play. Increasing the complexity of a solitaire game is possible, but it does make balancing all the other game aspects that much more difficult.

Another aspect of games I enjoy is the snowball effect. I compare it to tending a garden, where you put in work and effort and slowly enjoy more and more of the fruits of your labor. Many Eurogames have this element. Similar to a well written story, a game can reach a frenetic climax can occur in the end game as players finish up their strategy. Again, nothing precludes a solitaire game from including a snowball effect, but balancing a system of rules to stand up to the rigors of intelligent players is a challenge. Unless everything is rigorously developed and playtested, a snowball design can end up flawed due to an overlooked rule.

One possible route to a solitaire game is by taking a well-loved game and developing a set of rules for opponents to follow. While this can be done, I wouldn’t want to include such a thing in my search for the Grail of solitaire play. At its simplest level, the imaginary opponent will either be playing randomly (and thus requiring a handicap for the human player) or it will have a complex behavior that might as well be played by a computer. I enjoy playing boardgames against the computer as much as the next guy, but it isn’t the focus of my search. Alternatively, if an opponent strategy is simple enough to not require a computer to manage it, the human player will essentially be playing against the solitaire ruleset and not the game itself. (Imagine a game of Goa against an imaginary opponent. If each tile was assigned a set value, a human player could then just try to pick up any tiles undervalued by the imaginary player’s ruleset. The game would be more an optimization of the non-player’s decision tree rather than a true game of Goa.)

Surprisingly, there is a small subset of games that comes close to my ideal solo game. Many of the games with a strong role-playing flavor either play well or can be adapted into being decent solitaire play. For example, with a few adaptations to deal with (ignore) inter-player combat, the World of Warcraft Boardgame can be played solo as a race against the event deck. Arkham Horror also makes a decent solo game. Although I haven’t tried it, I assume Lord of the Rings might be playable solitaire, but I think it would lose a bit without inter-character assistance. Leaning even more towards the role playing side of things, the old choose-your-own adventure style books that included game rules (basically role playing modules designed for solo play) worked well for a few (but not too many) plays. Each of these games have a good balance of overall thematic objectives, but also include short term random encounters or events requiring appropriate response by the player. As the characters progress through the game, they typically gain new abilities – a limited snowball effect. Role-playing style games are not for everyone, but they currently remain as the best fit for my ideal solitaire game.

When all is said and done, the best gaming moments are shared with friends. If solitaire gaming isn’t yet up to my hopeful ideals I guess I’ll fall back on solitaire “games” of unpacking and reading the rules for a new game, reading up on game-related news and discussion online, and planning my next boardgame gathering.

1 comment:

nathan said...

maybe you don't like solo yatzee but solitaire dice (sackson) can be super addictive. i backpacked with just some dice and, combined with liars dice, it was the most awesome game. because it calls for strategic decisions (rather than just yatzee's tactical ones) it can be good for head to head play.