Sunday, November 25, 2007

Multi-player Solitaire? Nuh Uh!

The term "multiplayer solitaire" is often used (mostly by people who don't like them) to describe games where there is no direct player interaction - you can't steal my food cubes or blow up my tanks, because we are each working on our own grand master plan for our own area of the world.

Coincidentally, the games the term is often applied to include most of my favourite games.

What these games typically offer, is ample opportunity for indirect player interaction. Often, this comes through competing with other players - for goods, for resources, for actions, for control of an area.

The games reward planning - often long-term planning - but also the flexibility to respond and react to others' actions. While they are less dynamic than some other types of games, players can still have a significant effect on one another's success or failure.

In my experience, while the first few times with a new game often play out as essentially multiplayer solitaire, with experience and increased skill players will watch what other players are doing and respond/react/block/move appropriately. In other words, a game will become more interactive as you play it more and more. This can take time - and it's easy to write a game off after one or two plays without really exploring the strategies and tactics that underpin it.

Moving a game from multiplayer solitaire to a more interactive experience may have a long learning curve, but it is well worth it to someone who (like me) enjoys these types of games. The interactivity enriches the game experience and deepens the thinking involved in playing the game - or at least, in playing it well.

In bad news for designers, there doesn't seem to be a way to shortcut this process - although some seem to be having success by providing solo rules, or versions of the game with less complexity than the full game, to give players an opportunity to familiarise themselves with the game in stages.

I've looked at a handful of these games and have tried to rank them, starting with the most solitaire. Your experiences will likely vary - I'd bet, according to how often you have played the various games I list.

Crayon rails games
You could call them multiplayer solitaire because: The interaction is really only in where you build (taking the best routes into and out of a city) and in taking the goods that other players want.
Opportunities for interaction with other players: I've only played this 2-player so far, but I imagine with more players there could be more opportunity to block other players out of a particular city or to force other players to use your existing train lines.

You could call it multiplayer solitaire because: The game can be played almost co-operatively, with each player placing pieces without regard to their opponent's scores.
Opportunities for interaction with other players: Blocking!

Thurn und Taxis
You could call it multiplayer solitaire because: Each player plays their own hand, without restrictions on how many pieces may be played on a particular city. The high level of chance in the flow of cards (particularly if you choose the 'replace the 6 cards' option) makes it hard to block, especially in a multiplayer game.
Opportunities for interaction with other players: Card hogs! If I have all the cards for Lodz or Sigmaringen, you don't have much of a chance. Also, the need to keep up with other players' carriage cards means that you are under some pressure to play cards and not just to wait for the next card to come along.

Pillars of the Earth - reduced by the random draw of master builders but still very competitive. Has the feel of an auction game in many ways
You could call it multiplayer solitaire because: Each player is working to make the most of their own set of cards.
Opportunities for interaction with other players: Card selection/choice of actions - it is possible to take the action that another player wants. Watch how many workers they have left and make sure you take the only stone they can afford. Block their access to key resources like metal. Watch whether they have enough money to place their master builders.

Notre Dame
You could call it multiplayer solitaire because: Each player plays their own hand of cards on their own section of the board. There is no restriction on several players choosing the same action.
Opportunities for interaction with other players: Card drafting phase. If the next player is out of money, it might be safe for me to pass her a Notre Dame card if it means I can keep a money card out of her hands. Also, the carriages.

You could call it multiplayer solitaire because: Each player builds their own structures on the board - there's no trade or opportunity to influence your opponent's tile draw.
Opportunities for interaction with other players: Blocking! Stealing cities, pointing roads at cities - there are ample opportunities for evil play.

Princes of Florence
You could call it multiplayer solitaire because: Each player is building his/her own buildings and playing cards.
Opportunities for interaction with other players: The Auction phase (and the restricted supply of some cards for the Action phase) allows you to take choices away from other players. The Recruiter card also offers an interactive element.

You could call it multiplayer solitaire because: Each player is building their own farmyard. Unless you are using the I deck, you have little to no direct interaction with other players.
Opportunities for interaction with other players: Taking resources and actions that other players need. Early complaints about cards being overpowered seem to stem from this problem - if one player has a card that makes clay super-valuable for them then the other players should adapt their strategy to ensure that the first player doesn't get the chance to get a lot of clay. That's hard to do while you're still learning the ropes, which is where the family game should get solid play from gamers who are just starting out with this game.

Tigris & Euphrates
You could call it multiplayer solitaire because: It is possible to play this game without ever entering into any direct conflict with another player.
Opportunities for interaction with other players: War! Two different types, even. It doesn't get much more direct than that - yet the first few times you play you will almost always stick to building up your own civilisation.

What other games attract this label? And does the experience = interactivity rule hold true?



ekted said...


Melissa said...

Dammit Jim, did you just break my example?

Thinking about it, I actually find Alhambra reasonably interactive - but this is driven by the scoring phases rather than by the needs of the game itself. There's constant attention to who has what kind of tile - but, like in Thurn und Taxis, the random draws do limit the effect of other players' actions. I may take the tower that would give you a majority, only to draw another tower to take its place.

Mike Doyle said...

Some that come to mind:
Roads and Boats
Through the Ages
Vegas Showdown

I love all these, except VS. There still is conflict in all of them if one plays the game right. Individual player mats seem to encourage the feel of multiplayer solitare as one is focusing on their own playing board rather than a common board.

Melissa said...

Mike, I haven't played any of those except for Goa, but I have heard similar comments about them. Roads and Boats even has official solo rules, doesn't it? (We have it sitting on the shelf waiting for us to try it).

Goa is another that is really highly interactive - or at least Fraser and I find it so. I've really only played it 2 player so can't comment on how it works when played multiplayer.

huzonfirst said...

Melissa, I'd like to expand on your Thurn and Taxis case. I think this game plays best with two and with that number of players, it's very interactive. It's easy to see what your opponent is trying to do and VERY important to draft your cards with defense in mind. A player who doesn't play defensively in T&T is almost certain to lose.

Mike, let me take your examples one by one:

Goa - The building phase is purely multi-player solitaire, but the auction phase is anything but. LOTS of scope for evil play, including where you start the auction, in which direction you send it, keeping track of players' money and bidding appropriately, forcing them to deplete their treasury for a critical tile, etc. The nature of these two phases makes it comparable to Princes, but I think Goa has more interaction.

Roads & Boats - Pretty good choice. It's very possible to interfere with other's plans (since nothing is truly owned--I think that's why Susan Roz has the "Goose Thief" moniker on the Geek), but one's own plans are often so involved and delicately timed that active interference becomes a luxury. Of course, if an opponent just lets the stuff hang out there, go and grab it, but more experienced players soon learn to avoid that. In that regard, you need to take player interference into account, but it may not occur in many games. I suspect interaction increases as the players get better at the game, but how many groups get to play this great design often enough to gain that experience?

Antiquity - Only played once and had more than enough struggles dealing with my own position without having to worry about others. Probably comparable to Roads & Boats (there's an eventual race to get to good land), but the learning curve may be even steeper.

Through the Ages - Limited player interaction, but very important. Keep your eye on your opponents and, when appropriate, grab their much needed card from the display (doing so purely for defense is tough, because you can never get rid of it, but you should be able to use most cards). And the military is also very important. Play strictly with your nose in your own affairs and you WILL lose, at least against more experienced players.

Vegas Showdown - Only played once. Seems like there's ample scope for swiping tiles that other players badly need; again, experience may be needed to get to that level of play.

Anonymous said...

I can't believe that nobody has mentioned Puerto Rico. When it first came out there were all kinds of people on Spielfrieks using the phrase.

Dr. Matt J. Carlson said...

I enjoy most of those mentioned (although have yet to have connections with someone to try out Roads & Boats, Antiquity, or Through the Ages.) Particularly Goa... I enjoy that quite a bit.

I think anything where players can build up an empire that can't be harmed will often get listed as multiplayer solitaire (Goa). However, anytime you add auctions into the mix it - that is where interaction comes in. And, as with almost all auction games, it takes a few plays for players to discern the value of the items being auctions.

I think the auction is at the heart of some of the controversy. If it isn't seen as an "interaction" (ie. denial of other player's needs/wants) then the game ends up as solitaire-esque. Auctions by their nature tend to require multiple playings to correctly plumb their depth.

Mike Doyle said...

For me, multi-player solitare it is more a feeling and impression than actual belief that it is so. In such games I feel very self absorbed in my own affairs. So deeply is this that I hardly notice most of the intricate actions of others. A quick scan and I get an impression enough for the limited interactions. As said, in Goa, there is the bidding. TtA I have the miliary aspect and card grabbing and in R&B loose resources.

Still, much of the game can go by without me being able to give an account of what is going on with my neighbors. Generally, in such games I am fighting the game itself. In Goa, this is the limited actions that I struggle and concentrate on. I suppose better play will facilite closer inspection the game's of others, but for now the experience, while shared, feels more my own then the collective.

By contrast, in Settlers, at game's end, I can remember all the ups and downs of all the player's moves.

Totally agree with Melissa that there really isn't MPS. But for many of these games, most of the concentration is me against some game mechanic which promotes a solitary feel in the end.

As I write this, I can't help but wonder if this MPS feeling is more likely in games which have very difficult survival or advancement rates. One must focus hard just to stay alive or progress efficiently against the game.

Mike Doyle said...

...btw, these are my very favorite games, so it's definately a positive feeling and not a negative one for me. :)

Anonymous said...

Sorry but player interaction is for me:
When in Imperial the players, with common interests (they have shares in the same country), talk about what to do next.

When in Warrior Knights, the players put their votes together and vote against a motion, which is unfavorable to them.

When in Civilization you have to trade with another player to get more commodities of same type in order to buy exepensive cards.

Whenever a game requires, that the players cooperate or team-up, then you can talk about interactivity.

Taking some card, which the next player desperatly needs is in my eyes just blocking not cooperation.

Anonymous said...

helmet lampshade you seem to have missed the point. There are different kinds of interaction. Co-operation is a form of interaction. It is not the only one.