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Gathering of Engineers

Ludographic considerations from the Silicon Forest

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Solitaire's The Only Game In Town

I'll be very impressed if anyone can tell me the musical source of the title.

Like a lot of gamers, there have been times during my life when I've had to resort to solitaire gaming to get any gaming at all in. The longest stretch was after I left high school (college was all about RPGs or drinking games) up until about seven years ago, a stretch of around 18 years. I did get a little ftf gaming in during that time, but the vast majority of the gaming I did was solitaire, and then only when I could find enough space in a small apartment to actually leave something set up.

The reason I "founded" Rip City Gamers was because I discovered the Euro market and found that solitaire wasn't much of an option. At the same time, card-driven wargames started becoming popular, requiring an opponent (and ACTS hadn't really taken off yet). Try playing El Grande solitaire, it requires a real desire to succeed. Much of what I love about Euros is the tension of not knowing what your opponent will do or where they are in relation to your own position in terms of victory conditions. As such, playing Euros by myself has pretty much become an exercise in learning the game so that I can later teach it.

Recently, I've been playing World of Warcraft solitaire. The game is very playable solitaire as is, although managing four players on your own can get a little confusing from time to time, especially with a game a variable as this one. I've been impressed with the solitaire changes suggested on the 'Geek, and that got me thinking about how one might find ways to make Euros more fun solitaire, which is to say "at all". I'll skip such obvious games as Al Cabohn, which are specifically set up to be played solitaire.

Bidding - Like a lot of mechanisms, this can be simulated by setting reasonable bids by each player, then dicing to randomize them a little. Downside is that you have to think about every position's bid, which can be a real pain. Blind bidding, such as found in games like Aladdin's Dragons, is pretty much out if you want to play each position, although you can completely randomize the process for all but one player. I personally don't find this all that much fun. Continuous bidding, where players bid around the table until all but one pass, is also difficult to do unless you treat is as a "max bid" and use the general bidding scheme. Again, this loses much of the excitement and flavor of the mechanism. This is perhaps the biggest solitaire killing mechanism out there.

Guess What I'll Do - I personally love this mechanism, where one player picks one of a set of possibilities, and the other player tries to guess what they picked. Choosing a defense in Pizza Box Football is a classic example, although in most games it's a less pervasive element. The answer is to have a set of rules that govern what will happen under certain situations, and in fact PBF provides that exact situation while providing considerable uncertainty. For games that don't have an AI provided, I'll generally pick which of the possibilities are most probable, then dice for them. In the end, I generally feel like I'm just playing the odds rather than gauging my opponent, which again removes some of the fun, although PBF is so based on the dice that their system doesn't really change how the game feels.

Hidden Elements - This is usually cards, but it can also be a variety of other things, such as tokens in Samurai or E&T. Even with cards, the specific mechanism will determine if this is solitaire-friendly. Settlers, for example, is generally pretty solitairable, although you lose some of the tension surrounding development cards. Paths of Glory is somewhat less so, unless you are willing to play with randomly drawn cards (although you really need to look at the combat cards ahead of time, reducing the tension a bit). Hannibal is patently unsolitaireable in it's existing form, mostly because of the Battle Cards, although that process can be reduced to a simple CRT. In fact, someone did that very thing with the original Titan game, removing the Battleboards/lands completely. It makes the game playable within two hours, although one might argue that it loses a lot of the fun (if you aren't watching someone else fight). However, with a game like Dungeon Twister, the cards are easy to use: just draw combat and action cards randomly and they all even out in the end. In general, the more cards that can come up, the less solitaireable the game will be. Command and Colors: Ancients works well too, and often you don't even have to randomize the cards, just "forget" what your opponent has in hand.

Trading - This is actually fairly doable, even with games like Civilization. Some things can be randomized, but in general it's not too hard to just pretend to be two people trading cards. You know that someone is going to get a nasty-gram from time to time, but that's true in the ftf version as well. I played this solitaire a lot when it first came out in the AH edition - my parents had gone to Europe for a month, and I was stuck out in the sticks without much to do. However, the more involved or elemental the trading is (such as Bohnanza), the less interesting. The original Civ made it pretty easy to simply compute the value of each trade to both parties and try to equalize it as much as possible, but this isn't as easy with a lot of games.

Of course, solitaire isn't really ever meant as a replacement for ftf gaming, it's more of a story (at least for me). Seeing how the game unfolds is really the payoff, not so much winning or losing. That's the fun in soloing WoW or Civ. There is very little fun in handing your opponent a particularly sweet screwage move when you are your opponent, sort of like sticking it to the Man when you are the Man. Regardless, I'm unlikely to play games like Civ or WoW with my existing group, they simply are too long for the number of people involved, so playing them solitaire is the only way to get them on the table.


  • At 2:32 AM, Anonymous Elg said…

    Was the musical source of the title from a Carol Snow song -"At 17"?

    Nice article.

  • At 2:36 AM, Blogger Antgrad said…

    No, I think it's "Solitaire" that Neil Sedaka and the Carpenters sang way back. Not sure who had the original but its been covered many times since.

  • At 9:07 AM, Anonymous David said…

    At the risk of stating the obvious, wouldn't World of Warcraft and Civilization be better enjoyed as solitaire games in their computer versions? They're both excellent games.

  • At 11:22 AM, Blogger Alfred said…

    When I've had a choice between a computer wargame on a subject and a boardgame on the same subject, I almost always reach for the boardgame. I guess I like seeing under the hood, and then there's the tactile element.


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