Hall or Nothing Productions Ltd: The Rise and Rise of Solo Gaming

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

The Rise and Rise of Solo Gaming

If you were to think of ‘someone who plays board games alone’ - what image comes into your mind?  Be honest, is it Comic Store Guy from The Simpsons?  A socially challenged loner geek who struggles with human interaction?  Maybe you’re right.  But you’re probably wrong.  The truth is that more and more people are being drawn towards solo board gaming, and the reasons for this are myriad and interesting.  

It’s strange to think that video games were once merely the province of marginalised geeks.  Especially now that franchises like Call of Duty have proven they can draw in many more millions of dollars than Hollywood tentpole movies.  And often, multi-million dollar video game blockbusters (e.g. most of the Final Fantasy series) only offer a single player mode.  So why shouldn’t popular board games offer follow suit?

As people with disposable incomes in general look for more varied and interesting pastimes to while away their free time, we have seen a huge rise in board game sales.  Indeed, there are many articles detailing the recent volcanic growth of board gaming, and you only have to witness the footfall here at the UK Games Expo to see that in action. Some say it is a new Golden Age for the industry.  Be it clever ‘Euro’ game designs with slick mechanics and exquisitely agonising decisions to make, or thematic board games showcasing beautiful art and bucketloads of plastic miniatures, an abundant array of titles ever expanding with each passing year means we are becoming more and more spoilt for choice in our gaming options.  

Creativity and innovation in design are rife as each new game stands on the gigantic shoulders of its predecessors, whether it’s delivering new mechanisms for play (like Dominion’s introduction of deck-building within the gameplay itself), continually tweaking an idea or two to improve something where possible here (e.g. the Marvel Legendary games’ slight but significant transformation into the more focussed Legendary Encounters series), overhauling a game system to streamline it there (see any of Fantasy Flight’s ‘second edition’ - or third edition - games like Talisman, Runebound, or Descent), or even reimagining a previous title entirely and delivering a completely fresh vision of that game (such as Pandemic Legacy, where player decisions might mean the actual destruction of game components).

Whilst often looked down upon by gamers - due to the wealthy choice of interesting alternatives - mainstream family games remain evergreen as the umpteenth version of Monopoly with a new Intellectual Property splashed across it continues to grace store shelves, and even Risk had its overhaul into Risk Legacy, stepping into a unique and interesting direction entirely and bringing it back to the attention of more ‘hardcore’ gamers.  And gamers’ demands for increasingly unique and interesting offerings continue to grow, with previously super niche thematic games like Kingdom Death: Monster pulling in over 12 million dollars on Kickstarter.

Whilst Kingdom Death blew minds, wallets and Kickstarter records, a point of note is that it is a game that can be, and often is, played cooperatively, and thus solo.  Ten years ago, cooperative board games where you play with your friends or by yourself against the game were few and far between.  There are wargames and fringe titles that have been around for decades sporting solitaire play options, and people have almost certainly played both sides of games like Chess to improve their technique for hundreds of years.  But whilst over the years pioneering titles from the likes of Chainsaw Warrior (1987), Warhammer Quest (1995), and Lord of the Rings (2000), to Arkham Horror (2005), right through to Forbidden Island (2010) and Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island (2012) all have supported cooperative and/or solitaire play, it is now pretty indisputable that cooperative games are cemented into the popular gaming zeitgeist.  In fact, boardgamegeek.com, which boasts 3.3 million unique monthly visitors currently ranks its number one game of all time as voted for by its users as the cooperative - and thus soloable - Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 (2015).

Cooperative games are great for gathering together and playing as a team with friends and/or family against a mathematical or thematic objective and solving puzzles together. But what draws people to play these games alone?  A cross-section of soloist enthusiasts had the following to say:

Logistics: “We work a lot. We work weird hours and weird shifts. We move around a lot. Life is less consistent, so our gaming time and gaming circles become less consistent. Solo gaming fills those gaps nicely.” - Jason Perez

Creativity: “For many people, gaming is a social experience. For me, it is a chance to be creative alone. I play games to tell stories” - Amy (Other Amy)

Preparation: “To learn the game. I don't like to present a game to anyone without having a good understanding of it first.” - Brian Hunt

Immersion: “I find it a lot easier to immerse myself into the theme or story when alone. There are no distractions or side conversations.” - Shaun Austin

The challenge: “The kids are all married but I want to play solo games because I love more brain challenging games that take more time than anybody else would want to play.” - Kevin Erskine

Screen-burn: “Sometimes, it's simply a way to force myself away from the screen. Staring at a computer screen all the time is probably doing irreparable damage to my eyes. Solo board games are a way around this.” - Joke Meister

And on the subject of screens, video bloggers who focus particularly on solo gaming command a formidable presence on YouTube, with personalities like JPlay (3,006 subscribers, 505,272 views ), callasmar (5,424 subscribers, 979,918 views)  Ricky Royal (15,330 subscribers, 3,622,304 views) and marcowargamer (12,879 subscribers, 3,955,074 views) all lending their expertise to the cause by showcasing solo games and how-to-play guides for said games.

There are reddit and facebook groups dedicated to solo gaming with thousands of members, and on the aforementioned boardgamegeek site there thrives a community called the 1 Player Guild (or 1PG).  Devoted to podcasting about and discussing solitaire gaming this group encourages and champions a number of activities such as: competing online by beating one another’s scores at certain games, developing new methods and rules to play existing games solitaire that aren’t originally designed that way, sharing amusing stories and narrative session reports of game plays, and taking an annual vote on the People’s Choice of Top 100 solo games of the year.  The latter draws in hundreds of voters and thousands of votes, often climaxing in the collective opening of many wallets to chase the next new shiny game!

From its foundation in 2012 there were 12 members, at the time of writing 6,415 individuals from around the world now make up the 1PG.  The guild’s founder, Albert Hernandez, talks candidly about its growth:

“The guild was always open to anybody that is interested in solo games... I never expected it to be quite so big.  One thing that makes the guild so popular is how friendly it is.  Folks always comment on that.  Nobody needs to look for permission or approval to do something that is helpful.  I think that has really helped the guild grow.  There is no way one person would have come up with all the great ideas that have come out of the guild.”

There has been a surge of interest in solitaire rules for games recently, particularly in line with the continued growth of crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter where gamers can help to guide the decisions of game creators to include extra elements they might not have previously considered, such as solo rules.  More and more often, solo rules are being offered with new games, sometimes just as a stretch goal.  But canny designers such as the legendary Jamey Stegmaier have jumped ahead of the curve on this, going as far as enlisting game designer Morten Monrad Pedersen with the express purpose of designing solitaire rules for his games.  This resulted in Pedersen’s hugely enjoyable automa series that emulate an ‘AI’ player in games such as Viticulture, Between Two Cities, and of course, the hugely successful Scythe.  In his own words:

“The increased buzz from solo gamers makes other gamers give it a shot and makes publishers see there’s a big market they’ve overlooked, which in turn creates more solo gaming buzz.  Solo gaming gave me a chance to go back to doing game design for my own enjoyment and bumping into Jamey Stegmaier by chance let me ride his on his coat tails and on solo gaming’s wave of popularity, so that I now have a job in the board game business.”

Pedersen also compiled some interesting data on the growth of soloist games in this chart:

If you’re a designer or publisher developing a board game you could do worse than paying attention to some of the most influential developers on Kickstarter and reading Stegmaier and Pedersen’s various blogs on the importance of acknowledging the solo gamer base; or you could simply take another look at those mind-shattering numbers that Adam Poots generated with his monstrous Kingdom Death: Monster Kickstarter.

So whether it’s to learn the rules to a game you’re introducing to your friends, getting away from screens for a bit to challenge your mental agility, to immerse yourself in a thematic, narrative experience, or just because you blooming love it, solo gaming can be a thrilling and fulfilling experience.  And now with friendly online forums and resources at your fingertips, even though you are playing solitaire, you don’t have to game alone!

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