Solo gaming is popular on YouTube. Perhaps not as popular as videos involving cats or the latest pop star whose record company has thrown a ton of money at the platform in order to become ubiquitous, but popular nonetheless. I have found this trend rather comforting because it validates something that has been a part of my life for many years. My cousins, Alison and David, introduced me to Dungeons & Dragons in the very early 80s, and I started reading the Fighting Fantasy books by Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson, which are, of course, designed to be played alone. Later, I played Warhammer and its sci-fi variant, Warhammer 40,000, with friends at high school. But when I came across Advanced Heroquest and Rogue Trooper, these games advertised the ability to play solo. With Advanced Heroquest, the solo rules were included with the game, but with Rogue Trooper, the solo rules were made available in an issue of White Dwarf magazine. I found playing Rogue Trooper on my own particularly absorbing. I would travel across Nu Earth trying to uncover the traitor responsible for the Quartz Zone Massacre, and get lost tackling enemies, meeting companions and finding useful equipment to help me on my quest.
At university I played Advanced Dungeons & Dragons with a group for a while, but after I started work I began to drift away from the hobby, veering more towards video gaming instead. But a couple of years ago I became aware of the board game community on the internet. I discovered that we are in a golden age of board games and I was amazed by how beautifully made the games were. I began to start collecting, but soon realised that, as most of my friends were middle-aged folk singers, I would find it hard to be able to play in a group. It was then that I became aware of some of the excellent multiplayer games that had solo variants, and also of dedicated solo games.
My game collection now consists almost entirely of games that work well solo. I have also subscribed to some excellent YouTube channels dedicated to solo gaming, showing playthroughs, reviews and explanations of how to make games work for a solitaire player. Some of my particular favourite channels are Geek Gamers and Solo McLaughlin, both of which are channels belonging to American ladies whose styles differ a great deal. Solo McLauglin is very jolly and enthusiastic in the way she presents her videos, whereas the lady who presents Geek Gamers is a lot more laid back in how she speaks and seems to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the hobby. What makes them similar is that the games they are demonstrating are always the star of the show, with the camera concentrating solely on the components and gameplay, with the presence of the hosts only evidenced by their hands. I really like both of their styles and find their videos very engaging.
Artichoke Dip is a channel dedicated to solo roleplaying, and the host, Rob, has a laid-back and sometimes humorous approach to how he presents his videos. He throws out a lot of suggestions and shows resources which other players might find useful. He only puts out new content sporadically but his videos are so enjoyable that they stand repeated watching.
There are also some very good channels if you just want to see the game being played, or if you want a playthrough that will also be a tutorial. Ricky Royal and Doug Herring are particularly good at showing how the games are played, and Callasmar (the Lonesome Gamer) does very long and in-depth playthroughs, although I wouldn’t recommend his videos if you suffer from motion sickness as the camera does move around a lot.
But what is the appeal of playing a board game solo, and isn’t it a bit sad? I think the appeal for me, when it comes to gaming in general, is that a game is a self-contained world with a constant set of rules. It is comforting to know that this game world is not out of control, it has boundaries and limits to what can or can’t happen. And if I don’t like what’s happening I can stop playing and start again. A lot of the games I tend to go for also have fantasy, sci-fi or horror themes which are pure escapism. There are no real-world worries here, only adventure and fun. You lose yourself in a solo game the same way you would lose yourself in an elaborate puzzle. After the Brexit vote, anti-intellectualism, anti-feminism, revelations of the sinister misuse of power and influence in Hollywood, the rise of Trump, and all of his despotic international counterparts, it is easy to see why an escape from the real world is sometimes necessary in order to preserve one’s sanity. Getting hopelessly lost in a world of dice and counters gives me that.
My favourite games are ones with a strong theme and rules that aren’t too complicated, so that you don’t have to re-learn them every time you play. Runebound (Second Edition) by Fantasy Flight Games is particularly suited to solo play and gives you the experience of travelling across a fantasy land in order to become stronger so that you can eventually take on the evil that is threatening the world. You can take on companions to assist you in battles and find special items to make you more powerful.
DungeonQuest (First Edition) by Games Workshop is from the mid-eighties which I only acquired recently. There is a new edition from Fantasy Flight Games, but I went for the GW version with its delightful, quirky artwork. Your mission is to travel through Dragonfire Castle, one chamber at a time, trying to overcome traps and monsters as you make your way to the dragon’s treasure chamber. Then you have to grab what treasure you can and safely make it out alive. There is a time-limit and the game is incredibly hard, but some of the ways you can meet your demise are so entertaining that I never feel frustrated by the game, just that I’ve had a fun adventure that didn’t end well.
Rogue Trooper, another Games Workship mid-eighties classic, is still a favourite of mine, and is based on the comic character from 2000AD. Travelling across the colourful board is very enjoyable as you encounter enemies, find useful equipment and meet companions. But once the traitor is uncovered the game becomes a chase across the planet and beyond as you try to track him down and defeat him.
Some of my other favourites in my collection are inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft. Elder Sign by Fantasy Flight Games, The Cards of Cthulhu by Dan Verssen Games, and Pandemic Reign of Cthulhu by Z-Man Games all have the objective of preventing ancient evil monsters from entering our world in order to destroy it. All three of these games are rich in theme and are elegantly simple which means you can just lose yourself in Lovecraft’s mysterious world without the rules giving you a headache.
Space Hulk Death Angel by Fantasy Flight is a card game where you lead a squad of space marines onto an alien-infested spaceship and have to survive long enough to overcome your objective. This is a game I have never won but have come agonisingly close. It is very tense and atmospheric and comes in a tiny box so you can take it anywhere.
Also on a sci-fi theme, Tiny Epic Galaxies by Gamelyn Games, has you sending out rockets in order to colonise planets. The game features lovely components and a very elegant system of artificial intelligence with an adjustable difficulty level, so that as you get better at the game you can select a stronger AI opponent. As the name suggests, this game also comes in a tiny box and enables you to enjoy the idea of galactic conquest in a way that doesn’t take several hours or too many square feet of table space.
The final game I’m going to mention is a new one, Ravage Dungeons of Plunder by Beardy Brothers Games. This was the first and only game I’ve ever backed on Kickstarter, firstly because it looked good value, and secondly because it sounded exactly like the kind of game I would enjoy. You play the part of an orc travelling into a dungeon in order to fight monsters and find useful items. The dungeon is mapped on the back of cards which makes the footprint of the game nice and manageable for those of us with small coffee tables. The game can become quite intense as more monsters appear turn by turn and threaten to overwhelm you. The artwork is superb and the components are lovely and colourful, especially the custom dice.
With so much content on YouTube and the website Board Game Geek, it is easy to find out if a game will be right for you before you buy it, and then you will be able to allow yourself a little excursion from the cares of the real world, and perhaps save a land from a dragon or take over a galaxy.
My gaming blog can be found at: https://paul-carden.blogspot.co.uk/