Mary Russell

Like many folks these last few weeks, a lot of my recent gaming has been solitaire. This isn't all that unusual for me: I tend to spend a fair amount of time playtesting things solo to ensure that they are mechanically sound before I inflict them on other human beings. (That's a lesson I quickly learned in my salad days after a particularly disastrous playtest which ended with all my testers regarding me with a disconcerting and piteous mixture of bug-eyed horror and strained, polite smiles.)

That's probably my primary reason for playing games solitaire - as part of my job and my craft. Heck, when you get down to it, that's probably my primary reason for playing games period, regardless of how many people are at my table: my interest in games generally, and in wargames specifically, is primarily a professional one. That doesn't mean I'm dispassionate or anhedonic, or that my interest is purely mercenary - only that my desire to play games is strongly driven by my desire to make games, and that desire in turn is influenced in part by the fact that it pays the bills. 

Obviously, that's not the reason most people play games. For many, it's an inherently social activity, to the point where the idea of a solo game is inconceivable to them. "If I'm going to play by myself, I'll just play a video game." They'll even go as far as to say that a solo game isn't really a game: at best, it's a puzzle to solve or a task to ease the boredom.

That kind of thing really bugs me. It might not be a game they're interested in playing, but that doesn't mean it's not a game. Like, I wasn't super-interested in watching Grey's Anatomy, but I'm not going to say it wasn't a television show. It most assuredly was. What do you mean, "was" isn't the right word - it can't still be on, can it? It's been on for sixteen years?! That can't be, I remember it coming on just a few years agohmygosh turns out I'm old. 

The point that your ancient, decrepit narrator is making is that solo games are games, and solo play of multiplayer games is a perfectly valid way to experience them. This might be surprising to some folks who have asked me for "solo versions" of and bots for my 2P and 3P+ designs, and gotten a flat if polite "no" in response. The short version is that the dynamics I am interested in at those player counts are quite different than the ones I explore in solo-only designs. Those dynamics are in a way achingly human, and in converting them to a flowchart format, something essential is irretrievably, irrevocably lost. 

A flowchart can't decide whether to screen an attack or absorb it in Table Battles, or to block passage of a Law in This Guilty Land. I mean, it can, but the whole thing is structured as a sort of game of chicken - "if I do this, will they do that?," and on the other side of it, "they've done this, do they want me to do that?" That can't be something that can predicted by chart priorities, and it can't be up to a random die roll either - it needs to be a human brain making the decision, trying to outthink the person sitting on the other side of the table. 

Now, that person and that brain might be the same person on both sides of the mapsheet, acting in the grand and venerable "play both sides to the best of your ability" tradition of wargaming. This originated out of necessity; even in their hex-and-counter heyday, wargames were a niche concern, and it was difficult to find face-to-face opponents. 

In his Complete Wargamer's Handbook however, James Dunnigan mentions another reason: "a preference to play without an opponent, so that the player may exercise his own ideas about how either side in the game should be played without interference from another player. Wargames are, to a very large extent, a means of conducting historical experiments. So another player just gets in the way most times." (Emphasis mine.) While I think Dunnigan is overstating the case a little, it's consistent with his emphasis on simulation - his conception of wargames as a sort of mathematical science. 

That's not my own take on it - wargames are more art than science I think, and I don't see their purpose as recreating or simulating history so much as engaging with it. But part of the appeal of what I would still term "simulation gaming" is pulling the levers and watching what happens; part of the pleasure, and the educational value, is observing the model at work, and then thinking about, and arguing with, the results. That's what makes these sorts of games more than mere diversions, and why I think the most important and serious work in the medium is being done in this sphere. They push against the conceptions of what games are, expand the limits of what games can do. 

This is perhaps doubly true, at least in theory, of solo-only games.  That serious, contemplative, introspective quality of games that center observation of a model arguably makes for an inherently solitary pursuit. Solo games can play to the strengths of simulation games, and simulation games to the strengths of solitaire play. I say "in theory" however because this potential is largely unexplored. I've heard promising things about the games of Joel Toppen, and some of R. Ben Madison's more recent and ambitious designs, but a sizable number of solo-only wargames remain, to put it uncharitably, either variations on whack-a-mole, or a sort of paper rollercoaster, randomly generating a narrative while you're along for the ride.

Perhaps that's one reason why I dislike those sorts of popular solo wargames. They can be so much more than that.

1 comment

  • Well said, Tom.
    I generally play alone, by preference and usually necessity.
    I always liked doing this, for the reason JFD states… and trying out your own ideas leads to making variants of existing games, to designing whole new games about what you want to see and play… slippery slope, that.
    I have frequently remarked about the GMT COIN series games, all of which were designed to have 2-4 human players, is that easily 70-80% of the questions we field on boardgamegeek.com are about some aspect of implementing the solo “bots”.
    It’s as if once people are provided with a flowchart to trace through or a card to read, all their imagination and free will flies out the window.
    If the bots were not there in the first place, they would figure it out themselves most likely… though someone could counter that a multiplayer game in this system, where the nature of each player faction is so different, is enough of a challenge in the first place without a bot to even help a new player figure out what is important to a player faction…
    I do know some people use the bots this way, as a learning tool.
    Others seem to use it as yet another exercise in parsing, to show they can outwit a piece of paper.

    Brian Train

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