So you’re sitting at your dining room table and there’s no one else there to play boardgames. What do you do? Glad you asked, because I have ten suggestions.
Some of the usual suspects will be conspicuously missing. You won’t find Mage Knight here. You certainly won’t find Gloomhaven. You won’t find a lot of dungeon crawlers, although if you did, they would be curios like Deep Madness and Space Cadets: Away Missions. You won’t find a lot of Euros. You won’t find a lot of regular multiplayer games with bots or automatas or whatever scant claim to solitaire play someone dumped into the box. What you will find are games that were designed from the ground up for solitaire play. Or cooperative play, which is what you call it when you force your friends to play parts of a solitaire game for you.
I considered arranging them from one to ten, but then decided to just arrange them alphabetically, but then decided that defeats the whole point of a list, so what was I thinking? So I hurriedly ranked them one to ten. Please don’t challenge me on the ranking, because it’s a frail edifice that will collapse with the slightest push.
Also, a brief confession: I almost tried to get away with a top eleven by including Kingdom Death Monster. However, I’m in the middle of a crisis of faith with that game because of the miniatures. I love the basic gameplay loop of fighting a brutal monster, crafting stuff from its remains, and then resolving a settlement phase, in which terrible and wonderful things can happen. The monster fights are a masterclass in how to transcend the usual “punching each other’s hit points away”. But having to assemble the miniatures is such an obstacle to playing that I’m currently considering a mini-ectomy, in which I chuck all the miniatures and just use meeples for my characters and Skylanders for the monsters (what else am I going to do with all these Skylanders?). So my relationship with Kingdom Death Monster is in a bit of a strange place. I’m not ready to put it on any lists at this point. Well, not ready enough to turn a top ten list into a top eleven list, at any rate.
10) Eldritch Horror
The basic gameplay concept of Arkham Horror is that you’re going to draw a card, and that card is going to ask you to roll a check against one of your four stats. The problem is that you never know which stat it will be. You can’t. That’s simply not part of the deal. So you hope the checks on the randomly drawn cards match up with whichever character drew the card. It’s an arbitrary system, and I can’t say I’ve ever cared for it. This is hardly game design. It’s card flipping, then die rolling, then seeing what happened. My role is entirely mechanical. Flip, roll, see, with nary a decision along the way.
Fantasy Flight’s trick is to bury the flip/roll/see under a bunch of other stuff. Equipment, spells, abilities, artifacts, skills, focus tokens, ad nauseum. An arbitrary decision-less system wrapped in more arbitrary subsystems with more arbitrary sub-subsystems glommed onto any available exposed surface. Playing the game is just tracking all the cruft. It’s a form of drowning, really.
As a company, Fantasy Flight’s latest efforts have worked this glut of arbitrary systems into puzzle structures. The third edition of Arkham Horror does a remarkable job taking a bad premise — cruft tracking — and making it worse. It squeezes the basic gameplay loop, as it were, into a cramped puzzle with minimal wiggle room, presenting the cruft as a distraction. Did you pay too much attention to gathering loot? You lose! Learn to ignore the cruft, figure out the puzzle, and you’re done. Marvel Champions is the purest example of this pivot, taking the sprawl of their Lord of the Rings and Arkham Horror legacy card games and turning them into a collection of brittle one-off puzzles.
But before that happened, in between the decision-less cruft management of the original Arkham Horror at its most excessive and the one-and-done puzzle management of Arkham Horror’s third edition at its most rigid, there was a brief shining moment when something wonderful happened: Eldritch Horror. It reworked the flip/roll/see model into a geography-based challenge. Can you get to Istanbul in time? Can you reach the Amazon and recover the ancient artifact? Should you go to Shanghai to study lore or London to spawn more clues? How far will the train get you, and how much farther will a steamship go? Do you dare venture to Antarctica? It’s an expression of globe-trotting world-saving adventure instead of the usual skulking about spookytown. Eldritch Horror is that red line moving across the map showing Indy’s progress from Jakarta to Tokyo to Los Angeles.
Of course, it’s piled with cruft. With each successive add-on, the cruft builds up more. The flip/roll/see is still fundamental to what you’re doing, but there’s not much that can be done about that (check out Games Afoot’s savvy Victoriana for a smart alternative to Fantasy Flight’s flip/roll/see premise). But more than any other supposedly Lovecraftian game Fantasy Flight has made, Eldritch Horror has a sense of identity and a game design foundation that holds up. It’s all about slinging whips and shooting pistols and defeating monsters and, oh no, look what’s happened in Panama! Ironically, Fantasy Flight’s least Lovecraftian game is their best Lovecraft game.
9) Hornet Leader
Hornet Leader is candy to erstwhile kids like me who built model airplanes. All those specific aircraft, all that particular ordnance, all the appeal to military hardware nerds who thrill to air shows not just because airplanes are cool but because that’s an actual F-14, and I know this not because I saw Top Gun but because I built one when I was ten years old and I know that it’s the only airframe than can mount an AIM-54. Sorting through the cards in Hornet Leader, each with an aircraft, pilot, service date, and a set of glittering stats, I assume this must be what it’s like to collect and care about baseball cards.
This is the fullest expression of Dan Verssen’s Leader series, which began with Phantom Leader, set over the Vietnam War. The series has since gone hither and yon, into submarines and tanks and ancient armies. Although Hornet Leader is easily my favorite, Thunderbolt Leader is a close second, and it’s arguably a better simulation. It’s certainly got a sexier leading lady with the A-10 Thunderbolt. But Hornet Leader is Verssen as a designer at his best, at his most focused, a hungry younger man knuckled down over a prototype to hammer out a good game rather than a veteran publisher putting more sizzle into a flashy game that will hopefully sell a lot of copies.
This is unlike other solitaire games for how the ideal situation is when nothing happens. It’s almost a programming game. You consider a mission, its variables, its unknowns. You assign your aircraft, pilots, and weapons. You play the mission by rolling dice, drawing chits, and flipping cards. The best case scenario is that the enemy never even fires a shot, your pilots all come home slightly tired, and you’re that much closer to winning the campaign. Like playing a stealth game, where winning means no one ever even reacting to your presence. Of course, more often than not, an unexpected enemy fighter shows up, or you whiff a die roll and miss the target, or an event throws a wrench in the works. Which is fine because now your programming game has turned into a crisis management scenario. Now your plan gets to implement its contingency plan. Maybe now you get to see who would win in a fight between an F/A-18 and an Su-29. Maybe now you get to fly the airplanes around and make shooting noises with your mouth, because inside every military hardware nerd that kid’s thrill still burns bright.
8) Dawn of the Zeds
Dawn of the Zeds is nearly disqualified for the worst rules I’ve ever seen hitched to a well-designed game. The way they’re cut and shuffled among different modes, spread throughout different volumes, with different color-coding splattered across different components is an absolute disgrace to designer Hermann Luttman’s methodical wargamey approach to game design. It’s Victory Point’s clueless misguided development process at its very worst. A crayon smile scrawled across the Mona Lisa.
But once you get Dawn of the Zeds set up and running, you’re playing one of the rare games — on any platform — that truly understands and keenly expresses zombie mythology. With some B-movie garnish thrown in for good measure. If State of Decay 2 were a boardgame, if the first fifteen minutes of 28 Weeks Later were a boardgame, if Romero’s own Dawn of the Dead were a boardgame, it would be Dawn of the Zeds. Third edition, by the way, although the second edition is preferable in some ways.
(Watch my playthrough here.)
Richard Wilkins, a long-time devotee of solitaire boardgaming and especially Mage Knight (bleh), decided one day to design his own game. At this point in the story, what would usually happen is some godawful Kickstarter campaign, or an exercise in jejune “wouldn’t it be cool if…?” game design, or just some dude badgering his poor friends to play his prototype again. But this story turns out very differently. This story turns out with Victory Point Games publishing Renegade.
Wilkins made an abstract territory control system, in which characters use different colors to do different actions. Red to kill bad guys, yellow to convert bad guys, green to move pieces, and blue to move your character. He hitched this to a unique deck-building element, with all of Mage Knight’s thinkiness, focus, and flexibility, but none of Mage Knight’s flat pacing, dead-end decisions, and rote math puzzles.
But what to do with this system? Where to put it? Cyberspace, Wilkins decided! The cyberspace setting gives Renegade license to create rules and theming unfettered by the usual mana colors or sci-fi trappings or orc/elf/dragon paradigms. For any given game, you choose a master computer that sets the basic rules for this corner of cyberspace. A deck of randomized countermeasures gives each game a three-act structure, each act its own survival challenge in the context of the master computer’s rules. All this mix-and-match — which characters, which master computer, which counter-measures — flexes the strength and agility of Wilkins’ game design, demonstrating that sometimes people who play games know a heck of a lot more about how to make games than people who make games.
(You can watch my series of playthroughs here. I would love to include an Amazon link, but not only is it unavailable on Amazon, it’s unavailable at every online retailer I checked. Victory Point Games says they intend to print an updated edition in the near future.)
6) Spirit Island
Spirit Island stands apart for a number of reasons. The unique approach to colonial horror, in which vengeful gods rise up against colonial invaders. How distinctly the different gods play within the context of simple rules. A scoring system that encourages fighting different colonial powers at higher difficulty levels. Clever names as hooks for your imagination for every single card, power, and ability. In terms of overall gameplay, Spirit Island isn’t even one of those games that you can describe as “like game X with these elements from game Y and game Z”. It’s very much its own thing.
What I ultimately admire most about Spirit Island is something you wouldn’t notice until you’ve played a lot: the way it manages its escalating power levels. Both of them. On one hand, you build up your vengeful god over the course of the game, gathering power to drive the colonial invaders back into the sea. Your power spreads farther, rages harder, and takes on new forms. On the other hand, the colonial powers push back harder, dig in deeper, and despoil more decisively. Both of these things are instances of escalating power, and they’re a necessary part of the game’s structure. Imagine a graph charting two powers on the rise, a pair of lines intertwined like snakes, coiling up and up and up, twisting and writhing and biting at each other. The trick of Spirit Island is riding your own snake’s ascent to victory.
It’s a dynamic many games struggle with. If my warrior gets +1 damage but the orc gets +1 hit point, nothing has changed. That’s a math shift, not a power increase. A solitaire game has to calculate how to escalate power without just incrementing numbers. And good game design means giving this escalation personality. The magic of Spirit Island is how well it manages the paradox of an increasingly overpowered god fighting an increasingly overpowered colonial power.
5) Champions of Hara
Each character in Champions of Hara has a different resource, whether it’s fury, artifacts, mana, focus, whatever. Each is a unique dynamic to power the character’s abilities. And those abilities consist of four cards. On your turn, you get three actions to play cards. With only four cards, that’s nearly all of your cards every turn. An action is either taking a card from your hand and playing it to the table, or taking a previously played card from the table and playing it to your hand. The card does something different depending on the direction it’s played. One power when it goes down to the table, another power when it comes back into your hand. Imagine cylinders in an engine, firing on the downstroke to the table, and again on the upstroke back into your hand. With three actions each turn, and four cards, you’ll get these engines purring in no time.
You can get a couple more powerful cards by leveling up, which is like pouring high-octane fuel into the engine. But Champions of Hara is always the simple back-and-forth of a few cards, always laid out before you. This simplicity feeds perfectly into the deterministic diceless combat against the monsters that populate the board. And the cool bits of loot they carry. Champions of Hara has plenty of room to add a magic doo-dad here and there.
But the real challenge, the real reason to play, is to beat a marauding boss monster running around breaking all those simple deterministic rules. This is ultimately a game about getting your character’s engine running, farming the monsters on the board to level up for a couple of high-octane advanced cards, and then fighting something that doesn’t play fair. It’s all the methodical planning of Mage Knight on the way to some epic battle, minus the frustration. It’s also missing Mage Knight’s bland fantasy. Champions of Hara is deeply invested in world-building, with its distinct characters navigating a colorfully drawn world of memorable monsters, magic items, places, and events. Playing Champions of Hara feels like going someplace.
(Read the review here.)
Joel Toppen’s Comancheria is especially gratifying as a follow-up to Navajo Wars, his elegiac boardgame mediation on the gradual demise of the Navajo in their encounters with Spain, Mexico, and finally and fatally, the United States. It was Toppen’s first game, and it was special for its curiosity about and insight into the Navajo. It was also special for how well it managed subject matter that doesn’t lend itself to a boardgame.
The Comanche were in a different situation than the Navajo. In the context of Native American populations, they became an empire. When they collided with Spain, they were more ready than the Navajo to meet them on their terms. The early story of the Comanche is more given to the stuff of chits moving around a map, jockeying for position and fighting each other. This is still the story of a fall, but the early stages are also classic empire building. In that regard, Comancheria is a more accessible boardgame than Navajo Wars.
But more importantly, Comanacheria is more accessible because it’s a shining example of a boardgame designer learning from his past designs. Since Navajo Wars, you can see how much Toppen has learned about pacing, interface, and the gameplay expression of complex historical and cultural concepts. And, oh, the AI in Comancheria! It’s a thing of absolute beauty for how it shifts and evolves and feints, for how you can massage it and guess at its motives and maybe head it off at the pass if only it doesn’t betray you at the last moment. Of all the games on this list, Comacheria is the only game that feels like you’re playing against someone instead of something.
(You would also be able to see my YouTube playthrough of Comancheria if I hadn’t recorded the entire thing with a glare over the part of the board that shows what the AI is doing. But you can read my Navajo Wars reviews here and listen to my podcast with designer Joel Toppen here. Sadly, Comancheria is out of print and unavailable as far as I can tell. But unlike Renegade, there seem to be a few used copies available on Boardgame Geek for “reasonable” prices.)
3) Fields of Arle
If you play boardgames, you’re going to have to accept poorly written rules, untuned gameplay, crappy writing, dumb miniatures, pointless complexity, and half-assed playtesting. It’s part of the hobby as surely as yarn is part of knitting. But when I need a reminder that there are shining examples of perfection, I turn to Uwe Rosenberg’s Fields of Arle. Not all Rosenberg games are perfect, but the ones that are perfect are a real balm. I can’t call them comfort food, because comfort food implies something prosaic. There’s nothing prosaic about Fields of Arle, a love letter to a specific patch of ground in the German lowlands where Rosenberg’s family is from.
Fields of Arle is steeped in adoring specificity for its geography. Draining flooded lowlands, burning peat for warmth, loading a cart with skins and trucking them to Bremen or Norden, and maybe opening an inn or a village church or one of the local castles. At first, the main board looks like the cockpit of a 747. But you’ll quickly subsume it as your list of possible actions, neatly divided into the summer/winter pulse of the passing years. Of course, the real charm is your tableau. At first, a tiny farmhouse, trapped between useless marsh on one side and flooded lowlands on the other. Now what?
There are no wrong answers, which is simultaneously the strength and weakness of Fields of Arle. It’s a forgiving sandbox, especially if you’re playing solitaire. Choose among agriculture, livestock, construction, transportation, trade, or any combination thereof. Since this is one of those quintessential Euros where the only randomness is the set-up, you might worry about analysis paralysis. Before the first move, a computer brain could map out every possible choice and determine its score in advance. Hope you enjoyed yourself, computer brain.
But for me, Fields of Arle is about exploring the pastoral idyll by trying different paths. In all that lateral space to explore the lowlands of East Frisia, there’s a feeling of creative expression. When I’m confronted with the choice of tanning leather, growing flax, or cultivating parks, it’s not a decision about which one will earn me the most points. It’s a decision about which one to try this time.
Also, Fields of Arle has cow meeples that you have to put stickers on so you know they’re cows. So now you’ve got stickered cow meeples, which might be the most adorable thing I’ve ever seen in a boardgame. I can’t deny it’s weighted my preference for playing cow strategies.
(Note: Fields of Arle wasn’t designed as a solitaire game, although it officially supports solitaire play and it loses virtually nothing in the process. But it is a rare Euro that was designed for no more than two players, so calling it solitaire is within the parameters of a rounding error.)
Of all Shadi Torbey’s games, this is easily my favorite. As a variation on card solitaire, it gives Torbey room to creatively tweak the gameplay with his different “expansions”, each included in the box and each with its own unique style. From the deceptively laidback Glyphs to the rigid demands of the Towers to the unpredictability of the Door to the Oniverse, there are seven distinct games in here. And because it’s composed entirely of cards, each consisting entirely of artwork, it’s a geneous showcase for Elise Plessis’ vibrant drawings. If you want to appreciate the collaboration between Torbey and Plessis, how their imaginations intertwine and complement each other, this is the game to play.
For me, Onirim is the foundation of Torbey’s “mythology”. All the trappings of his Oniverse games seem to have sprung from this dream labyrinth, and playing Onirim feels like exploring that labyrinth ten minutes at a time.
Warning: must love shuffling. I’m not fooling around. Shuffling tolerance is a serious prerequisite for Onirim.
Apocrypha’s horror theme isn’t the usual tentacles and elder gods. It’s broader, richer, and deeper than that. It’s going to esoteric places. If I were to compare it to another lore, the closest I could come would be Funcom’s online RPG, Secret World, with its bits and pieces of this and that woven into conspiracies of different flavors, part potpourri, part homage, derivative, but not blindly, and not without its own twists and imaginative tweaks. Perhaps Control, as well. Remedy’s coldly mundane modern world full of objects simultaneously strange and ordinary.
The format is Lone Shark’s Pathfinder Adventure Card Game series, in which your character is a small deck of carefully managed cards, exploring locations represented by small decks of carefully managed cards. The series had a promising but rough start. Over successive releases, each with their own add-ons, the system was hammered into something more manageable, although it could never be accused of elegance. That’s where last year’s Pathfinder reboot comes in. Lone Shark called a mulligan and re-released Pathfinder with more emphasis on sleek and simple. But before they threw in the towel on the potential of the original and more complicated, complex, and even convoluted Pathfinder 1.0, they attempted Apocrypha.
You can find lots of folks complaining about the rules in Apocrypha, but that’s not because there’s a problem with the rules. The problem is with the way people want to read rules. The rules in Apocrypha are cold and dispassionate. They are like a legal framework into which you will later plug laws. The Apocrypha rules don’t tell you how to play the game. They tell you how to assemble the game from pieces, which in turn tell you how to play the game. It’s a bold move, and I’m not the least bit surprised Lone Shark backed off and went back to sanding down and lacquering up the rules with their Pathfinder reboot, removing friction above all else. But for a unique and uniquely satisfying horror experience, we’ll always have Apocrypha.
(You can watch a full play-through here.)