Articles Analysis Gaming Lonely as a Cloud

Gaming Lonely as a Cloud MattDP Hot

Written by MattDP     October 04, 2010    
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lonelyAs a general rule one of the things I usually look for in a game is some direct player interaction. I don't much mind if its heavily moderated by action selection or some similar Euro-style mechanic, indeed some of my favourite titles solve the perennial problems of multi-player conflict in this manner, so long as it's in there somewhere. My tolerance for low interaction games is very low - something I'll only bring out once in a while when the occasion demands it. So it's no great surprise that for a long time I found the idea of solo boardgaming bizarre to say the least.

One of the key reasons that I found it an odd proposition is the existence of computer games. Back in the halcyon days of my youth, when all I had was a crappy little ZX Spectrum with a mighty 16k of RAM, the idea of playing solo boardgames such asChainsaw Warrior held a lot more appeal. Indeed I'll wager that if it were not for the parlous state of home computing at the time, that utterly dire solo effort from Games Workshop would have bombed with the nuclear-level detonation it deserved. However with the advent of decent, affordable 16-bit machines the value of these games fell away. And indeed up until relatively recently the number of solo-specific games (as opposed to wargames designed for 2 players which can be, and often are, played solo) was very small indeed. The reasons should be obvious: a computer game is faster to set up, and often rather more absorbing than a solo board game, plus since they're actually designed to be played solo you don't feel like a complete freak for playing it by yourself. If you don't want to get into a twitch game and you value the cerebral component of playing a board game then that's no problem. There are plenty of highly demanding strategy games you can play on a computer, from implementations of the classic abstracts that could beat any casual human player to war simulations that do a far better job than their board-based counterparts by implementing terrifically complex and highly accurate combat systems and doing a superb job of replicated the fog of war. If you're on your own, a computer game always looked to me like a better bet than playing a board game by myself, and for the life of me I couldn't see why anyone else would think differently.

What eventually changed my mind was playing Arkham Horror, a game which also opened my eyes as to the potential value of co-operative games (a value which remains almost entirely missed by nearly every other co-op title on the market, in my opinion). The initial reason was very simple: playing Arkham Horror solo was an experience as captivating and as immersive as any computer title thanks to the incredible atmosphere and sense of narrative that it generates turn after turn. In some ways, I have to say, I think Arkham Horror solo would work better as a computer application than it does as a boardgame thanks largely to its relatively high level of administrative overhead. If you're fond of playing with a lot of expansions (I'm not: I just have two big-box expansions and leave it at that) then a computer version of the game would save absolutely bags of time and fiddle factor in play. Indeed I'm slightly surprised Fantasy Flight haven't released a computer version: perhaps they've considered it, I don't know. But anyway, although my initial example might not actually be the best it did succeed in opening my eyes to some other advantages that solo gaming has over playing against the computer, which in my previous ignorance I had hitherto failed to appreciate.

Alert: the following paragraph contains several unintentional double entendres which I only noticed on re-reading and may shock those with a low threshold for bad puns. You have been warned I have no idea why they all slipped into the same section of the article: obviously I was thinking about board games at the time. Personally I think it was the strain of trying to avoid cliché and not titling this article "playing with yourself". The pressure was bound to slip out somewhere.

Some of the things I'd missed are, in retrospect, pretty obvious. For one thing the impressive eye-candy available in playing the latest video game is really nothing compared to the real-life eye-candy of great artwork and components in a board game. To say nothing of the pleasingly tactile nature of actually physically handling your pieces during play. A board game is also an awful lot more portable than most computers and gaming consoles and you don't have the annoyance factor of small equipment making the play experience less satisfying. In the past I've had to take several week-long trips away to London on various work assignments and after an evening meal and a bottle of wine, the evenings tended to stretch ahead interminably. Had I been able to take a game back to my room and play with it all night, those trips would have been a whole lot less boring.

But the biggest difference between a computer game and a solo board game is rather more subtle than the simple physical differences between paper or card and silicon. I suppose it may just be me but personally, I have a tendency to treat stuff that's going on on the computer with a lesser degree of importance than stuff that's actually happening in reality, as it were. Probably not the best trait for someone who makes a living programming computers to have, I suppose, but it's just me. I first noticed it when, as a youth, I got heavily enough into playing Chess to obtain my own little chess computer. Whilst I was moderately not-awful at Chess I had a hard time playing against the computer on anything other than the easiest difficulty settings. The problem was simply that because I was playing against a machine, I expected instant gratification and was just not willing or able to put in the same level of time and effort as I would against a real person. Beating a machine was an ephemeral, throwaway achievement in comparison that could be completed in a fraction of the time it'd take to play a face-to-face game and I just couldn't be bothered. I'm the same with modern strategy titles and even playing board games that I love against AI opponents: I'm particularly aware that when playing games that have even minor luck elements (which is basically everything in my case) I'm far more likely to take huge risks and gamble on a lucky draw or roll when playing against a computer.

I've also belatedly realised that while hiving off lots of administrative work to the computer in a strategy game has many advantages, particularly for conflict simulations, there are ways in which it can work against you. Hiding the calculations and information away from the player makes for a more naturalistic game but it means you're making less strategic decisions. You can't make proper decisions unless you're fully aware of the rules the game engine is playing by, something you always know in a solo board game. This adds to the feeling of triviality that hangs around playing computer games for me, and exacerbates the problem of my not taking them seriously.

The final proof of this particular thesis came a few months ago when I found a computer version of one of my favourite solo titles, the soon to be reprinted Dungeonquest for download. Of course I had to give it a whirl but after a couple of trips through the dungeon I found the game totally flat and lifeless, in complete contrast to the thrilling sessions I'd had with the physical board game. The reasons were simple: the board game looks a whole lot better than the amateurish graphics in the remake, and being able to rapidly click through to resolve every room tile, card turn and combat in lightning speed just robbed the game of any tension and atmosphere. If the dungeon kills my character while I've been sat playing on the living room floor I've just spent a half-hour of my valuable gaming time without getting a result. If the computer does it to me then I wasted 5 minutes and I can just reload and start again.

Although it seems like I came late to the party when in comes to solo games I can at least offer in my defence that I wasn't the only one. Until relevantly recently seeing a solo option on a game was a relative rarity, let alone the existence of professionally published solo titles like the excellent Phantom Leader for gamers to enjoy. Given this renaissance in the genre it is therefore something of a fat irony that in roughly the same time period, the original refuge of the lonely gamer, video games, have become increasingly focused on a multi-player experience. Perhaps I'm getting old but I just can't get into this scene at all: I fail to see the appeal of wandering round a maze being killed repeatedly by hyperactive twelve year olds all souped up on amphetamines. Could it be that the two groups of games are going to do some mass-swap in terms of player number focus? It seems unlikely. I suspect, instead, that as I grow older I just come to appreciate every facet of my favourite hobby more and more. 

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Comments (12)
  • avatarKingPut

    Great observation about playing a game solo on a board vs. on a computer. Once you've downloaded and played a game on your phone or Ipad or computer does that make you want to play that game more or less in person. For me it's usually less. That board game I liked or loved that I just downloaded becomes just a time another time killer similar to other time killers like solitaire or tetris.

    I feel different about games I play on Vassal. Vassal is so manual that the game feel very similar to playing with the real board game. Also, once I've played a board game solo on Vassal, there's no way I'll play it solo with a real board. The quick set up and portability of Vassal out weighs playing with physical pieces with for me.

  • avatarSouthernman

    I'm just starting to invest in some of the Victory Point Games solitaire games due to a massive drop off of AT gamers in my area (haven't played a game for a few weeks now) coupled with the quiet but regular 'noise' that solitaire games (and gaming) as been generating here on the Fortress.

    I too want very little to do with computers in my free time even though I am a slave to their whims during my work hours - probably because of this constant abuse by them on me over the last 15 years. I'm also not a '1st person shooter' gamer and being brought up on a mouse and joystick cannot handle a game pad - so that rules me out of probably 98% of video gaming these days anyway.

  • avatarSagrilarus

    Much of my professional life is crisis management so the last thing I'm looking for when I get home is a game with fast pacing. Most video games are on a clock and I just find them stressful. The ones that aren't -- Wii has an Outdoor Sports title with archery that I find positively refreshing -- work well for me.

    I have the free Formula De on my laptop and I very much enjoy it because the AI is sufficient to give me a run but it's still turn-based. If I want to stop for a sip before making my decision there's no penalty. That's valuable to me. I need games to be a release be they multi-player or solo.

    Pete -- I'll add my big one to your Vassal observations. Set up and portability sure, but being able to save a game and pick up where you left off is invaluable to me. I have a Warriors of God game that I've been playing for a couple of months now one turn at a time when I get a free hour in the evening. I've been able to do big battles in Wooden Ships & Iron Men with it as well instead of just onesies and twosies. File/Save has opened up quite a number of solo board games for me on Vassal, and frankly, it's affected my purchase choices. A Victory Lost at six hours (likely eight when I play) is out of reach for me if I can't save the game. It's in reach with Vassal. Even Valor & Victory which is small is helped by being able to play half a turn at a time over several evenings. I have four kids -- free time is measured in minutes, not hours. That's when "solo" really comes into play.


  • avatarChapel

    Meh. I hate solo games, video games, and generally any boardgames that are turned into video games. If I can't shoot the shit, drink a beer, and metagame about what's going on in the world with a bunch of my buddies...then I'd rather just read a book or watch a movie.

    "Games = People"...period.

  • avatarSouthernman

    Chapel read from the AT gospel:

    If I can't shoot the shit, drink a beer, and metagame about what's going on in the world with a bunch of my buddies...then I'd rather just read a book or watch a movie.

    "Games = People"...period.

    I probably agree 100% ..... except after reading a about a couple of the VPGames solo games I just wanted to try them out of fascination for the subject and how it would work (Russian Revolution, French Revolution, Turkish empire in WW1) - perhaps I can save face by saying they will be like a historical adventure novel ... or not.

  • avatarhotseatgames

    I got into board gaming because I wanted to play multiplayer games right there in the same room, not across the internet. Years ago, my buddies and I used to drag our computers over to each others' houses for LAN parties, but life's complexities eventually made that too difficult of a scenario.

    Solo board gaming ends up being something I rarely do, since in my opinion, a board game has no chance of achieving the immersion that a video game can, with its full multimedia capabilities. Further, loading a game on my PC takes far less time than setting up even the simplest of board games. Additionally, if you make smart purchases, you can easily buy a dozen PC games for the price of one board game.

  • avatarNotahandle

    Southernman wrote:
    "...due to a massive drop off of AT gamers in my area"
    Well, if you will keep running them out of town every time you lose...

  • avatarDogmatix

    Chapel wrote

    ...and metagame about what's going on in the world...

    When the hell did metagame" become a euphemism for "hold a conversation with/chat about"?

    The drive toward forced multiplayer videogames makes me nuts. I've logged thousands of hours playing team-based shooters like Return to Castle Wolfenstein and the like for years but dropped out of the hobby after the game companies insisted that I essentially *must* listen to my opponents and my teammates blather throughout the night. I spend a huge portion of my day on teleconferences; having one of my hobbies turn into more of the same only with the unimaginative middle-managers replaced by amped-up teenagers--or worse, some fucking handjob 30-something with cheeto-encrusted beard--telling me how to best hit secure an objective in Team Fortress 2 became way too much to stomach for me.

    As for boardgames, I've been a wargamer without a regular opponent for far longer than I have been one with a stable of folks available to me, so solo gaming has been part of my life my life for a long time. I really appreciate the wealth of purpose-designed solitaire games that have hit the market of late--both Decision and VPG have good titles in this arena these days. (Particularly surprising with Decision as I'm not a fan of many of their multiplayer titles). That said, some games that are designed for 2 actually shine more as solo games. Almost all of GMT's Great Battles of History series solo extremely well and are studded with scenarios that make for very interesting solo "command studies" even though they're wretched experiences in a 2-player setting. E.g., 1 guy gets to be Alexander the Great or Genghis Khan and the Mongol Horde, while the other gets to play the speedbump on their path to historical glory. Tough to make a pile of scenarios like that fun for 2, but they're very interesting for 1 (save for Devil's Horsemen and Alesia, there are usually balanced scenarios too, though). As a result of this experience, I actually keep an eye out for games that get pounded on in reviews for balance problems. If a wargame is kind of only fun for 1 player and doesn't require a bunch of hidden info (a la FlatTop's double-blind system), it's prime solo material.

    Regarding VASSAL though, Sag and Pete really covered my sentiments on how it's improved my life as a gamer.

  • avatarDeath and Taxis

    I tried playing Arkham Horror solo but didn't overly enjoy myself. It was good for learning the rules, but without other players to share the experience, something didn't feel right. It confirmed for me that the reason I play board games is purely for the player interaction. Because of that, I haven't really pursued any of the solo-only games talked about around here. I'm with Chapel, if I want immersion in a fantasy world while on my own, I'll read a book.

    I was a keen video game player as a teen, but really burned out on them and now I have a real aversion to whole idea of video games. One of my game group recently suggested that everyone bring their laptops to game night and we'll sit around the table and play Civ online. I literally shuddered at the thought and I'm not entirely sure why (it wasn't Civ).

    Good article and your double entendres really had me laughing. :D

  • Mr Skeletor

    Welcome aboard motherfucker.
    My love for solo boardgaming is well known. On the other hand single-player videogames become less and less interesting to me as the years wear on. It's odd, but there you go.
    I think you nailed it here:
    "I've also belatedly realised that while hiving off lots of administrative work to the computer in a strategy game has many advantages, particularly for conflict simulations, there are ways in which it can work against you. Hiding the calculations and information away from the player makes for a more naturalistic game but it means you're making less strategic decisions. You can't make proper decisions unless you're fully aware of the rules the game engine is playing by, something you always know in a solo board game. This adds to the feeling of triviality that hangs around playing computer games for me, and exacerbates the problem of my not taking them seriously."
    This too me is one of the keys as to why I prefer solo boardgames. I'd rather have 1 solo game of castle ravenloft then 5 of diablo, where I am just clicking away with no real idea what is actually going on apart from health numbers running down. In castle ravenloft each attack matters, in diablo its just another sword swing graphic amongst millions.
    I also think the whole "bookkeeping" aspect of computers is over-rated. Arkham horror would suck as a video game. Sure, you could pump out 5 games in a night as opposed to one, but that is what would make it shit. I enjoy pouring over my characters, making sure I don't miss a bonus as I gather my dice pool and cursing that I didn't see a card I could have used earlier. When the computer is handling all of that they just become another element I don't have to look too closely at - no need to recount the weapon bonuses 10 times to make sure I got them all, mr copmputer will make sure thats the case. So the characters become a lot less personal because I'm spending less time with them.
    A quicker game is the same. Who cares if I lose Arkham when I can play another game immediatly and finish it in half an hour? But when I have been slogging through a 3 hour beatdown and have a half an hour pack-up or re-setup ahead of me, well my desire for victory increases threefold, and I take a lot more interest in obtaining victory.
    All up, great article.

  • avatarJonJacob

    I only play solo for learning purposes now that I have an xbox. I don't really see the point. But I also would never play Video Games on line... I don't give a shit about socializing with retards over some headphones. Video games for lonely playing and BG's for when friends come over. That's it for me.

    I do agree with Skeletor that Arkham would suck as a video game. Making everything go much, much faster would make it a silly little numbers game more similar to Lost Cities then AH. Part of a immersive theme is the length, the tension, the downtime (yes, it is important) for the theme to steep... like a good tea. It's us who create the theme. Players could look at the game and just say; "oh, it's just full on luck numbers game. Skill check here, skill check there.. and they would be right AND missing the point of playing it in the first place. The time commitment makes us get into it.

    Which is why, as much as I love Nexus Ops, it can never replace TI:3, the theme isn't steeped long enough to envelop me. It's also why I need the other players in AH, they help the theme as much as I do.

    Anyways, good article, you got me thinking again.

  • avatarGrudunza

    I love AH solo, and I think it works great on computer via Vassal... I've been playing it that way for over a year now with my own module (apparently FFG has now allowed AH Vassal modules for public use provided some cards are left blank) and have had some amazing games that way. And yeah, I still have to do the card draws and a lot of the component moving, so it feels very much like playing the board game, but minus the setup and tedious deck shuffling... so you can get right to the game and focus on that. And to me, the game holds up, regardless. A nice thing is that you can easily save the game and continue later, which gives it an epic "serial" kind of feel. "Last week on Arkham Horror, Joe Diamond went insane but the 3rd gate was sealed..."

    Multiplayer is the best experience, no doubt, but I travel a lot, so a lot of times it's either solo or nothing. I could play video games that are meant more for single player, but the thing is, I just like AH more as a game, period, so why wouldn't I play that if I can?

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