I’ve been a fan of Meeple Nation for several years, ever since Dave told me about the podcast. Over the years, I’ve heard Nathan talk about different solo plays of games from time to time. I usually interpreted that to mean that he did solo play simply to make his gaming goals. To me, the idea that someone would play a board game solo because they enjoyed it is a foreign concept. But, recently I’ve come to the opinion that Nathan actually likes to play games solo on occasion. That got me thinking. What is it like to play a game solo? So, I decided to give it a try.
I have to confess, I’m not a complete novice at playing games solo. I like solo computer games, even though I prefer to play games with others, and I’ve even played a number of board games electronically solo, though those were against AI’s that were meant to mimic a real person. I’ve never actually played a dedicated solo mode for a board game.
My original thought was to go through all the games in my library, find out which ones have a solo mode, then look up reviews to see which ones have a good solo experience. But in typical fashion, I procrastinated even looking at my game library. Ultimately, my decision about which game to play boiled down to proximity. I had already pulled Terraforming Mars Ares Expedition off the shelf. My lunchtime group had been getting together once a week in preparation to being back in the office again. We have played the game 3 times, but haven’t yet completed a single game due to time constraints. So, I took this as an opportunity to do 2 things I hadn’t been able to do yet: play a solo board game, and finish a game of Ares Expedition.
With the decision made, I sat down to play the game. Right away, I noticed one thing I hadn’t thought about before: setup. Usually when I’m setting up a game, I can distribute tasks among the other players, and the setup takes less time. Since I was playing solo, there was no parallelization of tasks. Fortunately, the setup for Ares Expedition isn’t too to tough, and the solo setup doesn’t add any additional time consuming tasks.
For those unfamiliar with Terraforming Mars, and the Ares Expedition, I’ll give a quick overview of the game play. In Terraforming Mars, players are assigned an entity that has some stake or interest in terraforming the planet. Usually these are a corporation of some sort, and players build an engine by purchase “project” cards with the goal of being the corporation that contributed the most in preparing Mars for habitation. Players take turns performing actions or purchasing projects until everyone passes, at which time the round concludes, and the players receive their income (based off the project cards they have purchased and/or their corporations ability). More players means longer time to complete a round and to complete the game. Ares Expedition changes up the round process by taking a Phase concept that I first saw in Race for the Galaxy. Each player picks a phase that they want to be able to do that round. Every player gets to participate in all the phases that were chosen, but the player that chooses a phase gets some sort of reward or benefit for choosing the phase. In the solo variant, a dummy corporation is chosen. Their phase cards are shuffled and will be chosen in order. A marker representing the dummy corporation is placed on the 1 spot of the Terraform Rating track (a way to track a corporations impact on the terraforming project). Each time the phase deck for the dummy corporation runs out of cards, the marker moves up 1 spot. When it hits 5, then the end game is signaled. One more pass through the 5 phases occurs (making it a total of 25 phases in the game), and then the game ends. Mars is terraformed if at the end of that last pass of phases all the ocean tiles are flipped, and the oxygen and temperature tracks are maxed out. Then you total up your score and see how well you did. If any one of those conditions aren’t met, then you lose. You also have the option of choosing a difficulty level. If you chose one of the lower 2 difficulty settings, then at the end of each phase set, you can choose one of the tracks (temperature or oxygen) to move some number of spaces (2 for beginner, 1 for advanced). Since I already felt somewhat familiar with the game mechanics, I chose to do an advanced game.
The first thing I noticed as I started playing is that the limited number of phases changed the game for me. When played with other players, the game end depends on the 3 winning requirements, so those will always happen in a full game. But in the solo game you are the only one moving those aspects along, and the game will end regardless of whether or not they happen at all. Early on, I focused a lot on getting cards out, maybe too much focus. After 2 full passes of the phase deck (10 phases) I had turned over maybe one ocean tile (there are 9 that need to be flipped), and was still in the lowest tier for temperature and just out of it for oxygen. The cards I had been drawing didn’t help much with dealing with the oxygen track, and I hadn’t gotten a lot of ones that would help with temperature, though I did have a decent amount of heat generation (one of the resources in the game) that could be used to raise the temperature. I was beginning to doubt that I could successfully complete the game. So, I stopped hoarding cards that I wanted to try to get out. I also misunderstood the need for points, since I was just trying to get a victory condition, so I started throwing out cards more frequently to get the currency needed to perform more of the standard actions that allow you to impact the terraforming of mars albeit at a more expensive cost. I also finally started to get more of the cards that directly altered temperature or oxygen, and got more “action” cards that I could use to perform actions similar to the standard actions, only cheaper. But in throwing out some cards, I cost myself a lot of points. In fact, I threw out one card that I think would have nearly doubled my final score.
Ultimately I won, and did so with enough actions to spare that I could have probably put out some more of those point cards that I converted to money or other resources. The real question is, did I have fun? Yes, I did. The experience was totally different than playing with other people. It’s more you against the game. I like that aspect of co-op games, I like playing solo computer games, and this felt a lot like that. Now, that being said, if I have a chance to play with another person or group of people, I definitely would prefer to do that, but an occasional solo game is a nice way to pass the time and exercise my mental muscle. I can see myself doing this again in the future. I’m already wondering if I can pull off a victory at the higher difficulty level. I also noticed as I was grabbing Ares Expedition that wingspan has a mode for 1 player. I’m interested in finding out how other solo variants compare to both their group counterparts and to my experience with Ares Expedition. When I play one of those, I’ll report back on my experience.
Have you played a solo board game before? What was your experience? Also, for those wondering, my score was 37.