If you’ve come here looking for solo play reviews – welcome!
What We Are Playing is not limited to solo play reviews – but we’re getting a nice collection. I love a good competitive multiplayer game . . . when I can get one. But sometimes I (and probably you) must, or prefer to, play solo. I played 33 different games solo in 2019, and enjoyed most of them.
Some games go really well solo; some are even a bit better in that mode; others are . . . the word ‘limp’ comes to mind 😦
Are popular games actually fun? Are they any good solo? Will you like them? These are the questions we’re trying to answer in our What We Are Playing solo play reviews.
You can click on the ‘solo play review’ category in the top menu or side navigation to find these – or here is a current list (click any picture for the review):
1. the marriage of simple gameplay rules with complex gameplay decisions
2. the solo game, while maintaining core gameplay elements, pushes beyond the multiplayer game to become the best iteration of The Isle of Cats
The worst bit of The Isle of Cats is the unavoidable problem when the player is subject to the mercy of random draw, particularly regarding rescuable cats.
Frank West and The Isle of Cats are certainly having their moment. And I can say it’s well-deserved as The Isle of Cats is quite simply the new polyomino game standard bearer for the solo player. It shows the potential of the genre that goes beyond “gateway” tile placement.
At its core, The Isle of Cats is a polyomino tile placement game that utilizes a round-renewing economy and a card draft system. Victory points are primarily based on placement, covering or filling different areas on the player board, as well as fulfilling optional and variable scoring objectives. The rules are straightforward and the individual player boards contain the essential information of round structure and scoring framework.
It is important to not confuse “easy to play” with “easy.” The players’ objective is much more complex than simply covering a boat with cats. There are several decision points including drafting useful cards, deciding whether to pay for them, determining initiative, and pursuing both private and public scoring objectives through tile placement.
The one minor drawback of the game is that there are times where the player is at the mercy of the dreaded draw. Whether referring to card draw or tile draw, options may be, at times, limited through no fault or choice of the player. Sometimes, the right color cat is just not available. Or the player receives a lesson card that is impossible to fulfill, especially when it comes late in the game.
The game utilizes an AI opponent, “Sister.” Like the game itself, she is elegantly designed to create a formidable foe with minimal rules overhead. She scores points based on types (color) of cats as well as her own solo-specific lessons. The twist? Both conditions are based on the player’s own tile placement.
The solo game shines because it adds a layer of complexity that does not exist in the multiplayer game. Where the typical solo player is more likely to play a game missing an element from a multiplayer game (neighbourhood bonus in Clans of Caledonia, e.g.), The Isle of Cats adds a layer of strategy to the multiplayer game and does so in a meaningful way.
Every cat that is placed on the player’s boat simultaneously scores points for the player and the AI opponent. Many times, the placement will work toward (or against) multiple scoring objectives. Imagine: every move is a combination of both working toward one’s own objective while preventing or at least limiting the AI’s progress. I talk to myself a lot playing The Isle of Cats because there is a lot of information to process.
The core of the solo gameplay, however, largely coincides with the multiplayer mechanics. The solo game simulates the card draft, (the player will not see cards return, but she must evaluate the cards that will help best) and provides a means to compete against the AI for initiative as well as selection of cats and treasures. While not a perfect analog to multiplayer play, the limitations presented by AI interference will feel much the same for the player.
The Isle of Cats excels as a gaming puzzle beyond mere “Tetris-ing” pieces together. In its solo game iteration, The Isle of Cats requires constant evaluation of multiple scoring conditions in a satisfying mental exercise.
BoardGameGeek rates this game as 2.31 out of 5 in weight, (at the time of publication of this review), though that rating doesn’t distinguish between solo and multiplayer games and so is not adjusted to reflect the changes involved in solo play.
The Isle of Cats is available directly from the publisher, The City of Games, for £45. The Kickstarter edition is currently on sale for £65 and includes, among other things, wooden fish pieces, additional lesson card modules, and a variety of additional tiles. I have not seen The Isle of Cats at retail though I would expect one will be able to find it at outlets that carried Mr. West’s The City of Kings.
Cats have it all: admiration, an endless sleep and company only when they want it.
The best bits of this game are the use of weird and wonderful materials to craft the desired items. Fancy some birch and bronze boots? This is the game for you 😉
Also, my version (Collector’s Edition) has some very, very sweet metal coins (call me shallow, if you wish… I will not dispute it.)¹
The worst bit of Winterforge solo is that it loses a bit of the interest and tension. The materials in the market don’t rotate enough for real interest; there’s not enough conflict / competition and it lacks that compelling feeling which the multiplayer game has.
Smiths of Winterforge does a good job of delivering the feeling of working away in your dwarven forge. Each contract blueprint which you take indicates how many of each type of component you need – say, one ‘base’, one ‘binder’ and one ‘decorative’ element. At times, you’ll get a bonus for a specific component – say, +2 to forge a breastplate with bronze – but nothing forces you to use specific items. You may think that boots would make sense with horn and hide – but birch and bronze will do the trick! Now, what can I make with silk, twine and rubies….?
Forging has a planning element and also a luck element – the components contribute dice to a pool, and better (more expensive) components contribute dice with higher values. If you roll your forging target number (after skill, material, and crew adjustments) then… success! Quartz decoration will add a d6 towards forging, but (much more expensive) diamond delivers a d12 + d4. Failure on your first attempt is not unusual – but all is not lost! If you stick to the task, each effort gains +1 by adding ‘work tokens’ until the crafting is done.
Adding the right crew, and getting the cash to fund the components is part of the mix too. Successful crafting will improve your skill in jewellery, weapons or armour – whatever you successfully forge. You’ll need this skill because, throughout the game, you’re working towards your royal contract, which will require a decent level of skill, the fanciest of components, and a dash of luck.
The deck of solo cards simulate events which occur during the limited number of rounds. They do add variability and replayability to the game, together with the random draw of components and contracts.
Unfortunately, Smiths of Winterforge falls a little flat for me as a solo play experience – the solo cards are (in my opinion) actually better when added to the multiplayer game, to foil or enhance the plans of several competing dwarves at once.
I’m normally open-minded about ‘beat your own score’ solo games – A Feast for Odin and At the Gates of Loyang are two of my favourites, and retain a real challenge as solo games – but this method is not a great success in Smiths – the solo really needs an Automa or alternate solo challenge, in order to be a satisfying solo experience.
BoardGameGeek rates this game as 2.36 out of 5 in weight, (at the time of publication of this review), though that rating doesn’t distinguish between solo and multiplayer games and so is not adjusted to reflect the changes involved in solo play. I consider this rating slightly overstates the complexity of the game – Smiths is a fairly simple move-and-act, collect-and-apply-resources game. There is a modest amount of simple engine-building, and a few ways to score points (assuming you include the optional ‘laneways’ expansion which comes in the base box), but I consider it ‘lighter’ than that BGG rating.
It appears that Smiths of Winterforge has been a bit of a sales disappointment for the publisher, because it’s widely available and cheap at the moment. It is a crazy low $29 from DungeonCrawl at the moment – it’s a lot of game, for that price. However, I don’t recommend buying it if you only plan to play it solo – it’s much better with 3 to 5 players².
¹ I doubt you will get these sweet metal coins in the retail version for the current low, low price, so please check to avoid disappointment.
² Technically it plays 6, but with some special rules – I’ve tried that; stick to 5 maximum, in my opinion.
I have never found a companion that was so companionable as solitude. We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men…
Blitzkrieg! has a built-in solo mode designed by David Turczi. The mode employs an AI bot that stands in for the Axis player using a selection procedure and “stratagem” tokens to make decisions.
The best bits of this game are the weighty decisions that are ever-present, in part due to the short nature of the game.
The worst bit of Blitzkrieg! is the learning curve of manipulating the AI bot. The curve is not steep, but it does require the solo player to interpret the procedure.
Paolo Mori’s Blitzkrieg! is self-described as “World War Two in 20 Minutes.” The game distills the essence of an epic event into a filler game that has become a go-to when I want a quick, but satisfying game to play.
Blitzkrieg! uses a tug-of-war mechanic with players randomly pulling unit tokens from a bag. The tokens have varying levels of strength and represent ground, naval, and air capabilities. Placement of the tokens result in gaining advantage in specific campaigns and theatres of operation as well as access to special effects.
The game is tense, even against the AI bot, because placement options are limited. I constantly evaluate what I want versus what I leave behind, especially knowing where the AI bot will prioritize placement.
Interestingly, two-player begins more or less even. The Axis player will always begin play, but the Allied player will always have the final turn and wins on a tied score. In solo, you will always play in pursuit. On Medium difficulty, the AI bot gets +6 spaces on the theatres of operation tracks when you start and based on the selection procedure, will often times be +10 to +12 before your first move.
The game is challenging. And there needs to be a willingness to accept the randomness of pulling unit tokens from a bag. But because the game plays as quickly as it does, I find myself playing multiple times in a session, happy to accept the luck, or lack thereof, in my efforts to defeat the AI bot.
I have minimal exposure to David Turczi solo modes (Teotibot in Teotihuacan: City of Gods), but I will say I have become a fan and will become interested in any project of which he is a part. AI bot offers an at-times predictable, but always challenging, opponent. Though the 2-player experience is naturally different, a victory over AI bot feels like an accomplishment.
My biggest complaint regarding the solo mode is that the AI bot relies quite heavily on a human player to make selections. The player must filter and execute the AI bot priorities. On any given turn, you must determine the theatre of operations, the campaign position (i.e., triggering special placement effects), and the individual unit choice.
My first game took nearly an hour to complete. Within a half dozen games, however, I was able to reduce game length to 20-30 minutes.
The instructions are concise, but a single-page player aid would be nice. I made a quick cut-and-paste sheet such that I use the procedure listed on the back of the solo rules together with 1) stratagem token descriptions, 2) “greatest change” breakdown, and 3) summary of AI performance of special placement effects.
BoardGameGeek rates this game as 1.73 out of 5 in weight, (at the time of publication of this review), though that rating doesn’t distinguish between solo and multiplayer games and so is not adjusted to reflect the changes involved in solo play.
I picked this title up in December from Cool Stuff Inc. for $25 USD. It appears to be out of stock in many places, and even Amazon only lists third party sellers. There is a Blitzkrieg! Nippon expansion ($15 USD) that I have yet to play, but it appears equally difficult to find as of February 2020.
It is good to be solitary, for solitude is difficult; that something is difficult must be a reason the more for us to do it.
IS: Roll & Write has a specialised solo ‘Adventure mode’ in the box. This is a pad of 48 different sheets, spanning the factions and themes of the IS ‘universe’, and the key to making this a quality solo game.
The best bit of this game is that Adventure mode pad – it’s really neat and thematic. Having 48 different sheets is really neat.
The worst bit of Imperial Settlers: Roll & Write is that it can be a bit fiddly tracking your ‘people’ each round – since you get them all from one die. I ended up making tally marks on the main sheet for each round, but a more elegant solution would have been nice.
I am a fan of Imperial Settlers, but Portal Games’ recent catalogue has been patchy² and I was skeptical about whether this game would be any good. I was pleasantly surprised – it’s deeper than you’d expect and I found myself needing to stop, think and re-think decisions (and I made plenty of strategic / tactical mistakes, which is a good sign of depth) in my first few plays.
The Adventure pad drags you into the Imperial Settlers universe and you do feel like you’re helping the bumbling Barbarians or fruitful Japanese with their labours. Part of the advanced rules involves making patterns on your playsheet to gain extra benefits and this adds a welcome layer of variability and replayability to the game.
It’s enjoyable, thoughtful and easy to learn and play, but has depth too – give it a try!
highly competitive worker placement / area control plus car bombs, extortion and general mayhem
The Godfather: Corleone’s Empire is a Family¹ + level game of Short + length. It is playable by 1to 5 players.
This review focuses on the solo play experience.
The Godfather: Corleone’s Empirehas a fan-made solo mode designed by Martin G which is available at BoardGameGeek. Martin has designed the solo mode with 3 distinct ‘personalities’ of the AI player available – Don Vito, Michael and Sonny and has even gone to the trouble of making printable cards for each. I’ve played with Vito alone and with Vito and Michael (solo vs. 2 AI players) – this is quite manageable, shows off the different ‘personalities’ of the opponent and is a rewarding solo play experience.
The best bits of this game are the quality of the worker placement / area control decisions within the gameplay – this is a quality, thought-filled game. The excellent miniatures, suitcases for your ill-gotten gains, and board, and the strong theme which carries through all aspects of the game also greatly enhance the play experience.
The worst bit of The Godfather: Corleone’s Empire is hard to identify, actually – this is a solid, under-rated game. Some people may dislike the theme, but it’s everything you’d expect from the game title and movie folklore.
This game oozes theme. The box is slightly menacing. The miniatures are detailed and look outright dangerous.
There are two types of workers – family members and thugs, and each has different action spaces. You’ll get access to extra family members through the four Acts (rounds) of the game, and you may get more quasi-members and quasi-thugs (Allies) through . . . . bribery and corruption, of course!
Placing a worker gets you an immediate benefit, but also factors into area control for the next Act, which might get you extra benefits (depending on what your opponent does in future) – and also factors into end-game area control and scoring. So, there are short, medium and long-term consequences of each action you take and the game deals with these elegantly.
Another great part of this game is that it’s not enough to earn your ill-gotten gains – you also need to launder the money and tuck it away in your family suitcase.
Martin’s decision to include three distinct personalities for the AI player adds to the replayability of the solo game. ² The game is already quite diverse because it has 18 Ally cards, and you won’t use more than 6 of them in any solo game (9 if you play against two opponents). A different mix of new businesses each game also adds to replayability.
Every time I have played this game multiplayer, everyone’s had a blast ³ and that fun continues into this solo mode.
BoardGameGeek rates this game as 2.60 out of 5 in weight, (at the time of publication of this review), though that rating doesn’t distinguish between solo and multiplayer games and so is not adjusted to reflect the changes involved in solo play. I think this reflects the game’s decision complexity well – but, it remains easy to teach and quick to play.
Used to be fairly easy to find, but a bit scarcer now – try Gamerholic.
¹ it’s a Family ‘level’ game in complexity, because that’s one of our four categories. You could debate whether a game themed around extortion, illegal goods and the occasional murder or two could ever be considered a ‘family game’…. your family may vary 🙂
² I haven’t tested the “Sonny” AI player.
³ Yes, that’s a car-bomb pun 😉
You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.Franz Kafka
It’s a Rosenberg game, so expect vegetables – and you won’t be disappointed!
At the Gates of Loyang is an Enthusiast level board game of Short length, playable by 1 to 4 players.
This review focuses on the solo play experience.
Gates of Loyanghas a built-in solo mode, based on a ‘score achievement’ model – but don’t be put off by that if you prefer a different type of solo challenge – Loyang is a genuinely challenging and enjoyable solo experience. A score of 15 or 16 is effectively a ‘fail’, 17 is a ‘win’ and 18 or 19 is . . . not achievable for me yet.
The best bits of this game are the balance between Regular customers (who have to be served almost every round) and Casual customers (who are served once, when you choose to serve them) – this tightrope act is the essential challenge of the game. Regular customers are the backbone of your economic engine, but you can’t win without satisfying some casuals also.
The worst bit of Loyang is that you’re always one or two coins short of what you really want to do on your turn :).
As with many Rosenberg games, there is a simple and elegant setup for the solo ‘opponent’ and mode – here it is, laid out before play:
You develop your own farm based on the customers who you plan to serve, and play across 9 rounds. Your farm develops each round – here is mine, after thefirst round:
Each round will see you striving to advance on the Path to Prosperity – you must advance as you go, or it becomes nigh-impossible in later rounds. ¹ But you’ll need to spend coins on some cards from the courtyard, new types of vegetables (unless you can trade for them in the market; but anything you trade you cannot plant), extra fields if you can get them, and powerful ‘Two-packs’².
Speaking of planting, you must plant new vegetables, preferably of different types to satisfy a variety of customers, but you can only plant certain types in certain fields – and, of course, the most valuable ones go in the smallest fields. Did I mention that you won’t know exactly when new prime fields will arrive, to be available for planting?
Regular customers are demanding and they won’t pay a premium, but they will pay round after round. As mentioned above, balancing their needs with those of casual customers is the trick – fill the casual orders at the right time, and you could get a sweet bonus.
Just how will you get that blessed / blasted beetroot when you need it? Well, I have a spare wheat and few coins – can I buy a pumpkin (4 coins), trade it and the wheat in the market for a beetroot, and then fill a Casual order for 11 coins? Or would it be better to hire the Maid from the bottom row of the courtyard (2 coins), so that I can do a direct wheat-for-beet swap? If this sort of puzzle appeals to you, then you’ll thoroughly enjoy Gates of Loyang, as I do.
A tip: you get a new field every turn. It’s nearly always a mistake not to plant it . . except when planting it would be the wrong thing to do, because you need those extra coins to hire that crucial helper for next turn’s regular customer demands; and you need to step forwards on the Path this turn . . . I suspect you will have gleaned the joys and tiny horrors of this game, by now!
The variety and interaction of the cards, the varying order in which your fields arrive, and the sheer challenge of getting past 17 or 18 on the Path of Prosperity make this a rewarding solo experience which you’ll want to replay. Go on, you can knock off another solo game in 45 to 60 minutes now – sleep is for the weak! 😉
You can probably tell that At the Gates of Loyang is one of my favourite solo games. The ‘solo mode’ is low maintenance and elegant and is not difficult to learn³. It’s also excellent as a multiplayer game, and though complex, it’s fairly easy to teach. I rate it five beetroot / four broad beans! I’d love a ‘carrots and kale’ expansion, but it seems unlikely…
BoardGameGeek rates this game as 3.14 out of 5 in weight, (at the time of publication of this review), though that rating doesn’t distinguish between solo and multiplayer games and so is not adjusted to reflect the changes involved in solo play.
Loyang was published in 2009 and can be tough to get – I picked my copy up secondhand. Amazon is by far the best price available in Australia – about $75 – and OzGameShop is the only other option at present (about $110).
¹ The first step forwards each round costs 1 coin, then additional steps cost the value of the space. So, from 9 to 11 costs 12 coins (1+11) and from 11 to 13 the next turn will cost 14 coins (1 + 13) for 26 coins total across two turns – but if you try to go one step (9 to 10) in a turn, and then from 10 to 13 the next turn, it gets more expensive (1 + 1 + 12 + 13 = 27 coins). This may seem a small difference, but every coin is crucial in Loyang!
Achieving three steps in one round is tough.
² Two-packs are so (potentially) powerful that you’re limited to buying them once a round. But the cost might sink you. Aaaaarrgghh!!
³ … once you get past a clumsy section at page 9 in the rulebook. Clarification: There is no “Distribution round” in the solo game – the only cards potentially available to you are in the ‘Courtyard’ – you can buy 0, 1 or 2 and that’s it each round.
“I want to be with those who know secret things or else alone.”
― Rainer Maria Rilke