Solo Game Design Problems
Having spent the best part of a year designing a game with a 1-6 player count I have also been spending that time and a bit longer playing solo count games with a designer's hat on. SSO was always designed to be not only playable solo but to have its single player mode as a central element and a single rules set for any player count. Since I've been playing solo games to research the market and to compare my design solutions to other designers I thought I'd share some general insights.
I've come to the conclusion that most solo games return to a few repeated flaws. I don't know why exactly, I suspect it comes from a combination of lower investment due to reduced perceived profits and the inherent difficulty of designing co-op and by extension single player games. Unfortunately solo mode is often seen as a profitable addition to a game that has already been written. In my opinion to build a good solo game mode the other players have to be a mode added on to the solo design rather than the other way around. Whatever the actual solutions these are a few common problems that designers should seek to avoid.
Few games list a flat 1 player count, rather they tend to list 1-x or 1+, both of which have their own problems. Straight 1 player count games don't get a lot of investment for full market launches, many of the best are actually free Print and Play games. 1+ player counts tend to mean a solo game where the turns are shared around the players, usually with an arbitrary injunction against showing information to create a group game. Its not an inherent problem for the solo play mode but it undermines the quality and sense of interaction in a multiplayer game. The other typical option is that a 2-4 player game has a scoring method tacked on to allow for solo play. Essentially, either of these options are extending a game beyond its natural player count, up or down. When this happens you usually suffer a 1 player mode that lacks balanced difficulty or a multiplayer game lacking choices or interaction.
There are two sorts of narrative in games, inherent and emergent. Inherent narratives are the chunks of background written on cards and in rules, emergent narratives are the stories the players make up to explain certain perceived tendencies. Games are very good at creating emergent narratives and very bad at delivering inherent ones, books and movies have the balance the other way around. However, it is much tougher to build a sense of emergent narrative in a solo game since it lacks other players to reinforce the narrative around certain events. The problem comes when solo games try to solve this with extra inherent narrative, particularly shown in the decksploration genre which has exploded in recent years. When a game relies on an inherent narrative without a second controller player it needs to allow looping back and out of sequence encounters of set pieces both of which badly undermine the narrative. Furthermore, most inherent narrative games tend to offer little more than a series of binary choices and end up looking more like a second rate novel chopped into pieces than a game. Its true that a solo player needs additional inherent narrative elements, but the power of the emergent narrative still needs to be given respect and space.
Difficulty levels in a solo player game are extremely tough to set right. Solo games are of necessity co-op games and co-op games are tough to set a difficulty level for but at least they allow for a presumed averaging of player skills and an evening out of the flukes of cards or dice. A solo game needs to allow for players ranging from 100% bone head to 100% genius and for players who will tend to adopt a single strategy at any one time. You cannot inundate players with too many cards or dice at a time which makes having sufficient numbers of either to override spikes or troughs of luck near impossible. Many solo games "overcome" these issues by being so short that having each game end with crushing failure or effortless victory can be seen as balancing out over a longer play session to something pleasingly challenging. Sadly this undermines the satisfying sensation of learning the nuances of a game, immediately eroding any desire to replay. Solo games should ideally run to the same time or longer than their equivalent multiplayer experience, allowing them to even out luck since after all they don't have to co-ordinate a group to return for repeated sessions to the same game.
There are excellent solo play games, but not many and no where near the range and quality of multiplayer games. This is unlikely to change, however I feel that the hit rate of quality in solo games is well below what it deserves to be and can be pushed up by respecting it as a distinct design challenge. Possibly the watershed solo play experience is just around the corner, just as co-op games existed before Pandemic and Euro games before Catan, but the design of either can be traced to a before/after date, maybe we just need the solo play equivalent.
I'll be adding more solo play reviews to the Review page in the future but in the mean time why not try out:
Marquis (free Print and Play available at Boardgame Geek)
Mr Cabbagehead's Garden (free Print and Play available at Boardgame Geek)
Zombie In My Pocket (free Print and Play available at Boardgame Geek)