Teaching Time: 10 mins
Playing Time: 10-20 mins
Setup Time: 10 mins
Value For Money: Low
Solo Play Review
Assembly is a light pocket-sized puzzle game for 1-2 players which did very well for itself on Kickstarter, raising over £19k from more than 950 backers and has since gone on to enter general retail. The theme is a race against time to assemble a ship to escape a space station ruled by a murderous AI. This is a solo play review, and the question has to be asked, 2 is pretty close to 1, so how much can really be lost in such a small player count?
Gameplay consists of laying out twelve cards in a clockface, representing the bays that you need to lock pieces of your ship into to win. Each turn a card is played which can either enter a token representing a piece of the ship into the circle, shift the pieces around the circle, or lock them into place if they are on the correct card. If all tokens are locked in before the deck of actions are run through three times, players win, if not, they lose.
When playing with two people each action card has to be confirmed by the other player putting down a matching action card, and there are strict and interesting rules for communication. The idea being that the computer is watching you as you try to build your ship to escape. You can talk until certain key words are spoken, meaning that you can discuss general strategy but only one specific question each round. There are even guidelines for playing in sign language only to outwit the machine. This form of controlled communication is smart and interesting, it makes a game sign easily and creates co-ops with tension and real attention to the human across the table from you. So what does the game replace it with in solo mode?
Well, not to put too fine a point on it, nothing at all. In solo mode there is a circle of twelve cards and twelve markers, you place out the markers and move them around the circle as efficiently as you possibly can with the cards given to you and try to lock them in place, and that really is it. The markers come out randomly and there are runs of the game that are genuinely un-winnable. When you do get the swing of the game its hard to feel like you’ve been really smart when you win, its just a step too far into the arena of process rather than game to be really enjoyable.
Rather than one player just being part of the player count, and getting the recognition of being half the player count of the game it feels a little like an after-thought. In the rule book itself even the detail that solo players don’t need to perform ‘verification’, the process of matching commands with a partner’s card, has been left out, requiring an FAQ to be accessed. Its not a huge strain to look up the FAQ, but verification is half the game, and leaving out how to do it in half the player count amounts to leaving a quarter of the game in an FAQ and that’s not great.
Touching on the theme, there is the question of whether the solo game feels like a battle against a malevolent, conscious and active AI. In short, it doesn’t. Again, the communication element gives its two-player version the majority of its impact. The game artwork has a feel of icons that could be on a computerized factory display, but its not high impact enough to carry the game on. Without the communication the theme of the game rides on two elements, the scramble and the malfunction. Player’s go through their action card stack three times before the game ends shuffling and re-stacking each time, during the first two the AI ‘scrambles’ your efforts by randomly dealing your cards across your tokens, representing the dastardly AI throwing a spanner in your plans during the re-set. The problem is that the scramble is random, and if you’re in a bad enough place it is, therefore, highly beneficial. If you have a choice between moving existing tokens or adding new ones shortly before a scramble when all your tokens are in the wrong place it ends up being the right choice to plug units in blind and rely on the good old scramble to leave you in a better place. For a random event like this to represent a thematic element is difficult, for a sometimes beneficial random event that happens at a set and predictable time to represent a purely malevolent thematic element is impossible, in the hands of a capable player the scramble amounts to the AI helping the players escape at set intervals. The malfunctions are conditions that can be added to the locking of certain bays, requiring that they be locked before or at the same time as other bays to avoid players discarding cards. These feel like an even more missed chance, being visible at the start of the game they feel more like the way the process works than a conscious enemy trying to stop you. A condition telling you to unlock bay nine when you lock bay six while building a space ship tells the narrative tale that bay six is behind bay nine, not that a malevolent machine is battling your attempt to build it.
One of the issues with the solo game is how its difficulty is framed. With the re-sets there are essentially 18 of the dual purpose deploy/lock cards which can deploy one token or lock two of them, and one wild which can be used as such a card. Which means that to win every single deploy/lock card has to be used to its fullest potential, or close to fullest if the wild is employed to the same purpose. This makes the game tough, but it also strips out a lot of player agency, since the main area that players have power is to use three random cards as a wild to do anything. The problem is that players can never use a deploy/lock as a wild, and the importance of the movement and manipulation cards is down to luck, since tokens enter the game based on a dice roll. The upshot is that if you have the freedom to employ actual agency, rather than serving as a human card ordering subroutine, you’re always aware that it was almost certainly due to luck. In short, it seems to be a solo mode built to make players feel like it’s hard, rather than to give players choices and make them feel active and intelligent.
As a two-player game Assembly is a solid choice, the communication element is interesting, particularly when applied to the sort of playing partner one regularly plays two handed with, and it fits in a car glovebox if not most pockets. As a solo choice it lacks interest, freedom and theme. In short, reducing the player count stripped out the strongest element, and it wasn’t replaced. If you’re hungry for a bespoke clock patience style solo process game, I’d suggest Todd Sanders’ The Maiden in the Forest, if you’re not, I’d suggest avoiding the whole area.