Changing Perspective: Playing Solo in Cooperative Board Games With Limited Communication

At Dice Tower Con West 2020, Tom Vasel (Dice Tower) and Richard Ham (Rahdo) gave their Top 10 Most Important Games of the Decade.

Top 10 Most Important Games of the Decade 

At the 12:25 mark in the Video, Rahdo comments on how important Hanabi is:

[Hanabi] is an important milestone in the evolution of board game design because it is cooperative game where you have imperfect communication between players …

There are other games previously that had imperfect communication (for example: Shadows Over Camelot, Battlestar Galactica), but Rahdo’s point was that Hanabi (by being Spiel des Jahres winner) made imperfect communication a common mechanic in cooperative games.  Rahdo goes on further to say how imperfect communication was important because it allowed cooperative games to have “zest” and “surprise”.

Whether you agree with Rahdo or not, (Rahdo says he can show you  data on BoardGameGeek to back up his opinion), cooperative games with imperfect communication are very common and here to stay (Hanabi, Mysterium, Muse, Wonder Woman: Challenge of the Amazons, Shipwreck Arcana, Far Away to name a few).

But what does that mean for the solo gamer?

Solo Rules for Many Cooperative Games: Usually Just Play 2 Roles

Over the past few years, I’ve had to come up with some solo rules for many games to learn them. As I’ve said many times, game teachings go a lot faster when someone knows how to play, so it behooves a board game to have a solo mode so someone can sit down and learn the game by themselves.   Most of my solo rules have been for games without imperfect communication: Sentinels of the Multiverse, The Captain is Dead, and Unicornus Knights to name a few.  In those games, it’s usually easy to just expand and make the solo player play multiple roles (like 3 in Sentinels or Unicornus Knights).   Those games work because the solo player is simply taking over other players’ position(s) (as well as his own) and playing the game normally.   No information is hidden, and the solo player can strategize with himself just like he would strategize with his compatriot. Out in the open.

But how can you play multiple characters/roles if information is supposed to be hidden?

Navigating the Abstraction Hierarchy

Let’s take a pointed detour.

In my job, I am a computer programmer (Computer Science).  Much of my time is spent trying to figure out why a computer program is not working.  It can be as simple as the input wrong, or something as complicated as subtle logic errors across many programs.  The thing is, you almost never know what’s wrong until you dig into the program.  To find the problem, you have to start at the top (intro) of the program and work your way down.  As you go down, you are traversing different levels of abstraction:

  • Is this a high-level problem?  (Program run incorrectly by user, files missing, etc)
  • Is this a medium-level problem? (Logic error by programmer, modules not communicating correctly)
  • If this a low-level problem? (Memory not initialized correctly, array bounds error)

This is a gross generalization, because there are usually MANY MORE levels of abstraction in a real running system.  This simple example, however, conveys the main idea of problem solving when finding errors:

As you traverse the different levels of abstraction, you have to refocus your attention to the level of abstraction you are on.  This means gathering new information about the level you are on, and just as important, forgetting some of the details of the previous level.

In a real world program, there are too many details to keep in your head all at once.  It’s absolutely important to focus your mind correctly and “forget” the unimportant details as well as concentrating on the new details.

Any programmer can tell you how important it is to be able to navigate through different abstractions to get your job done.

Changing Perspective

Another way to phrase “navigating abstractions layers” is to call it changing perspective.   We have to be careful with that phrase, because it means different things to different people.   For an ambassador or a judge trying to settle a dispute, he has to be able to see both sides: he has to be able to change perspective.  Anyone trying to get along with new people has to be able to see where they are coming from: they have to be able to change perspective to the new people.

What’s usually forgotten when you talk about “seeing something from another perspective” is that you have to be able to forget: Forget your own preconceptions, forget your own situation, forget your upbringing.    Forgetting is just as important as focusing when you change perspective.

Of course, changing perspective is hard.  How do you know what to focus on?  How do you know what to forget?  What are the important features to remember?  What are the important features to forget?   With practice, it becomes a lot easier.

Solo Rules for Cooperative, Imperfect Communication, Board Games

We took that detour to point out that being able to remember certain details and forget other details can be an important ability.  It is also the key to making solo rules in cooperative, imperfect communication board games.

The broad idea is simple: when you have to change roles in a cooperative game, you have to learn to “forget” the hidden information of your previous role.

How does this work?  Let’s take a look at an example.

Shipwreck Arcana

Shipwreck Arcana

The Shipwreck Arcana is an abstract, logic puzzle game for 2-5 people.  Each player has a hidden number, and gives abstract clues to help the other players guess his number.  The information about the hidden number is very precise and exacting: they are just tokens (“clues” if you would) placed on cards to help discover the number.

It seems like there is “no way” you could make a solo game out of this, right?   I mean,  if I know the number, how can I “change roles” and forget the number I am trying to get myself to guess?   In other words, how can I forget?

The idea is simple: you are either the clue-giver or the number-guesser.  Imagine yourself trying to help someone guess the number (that someone is you, but let’s move forward).

  • clue-giver: When you are the clue-giver, you try to think about “What’s the best clue I can give to help this other person?”
  • number-guesser: When you are the number guesser, you can ONLY use the information the clue-giver has given!   It’s almost like being a detective: looking solely at the evidence, can you deduce what the number is?  It works because ONLY the state of the boards represents all the clues!!!

When you play solo, you alternate between these two roles, “forgetting” the information of your previous role.  This works because you can look at the state of the board as “the only information you know”.  None of the information in your brain can be used when you play, just what’s on the board itself.

The complete solo rules for Shipwreck Arcana can be found here.


Quite a number of cooperative, imperfect information board games have solo rules that can work using this changing perspectives idea.

  1. Wonder Woman: Challenge of the Amazons (with solo rules): Play two Amazon Warriors who must “forget” what the other has done when choosing actions
  2. Far Away (with solo rules):  Play two teammates who must “forget” what the other has done when choosing actions.
  3. Shipwreck Arcana (with solo rules): See above!

It can be hard to wrap your mind around this at first.  If you want to try this idea out, I’d recommend playing Shipwreck Arcana first with this idea—the state of the board very precisely characterizes what the solo player knows, so it’s easier to “forget” the previous role (as you just concentrate on the board itself).   Another idea that worked in Far Away was to to write down (with pencil and paper) “what is the shared information” between two characters—you can only act on shared information that is written down when you are in either role.

Changing Perspective is all about focusing on the important and forgetting the unimportant.

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