How to play a Cooperative Game Solo?

I’ve frequently written in this blog about Saunders’ Law: All cooperative board and card games should have a solo mode. It’s really more of a request to the designers and manufacturers! As someone who loves his cooperative games (and tends to present them to his friends), I need solo modes to learn the game. I enumerate a list of reasons why cooperative game need a solo mode in my blog post here, but essentially a solo mode in a cooperative game (at least for me) makes that game more likely to be purchased/played/enjoyed.

Categories

Nominally, we can break down cooperative games with solo rules into 3 separate buckets:

  1. Perfect Information vs. Hidden Information: Is the entire state of the games available to all players, or do some players hide information from each other?
  2. Solo Rules Included vs. None Included: Does the game have any solo rules?
  3. Multiple Positions vs. Single Position: If the game HAS solo rules, do they make you play multiple positions or have special rules for a single position?

Realistically, this breaks down into 5 categories for solo play:

  1. Cooperative games with perfect global information shared among all players. Solo rules NOT included  Examples: Unicornus Knights, Sentinels of the Multiverse.
  2. Cooperative games with perfect global information shared among all players. Solo rules INCLUDED, but require playing solo as if you were multiple positions. Examples: The Captain is Dead, Marvel United, Solar Storm.
  3. Cooperative games with perfect global information shared among all players.  Solo rules INCLUDED, but can play a single player in a single position.  Examples: Aeon’s End (any of them, original or War Eternal, Outcasts, etc.),
  4. Cooperative games with limited communication (thus, not all information is available to all players). Solo rules NOT included.  Examples: Far Away, Shipwreck Arcana, Wonder Woman: Challenge of the Amazons.
  5. Cooperative games with limited communication.  Solo rules INCLUDED.  None? 

There may be some games from category 5 that I don’t know of, but there is a way to approach games of both category 4 and 5 using a method we have discussed earlier called Changing Perspectives. That blog post explores the details about the Changing Perspectives idea in great depth, so we won’t dwell on that here. Today, we are going to talk about different ways to play cooperative games that tend to have perfect, global, shared information.

2P or Not 2P?

To paraphrase Shakespeare:

2P, or not 2P, that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous solo rules,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them.

In other words, how do I play solo? As a solo player playing two positions or something else? (2P or not 2P?) Do I play 1 position, 2 positions, 3 positions, or even more? Do I even like the solo rules that come with the game (outrageous solo rules)? Or do I come up with my own solo rules (and by opposing, end them)?

Two Positions better than Three?

I have found recently that I don’t like the solo rules that come included in many of the cooperative games I have picked up. I am exaggerating by calling them outrageous solo rules, but it’s for effect. In Solar Storm, the solo rules has you playing 3 positions, with some special rules for sharing all the cards. I have played several times this way, but I vastly prefer just playing two positions instead. Similarly, for Marvel United, the solo rules have you playing 3 positions (see below), with some special rules again. And again, I found that I preferred to just play 2 positions instead. Why?

Eschew Exceptions

The problem: I don’t want to deal with “exceptional cases”! I am usually playing a game solo to learn the rules, so I am reading and learning lots of rules! The last thing I want is to have to apply “different” or “exceptional” rules to my play! Take a look at the “exceptional” rules for Marvel United!

And that’s not even all of the exceptions because they wouldn’t all fit on my screen! I would rather just play as 2 characters, so that I don’t even have to apply the exceptional rules. I was reminded of this playing the solo rules for Forgotten Waters! Happily, the game comes with solo rules (even though the box says 3-7 Players on the outside), but there are a lot of exceptions that made it more difficult to play because the exceptions were ONLY documented in the app and NOT the rulebook!

Three Positions Better Than Two?

At the risk of being a hypocrite, there are some games where I enjoy 3 positions.

Unicornus Knights (reviewed here and here) works fantastic with the player playing 3 positions instead of just 2. In this case, it’s because if you played as Two Players, then you’d be playing 4 characters. The minimum number of characters (for balance) is 3, so playing a 3-Player game is the best way to play solo. You don’t have an exceptional rules for solo play: you can just play the 3 positions normally.

Sentinels of the Multiverse is a controversial pick because it doesn’t even have solo rules. I did develop some solo rules to play as if you were playing 2 Characters, but they were a little clunky. See here. When I play on the app or in person, I usually play 3 positions (3 Characters). There’s a lot to keep track of, but I have played it enough to be comfortable with it.

One Position Better Than Two or Three?

Arguably, the best way to play solo is to play one position or one characters: usually there’s much less to keep track of (only 1 position/1 character) and you don’t have to context switch back and forth between different characters. Sometimes, it makes perfect sense.

The Captain Is Dead has solo rules, but it has you playing multiple characters. I developed a set of solo rules for running one character and it simplifies the game tremendously! For a while, The Captain Is Dead was my favorite solo game BECAUSE of these solo rules.

Aeon’s End has a nice system for playing solo with just one character: I was quite pleased with it in my review here. The list of exceptional rules is very small, and it was easy to jump in as a single character and get going.

Intellectual Overhead

Where am I going with all this? I seem to be all over the place, sometimes preferring playing 1 position, 2 positions, or even 3 positions. What’s the common theme? Intellectual Overhead. What’s the cost in terms of complexity, rules lookups, rules exceptions? What can I keep in my head? In other words, what’s the simplest way to pay solo that’s still fun?

If there are too many exceptional rules for solo play (like Marvel United), it drains the game of fun as you lookup rules, override base rules, and just have to remember those exceptions.

If there are too many positions to play, the cost of running multiple characters can be draining as you have to switch and back and forth (like the original solo rules for The Captain Is Dead).

Is the game still representative of the game or do to solo rules feel tacked on? Tacked on rules drain the game of fun (like Solar Storm).

Conclusion

There is no “best way” to play a cooperative game solo. Some games come with solo rules, but even those can be tacked on and not representative of play. Don’t just take solo rules at face value, especially for cooperative games! Some of my favorite solo games have been cooperative games that didn’t even come with solo rules (Sentinels of the Multiverse, The Captain Is Dead, Unicornus Knights). I encourage you to “experiment” with your cooperative games to find the solo rules that work best for you. I have found that the solo rules that require the least Intellectual Overhead (fewest rule exceptions, fewest positions, least work) tend to be the best solo rules for me. Play. Experiment. They are your games: find the solo rules that work best for you!

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