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AGENCY IN SOLITAIRE GAMES
BY TOM RUSSELL
About a year ago, I was talking on the phone with a game designer. Like every other conversation I’ve had with that designer, it was wide-ranging and free-wheeling, covering a number of gaming-related topics. I happened to mention something about solitaire wargames and how well they sold for the industry in general, and for us in particular. After having seen over a dozen of my wargame designs hit the market, the first one to really make a big splash was Agricola, Master of Britain, and at that time, it was the best-selling game that I had ever designed.
“I’m really sorry to hear that,” said the designer.
“I’m not sorry it did well, of course, I’m glad for you and Mary,” he said. “It’s just sad that solitaire games are so prevalent. The whole point of board games is to share the experience with another person. If I wanted to play a game by myself, I’d just play a video game.”
The funny thing is, prior to converting my Agricola from an unsuccessful two-player game into a working solitaire one, my own view of solitaire-only board games probably wasn’t much different than that designer’s. I had no problems playing on, if you’ll pardon the phrase, both sides of my table, and thus playing a 2P game solo. I didn’t even have a problem playing that other Agricola solitaire when I felt like farming and Mary didn’t. But I was always a little wary of dedicated solo-only wargames. Like that designer friend of mine, if I wanted to play a game designed for one player, I’d just play a video game, but it was less because of any philosophical underpinnings about “the whole point of board games” being the shared nature of the experience, and more because I felt that a video game would offer me a richer and more compelling experience that rewarded (or punished) my strategies and prized my agency. In short, a strategy computer game made me feel like my decisions mattered. I was not convinced that this would be true in a solitaire-only wargame.
It didn’t help that none of the solo wargames I heard about seemed to have much strategy at all. B-17, Queen of the Skies seemed to be all about passively experiencing an emergent story over which you had little control. Ambush seemed to be a slightly more complicated version of Choose Your Own Adventure, with limited opportunities for true interaction. The popular State of Siege series appeared to be essentially and ironically stateless, with the advancement of enemy units being dependent on a card draw, and your ability to beat them back dependent on good die rolls – a game more of luck than skill.
Now, before I go any further, let me say that these opinions were knee-jerk reactions (perhaps with the emphasis on the “jerk”) of someone on the outside, looking in and askance. They are not necessarily “factually accurate”, and often there is much more to a game than first appears. A good example is the State of Siege title Cruel Necessity, which helped change my mind about solo-only games. The game has levers that the player can pull to give himself decisive advantages. Now, I’m rubbish at pulling those levers, and I often felt like I was still at the mercy of the next card, and that the die provided by the publisher was either defective or possessed by a vengeful and vindictive spirit as it always came up precisely one pip short of what I needed. It was still more a game of luck than skill, but there was more to it than I had initially thought, and there was also more potential for solitaire wargames to have meaningful decisions.
This general impression was aided by exposure to some solitaire designs by the intrepid team of Hermann Luttmann and Fred Manzo, and around this time I had decided to take another look at my long-gestating Agricola, Master of Britain. I’m not going to bore you with all the details, primarily because I’ve already written about the creation of that particular game (and its spiritual sequel, Charlemagne, Master of Europe) but I will say that in general, my primary goal in designing these solitaire games was to put a greater emphasis on player agency. Like my favorite abstract backgammon, there is luck involved, sometimes a lot of luck, but if your victory or defeat hinges upon a die roll going well, then you’re doing it wrong. They are games of strategy, planning, and risk mitigation.
The core of the two games of course is the cup adjustment mechanism,
which Mary tells me I need to come up with a better name for, as “cup adjustment” sounds somewhat risque. Enemy units that aren’t on the map exist in a Friendly, Unfriendly, or Hostile cup, reflecting their general attitude toward what the player is doing. When you take an action, you blindly move chits from one cup to another – actions that people like make them friendlier, actions they don’t, make them less so. On a systemic level, your actions take on a sort of equilibrium, driving the game state, and directly impacting the feel of the late game. This has the consequence of the game becoming easier on a tactical level when you’re doing well strategically, and harder when you’re doing poorly. Long-term building projects you place on the board will also determine which cup eliminated enemy units go into at the end of the turn, which means that certain regions will gradually get quieter and easier to rule once you’ve put in the time and effort to pacify them.
The key in all this, and the intention behind it, is that your decisions have ramifications both immediate and long-term, and that the game state evolves in reaction to your playstyle. I would contend in fact that it does this in a way that’s roughly analogous to the way in which another player changes what she’s doing in reaction to your playstyle. I say “roughly analogous” because there is no other player. A game system can only be a poor facsimile of human intelligence, so I think solo-only games are better at representing a diverse host of disorganized, disunited socio-political entities pursuing their own inscrutable goals.
An important part of the player having agency and making meaningful decisions is that she is the attacker, and tasked with achieving something of consequence. Many solitaire games tend to put the player in the role of the defender, striving only to beat back the inexorable horde outside the gates. So much so that years ago, when I was still skeptical of the appeal of solo-only games, a publisher told me that doing a solo game was easy – take a situation where one side is on the ropes and hopelessly overwhelmed: that’s the player, the system is the attacker, and it almost always wins.
Even as I’ve come around on solitaire wargames, and even as we’re going to publish a few of them, in general I’m still very wary of “overwhelmed defender struggling to stay afloat” State of Siege style games. Every once in a while, someone sends us a solitaire game along those lines that captivates us by doing something new and exciting with the formula. Brad Smith’s NATO Air Commander gives players a lot of options and flexibility in how they approach the air-based defense of Europe in this Cold War goes hot game set in the eighties. The player must choose between short-term tactical objectives and long-term strategic missions that can tip the odds into the player’s favor. Robert DeLeskie’s Wars of Marcus Aurelius uses CDG-style mechanisms, focusing on card angst and resource management as you fend off the literal barbarians at the gates. In both of these games, despite the shades of State of Siege, players are encouraged to take an active role, their decisions matter, and the game state is mutable.
As a publisher, we receive a lot of solitaire submissions, and the vast majority of them fall into the “desperate defender” camp, and, I’m sorry to report, very few of them sustain any strategy beyond “roll high”. The game is stateless, your decisions negligible. It got to the point that we actually changed our submission guidelines to say, Please. For the love of God. Stop sending us State of Siege games. That’s not to say there isn’t a market for these “player is merely along for the ride” sort of games. Clearly there is. Such games can be thematic, and, at least for an hour or so, pleasantly diverting. But solitaire games are capable of more than that. I want more than that, and I think many gamers do as well.
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BSoMT article on Agricola Master of Britain