Converting multiplayer board games into a one-person experience
Don't be ashamed to play with yourself. You've gone solo with Solitaire, The Legend of Zelda, and countless other games at some point in your life. But how do you do that with board games that were meant to be played with others?
We asked game designer Morten Monrad Pedersen. His mission at Stonemaier Games: Create rules for multiplayer board games, so you can play against an “AI” when no one else is around for playtime. Pedersen, along with fellow designer (and Stonemaier boss) Jamey Stegmaier, took a little time to explain why -- and more importantly, how -- they make single-player “Automa” modes for Scythe, Viticulture, and others in Stonemaier’s lineup.
GOING ANALOG: Let’s start with the obvious question: Why add these single-player rules to your games? Does it come from a personal desire? Something else?
Jamey Stegmaier: From my perspective as the publisher, people seem to really enjoy these robust Automa solo modes, and I like to make things that people enjoy.
Morten Monrad Pedersen: I scoffed at the idea of solo gaming 10 years ago. Then I tried it out and realized that I had been wrong. Solo gaming is a ton of fun and has allowed me to enjoy board games way more often than I would otherwise be able to. I hope that my work can raise awareness of solo gaming so that others can also get more enjoyment from them.
Apart from that, I can’t not make solo modes. The way I’m wired makes it very hard for me not to work on stuff I’m passionate about -- whether I get paid or not.
GA: Do you see a large demand for solo play from players?
MMP: I’m seeing more buzz about solo board games over the past few years. One way to measure this buzz is via the BoardGameGeek (BGG) Guild system, where players can join groups about things that interest them.
If you were to do a survey among board gamers, I’d guess that it’s a small minority who knows that BGG Guilds even exists. Among those, it’s a minority who joins one, and it’s a minority of them who knows that there’s a solo gaming guild. And yet there are currently 11,580 members of the 1-Player Guild -- roughly 900 more than the second largest.
GA: Why do you think that is?
MMP: First, playing video games on your own have been very popular for a long time, but I think that an increasing number of people spend too much time in front of a screen with the constant distractions of emails, Facebook, SMS, and so on.
Solo board gaming takes you away from the screen and its distractions and replaces it with the calmness of focusing on one thing. You get the tactile feel of the real world while still giving you the enjoyment of gaming. I know that’s how it is for me, and I’m saying that as someone who’s been into computers for 30 years.
Second, as I mentioned earlier, I went from scoffing at solo games to loving them as soon as I actually tried one. I think that there are a lot of people like me. If we go back 20 years, solo gaming was to a large extent constrained to wargames. Once the Eurogame revolution started, board gaming exploded, but it was a type of gaming that rarely had solo playability.
[Reiner Knizia’s] Lord of the Rings from 2000 got the solo ball rolling very slowly, and in 2008, Pandemic accelerated it. Both of these are cooperative games but can be played solo just fine. More importantly, I think that such games have been Trojan horses for solo gaming, because they showed that playing against the game instead of against each other is fun -- and playing against the game is core to many solo games.
All of this is seen from the perspective of gamers. If we turn to the perspective of publishers, then adding solo playability is a way to bring their game to [more] people, and there’s been an explosive growth in games that support solo play.
There’s this graph worth checking out, made by BGG user qwertymartin. It shows the fraction of games published each year that has a specific minimum player count. It’s based on the roughly 12,000 games in the BGG database that have at least 30 ratings.
GA: Have you come across any market studies showing demand for solo play? Like, sure, it's good for the consumer, but what does the market want?
JS: From what I’ve seen, our games that include Automa seem to sell better than our games without Automa.
MMP: That’s because solo games have the advantage that there’s almost a 1:1 attach rate. After all, a publisher is likely to sell close to one copy per solo gamer who plays the game and maybe one per four players who play it multiplayer. This means that if adding solo playability adds 10% more players to your player base, it might add 40% more sales. And since fewer games support solo than multiplayer, you tap into a market where there are fewer competitors.
Here are a few things worth thinking about:
I’m no longer following Kickstarters much, but a 2018 Kickstarter that I stumbled upon is the solo-only game Unbroken, which brought in $453,000.
The 2017 smash hit, 7th Continent, is voted best at one player by 72% of the voters on BGG, and it has gotten $8,400,000 on Kickstarter. As far as I know, the fact that it’s considered best as a solo game was established before the second Kickstarter, which earned $7,000,000, which was about 83% of the total.
Another 2017 smash hit, Gloomhaven, which brought in $4,400,000 on Kickstarter, was reviewer Tom Vasel’s favorite game of all time. So, we have a non-solo gamer who’s probably the most well-known board game reviewer declaring that his favorite game of all time [happens to work as] a solo game.
And then there are our games. According to a BoardGameGeek poll about the use of the various modules in the original Tuscany expansion for Viticulture, roughly half of those who have played it have played the solo mode.
GA: What was the first modern board game that you felt got solo gameplay right?
MMP: Designer Uwe Rosenberg has made some of my favorite games, but in many, the solo mode is just playing the normal game without other players. In At the Gates of Loyang, he replaced an important player interaction with an interesting triple card-river system, and in my opinion it makes the solo mode his best one yet.
If we’re talking games that were designed mainly for solo, I’d go with 2010’s Onirim. At first appearance, the game is a set-collection card game that’s a bit too simple, but it comes with seven to eight mini-expansions in the box, and there are two promo expansions. These can be combined in any way you want, which creates a ton of variation. Including one to three of them takes the game from too simple to my Goldilocks zone for light games with short playing time and the right amount of decisions to create a fun but relaxing experience.
GA: Making a co-op game single player is certainly easier than doing the same with a competitive game. From your work, what are some of the early lessons you’ve learned that make competitive solo play games work?
MMP: My approach is to add artificial players who take the place of human players and mimic the interactions you’d have with a human player, so the main lesson I’ve learned is that AIs do the trick.
GA: Hang on a sec. When you say, “AI,” our minds instantly go to video games and playing against a computer. How do you plan AI and the challenge of creating an automated “Automa” opponent for a board game?
MMP: The two main differences are processing power and who does the work of running the AI.
Computer games have the distinct advantage that computers can carry out billions of operations per second, can store complex game states and internal strategic evaluations allowing the AI to consider a huge number of strategies and tactics within seconds and without the player having to do anything beyond pressing “play.”
In a board game, it’s the human player who must do all the work on behalf of the AI, which means learning the ruleset, following them each turn, and do the physical movement of game components. Combining this with the fact that most players enjoy taking their own turn more than the AI’s turn leads to a low complexity budget for the AI. Additionally, there’s a limit on how many components you can add just to support the AI.
GA: OK, then how do you automate a game that usually has one of the players relying upon hidden cards?
MMP: That depends on the kind of hidden information. If the hidden information is the vine cards of Viticulture, you can simply refrain from giving the AI such cards, because they have limited impact on other players.
If the hidden information is the number of combat points on combat cards in Scythe, then it works fine to give the AI random face-down cards like a human player would get and then reveal the cards when combat occurs.
On the other hand, for a game like Hanabi where the entire point of the game is to figure out what are on hidden cards, I wouldn’t try to make an AI.
GA: I know that it’s a longer process that you’ve gone into detail about elsewhere, but if you were to boil it down to a general list of five rules for how to make a multiplayer game suitable for solo play, what would those be?
MMP: My answer represents my approach to doing this, but there are many other valid ways. With that out of the way, here’s five rules I go by:
- Create an AI for the game, and acknowledge that it can’t play the full game. So, instead it should play a simplified version that probably includes it breaking the rules.
- Identify the core interactions between players, and find the simplest possible way to have the AI mimic those.
- Remove everything from the AI that isn’t directly required for the above, like having the AI play without vine cards in Viticulture, for example.
- Make sure that the human player plays by 99-100% of the same rules as in multiplayer and faces the same kinds of decisions.
- Make sure that the human player never makes a decision on behalf of the AI.
GA: With your general rules in mind, are there any types of board games that are inherently not suitable for solo play?
MMP: There are at least two types of games I wouldn’t try to make a solo mode for: first, games like Diplomacy where a social aspect is a core part of the game. Another standout I mentioned a second ago: games like Hanabi, where the soul of the game is figuring out information that only other players know. As a rule of thumb, the more interaction a game has, the harder it is to turn into a solo game.
GA: You’ve been focusing on using offline rules to create solo play options for games. What about using companion apps doing just that?
MMP: I avoid them. [laughing]
I play board games to get away from computer screens and to get away from the constant distractions they give. Games with apps undermine that.
There are apps that implement parts of our bots. With Scythe, for example, there are apps that implement multiple AI card decks so that you can have more than one in a game, and there are apps that tell you what the AIs will do if you feed the app information about the game state. One of the Scythe apps has even experimented with AR [augmented reality] where the app reads the game state itself via the camera and then shows an overlay of the game on the phone’s screen showing you what the AI will do.
I acknowledge that they decrease the complexity of running an AI or add one where there wasn’t one before, but as said, it’s not for me.
On the other hand, it would be interesting to work on such an app.
If you’re curious to learn firsthand how Stonemaier Games makes their games solo-play friendly, check out a title like Scythe and see for yourself!