David Harding talks about designing solo games.

In this edition of Meeple Speak, our guest writer is David Harding (designer of Elevenses and One Zero One) of Grail Games. David shares with us about adding solo player to Elevenses and One Zero One.


Solo Uh-oh!

by David Harding

It’s a great challenge – to design a board or card game. But to be honest, I have found that designing a game that is fun, interesting, replayable and works when only one player is at the table to be an even greater and more rewarding challenge.

I do not consider myself an expert in this field yet! I have designed one solitaire card game, named Elevenses for One, and a solo variant for a previously 2-player only game, named One Zero One. This variant is included in the mini expansion for that game: 101.1

Elevenses for one was originally conceived as an add-on for the Kickstarter campaign for Elevenses, run in 2013. Unfortunately, the game wasn’t quite finished in time, but it soon found its legs as a print-and-play, winning Best Small Game in the 2014 PnP Solitaire Game Contest and runner-up overall, runner-up in the Golden Geeks of 2014 for Best PnP, and 2014’s Best PnP as voted on by the 1 Player Guild. This was all very unexpected and extremely flattering. The game will be published “for real” soon! Elevenses for One is the sister game to Elevenses. Here, players take on the role of a maid who must prepare morning tea for her mistress before 11 o’clock. This is done by arranging and using 11 different items (cards) in their correct order.

When designing 101.1 I knew costs would allow me to include one card more than I needed in the pack. Not knowing what to do with a single, bonus card, I turned my mind towards designing a solo variant for One Zero One, and somehow, I was able to make that one card run the AI to verse the human player. In One Zero One, players play cards (as either 0 or 1) to a program display, trying to gain control of the lines of program before the program runs. 101.1 added extra command cards to the game, as well as the chance to play on your own.

Taking Players Away

When designing a solitaire board or card game, the greatest challenge is obviously how to re-create the game’s mechanics, “feel” and fun-factor, while taking away the group of participants that help to make the game run. After all, if you set up a multiplayer game and no one else comes to the table, then nothing is going to happen!

Designers use a number of tricks to make games work as solo experiences – dummy players, AI, programmed movements, and more – and when designing both of my solo experiences, I began by asking myself the question, “How will I make the game move by itself?”

In the case of Elevenses for One, I decided to ramp up the actions that were depicted on the cards in Elevenses, tweaking them to make things happen to the other cards when they are played. Instead of “Flip another player’s card over,” we have “Flip one of your cards over.” Instead of “Take a card,” or, “Pass a card,” we have, “shuffle your cards,” or “Change the position of two cards.”

In 101.1 I went a very different route. In this game, the player challenges a simple AI called the CPU. Players play cards from the CPU’s deck for it, following a few simple rules. Depending on whether the CPU is winning or losing, and for how long it has been doing on of these things, it will play its cards more or less aggressively. The key was to make it simple enough to follow, so that players would learn the CPU, and not just get frustrated by it.

CPU in 101.1

Tension and Timing

Many solo games and solo variants to multi-player games have tension built in, both to give the feel of playing with other humans, and to ensure that the player doesn’t always win. Tell players, for example, to win by gaining 100 points, yet without adding any boundaries or turn limits, and the game will not be a challenge. Solo gamers need to feel hard done by sometimes – or they won’t return. (I myself, took twenty plays to win Friday for the first time and I loved the journey of learning better strategies each time. Had I won immediately, I may not have played it again.)

For both of my solo designs, I made sure that the game’s timers are continually ticking. In Elevenses for One, the player has just 15 minutes (actions) to prepare their morning tea. Every move takes more time away from the player, increasing the tension. For 101.1, just like when playing a two-player game, the game will end when either the player’s or the CPU’s decks run out, or, what is more likely, as soon as the 50 program line has three cards on it. The CPU’s AI is designed to unavoidably bring the game to either conclusion, so the player knows they have a limited time to win and hence, they begin on the back foot.

Instant Replay!

Lastly, solo designers must ensure their games are replayable. Because solo players have the opportunity to dissect a game to its minutiae, and often do play a game multiple times in a session or time period, replayablity must be as high as possible. This can be achieved via making the game difficult (as previously mentioned) but not crushing. This is how most co-ops are designed, too. As well, many solo games have difficulty settings, so that solo gamers can continue playing the game, even after having mastered it.

Elevenses for One has a simple “start with less time on the clock” difficulty levels, but as well as this, players wanting an extra challenge can begin with an extra card in their “pantry.” This adjustment was suggested by a playtester and it achieves the need experienced players have to increase the difficulty in a simple way.

Some card examples from Elevenses for One

101.1 has four difficulty levels built in. To play the basic game, the CPU begins its programs with the “easiest” of the four directives written on the card’s edges. Then, if it continues on the same program on its next turn, the player must rotate the CPU card and face an even more offensive CPU. To increase the difficulty, players can simply never use the easiest “edge” of each side of the card (marked “1”). You can even play an even more difficult CPU at level 3 or 4 (but I think level 4 might be impossible to beat!)

Why Design a Solitaire Game Anyway?

As you can see, the solo game designer has much to consider – and this write-up only scratches the surface. I have found designing solo games to be a terrific creative challenge. It is also very easy to playtest! But why bother? How many solo gamers are there anyway?

This isn’t the place for a treatise on the joys of solitaire gaming. There are many reasons why people play solo games – because they are isolated, travel a lot, want to learn and experience a game before (or after) showing their friends. But overall, solo gamers find satisfaction in the different feel a solo game gives them. Gone are the social interactions, but heightened are the feelings of interaction with the game itself. The puzzle-ness of a game comes to the fore, and the challenge of beating it drives the solo gamer on.

If you would like to learn more about solitaire gaming I’d suggest you join and subscribe to the 1 Player Guild on BoardGameGeek. It is the second biggest Guild on the Geek, and is full of helpful and informative people.