I’ve grown a bit detached from the “What have you played this month?” challenges on the 1 Player Guild since the one about flowers, but I still check every time. This month, it was “play six tile-laying games”. OK, I thought, there’s no way I can’t do this. I have a bunch of tile-laying games by Knizia (his great trilogy, to begin with), but solo? Alas, I don’t think I have any. Well, around the first half of the month, out of despair and boredom, I checked my collection anyway, and I had actually 25 of them, including two I had already played in August. So I set out to get the challenge done!
This is about the one and only board game I can play during hard surges of work (which was basically the situation until late in August). So of course I had played it a lot. It’s a simple game really. You draw tiles, one at a time, and put them anywhere in a 4x4 grid. There are no placement rules, just do what you want. Once the grid is filled, it forms a “maze”. You can follow the path from the entrance and see how many treasures you get along the way. Treasures get you 1 point, monsters subtract 2. And that’s it. It takes five minutes to play, if not less, and I just gave you a full account of every single rule in the game. It’s that simple. Yet it manages to be fun due to some secret recipe that is truly the signature of Knizia. I can play many games in a row (usually about five), especially since set-up is minimal (grab a board, grab the tiles, shuffle, play). And I stop because I have to, not because it becomes boring after a while. Getting a perfect score (that is, grabbing all treasures and no monsters) happens from time to time, and unless I severely screw up, I am usually close to it.
This game has my strong recommendation if you like something casual and lighter than about any other game you can think of. It’s also very much not random so you can curse yourself abundantly if you make the wrong choices. Feeling in control, that’s one of the nicest things a game can grant you. Note that the game is in Polish, but an English translation of the rules has been made available on BGG by Lee Broderick.
2. Robot Master
This is the second game on that list I had played without noticing its tile-laying nature, and it’s also a Knizia. You draw cards one at a time and must place them in a 5x5 grid (doesn’t it sound a bit familiar to you?). There is almost no placement rule except they must be adjacent to an already placed card. Once the grid is filled, you score it… Now the cards only have a number from 0 to 5 (plus whatever artwork from the pasted-on theme; I also have another version with dragons, but it could be flowers or different sorts of hats, it wouldn’t change anything).
The scoring rules are slightly odd: for each row and column, you score each card according to its number, except if there are two of the same number, in that case you score ten times their value, or if there are three, in which case you just score 100 no matter the value. Do this for the 10 rows and columns of the grid (yes, it takes longer than actually playing). Your final score is the lowest score of all these 10 scores. You may have done great everywhere, but if you messed up one single row, that will be your final score. Yes, yes, I know, it is really tough. Maybe there is more to it with more plays, but so far, it left me cold. And I am terribly bad at it. Apparently the game is much better multiplayer and the solo mode is likely an afterthought.
Eh, wait, that’s not a solo game! Worry not, for Ricky Royal has designed a solo version of it. The game basically being a multiplayer solitaire, it was only fair.
In Ecosystem, you draft cards and put them in a 4x5 grid. The cards feature animals or milieus of eleven different types, and each scores differently. During the game, you draft cards, build your ecosystem and score it, one card type at a time. You also get additional points (or malus) from the diversity of your ecosystem, that is, how many types of cards you did actually score. It seems awful (eleven different scoring conditions to calculate one at a time), but in practice it is somehow smoother than it should be.
Ecosystem, at its core, is a game in the family of Fairy Tale. You get a hand of cards, draft one, pass it along to your neighbor as you receive the hand of your other neighbor, and so on. The solo version by Ricky Royal tries to reproduce all that: new cards coming in, you can’t get everything from your initial hand, and hate-drafting. To do so, it adds a dummy opponent. Each turn, you must draft a card for yourself, draft a card for your opponent (so it’s hate-drafting in a different way, but it also means you can’t keep everything), and draw a new one (influx of unknown cards). It’s a simple and clever solo variant. At the end of the game, your final score is the score of your ecosystem minus the score of the dummy opponent. My highest score after three plays is 65, which is not so far from 70, the ultimate scoring threshold.
Honestly, I think I would have got rid of the game if not for its theme. The solo variant is decent, the multiplayer game is probably better, but I have other multiplayer drafting games already (starting with Fairy Tale). I am therefore still looking for a good soloable game implementing ecosystemic relations between species. Cascadia, also a tile-laying game, is better mechanically and I usually have more fun with it, but it’s also poorer in terms of ecosystemic relations.
Speaking of which… Overboss is, with Calico and the upcoming Verdant, a game that relies on the core mechanics of Cascadia (they are all from the same pool of designers and developers). I enjoy Cascadia quite a lot, and I got Overboss for its cool theme only (Fantasy creatures). Each turn, you draft a pair of a tile and a token from a display of four such pairs. You place the tile in your 4x3 grid, place the token on an available tile (quite often, the only available one is the one you just placed), then discard the leftmost pair on the display, and refresh it up to four pairs. Once your grid is filled, you score it. Yes, all these games look terribly alike.
In Overboss, the tiles belong to six different terrain types, which all score differently, of course. The tokens also belong to six different types that match the terrains. When you score, you get points for each terrain type according to their specific scoring condition (e.g. the Desert tiles score depending on the longest chain of tiles they are part of), and score your tokens: 1 point per token matching tile, additional points if you have straight lines of identical tokens. So, as usual, you spend almost as much time scoring as playing.
In this regard, Overboss is an even worse offender. First of all, the production value is top notch. It has a beautiful gametrayz in which everything is neatly sorted (that was a treat to do when the game arrived, a few months ago). You have twelve sets of terrains and tokens to choose from, each being given its own slot in the box. This is just great. So, a few days ago, I decided to have my first play. I picked up six such sets, shuffled the tiles as best as I could (that is, terribly poorly), started playing. It was over very quickly, and there is no way to tell how decent your score is. But then it was late and I packed the whole thing up. And that was a shameful chore. You must sort all the tokens, all the tiles. Yes, set up is easy given the nice gametrayz, but the tear down is a terribly fiddly slog that takes longer than the game! It was a true and real letdown.
The day after, I had some extra time so I gave it another chance. Then I knew better and decided to have four games in a row with the same six sets, to avoid this tear down chore. And it was actually much more enjoyable than I had first thought. I could easily have played a fifth game, and wanted to, but I had no time for it. In the end, it feels more random, unpredictable, and less clean than Cascadia. But the upside of this is that there is more variety from one game to the next. 16 pairs to place on your grid, knowing you have six sets of terrains and six sets of tokens all mixed up (of course the token and the tile of a pair seldom match!), is very few. So you can’t have a beautiful and neat strategy as in Cascadia. You just do with what you are given. And I like this kind of play, constantly on the verge of the unknown, salvaging what you can out of the mess. In the end, I had a really good time with my few plays of Overboss.
In Castles of Caladale, you have a display of nine tiles to pick from, and start with a castle base. Each turn, you pick a tile of the display, and put it in your castle. There are three “biomes” (wood, stone and white stone), and a tile can feature several of them. There are two placement rules: a tile must match the edges of all adjacent tiles, in terms of “biomes” (including the sky), and it cannot hang in the air without proper support. So you place your tiles until you cannot place any tile remaining in the display. Then you score your castle: 2 points per tile, -2 points per unfinished edge, 1 point per flag, bonus 10 points if there is no unfinished edge.
It’s very easy to play, if a bit random. Or is it that I am just very poorly skilled at this game? Anyway, I can’t seem to do anything good and satisfying. I never finished a castle in 10 plays. I often score very low and the game more often than not ends very quickly. So despite the simple rules, the game is either a luck fest, or too intricate for me. I am not sure whether to keep it or not: it’s casual and fast-paced enough, but it does not offer me much fun. Still, the castles are quite pretty, and the art on the tiles is nicely varied.
Seikatsu is a brilliant tactical 2-4 players gateway multiplayer game (BGG says best with 3 and I agree), and I love it for that. It turns out it has a solo mode, but truth be told, you shouldn’t bother with it. I’m glad I didn’t know about it at first. However, the designers recently called for playtesters of a new solo mode… which is not as good as the multiplayer game, but ends up being quite satisfying nonetheless.
In the game, you place tiles featuring a bird and a flower type (four types of flowers, four types of birds) on a hexagonal grid. Each turn, you have three tokens in hand: you must place one such that it matches the bird of an adjacent tile, and place another one (of your choice) at the mirror position on the board. Then you draw two new ones and keep playing. Once the grid is filled, you score according to diagonal lines, depending on how many flowers of the same type are found in each line. And that’s it. It plays fast, you must think ahead a bit, and you must manage the randomness of the draw to the best of your ability. Scoring is easily done as well, and since the production value is top notch, playing the game is overall a real pleasure.
The thing is, you can figure out exactly which pattern you must try to achieve to maximize your score. Once you know this, what you must do is pretty clear, so the game is all about managing the randomness. Which actually, is still a pretty fun thing to do. My best score now is 97 (out of a maximum of 104 per my calculations). I can now definitely spend a nice time solo with Seikatsu, even though I still wouldn’t recommend it for solo play only (but I definitely recommend it for multiplayer). Since the designers have announced that there would be other such solo “puzzles” in future releases, it makes it all the more worthwhile to stay tuned for it!