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A Top 20 of sorts - Zerbique's solo picks (Part Two)

I know I am not the most interesting gamer to follow, for the chief reason that I barely play games. Too little time, too little mental energy left at the end of the day. And yet, I like having fun, so I mostly rely on smaller, lighter games to fulfill my board gaming lust. I know it's not up to everyone's tastes in solo gaming (and I am sure not entirely satisfied by these games), but if you are interested in a more casual take on solo gaming, this second part is for you.

Top card-driven dungeon crawler

This might be a surprising category, but it’s one of my very favorites. Dungeon crawlers are neat, and they feature some key core features: enemy variety, character progression, and a sense of progression into a structured space (usually materialized as a grid). A card-driven dungeon crawler abstracts out of this structure, and offers a typically less immersive, but also more portable (usually) and mechanically fluid experience, focusing on the fights, the events, and the character building. Card-only dungeon crawlers that recreate a board with cards (e.g. Deck Box Dungeons, Legends Untold) do not fall into this category.

Image from BGG (Andrew Brooks)

Winner: One Deck Dungeon. This is an obvious classic (in the world of solo gaming, 2016 is rather old already!), and it still works splendidly today. It balances with an elegant mechanic the character progression and the dungeon difficulty, it offers very fun ways to build your characters by picking up skills that develop synergies with each other and improving the stats that matter, providing a true sense of empowerment overall. Granted, I think the enemy variety is poor – all are basically a bunch of colored and numbered boxes with a piece of art and a name that feel like a random distribution -, and it may easily get frustrating (if you fall behind the character strength vs. dungeon difficulty dual race, or when you get wiped out in the very beginning), but when you manage to perfectly play your skills and emerge unscathed against a Dragon, you feel truly and rewardingly triumphant.

Runner-up: Heroes of Tenefyr. Being disappointed with the fiddliness of integrating the expansion contents, I haven’t played this one in a while, but I still believe it’s a very fun and very clever take on dungeon crawling, powered by a deck building of sorts which has little to do with most deck-building games. It builds on ODD’s idea that slain enemies can be used to improve your character, and therefore features the same “dual race” as your character needs to get stronger while the dungeons you dive through become more perilous. Fall behind and you meet your end... Special mention for the boss fights which are especially tense, but also feel varied, fun, and more satisfyingly challenging than desperately crushing.

Looking forward: Beyond the Rift. Although the cards of this game are possibly the most epicly dull I have yet to see in an adventure game, I have heard all but excellent things about this one. Personally, I like that it’s purely card-based, with no additional bits at all (except 6 wooden cubes).

Top solo trick-taking game

If there were a “grail” solo design I am looking for, it would be a card-driven Fantasy adventure game powered by trick-taking mechanics. But we are still far from it! Trick-taking is a genre that I am especially fond of in multiplayer. The Crew is probably my favorite co-op game, The Fox in the Forest my favorite 2P game, and I have played countless games of the French Tarot, which is our most established traditional trick-taking game. However, trick-taking is a genre that really revolves around the other players – guessing what they have in their hands, timing your own cards in accordance. I see trick-taking games as card-based fencing, when you exhaust deliberately some suit, retake the hand with a well-played trump, and so on. Well, you get it, I love it. But it seems impossible to recreate these feelings solo. Or is it?

Image from BGG (Tia)

Winner: ECK. This game does a good job of providing enjoyable trick-taking feelings. You really need to think of the different suits, of when to take the hand and when to lose it, and so on. You play against an AI that obeys simple rules that you need to “game” to your advantage, but gaming the AI behavior is precisely what infuses the game with an authentic trick-taking feel. That said, to provide some competition, the game wants you to achieve a precise number of tricks – in the beginning you can target any even number, but as the game goes on the number of remaining targets shrinks... It’s pretty well done, but, still – a far cry from the joy that multiplayer trick-taking games provide. Which answers the question above.

Runner-up: Shardhunters. This is a game I shouldn’t like. First, it’s ugly, next, it’s dumb. I can’t do anything for its ugliness and I would really wish for a change of art, and maybe of theme (the theme being a weird mixture of Gothic, Pirates, and Steampunk), but its dumbness is actually where it shines. It’s very easy to play and you can almost do so automatically. But it provides this nice and warming feeling of mindlessly shedding cards in a casual way among friends. You need to win tricks to earn “shards”, with which you can purchase heroes that bend the rules a little, or grant you more ways to get shards. It’s pretty repetitive, but the interplay of the different heroes, the easy-going feeling of playing cards over and over, make this game a real winner that will happily stay in my collection of solo card games. It’s also extremely portable, which makes it a good travel companion.

Looking forward: White Hat. I know very little about White Hat, but it seems to provide a rather interesting solo mode. First of all it’s BYOS (a welcome change from achieving a precise number of tricks); second, you need to play your hand to win tricks with specific cards in order to move matching pawns on the board. At the very least I’m intrigued!

Top Roll ‘n’ Write

If 2022 is the year of anything gaming-wise for me, it’s certainly Roll ‘n’ writes. I had shunned this genre so far, but enthusiastically embraced it over the months. I played dozens of them, and while I think the majority of these titles are rather insignificant, a few ones have managed to stir my interest in a more lasting way. Note that by Roll ‘n’ write I mean any game where you receive random input and report stuff accordingly by writing on a sheet.

Image from BGG (Spellenplank)

Winner: Trails of Tucana. An obvious recognition of what may be the most addictive roll-and-write I have ever played. You flip two cards, and must draw a road segment between two hexes of the corresponding types. The goal is to connect villages together, and to reach the various sites of interest on the map. It’s very simple, very fun, but since you always play the same two maps, what to do soon becomes obvious. I have yet to reach the top-scoring tier, but I feel this is a pure matter of luck, and that I have already reached the skill ceiling of the game. Which doesn’t prevent me to have fun every time I play.

Runner-up: Merchants of Magick. This is probably unfair to many other roll-and-writes that may be more interesting than this one. But I enjoy it in a weird way. You roll dice to purchase supply chains so you can sell any item that combines whatever supplies you secured (e.g. securing “Divine” and “Grimoire” allows you to sell the “Divine Grimoire”. Adventurers come by to buy specific stuff, and if it matches something you can sell, you get money. It’s as simple as this. I like that it’s nicely thematic (all these silly Fantasy items like “Fiery Shield of the Dragons” make me smile) and that you can always do something with the dice. It feels completely random, it’s a BYOS with no tiers, so, really, this game is only meant to provide some casual fun and since there is no purpose at all, I always feel I did good no matter the end result.

Looking forward: Dungeons, Dice & Danger. A soloable roll ‘n’ write by Richard Garfield where you gradually explore a map by matching values shown in the rooms. What appeals to me is the straightforwardness of it: you launch a few d6, combine two of them to form a number, and cross matching rooms or monsters’ hitboxes to move forward into the dungeon and get the loot.

Top solo Knizia design

As a member of both the Knizia and 1PG Guilds on BGG, it’s no wonder that I want to create a dedicated “solo Knizia” category in this ranking. But truth is, Knizia is certainly not the best solo designer out there... His “big” solo games, like the recent Siege of Runedar, did not win me over. But I still revisit with great eagerness some more “insignificant” designs, with barely any rules and that play within a mere five minutes. I’m amazed to consider how enjoyable these games can get despite their minimalism in every respect – like a small espresso shot of solo gaming to make you feel better for the whole day.

Image from BGG (eventide)

Winner: Tajemnicze Podziemia. Or Mystery Dungeons, as the soon-to-be-published English edition insists on calling it. This game is a real delight, and can be quite addictive as well. Simple: you lay tiles forming a maze on a grid, until the grid is full. Then you look at the path that unfolds from the entrance, gain the loot, suffer from the monsters, tally your points, and that’s it. It never fails to entertain me!

Runner-up: Criss Cross. Everyone can play Criss Cross. Draw a 5x5 grid, grab two d6, and you're good to go. First, mark the upper-left square with any number. Then roll the dice, and report the two numbers side by side anywhere on the grid. When the grid is full, you score rows, columns, and one of the two diagonals, depending on how many matching numbers (or symbols in the official print) are adjacent to each other. It’s not much more complex than a Tic-Tac-Toe, but I’d venture to say it’s way more fun.

Looking forward: My City Roll & Write. My City was a great delight to play, a pure half-an-hour meditative experience to share in silence with your friends, hoping they will come back at it often enough to complete the legacy campaign. Since this is clearly not an ideal situation (especially considering that there is no way to reset the game), having a solo, smaller variant with the Roll and Write version feels a bit like a relief, that I’m eager to explore. Unfortunately, the rules are all in German, but as usual, BGG saves the day!

Top travel game

I happen to travel occasionally for professional reasons, and being away from both work and my parental responsibilities for the time of a train trip is usually the single best opportunity to play games (I also play about once a week in my commute time, a twenty-five minutes train trip, which explains the high number of roll ‘n’ writes I played this year.). The trouble is, few games are a) simple enough to be played without refreshing the rules too much; b) with a footprint small enough to be played on a small tray; c) interesting and varied enough to remain interesting over repeated plays. I regard the few games that achieve this as real gems of game design, since they need to operate within drastically tight constraints. The games in this category therefore play an essential role in my gaming life, and I cherish them in a special way: they are incredibly accessible, and yet generously fun.

Image from BGG (James M.)

Winner: Puzzle Dungeon. I mean, you were waiting for this one to show up, right? Puzzle Dungeon is a marvelous little card game. Its design core opens to a wealth of possibilities that the designer Brian Garber (and illustrator, publisher, etc.) made a point to explore in full, stretching everything beyond the limits of what you would have believed to be possible. Yet I have played it much less this year than the previous ones. The reason for this is that I have won with all heroes of the standard game, totaling more than 30 plays, and I have started to try their “Challenge” side. Unfortunately, this sucked the fun out of the game to me: to win, you must often rely on incredible luck, very specific set-up configurations (some of them just prevent you from winning right from the start), and lots of “Monster Kings” get activated at once. The trouble is, Monster Kings, once activated, exert passive, rule-bending effects on the game, but since they are hidden all over the place, keeping track of all of them is even more cognitively demanding than actually trying to win. Finally, the Challenge heroes replace the ability of the original heroes by a negative effect, leaving you a tighter margin and less room for creative play. Fortunately, I can forget about the Challenge side entirely and start playing with the hundred and more heroes from the deluxe edition, but still, this disappointment made me stay away from the game for a long lapse.

Runner-up: Limes. I still feel uncomfortable ranking this one so high. I should hate it. It’s thematically dull, aesthetically tepid, and mechanics-wise, it just sounds atrociously boring, some kind of derivative version of Carcassonne. You lay tiles made of four colored squares, optionally place a meeple on the tile you just placed, and at the end, once you have completed a 4x4 grid, score areas in which you have placed a meeple. Fields score one point for all contiguous squares, towers score one point for each forest square in sight, etc. When I read it, I thought: oh! the agony! It sounds so terribly uninteresting! And I must admit, it really is. But it doesn’t prevent it from being oddly fun and addictive. Add to this that you can carry the components around in a small dice cloth bag, that it plays in ten minutes, that playing two or three games in a row is terribly enjoyable, and you’ve got a real winner in the travel category. Well, almost a winner of course. With Puzzle Dungeon around, it just didn’t stand a chance.

Looking forward: Tin Helm. The footprint of Tin Helm might be a little bigger than the other two games above, but the prospect of being able to play a good dungeon crawler experience from such a tiny box and within a meager 30 minutes is still absolutely alluring. The fame of its bigger brother, Iron Helm, makes it all the more tempting.

And this is it! As you have seen 2023 will be full of exciting gaming discoveries, and the beauty of it is that all these “looking forward” games are ones that are already in my treasure hoard. The solo gaming landscape is vast and varied, and the horizon is just as promising as what’s at hand already!

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2023년 1월 22일

I think Tin Helm was especially dull. I played it once, won (yeah!) and don't feel any need to revisit it. It does fulfill its promise of being a pocket-size dungeon crawler with a tiny footprint and a short play time though. But this is all about its merits, and being short and fast doesn't necessarily make you worthwhile. So, you sure won't see it on my Top 20 2023!

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