End Times 2022: Past, Present & Future
Ever since JW asked me to write an “End Times” post, I have been pondering what to do. Then it struck me: I am a huge fan of Scrooge McDuck. I have read many of these comics over the years and I am still purchasing these regularly. Given the character is straightly inspired by Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge character, I thought a short “Christmas Carol” of my solo gaming would be fitting. So here we are.
First appearance of the character in 1947, by Carl Barks.
One game that probably defines my childhood is Dungeons & Dragons: The Fantasy Adventure Board Game. It was all I had ever dreamed of a board game to be, with cool monster minis, heroes that get loot and upgrade, and sessions played over a campaign infused with some basic high fantasy narrative... Except you need a Game Master to play it. So the game just sat in my bedroom, overly tempting, and only got played on some rare (and highly enjoyed!) occasions. Another example is Dino, a game I got as a child, and that I literally never played – I just couldn’t find another player.
At the time, I was dreaming of something that I would later call “solo board gaming”. I was often getting the Dino box, tinkering with the components, trying to find a way to make it work without an opponent. Would I play another player with automatic moves? It felt rather boring. I was thinking of a sort of a time track, or anything that could make victory significant. In the end, I was too young to come up with anything but a fleeting thought. Little did I know then that I was contemplating the “AI” and “co-op” big categories of solo design – and little did I know that the preference I showed there for the latter would be confirmed a thousand times in the future.
Solo gaming has become an obsession and a disease. I always want to play board games and I have far too many board games to play by myself. If I could just teleport a bunch of them twenty or so years ago, it would be such a joy! I am also discovering some gaming tastes that I would never have suspected.
For instance, 2022 was for me very much the year of the roll & write games. The prospect of writing on a game, of a finite number of plays that would wane as I would exhaust the sheet one by one, was something I couldn’t overcome at first. But then I had to realize the harsh truth: very few of my games got played a hundred times. The likelihood of me playing up to the last sheet is actually evanescent. And roll & write games actually fit my present situation. I don’t have time, I don’t have the energy to set up a large board game, and I often play on small surfaces, during short times. Most of the roll & write fit these requirements. And I made lots of very enjoyable discoveries this year, diving into the genre. My current obsession? The ruthless rogue-like Dungeons, Dice & Danger by Richard Garfield.
I have also discovered that components matter. I have a “legalist” view on board games – in my view, they are first and foremost an abstract structure that you impact through well-defined decisions. But I would roll dice over drawing cards anytime – I just find rolling some dice a very satisfying gesture. You blindly seal your fate all by yourself – you are not suffering it as the ordering of the deck gets irrevocably revealed. Framing does matter as well. Spending action points to activate your hero abilities is not so much different from a worker placement game from a purely structural and abstract point of view. But I have ruled out the latter from my gaming life, while I encounter the former mechanics fairly often in my games.
It is hard to think of the future of my solo board gaming practice, without thinking of the future of solo board gaming in general. We live in an age of plenty, with hundreds of solo board gaming of all sorts being released every year. I don’t believe this trend can hold on much longer. The field is diversifying at a very steady pace, and diversification will lead to exhaustion as solo board gamers will disperse into increasingly specialist “niches”. There are actually two major ways to structure an ecosystem: a nested, robust, and stable way (“connoisseur” games are played by gamers who basically play everything, “gateway” games are basically played by anyone, and if a gamer only plays one game, it will be one of these), and a niche-like structure. I believe the current momentum is leading us toward the latter. Which means, there will be an intrinsic competition within solo gaming, and this competition will slowly devour the field.
As such, I predict that the whole thing will collapse and only the “major” players will survive. This means, primarily, boss battle card games and big Euros with a Turczi solo mode. In the future, I foresee that we will have different “designer circles” specialized into a certain style of solo mode: the Automa Factory is one of these already, and produces solo designs far beyond Stonemaier games; Turczi itself has created such a circle – his name refers more to his team of designers than to himself. I therefore believe these two trends will grow increasingly dominant and borderline monopolistic. Unfortunately, I happen to dislike both kinds of games – the boss battle card games and the AI-driven Euros. As a result, I expect fewer and fewer games to stir my interest in the forthcoming years.
Which doesn’t matter. There are lots of games I like already, and my available time is not increasing. I am trying to strike a reasonable balance between exploration and exploitation – the discovery of new games, and revisiting games I already know I enjoy a lot. This balance cannot be maintained as more games will join the regular rotation of titles I can reliably have fun with – and exploration will have to slow down. Therefore, I predict that my own trend towards a more conservative approach will match that of the shrinking of solo gaming diversity. My only wish, then, is that the game’s collection I will settle upon will retain a bit of this design and thematic diversity I happen to cherish.