Things I dislike in solo games (sometimes without even trying them)
I've been nagging about this and that for a while, dispersing my silly complaints over a series of Grumpies. Now I compiled them into a list, answering the question nobody asked me: 'what might keep you from buying or backing a game?' (besides a lack of funds). Nothing is set in stone, of course, and I may eat my words and change my mind in the future. But for the time being, when a game features one or more of the characteristics below, I am likely to say no, thanks.
I added some music to make the negative thoughts more palatable, although, who doesn't like curmudgeony lists? Between 'spread the love' and 'a curmudgeon's worst games' posts on BGG, the former shouldn't even be a clickable option.
1. Real time
We've talked about this before, but it dawned on me again thanks to the release of Pendulum, which, I hear, doesn't use time in the standard anxiety-inducing way. JW once made the remark that, if a designer chooses to create tension in a game by adding a timer, then the design probably isn't that good. Timers are artificial tension creators. The challenge is to get the player on the edge of their seat without these crutches. Sand timers should be merely decorative objects in professors' offices. Not to mention that the cheap plastic ones look awful.
I don't have a good memory, and there's nothing I can do to enhance it (take gingko biloba?). When a game requires that the player remembers the cards they played in previous turns, it doesn't reward skill. It rewards an innate ability mostly based on biology, like basketball is easier to play if you're tall. Okko: Oni Hunters is a game I refrained from backing because of this. Reveal a token. Memorize its place in the grid. Flip the token to the other side and try to remember where it was 2 hours later, after you've done 100 other in-game things. But of course the game had good artwork, and good artwork is a lotus. It makes you forget to check what the actual gameplay is like.
3. AI that works via die roll or if/then
I generally dislike automated opponents. I enjoy facing obstacles that the game is throwing at me, not a robot that tries to mimic my moves. I even prefer to play two sides than roll a die and let the AI steal a card from the market. How does that recreate what a human would do? I also don't like to follow if/then instructions. If x is this number, and if y card has been revealed, and if z spot is free, then the AI laughs in your face and gains ten VP. This is a) tedious to perform, and b) unfair. I know I'm in the minority, and most solo gamers love automas, so I'll just sigh and shut up.
4. Beat your own score
Here JW and I are in disagreement. His article on our site sounded convincing but, in practice, I'm not feeling it. Yes, I still occasionally play Palm Island and Orchard but I'm not 100% happy with them. Maybe because I never score exceptionally well, so it never feels like a victory. Just a 'see you next time'. Like a BF who abandons you with a few mumbled excuses, without explaining, and promises you'll have a real talk one day. And you're like, 'but I need closure!' BYOS doesn't provide closure. It gives you an appointment to talk, you start the conversation, then it leaves you high and dry.
This refers to one game, actually: The 7th Continent. I don't remember any other game getting on my nerves so badly. The base game is mostly okay, but expansions contain so many annoying riddles that it turns into an escape room-style puzzle. Perhaps I'd have a different opinion if I was patient and clever. Alas, I couldn't solve these, so I don't want games to remind me that I'm stupid.
6. Games that support all modes (and include a few scenarios for each)
'The game supports competitive, cooperative, solo, team and free-for-all play'. This means that some of these modes will be subpar. I understand that companies want to attract customers and make money. But a restaurant menu that has steaks and seafood and pasta and 'ethnic' basically tells you that most of these dishes will be garbage. I have more respect for a designer/publisher who will boldly decline to include a mediocre solo mode, even if this denies me the pleasure of trying their game. I want games that give the solo gamer special attention.
7. Roll to see what happens
For me, the games in which you roll dice and then consult a chart to see what you found are incredibly uninteresting. They are often quite fiddly too, as you constantly have to search for the correct table and run you finger along it to discover the random outcome of your roll. The well-loved system used in light wargames like the Hunters is a nightmare for me. Where is the player agency? Please give me a proper game mechanism, something to think about, to feel I actually accomplished my objective, that not everything in this life is bloody random. I would say that this is a dated design choice, but it isn't. But it should be.
I am a little sad that Space Empires 4X relies so much on recording your progress on paper. It otherwise looks like a very nice game. I tried the book-keeping in Sherman Leader, and didn't enjoy it at all. When the round ends, I want it to end, and not become the game's secretary. I gave away Shadows of Brimstone mainly for this reason. Writing down every single XP, gold, dark stone turned a very amusing game into a total chore.
I don't completely hate them but I decided never to back another narrative game after Tainted Grail. Even though the story immerses you into the game universe, it ends up becoming the main attraction, thus hurting the gameplay part. It goes without saying that these games are non-replayable, and therefore mere money sinks, unless you can easily resell them.
I may accept an app if it makes any of the games by Emperors of Eternal Evil soloable. Otherwise, no screens on my table. Scanning a QR code for every card? Jesus Christ. Suddenly the aforementioned book-keeping sounds like great fun.