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Zerbique's Top 20 Solo Games 2021 - part 1

Now that the 2021 People's Choice Top 200 Solo Games has been revealed on Board Game Geek, we'll share some favourite games with you as well. Please join us and post your top (3, 10, 500) solo games in the Lounge. We'd love to read about them. First up, here's Zerbique's list: numbers 20 - 11.

I don't like competition. I don't like picking the best out of a lot. But I do enjoy rankings, as an ordered sequence of items that seems worthy of interest, or at the very least, of curiosity.

I compiled my Top 20 in this spirit. I don't do this to highlight some piece of design masterpiece, to say "this game is great and above all others". I don't believe in such things. We have fleeting gaming needs, our opportunities to dedicate ourselves to board gaming are varied and changing, and we do enjoy a diversity of features that are highlighted by a single title. And I find it so great that the solo Top 200 is wide enough to allow for this precious diversity to shine.

Now, in my particular case, I am currently in some rough, exciting years in my life, where a lot must be achieved, and time is scarce. As such, I cannot devote myself to long games, or complex rulesets. Therefore, my list is not a reflection of the 20 "best ever" solo games that I would keep if I were to only keep 20 in my collection, but rather a testimony of this situation. Right now, I am grateful to these smaller, lighter games, they are the ones that keep me afloat and leave me the opportunity to play.

Here are a few criteria that I have used to compile that list:

  1. I must have played the game within the last two years (within the last year is even better).

  2. I must be willing to play it again right now (even though I probably won't since the opportunities to play are scarce and far-between).

  3. There is no minimal play (some games I have only played once, but I am eager to play twice per criterion #2).

  4. Overall I don't care a lot about what goes on this list and what doesn't, but if I see a game here, I must be pleased that it got here, even if I end up unsure about the process by which it made the cut.

  5. I think I have applied the #1 rule of the 'contest': this is all for fun, and about fun. So I tried to have fun making the list. And I remarkably succeeded.


20. Monster Expedition

This is one of my most played games of the year. I had lots of fun with it. So, it may be surprising that it's so low on the list while games I have barely scratched at are much higher. But who am I to argue against the way of things?

Monster Expedition is a dice rolling game, and the great thing about it is that you roll dice. So, you decide to hunt in a biome, roll the dice corresponding to your skill level in that biome, and reserve all dice forming a "set", that is, all dice sharing the same value, but that value must be one you haven't stored yet (so you "lock" the number of dice you have for that value). Then you either stop or re-roll. Except if you cannot store a set after re-rolling, you "bust" and discard your highest value reserved die.

Once you are done with this dice rolling, you can sum up your reserved dice to count your "firepower", and spend it to purchase monsters on display. Then there is some set collection, as, if you get one monster from each biome, you get an additional die in your hunts. Furthermore, the 1s, 2s, and 3s dice can be used to upgrade your "skill level" in the different biomes.

That's really it, it's a simple game. In solo, you play through a series of scenarios (usually: get X monsters within 8 rounds). But these aren't great. The first ones are far too easy. Then the last ones require you to get insanely lucky with the dice. I did not find at any time a "sweet balance", where you must think carefully about what you do to win, but where victory doesn't depend on whether you don't roll optimally. In the end, I never managed to win the tenth and last scenario, and I didn't even get close.

So I parted with it. But it was fun while it lasted.

👍 You roll dice.

👍 You roll lots of dice.

👍 The upgrade mechanism is nice.

👍 It plays fast.

👍 Components are good and the box is small (of course it could be much smaller still).

👎 It's a game about poaching. Why did they go with such an awful theme?

👎 One element of the multiplayer game (cages) has no purpose in solo.

👎 Difficulty is uneven: too easy for the first 8 scenarios, too hard for the 10th (too hard meaning: you must be overly lucky with the dice).

👎 It's very repetitive. All games look alike, no matter the "scenario". You always end up doing the same thing and there is not enough variety in the monsters' abilities once you capture them.

👎 The multiplayer game could have redeemed it a bit, but I found it a repetitive drag, far too long for what it is.


19. Palavan

The solo mode of Palavan is not a game, but a puzzle, according to the BGG definitions at least. You have 16 tiles and must place them so that there is only one contiguous "sea" area and one contiguous "land" area. You get all the tiles from the start, no time pressure, it's just between you and the tiles.

There are various difficulty levels though. So if you feel exhausted to achieve the most difficult one, you can turn to an easier goal and still consider that you have "won".

As you see there isn't much to it, but it's really beautiful, I like the setting a lot, and it's incredibly relaxing. Maybe one day I'll crack it and it will become easy to find one of the "hard" solutions.

I wanted to note that I am pursuing the completion of an "island-building" games collection, of which Oceania and this one are part. I also own Sunda to Sahul (but I haven't had the time to try it in time for the list) and plan to get both Small Islands as well as the islands-themed re-implementation of The Little Prince: Make Me a Planet.


18. Seikatsu

I want to say that the solo mode for Seikatsu included in the box is basically garbage. Fortunately it escaped my notice until I tried the new official solo variant offered by the designer.

It's a simple one. You place your tokens two at a time (and you have always three in hand) in a "mirrored" fashion, meaning one must be in the symmetric position of the other according to the board central axis. And one must obey the constraint that the bird type matches that of an adjacent tile.

So you place all your tokens, then score according to the flower majorities in the diagonal lines (just as in the multiplayer game). It's simple, really. So simple you can work out what to do to score maximum points and what this maximum is equal to. But achieving this within the placement constraints and according to the "flux" of what you draw is of course where the tricky part occurs.

It's a really relaxing, almost meditative game, that I love to play once in a while. And the multiplayer game is top-notch.

👍 Simple rules with "mirror" placement that turns out to be both mechanically interesting and aesthetically satisfying.

👍 Gorgeous components, easy to set-up, a very good and peaceful moment overall.

👍 Even though the optimal placement is clear, getting there is not that easy.

👎 Still, you always seek out to achieve the same thing, so there is not much of a variation from one game to the next.

👎 Some flower colors are incredibly difficult to tell apart.

👎 It still is largely inferior to the multiplayer game and misses out on some of its key concepts.


17. Overboss: A Boss Monster Adventure

Overboss is the lesser known title of the Calico-Cascadia-Verdant trilogy. It's by another publisher, and it has a very different feel, but it's still the same core gameplay: draft a tile/token pair (as in Cascadia), place it on your board, discard the rightmost such pair from the display, keep going, then score according to a grand mixture of conditions.

This one is somehow the least thinky and the most chaotic of the series. The reason is that there are six different kinds of tiles (and as many tokens) and you lay only 16, so you may easily not get what you want. Also, you usually have to place the token on the tile you just drafted, so you are more at the mercy of what pops up in the display than in Cascadia or Verdant (although you can at some point earn the ability to reserve a token as in the latter). Still, it's very similar to the other of the series, except with a funky Fantasy theme that is a bit placated but pleasing nonetheless.

There is some sort of a solo campaign, but I haven't tried it yet.

👍 A good tile-laying game.

👍 A lot of variety as you can decide which kind of tiles you include every game (you pick six kinds of tiles out of 12 or so).

👍 Beautiful components and storage system.

👍 The funky Fantasy theme.

👍 Plays very fast and yet gives a satisfying feeling of making actual choices and implementing whatever scoring strategy you want to pursue.

👎 It feels more random than the other games of the series (and my score has always remained about the same).

👎 Putting the game back to the table is very, very, very impractical. You must sort all tiles, all tokens, it takes about twice longer than the game itself. I got reconciled with this when I discovered I had to play multiple games in one session, with the same choice of tiles.

👎 The box is huge. Especially compared to Cascadia which is approximately the same game in terms of weight and mechanics.

👎 No online version for this one!

👎 Some tiles seem impossible to score well (e.g. the desert ones), relying too much on the luck of the draw, while others score a lot in a reliable way.


16. Sagani

Sagani is another game that I was in a hurry to try out so it could get included in the list on the very last minute. I played it wrong three times, thinking at first that the game was overly harsh and impossible, then I read that you could freely rotate the tiles before placing them, which changed everything (by the way, it speaks well of the balance that they achieved with the game).

The game is weird in that you have to reach a score threshold with the fewest number of tiles (with contrast to, say, trying to get a score as high as possible with a given number of tiles). The rules say that you did good if you get 75 points within 25 tiles, which I have achieved in my second "correct" play. So now I am a bit at a loss regarding what to do.

There are two solo modes though. The basic one I just told you about, and the advanced one, but it lasts for an hour and has you place all 72 tiles - I wonder which table surface you need to achieve this. One day I'll try it. On the floor.

👍 Nice and relaxing pattern building game.

👍 Very light rules-wise.

👍 Easy to set-up and good components.

👍 I like the Paracelsian reference.

👍 Well balanced (it becomes impossible if you add a constraint).

👎 One solo mode is too easy and the other is too long.

👎 The theme is weak and the spirit art is silly (I would have preferred something more neutral and nature-inspired).

👎 Flipping a tile in the midst of other tiles is very tricky.

👎 Sometimes you can get screwed if you don't draw a given color for long.

👎 The box is medium-sized but still too big.


15. Mū

This one was a commercial failure in France, and the planned English edition never got released. It's almost language-independent, but not quite, so I can't fully recommend it to an English-speaking audience.

is a drafting game, in which you draft buildings to place in your city. By the end of the game you will have drafted a total of 9 buildings (so, as you can guess, it plays fast). When you place a building, if you match the color of the edge to that of the adjacent tiles, you get points. After three buildings are played, a military conflict occurs, and the military might of a randomly selected row or column is calculated; whoever gets the highest might wins the conflict (and points), and the loser has one of their building destroyed. At the end of the game, plenty of scoring conditions trigger, and you also get points. Some people have complained that the scoring is too convoluted, and I grant them the point, but it's still a matter of doing an addition on a small piece of paper, and I never found it a hindrance.

The solo mode is neat. You face an opponent, and when you draft tiles, you draft a pair of tiles, one to place in your board, one to place in the opponent's board, at the exact same location. So you want to avoid giving free points to the opponent, of course, or making it too powerful in military conflicts. Then, you count your score, subtract from it that of the dummy opponent, and try to get the best total. It's smooth, it affects your decisions in a meaningful way, it has minimal upkeep. I enjoy it a lot.

👍 A good solo system with very low upkeep but that keeps the "interaction" mechanisms active and relevant.

👍 A pleasing "oceanic" aesthetic.

👍 Fast-paced, but with interesting decisions to make.

👍 You get special scoring conditions that provide variations in focus from one game to the next.

👍 The box is medium-size and fitting for the game.

👎 The theme is rather weak.

👎 The military conflict and the destruction of buildings is not as impactful as you may expect it to be.

👎 The scoring is convoluted (but manageable nonetheless).

👎 Sometimes it feels like it's too short (you only draft and place nine tiles).

👎 It doesn't exist in English!


14. Oceania

Even though much wrong and horror resulted from the Europeans taking full notice of the American continent, I still find these times and these expeditions somehow fascinating - especially the naval, exploration part, certainly not the wiping out cultures and enslaving populations part -, if not in a way inspiring. So of course, the theme of Oceania, which is all about charting the shores of a distant archipelago, resonates with me in a special way.

And despite its simplicity (here again, this is a board game implementation of what started as an app), the game does a great job of conveying this theme, with nice tile art and a very functional ship meeple. Even though you can forget it about playing solo, I still make the effort to place it on the tile adjacent to the one I want explore. Given my tendencies to cut down everything not directly functional, it speaks a lot about the feeling of the theme.

👍 Relaxing, pleasing game, with good components (except the board).

👍 It's exciting to discover new islands!

👍 The theme works well and is really present, despite the minimalism.

👍 Another "super filler" game that plays in five minutes.

👍 Even though it feels totally random my score has consistently improved.

👎 It still feels totally random most of the time.

👎 The board has trouble staying flat and the tiles fall out of it.

👎 You may run out of "filler" tiles, which I find extremely annoying.

👎 The box is far too big.

👎 It is fairly repetitive from one game to the next (more so than Tajemnicze podziemia).


13. Garden of Minions

Garden of Minions is a cute dice-placement game. It pretends to have a win-lose condition (grow six trees before you can't place any dice), but I have never been close to losing. However, you have a score in the end, so it ends up being BYOS all the way.

It's a bit of a minimalistic game (super small box, very tiny footprint), but it provides a good gaming arc. What makes it shine are the "bosses" that introduce new rules (usually constraints to screw you up) and that you can only remove when you fulfill some sort of side objective. It's very fun and adds a welcome degree of variation in a game that would otherwise feel repetitive and samey.

👍 Cute.

👍 Easy rules, nice gameplay, low footprint.

👍 Not too luck-dependent (even though your roll plenty of dice).

👍 A good "skill margin", meaning you can substantially improve your score by playing better.

👍 Bosses introduce a nice layer of variation.

👎 A bit dry overall (it's all about placing dice on a grid).

👎 The trees power are a bit boring and don't play a crazy role (and you are very much incentivized to use half of them to improve your score).

👎 Some bosses are almost impossible to defeat at some point (but it doesn't matter much).

👎 A bit too long.

👎 Impossible to find.


12. Heroes of Tenefyr

What a downfall! I really expected Heroes of Tenefyr to hold its ground compared to last year's ranking (it was #2!), especially since the expansion came, adding more variety to a great game (also in the Friday family).

But it fell down because of this expansion. The expansion adds too many hero-specific cards. I think it's unthematic (because then you must pick the enemies in advance so that they are suited to your heroes), and it's also terribly fiddly (you must retrieve and sort out all hero-specific cards, take the ones matching your hero two classes, discard the rest, then randomly shuffle the good ones with a selection of neutral-hero encounters, and you must do this for 5 dungeon difficulty levels separately...). I was actually sorely disappointed and I don't see how the design can be fixed regarding this specific issue.

This is such a shame as the game was great, but needed more content.

👍 A very good core design (push-your-luck ameritrash deck-building).

👍 Excellent character progression.

👍 Consistently fun.

👍 Good diversity of bosses and enemies (they do feel different)

👍 Play time is short enough and footprint is small.

👎 A lot of luck obviously.

👎 A bit of "snowballing" when you start to get kicked out of a dungeon (you lose time AND you don't progress your character as much as you would need to AND you don't get a reward card).

👎 The box is too big and impractical (even with the expansion).

👎 Some heroes rely too much on specific cards that you must encounter.

👎 The expansion makes it a mess.


11. Karen and the Pirate Island

This one is interesting. I put it on my list last year, somewhat as a filler, because I hadn't played many games. And yet it survived! And indeed, I played it much more since then.

Karen and the Pirate Island is really a Friday clone. Or if I want to be nice, a Friday distillation. There are fewer mechanics, fewer cards, it plays in 10-15 minutes. But it's almost exactly the same: it's a push-your-luck deck-building, you face encounters that you add to your deck once defeated, and so on until you are strong enough to defeat the Pirate Ship.

Since Friday is a bit long for my needs, I usually favor playing Karen. And it's so fast-paced, so intense, that it is almost always a rewarding experience, even though I almost always lose.

👍 Instant set-up.

👍 Fast-paced gameplay.

👍 You can pull up crazy combos by the end.

👎 The "arc" is always the same, and there is a single good strategy to find out.

👎 The art is certainly weak.

👎 This is borderline plagiarism.


... to be continued.

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Great article! That box art for Monster Expedition is so beautiful it gets my attention whenever I see it in the store. I pick it up, read the back, decide its not for me, then put it back on the shelf. Every. Single. Time. Oceania looks interesting, too. I am also fascinated with that era. I will look into it because it looks like a nice game to play with my wife/daughter. Thanks for your input on Heroes of Tenefyr. For some reason I am always hesitant to buy this (maybe its the “cooperative deck-building“ part.) When I want to play a “quick“ game of Friday now I just bust out the app. But, it’s never quite the same as…


Wouter Cordewiner
Wouter Cordewiner

Your entry for 'Heroes of Tenefyr' are exactly my thoughts. The game idea is nice but the snowball especially is why I traded it away.


Cadet Stimpy
Cadet Stimpy

Whoa, that's a Post of great massiveness, Z! I might have to take a nap before I read it in detail. 😄 I'll be back to make a slightly more serious comment later. 🙂

Cadet Stimpy
Cadet Stimpy

😄 If you're not "on top of it", Z will leave you in the dust.

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