Rob: Before we jump right into this list of my all-time favorite games to play solitaire, I think it’s important to mention that this was an incredibly difficult list to make. I’ve played so many games that offer solo variants and I’ve enjoyed almost all of them immensely, so paring it down to less than 20 (let alone less than 10) was almost excruciating. Suffice it to say there are a whole lot more games I wish I could have included here.
Since there are so many games I really enjoy playing solo I couldn’t be content to leave any names off, so here’s a short list of the other game I wanted to include, in no particular order (and minus a long-winded description).
Sylvion – Onirim – Harbour – Dungeon Roll – Chrononauts – Death Angel – Star Realms – At the Gates of Loyang – Merkator – Le Havre – Snowdonia – Suburbia – XCOM: The Board Game – The Cards of Cthulhu – Bios Megafauna – Renaissance Man – Nations: The Dice Game – Samurai Spirit – Hostage Negotiator – Friday – Flip City
Now let’s have a look at everything that almost made it onto the list. These are all games that I do enjoy quite a bit, and still play, but they didn’t quite to make the cut for one reason or another.
[Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games, Designer: Richard Launius, Kevin Wilson]
I can already picture you quickly scrolling down to leave a comment about how I’m a liar since we always talk about how much we all love Elder Sign, but there is a reason it didn’t make the final list.
It’s awkward to play solo.
Elder Sign is first and foremost a cooperative game. This means that if you’re playing alone you simply control more than one investigator. The problem is things can start to feel a little muddled when you’re jumping back and forth between four different characters – remembering whose turn it is, keeping track of items, knowing which skills are available when, and not neglecting that damn clock.
It’s far from unplayable, and it’s still quite fun even if you’re juggling too many investigators at once, but it’s far better suited to playing with a group.
[Publisher: Mayfair Games, Designer: Uwe Rosenberg]
Caverna is another game I really like (much more than Agricola and its constant need to babysit your family so you never get any real work done), but the default rules for playing solo keep it off the list because they don’t allow for any random factors. I’m totally cool with solitaire board games basically being like a puzzle you have to put together, but there needs to be some variability between each game to really keep me invested. With Caverna, it’s the exact same thing every time – the only X factor is what you as a player choose to do each turn. So once you find a solid strategy you really don’t have any need to deviate from it.
None of this will keep me from enjoying the heck out of it whenever I can be bothered to take the time to set it up and play it through, but it’s just not dynamic enough to pull ahead of the other games on this list.
[Publisher: Stone Blade Entertainment, Designer: Justin Gary]
Full disclosure: Ascension is one of my most favorite deck builders. It’s what got me started on the genre, and despite what a lot of people think I actually find most of the artwork to be quite interesting and unique (although I’ll admit that the illustrations in the Anniversary Edition are definitely a lot better). I love Ascension. But playing it solo doesn’t hold a candle to playing against another person.
Oh sure there’s a decent enough automated system that will keep you on your toes as you attempt to out-score the game itself, but you’re not really at odds with anything. It pretty much winds up being a game of “how can I manipulate the available cards to either maximize my score or minimize the game’s?” Not that it can’t be fun, and it’s a great way to learn the mechanics, but it’s nowhere near as dynamic as playing against a person.
[Publisher: Splotter Spellen, Designer: Jeroen Doumen, Joris Wiersinga]
You might remember that our attempts to play Roads & Boats as a group didn’t go over very well. That’s okay because it can be played solitaire-style very easily, with the only real change being a sort of automatic round timer. Other than that you’re free to mess around with the map as you see fit. Normally I’d complain about how this creates a problem similar to Caverna’s, where there’s no actual randomness to anything and you just find a strategy that works and stick with that, but the map is made up of modular tiles so the environment can actually have a huge impact on how you play.
Honestly the only reason Roads & Boats didn’t make the final cut is because I had to draw the line somewhere. But this is a neat (and costly) empire builder you should definitely try out if you ever get the chance.
And here we go. The best of the best (of what I’ve played and enjoy the most). As I’ve said, this was a very difficult list to make and I wish I didn’t have to leave anyone off, but if I did that it would end up being several pages long and everybody would get bored with reading it before the halfway point. Besides, seeing as more games are coming out all the time (with solo rules, no less!) this isn’t exactly set in stone, anyway.
[Publisher: Z-Man Games, Designer: Ignacy Trzewiczek]
There are a few too many aspects to Robinson Crusoe that I really enjoy to explain them all in a couple of paragraphs. The short version is it’s a really interesting (and brutal) game about survival on a deserted island, and its mechanics capture the kind of tenseness and peril you’d expect from such a situation.
Actually there’s more than one situation, too. You can pick from one of several different scenarios, or try to play through each one in order, and the various decks of cards used for different types of encounters really mix things up no matter how many times you play. It’s got exploring, crafting, gathering, weather, tough choices, and a whole lot more worth checking out.
[Publisher: Gale Force Nine, Designer: Aaron Dill, John Kovaleski, Sean Sweigart]
Firefly is another game that does a great job of conveying the appropriate “feel” as you play it. The idea is to basically just be the captain of a Firefly class ship in the universe created by Joss Whedon ten years ago (seriously, it’s been ten years!). You fly around upgrading your ship, hiring and outfitting your crew, striving for a specific game-winning goal, and picking up odd jobs – sometimes illegal, sometimes immoral, but so long as they pay who are you to argue? It’s basically like playing a board game version of the PC classic, Freelancer.
You might recall that my biggest issue with Firefly was the fact that there’s little to no direct player interaction (unless you have the appropriate expansion pack), but that’s no problem at all if you’re playing solo. In fact, the solo rules utilize a round counter that forces you to keep moving or risk running out of time. So unlike a game with multiple players, you really can’t afford to dawdle or get caught up in a bunch of minor jobs. Anyway it plays like an open-world (or open-galaxy in this case) space adventure, which is freaking awesome.
6 – Fleet
[Publisher: Eagle-Gryphon Games, Designers: Ben Pinchback, Matt Riddle]
One of the things I really appreciate abut playing Fleet solo is that you’re competing two different “AI” captains instead of one. It gives you a better metric to measure your endgame score against, with one captain being extremely easy to leave in the dust and the other being something of a jerk. No matter where you might end up sitting in the rankings, it’s quite refreshing to have two different systems to try and work around as it makes gaming the game much more difficult.
Aside from following a couple of prefab procedures on the stand-in captain cards you’re pretty much playing Fleet in the same way you would if there were two other players. It’s just as much fun to agonize over what cards to save or spend, and you’ll definitely need to make use of your license abilities if you want to stand a chance against the tougher of the two rivals. It’s all of that glorious Fleet goodness, minus having someone to talk to.
5 – Urbion
[Publisher: Z-Man Games, Designer: Shadi Torbey]
I love me some satisfyingly complex board games, but I also really appreciate Urbion’s elegant simplicity. This is a very no-frills game about finding balance that’s as easy to set up and pack up as it is to play. On the surface you’re just matching up positive and negative values in an attempt to zero them out, however there are a number of simple strategies you can use to shuffle cards around and potentially give yourself a bit of a endge. Or screw things up horribly if you aren’t careful. But being simple by no means makes it easy. Oh no.
In fact, Urbion is one of the most difficult games on this list. The combination of strategy and luck can make it frustrating at times, but it’s a good kind of frustration. And because it’s so quick to set up you can easily jump right back in if you blow it. And you will. Jump back in, I mean. Well, I guess it’s safe to say you’re going to blow it, too. Everyone does.
[Publisher: Victory Point Games, Designer: John Gibson]
It’s not often that a board game leaves me feeling tense, but Infection manages to do it every single time I play it. This… I guess you could call it a sort of sim? This sim-ish game about researching and hopefully creating a cure for a deadly plague before it wipes out all human life is nowhere near as complicated as it sounds, but it is full of difficult decisions.
You have to juggle hiring staff, buying and using lab equipment, balancing a limited budget (naturally), researching the illness, and creating its vaccine. It all comes down to drawing cards to see what nasty events come up, deciding what to spend money on, and figuring our which parts of the virus to attempt to neutralize first. But there’s something to the way it’s paced and the way you tend to fall just short of what you really need almost every time to make each game feel like your really fighting tooth-and-nail for the sake of humanity.
[Publisher: Upper Deck Entertainment, Designer: Ben Cichoski, Danny Mandel]
Come on, you knew this was going to be on here. In fact, it’s technically two games now because the Predator version just came out a little while ago. Both versions are mechanically similar in several ways, but they’re also different enough to feel unique. You know, in case you ever wanted to try each of them.
It doesn’t matter if you play by yourself or with friends – you’ll have a great, nail-biting time with either option. And each version actually ties into its respective series quite well. The Alien set includes four different pre-made scenarios based on each of the four movies, along with rule variations for traitors (because The Company) and Alien players. The Predator set only includes two scenarios since there were only two movies, but each one has a version where you can play as the humans – struggling for survival against an enemy that’s far more technologically advanced than you are – and and a version where you can play as the Predators – hunting down worthy prey in an attempt to out hunt your glowstick-blooded buddies.
It pretty much comes down to personal preference over which kind of extraterrestrial you find more interesting. But no matter which side you choose you’re going to have one heck of a time.
[Publisher: Die-Hard Games, Designer: Herschel Hoffmeyer]
I know in my last list (the one about favorite card games) Legendary Encounters beat out Apex, but this time we’re talking about which is the better game for solo play. And I have to give the edge to Apex. It’s a fascinating amalgamation of familiar and slightly weird mechanics that makes for an incredibly compelling game of desperate survival and inevitable extinction. It doesn’t hurt that it comes with a dino dung-ton of variable factors like playable dinos, bosses, prey, events, and so on.
Not only do I find Apex to be a whole lot of fun when played solo, but there are so many different things that can change the way each game goes. Every single one of the playable dinosaurs requires a different strategy to use effectively and they’re really fun to experiment with. The different evolution abilities can really make a difference in your long game. The prey you have to hunt, the bosses you have to defeat, and the minions who constantly get in the way can also have a tremendous effect in your overall strategy – on top of however you’re planning to play with your chosen dinosaur.
Apex certainly isn’t a cakewalk, but it’s the kind of punishing that’s really, really entertaining. And there are so many ways a game can be changed up that it’ll take quite a while to get bored with it.
1 – Tiny Epic Galaxies
[Publisher: Gamelyn Games, Designer: Scott Almes]
Tiny Epic Galaxies is a game that I backed on Kickstarter a while back because it looked interesting, it was very affordable, and I have a soft spot for space games. Then it showed up in a mail and jumped to the top of the list almost immediately. I don’t necessarily know if that means it’s objectively better than any of the other games on this list, but I definitely think it’s the most fun.
It’s this great mix of strategically colonizing planets, making use of special abilities, upgrading your empire, gathering/spending resources, and using dice to determine your actions for a turn. It’s a system that works fantastically with an automated player (referred to as the Rogue Galaxy). There’s just enough randomness to keep you on your toes and make each game interesting, but you also have just enough control over your dice via a free re-roll and the ability to sacrifice two to turn one into whatever you want that it never feels too out of control.
I do think Tiny Epic Galaxies’ solo rules could stand to make things a little more challenging – I managed to win on my very first try, and have handily trounced the Rogue Galaxy on subsequent attempts – but I’ve been enjoying it too much to care about it being a teensy bit too easy to win. Granted, a lot of what happens comes down to dice rolls, so with some bad luck (and some even worse strategic planning) you could still end up getting wiped out. Regardless, this is a fantastic solitaire game.