You know what used to be great? Seeing other human beings and fulfilling basic social needs. You know what else used to be great? Going to the grocery store and not being stuck in a Mad Max rally to the toilet paper section only to realize you’re already too late and it’s all sold out and oh god did that person next to you just cough without a mask on OH GOD OH GOD.
If you’re reading this and you’re confused, allow me to elaborate. I am currently writing this in the late Spring of 2020, where the world is smack dab in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic and life SUCKS. If we’ve moved past the pandemic and life has somewhat returned to normal as you’re reading this, awesome! I can’t wait for that future! But as of now, life is constant anxiety and dread and calling your parents to make sure they’re not dead yet.
But at least we have board games….right? RIGHT??
Well, if you were lucky enough to enter the age of quarantine and social isolation with the people you game with, then yes! You have board games! But the vast majority of us probably don’t have that luxury. In my case, I’m quarantined with my girlfriend and while she does enjoy playing games with me, she’s not absurdly obsessed with the hobby like I am and our selection is limited to games that support 2 players. So while I’m grateful that I get some gaming done and we’ve created a wonderful Saturday night game night tradition, there are certainly times where I want to scratch a gaming itch and she’s either busy or not in the mood. What to do then?
That’s where solo games come in, my friend. Solo gaming was once a huge punchline in the industry, as it is a niche corner of a hobby that is already niche. But things have changed, even before a pandemic forced us to ward people out of our personal space with six foot long pool noodles. Now instead of being a huge punchline in the industry, it’s merely a small punchline.
Yes, people still make fun of the idea of solo gaming but it’s slowly becoming more and more mainstream. Just take a look at any Euro released in the past two years. It’s weirder to see one that doesn’t support solitaire play than to see one that does. Solitaire only games are also becoming more and more popular, often finding life on Kickstarter where dedicated solo gamers scour around likely lonely, socially anxious sharks.
With this surge of solo gaming popularity AND the fact that none of us can leave our houses, what better time to talk about my favorite solo games than now? I’ll even ignore the fact that most content creators have already been doing this in response to the pandemic and pretend that I came up with his idea ALL BY MYSELF.
So, in this post I will be ranking and discussing my favorite solo games that I’ve played over the past few years. Since about 2018, I’ve gotten more and more into solo gaming, to the point that I actively seek out well regarded solitaire experiences. On this list you will find games that are both multiplayer games with splendid solo variants AND games designed solely with one player in mind. I’ll obviously point out which games are which as I talk about them. Also, homebrewed solo variants posted on BGG are not eligible. Since they’re often not official, I won’t consider them as such for the list.
All right, that’s enough talking. Can you tell I’m starved for social interaction lately??? ONTO THE LIST.
Orchard is from Side Room Games, a publisher that ALMOST made it onto this list twice. I say almost, because the other game, Maquis, barely missed making my top 10. Maquis did just get its own individual review from me though, so click on that link if you wanna read up on that game.
Let’s talk about Orchard, though. It is an adorable, little microgame about planting trees and harvesting fruit and it’s a mere 18 cards. Is 18 cards ‘microgame’ enough for ya? Well how about this: a single game only uses half the deck, so in reality this game only needs a miniscule 9 cards to create a lovely solo experience.
Orchard is a tile/card laying game, where you’re placing cards down and trying to overlap as many of the same trees/colors as possible. There are three types of trees in Orchard: apple (red), pear (yellow) and plum (purple). When you overlap like colors, you get to place a die of that color on the spot set to the 1 pip. If there’s already a die present, you get to increase its pip level instead. A 1 becomes a 3, a 3 becomes a 6 and it maxes out at 10 from there. You play until the deck runs out and then you tally up the number of pips you have showing to figure out your score.
In terms of simplicity and swiftness of play, nothing on this list compares to Orchard. You can play a game of this in 10 minutes, tops, and then you can immediately replay it with the other half of the deck that wasn’t used. And if you don’t think that’s what I do every time I play Orchard, you are SORELY mistaken. Orchard is such an addictive little package, providing interesting decisions on how to plant your trees and providing a deceptively tough, stubborn difficulty that will have you determined to improve upon your measly point totals.
To further flesh (haha, flesh, like fruit) out the already tricky puzzle is the rotten fruit mechanic. Twice per game you can choose to overlap two trees that are not of the same type at the cost of having to put a rotten fruit token on that spot. This seems like a great way to get out of a tight jam (haha, jam, also like fruit) BUT it not exactly a “Get out of jail for free” card. At the end of the game, any rotten fruit tokens are counted as negative 3 points, meaning if you’re going to use one, then you better damn well be getting a solid chunk of points out of it. It’s always an interesting choice to size up your potential point gains vs. what you’ll lose with the rotten fruit and trying to determine if it’s worth it. It’s certainly a very small mechanism but in a very small game, that’s all you really need.
Ultimately, the main complaint I have with Orchard is that there is no win/loss condition. The game has a point chart detailing your ranking based on the amount of points you scored. Though I am less annoyed by this than I was when I first started solo gaming, I am still not a fan when solo games present a scoring tier system rather than a binary win/loss state. Plus, the scoring tiers are all fruit puns and who would debase themselves low enough to make fruit puns???
Despite that little quibble, Orchard is a surprisingly satisfying game for its size and has provided me with lots of plays during this quarantine. Just writing about it has got me itching to play it again. Which I think I just might do. Hold on, I’ll be back in 10-20 minutes.
Like Orchard, Crystallo is another solo only tile/card laying game that I Kickstarted. Whereas Orchard is a tight, cute little game of planting a, well, orchard, Crystallo is a sprawling, starkly beautiful game of rescuing fantastical creatures from an evil black dragon.
Crystallo has you exploring the lair of a black dragon, hoping to free creatures under its imprisonment by surrounding orbs with sets of crystals. You lay cards down one at a time, drawing them from the deck and placing them onto the board in an attempt to surround the orbs that are peppered throughout the cave. When you surround an orb with a specific set of crystals, you get to place a gemstone of that creature onto its orb, showing it’s one step closer to leaving the cave. If you place three of a creature’s gemstone out on the board, you’ve liberated it from the dragon’s clutches. Free all the creatures and you win! Well, uh, the first part!
You see, Crystallo is actually a two-part game. After you free the creatures, the dragon awakes in a fury, probably yells something in Benedict Cumberbatch’s voice, and now you need to trap it. Trapping the dragon requires you to place a gemstone of each color onto it, meaning you have to once again go about surrounding orbs with crystals. The nice thing about this part is that you don’t need to rely on random deck draws. When fighting the dragon, you get to put all the cards in your arsenal (made up of leftover cards from part one and a deck of 9 cards made during set up) face up and you can actually plot out how best to trap the foul creature. While this can certainly lead to some AP, as you size up your possibilities and options, it does prevent any sort of frustrating bad luck from torpedoing your hard fought efforts here in the endgame.
The first thing you’ll notice about Crystallo is its magnificent table presence. For a game that is simply a deck of cards and a handful of gemstones, this thing is strikingly gorgeous. As you make your labyrinthine network of orbs and crystals, dotted with the chunky gemstones throughout its criss cross pattern, you’ll stop more than once to sit back and admire what you’ve been crafting without even realizing it. Partnered with its lovely art, Crystallo is perhaps the most Instagram worthy game on this list. I think that’s a compliment? I mean it as one, anyway.
But as my mom repeatedly tries to tell/console me, looks aren’t everything. How does Crystallo play? Amazingly. I love tile layers and the more puzzle-y they are, the better. Crystallo is about as puzzle-y a tile layer as you can get. Trying to efficiently line up your cards to cordon off the orbs with as few crystals as possible is an addictive nut to crack. If you want to face off against the dragon, you should strive to trap multiple orbs with parts of the same sets of crystals, which is easier said than done. You’ll be doing lots of rotating and flipping of a card before deciding where to place it, truly giving the feel of completing a jigsaw puzzle. Except, you know, not boring.
Further complicating things are items you can find and collect. These are things like treasures, which add to your end score (if you decide to log that sort of thing), weapons, which aid in the boss battle against the dragon, and magical artifacts, which allow you to get a gemstone for free. In order to activate the abilities with these items, you need to collect a full set of 3, but doing so means placing the gemstones on their associated card. Any time one of these items comes into play, you have to make a decision: are you going to aim to collect that item, even if it means jamming it in somewhere that is a suboptimal play? Or do you place it in a more efficient spot, possibly sacrificing your chance to place gemstones on it and earn its ability?
In Crystallo’s crisp 20-30 minute run time, you will be faced with tough decision after tough decision, trying to keep an eye on which creatures need the most help while using the cards in their best way possible. Every time I play this game it seems to come down to the last card draw and if I do lose, I know that it’s because I made a poor choice rather than the game screwing me over.
The one concern with Crystallo is that it can feel a little same-y from play to play. The puzzle you’ll be presented with is going to be different, but the game doesn’t offer much in variance otherwise. I have a suspicion that is the reason it includes a robust scoring system; so that whether you win or lose, you have tangible proof of whether you’ve done better or worse from past plays.
Despite this slight criticism, Crystallo is still a fantastic design and is an easy recommendation for anyone looking to get into solo gaming.
8. Mr. Cabbagehead’s Garden
It is here that we have a crossover with my top 100; Mr. Cabbagehead’s Garden is a game I’ve already discussed in the 80-71 post of my top 100 Games of all Time (2019 Edition) feature that dominated this blog since last November. You can check out the post I just linked for deeper dive into the game, but I’ll give a brief recap here if your prefer that (I just heard the loudest collective sigh of relief in my head from everyone reading this).
In Mr. Cabbagehead’s Garden, you are Mr. Cabbagehead. You are trying to earn the blue ribbon in the neighborhood garden contest and you do that by how else? Laying cards down to form contiguous patches of vegetables, satisfying bonus point objectives in the process, while also trying to mitigate the drawing of neighbor tokens from a bag that give harsh penalties when activated! Duh.
As I mention in my top 100, Mr. Cabbaghead’s Garden is a lovely mix of card drafting and push your luck wrapped around a devious card laying puzzle that feels like it’s always on the brink of going sideways. The neighbors are absolute nightmares to deal with and it seems like they always activate at the worst time, on the worst possible card.
This potent combination of tactical puzzling and hilarious frustration is made all the more enjoyable by the game’s wonderfully charming art and aesthetic. The game features an old Victorian art style, with worryingly detailed anthropomorphic vegetable people populating the game’s cast of characters. To some, they are disturbing looking but to me? Yeah, still kind of disturbing, but in a very humorous, self-aware way that gives the game a delightfully distinct personality.
I will admit, though, that I have played this game a handful of times since ranking it in my top 100, and I have cooled on it juuuust a bit. The more I play the more I realize just how luck driven this game is and how many things need to go right in order to reach the highest score level (a.k.a., that coveted blue ribbon). Perhaps I’m terrible at the game, but I’ve played this countless times and have only barely gotten within 25 points of the blue ribbon score tier. And that is WITH shifting to different strategies, trying different patches of vegetables, making Faustian deals with the devil, etc. As someone who admitted in my Maquis review that I like to play solo games to relax and, yanno, win, I’m ashamed to say my desire to play this game has waned with the increasing possibility that this game is nigh unwinnable without insanely good luck.
Regardless of my recent concerns with the game, it’s still on this list for a reason. When I’m devoting an afternoon or evening to solo play, Mr. Cabbagehead’s Garden is always a game I consider playing and it’s given me plenty of hours of great gaming memories.
7. Raiders of the North Sea
Raiders of the North Sea is one of the more recent additions to this list. I only just discovered its solo mode about a month or two ago, mainly because it was unavailable until about a month or two ago. The solo mode, which is a deck of cards known as the Scheme Deck, was out of print for a while until it was just recently turned into an app that you can download on your phone. I got it on Android for less than $2 and it immediately became one of my favorite games to play solo.
Raiders of the North Sea is one of the most popular worker placement games of the past decade, featuring a unique “put down a worker, pick up a worker” system that breathed fresh life into a slightly stale genre. In the game you’ll be hiring a crew, gathering supplies and sailing out to raid nearby settlements who…probably deserve it? I dunno, the game doesn’t explicitly say, so let’s just assume we’re raiding and pillaging a bunch of Neo Nazis or anti-vaxxers or something.
In my opinion, any worker placement games these days should come with a solo mode. It shouldn’t be too hard to implement solo rules in a worker placement game since the main source of interaction is the blocking of spots. RotNS’s Scheme Deck replicates this very simply: every card has a location you can’t go to for that turn. Easy!
Beyond that, the Scheme Deck will also wipe clear certain raiding locations throughout the game, forcing you to raid aggressively and giving the feel of an opponent who you need to keep an eye on. Any solo game that can imitate the feeling of turn angst that comes from worrying over whether your opponent can mess with your plans is worth celebrating. RotNS has this in spades.
Honestly, RotNS’s stock can only go up from here. It sits here at number 6 but could very easily find itself in the top 5 a few months from now. I simply haven’t had the time with RotNS as I have the other games you’re about to see and I’m excited to give it some more plays. If you own the game and didn’t realize the solo deck was available digitally, go buy it!
6. Paper Tales
Card drafting is one of the most popular mechanisms in the hobby and Paper Tales is a more recent addition to the genre. It’s of the ‘pick and pass’ variety, wherein you pick a card from a hand and then pass that hand to the person next to you. Sounds like the perfect type of game to play in a pandemic, eh?
Luckily, Paper Tales has a dedicated solo mode courtesy of its expansion Beyond the Gates, allowing me to enjoy the game without worrying about contagion. Even more luckily, this solo mode is excellent.
In Paper Tales, you are building a medieval fantasy kingdom, attempting to gain points through various avenues. It has more than a few similarities to card drafting heavyweight 7 Wonders: the drafting of cards that grant passive resources, building a military to win wars against adjacent opponents and constructing buildings that act similarly to 7 Wonders’ titular wonders.
You could certainly do worse than mimicking the most popular card drafting game in the hobby, but you also better bring some fresh new ingredients to the stew if you expect people to not just stick to 7 Wonders. Don’t worry, Paper Tales smartly does just that.
For one, Paper Tales provides spatial constraints to building your kingdom. Whereas in 7 Wonders, where you build your empire across a laughably sprawling tableau that stretches from one end of the table to the other, Paper Tales requires you to build your tableau in a tight 2×2 grid, with the chance to add a mere 5th card at some point in the game. Certain cards are more efficient in either the front or back row (military power is judged through the front row cards, for example) so there is an extra puzzle-y element to building your tableau, something I’ve not seen in other drafting games.
Another cool twist is the ageing system. At the end of every round, you must put an ageing token on every card in your kingdom. If there’s already a token on the card? It dies and leaves your kingdom. This means most cards you draft and put in your kingdom will only be around for two rounds, forcing you to constantly adapt and change strategies based on what new cards enter the system. Most games have you constructing a big, long term engine that supplies a steady stream of points over the course of an entire game, while Paper Tales forces you to build multiple mini engines that grant bursts of points here and there before crumbling into dust. Each engine you build in Paper Tales is like a shotgun made of spun sugar.
So, this is great and all, but what about the solo mode? You know, the whole reason we’re here? Paper Tales takes a fairly interactive mechanism (card drafting) and somehow replicates it in a solitaire format that makes me completely forget I’m all by myself (and that’s something that NEVER happens). When playing solo, you’re pitted against the Lich King, an AI opponent who will gain points based on cards you feed him throughout the game. When it’s time to draft, you’ll draw a full hand of five cards from the deck, pick one and then pass the rest to the Lich King. Then you draw a new hand of four cards, pick one, and again, pass the rest to ol’ Mr. Lich. Then it’s three cards, pick one, pass the rest to the Lichy Lich. For the final two cards, you’re actually going to pick up and shuffle the Lich King’s pile of cards (the ones you’ve been recklessly passing to him), draw two, pick one to keep, until finally getting your last card by simply drawing the top card off the Lich King’s deck.
This clever system manages to imitate so much of what makes card drafting great. Since you know what cards the Lich King will get big points off of, you can hate draft to keep those away from him, just like you’d hate draft an opponent when you see them focusing on a specific strategy. The fact that you get your last two cards from the pile you passed to the Lich King creates that feeling of angst when you pass up on a card in the hopes that you’ll see it later in the draft. And all of this is done swiftly and with almost zero maintenance. It’s such a magically smart way to implement drafting in solitaire circumstances and I hope that all future drafting games keep this in mind. A mechanism I once thought would be impossible to implement solo is now something that I think should ALWAYS come packaged with a solitaire mode.
There’s only one unfortunate reality that keeps Paper Tales from cracking the top 5 on this list: I haven’t actually played the multiplayer yet! I procured my copy of Paper Tales after the pandemic lockdown started and therefore have only experienced this game solitaire. When judging solo versions of multiplayer games, I like to compare how the solo experience translates the feel of a multiplayer game. While I’ve played enough card drafting games to know this game does a great job of translating the mechanism, I still can’t say for sure how well it translates the specific Paper Tales experience. For this reason, Paper Tales is slightly held back.
I have no clue when I’ll have the chance to play Paper Tales multiplayer with other human beings, but I’m sure that when I do and I can TRULY see how the solo mode compares, Paper Tales’ stock will only move up.
5. Viva Java: The Coffee Game: The Dice Game
This next game is not just underrated for its surprisingly good solo mode, but for its base multiplayer mode as well. The dice version of Viva Java: The Coffee Game (was the title not explicit enough), this is a roll and write before it was considered holy law for every game publisher to put out at least two roll and writes a month.
In the game, you have dice with different colored coffee beans which you then roll and use in one of two ways. One option is to make a blend with the beans, crafting quasi poker hands that are placed on a central disc and will hopefully not be beaten and replaced by your next turn. This feels a bit like the ‘entering Tokyo’ mechanism in King of Tokyo. Just like in that game, if nobody kicks you out, you get points, creating a sense of push you luck whenever you decide to blend.
Or your second option is to pick one color that you rolled and funnel those into research points. The amount of research points you get is the number of dice rolled of that color (so if you have 3 green and decide to use green for research, you get 3 points on the green track). These research tracks all have various special powers associated with their color and if you get them high enough, you can strengthen that power even further. Another cool aspect of this mechanism is that when you max out a track, you get a point payout BUT you can no longer use that color’s power, like the game shutting off a special ability spigot just as you were filling up the pitcher. The trade off of losing your ability for the sake of gaining a handful of points is one of the game’s most arduous decisions.
The solo mode operates mainly the same as the base game, with the exception that you operate an enemy A.I. Operating this A.I. is easy; you roll dice on its turn and if it makes a blend, it does so like a normal player and scores points for it until it’s eventually removed.
The neat thing is that the game comes with two A.I.s, each with their own special power that aids them in making blends as often as possible. One of the A.I.s rerolls dice, trying to improve their potential blends, while another simply takes extra dice and rolls them all in an attempt to get a blend through sheer blunt force. Admittedly, these powers offer superficial differences. Both A.I.s’ powers are equally as effective at getting the job done, and it’s not like your strategy changes based on which one you’re facing. Still, it’s awesome that they offer the choice and it helps keep things fresh from game to game.
I have recently rediscovered Viva Java and I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to play it again. It’s such a refreshing, fun solo game to play. It’s the perfect difficulty: challenging, but fair. Whether I win or lose it often feels like it came down to the last possible turn. While it’s tight enough to warrant having to think choices through, I never feel stressed or anxious when playing this game. It’s, dare I say, relaxing?
Another subtle facet of this solo mode that I adore is that running the A.I. means rolling dice, and who doesn’t love that? Rolling dice for your solo opponent feels so much more tactile and satisfying than merely turning over a card and I can’t help but feel that adds to this game’s addictive nature. It’s like pulling the lever down on a slot machine and I can’t help but keep feeding coins into it.
I don’t have too much to disparage VJ: TCG: TDG (ugh, except for maybe the name) as a solo mode with, except that maybe, like Crystallo earlier, it feels a little same-y from game to game. The different A.I.s, as well as a difficulty scaler, do help adjusting things to keep it somewhat fresh but even with that there’s not much that’s going to change from one experience to the other. That’s certainly not a deal breaker. I’ve gotten a ton of fun out of this and I still look forward to pulling it out again (I hope that quote isn’t taken out of context if I run for office). But it is worth mentioning.
It’s still a damn good solo game and one that I wish more people would be talking about.
4. Arkham Horror: The Card Game
Here we have yet another game that previously appeared on my top 100. I had a LOT to say about Arkham Horror: The Card Game in my 40-31 post, so if you wanna see me ramble for like two pages worth of a Microsoft Word document, be my guest and click here!
It takes the formula found in the Arkham Horror board game and Eldritch Horror (explore locations and perform skill checks as awful things happen) but tightens it down with a vice like grip into an episodic campaign-based card game. This turns those longer, often bloated affairs into smaller, bite sized offerings. Playing the game through episodes allows the designers and developers to tell a much more coherent story than those found in, say Eldritch Horror, because it’s a contained environment that allows them to tailor everything specifically to that.
And as such, no game is as immersive as Arkham Horror: The Card Game. Set in a Lovecraftian world of grotesque beasts and unimaginable horrors, this game drips with atmosphere. Each episode contains its own twists, tricks, unique monsters and surprises, making every new chapter a joy to play and discover. It’s a truly artisanal Arkham experience, a craft beer version of Lovecraft versus the watered down macrobrew of Eldritch Horror.
In one episode, for example, I’m exploring a dingy night club run by the Mob, and I can practically hear the 1920s jazz and smell the stale whiskey in the air as goons glare at me from across the room. In another, I’m scouring an abandoned museum where a constant sense of dread is provided by a boss monster that stalks you throughout, appearing randomly and more powerful with each encounter. No game transports me to its locales like AH: TCG and there are times where I get legitimate goosebumps from this palpable sense of immersion.
So why is this only number 4? For one thing, and I mention this in my top 100, this game is tedious as hell to set up. The downside of having specially created and curated episodes with their own locations and enemies and mysteries is that you have set them up. This requires pulling decks of cards from past episodes and combining them with the episode specific cards, along with making adjustments based on decisions you’ve made throughout the campaign. The end result is worth it, considering the stuff I’ve already raved about, but it does make me less likely to pull it out than the other three games ahead on this list.
Another reason why this barely misses the top 3 is because of some balance issues when playing solo. While the game mostly works great solo and even moves at a smoother pace than when teaming up with another player, it also means that if your character doesn’t have the skills to handle a certain enemy or situation, you’re out of luck. In a game that demands so much from you, difficulty wise, it can feel almost suffocating when you realize your combat based character can’t pass this plot important Evade skill check because you have the agility of a pregnant walrus. When it creates dire consequences that ripple throughout the rest of the campaign it can, again, make me less likely to play. As I said, I often solo game to relax and I don’t think ‘relax’ and ‘Arkham Horror: The Card Game’ have been combined in any sentence, ever.
Despite those hangs ups, it says a lot for what AH: TCG does right that it manages to still be held in such high regard in my mind. If I’m looking for an atmospheric, cinematic experience, there’s no better solo option than this one.
Aerion is the most recent entry in the Oniverse series, a collection of games designed with solo play in mind. My only contact with this series has been with the digital implementation of Onirim, the progenitor of the universe. While that game is amazing, it’s ineligible to make the list because I’ve only played it digitally and I’m weird so I don’t think it should count in that case. (Raiders of the North Sea still counts because it’s just a digital version of a deck of cards, I still need the physical game to play it, in case you were ready to pounce on that in the comment section)
But it was that experience with the digital app that has made me interested in the Oniverse series, especially as I’ve gone deeper and deeper down the solo game rabbit hole. When I needed to get my Miniature Market order past the shipping threshold (a problem I’m sure many gamers are all too familiar with), I picked up Aerion on a whim because it was on sale and because, again, I’ve always been keen on trying more of these Oniverse games.
I am so, so grateful for that lark of a decision.
Aerion is the Oniverse’s foray into the Yahtzee style dice rolling genre, where players will be attempting to build airships according to specific blueprints. The blueprints have resources that must be gathered to complete them and you gain these resources by rolling dice.
Each resource has a poker hand style requirement to gain it, such as ‘three of a kind’, ‘full house’, ‘two pair,’ ‘straight’, etc. If the dice you rolled match the requirement, you can gain that resource and put it into one of your two hangars. This two hangar limit already imposes restrictions on what you can do; since you can only build two ships at a time, some of the resources are presently useless to you, forcing you to make tough decisions on which airships keep your probabilities high and your possibilities open.
Even if you make a wise choice on which airships to work on, there’s going to be plenty of points you don’t roll the dice you need. So, what then? Like any Yahtzee style game, Aerion allows you to reroll dice…at a price.
Any time you want to reroll and get a better combination, you must discard a resource from the available display. Since there’s a limited supply of, well, everything in this game, you’re narrowing your options for Future You. Choosing what to keep and what to sacrifice is at the heart of almost every turn in Aerion, and it’s an excruciating tight wire act.
Aerion ranks so highly on this list for a lot of reasons. First and perhaps, most importantly, it’s just damn fun. Rolling dice is such a tactile delight and there’s something just deeply satisfying about making gambles that pay off over the course of a couple rolls. Aerion moves extremely quickly, so you’re always rolling, always calculating the odds, always cheering or groaning.
Another is because, like Viva Java earlier on this list, it has the exact difficulty I look for in a solo experience. While I win more often than not, it never feels like it’s spoon feeding me victories. I still have to work for it and I still have to make smart choices to pull out the win.
Lastly, I just love the aesthetics of this game. Art is subjective and I know that the art in the Oniverse is particularly polarizing, but I love it. There’s something about its scribbled, hand scrawled look that is so endearing to me. The fact that the dice are a cotton candy blue with purple pips further enhances this game’s cheerfully charming demeanor.
What makes me even more excited about Aerion is that I’ve barely scratched the surface of the game’s content. I’ve played the game a handful of times, but only with its base ruleset. Included in the game are about 6 mini expansions, all of which add a little extra twist. Knowing that I still have all of those to explore is such a treat and makes me wonder if Aerion will someday find itself at the number 2 or number 1 spot of this list.
Until then, it takes home the well-deserved bronze medal.
2. Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective
My number 2 solo game is Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective and is perhaps the most unique one on this list. It’s less a board game and more an interactive novel, but that doesn’t prevent it from being one of my all-time favorite solo gaming experiences.
In SHCD, you are an underling to Sherlock Holmes, one of the so co called Baker Street Irregulars. You need to solve a mystery before Sherlock does and to do this you’re given a map of 1800s London, a directory of addresses in the city, and ten separate case books, each one providing a new mystery to solve.
When you want to tackle a case, you simply take its book and read its introduction. It’s usually a scene that provides you the basic details to the crime or mystery you’ll be tasked with unraveling and when you’re done reading it, the game just kind of lets you figure the rest out on your own.
And I absolutely LOVE this. The game doesn’t provide any sort of “Maybe you should check here, first!” or “Go to this location to begin the case” style prompts. It’s literally a couple of paragraphs and the rest is on you. The murder took place in Hyde Park? Then maybe you should check there. Is there a suspect that’s already been detained? Go to the jail to see if you can interview them. A firearm was used? Maybe start visiting all the gunsmiths in town to see if any shady customers came in recently. This lack of hand holding makes it so satisfying when you decide to track down a lead that actually ends up being fruitful.
Whatever you decide, you find the address you want to go to in the London directory or on the map and then you look up that address in the case book. So, if you want to go to Hyde Park and its address is “95 NW” you flip to the “95 NW” entry in the case book. If a location isn’t part of that case, it simply won’t have an entry. If it does have an entry, you read another section of text (some short, some long) depicting a scene that occurs while you’re there and hopefully you can find new hints or leads that will lead you to other locations.
There’s also a newspaper that is paired with every case book, showing the headlines and news for that particular day. If you thought the hints in the case book were vague, they’re somehow even vaguer here. To figure out which bits from the newspaper are helpful requires a little more outside the box thinking. For example, you might find out the murder victim was an actor. You then might browse the newspaper and see a very brief blurb about a new show at a certain theatre, a show you know the victim was a part of. This now opens up a new place to investigate if you want to perhaps give the theatre a visit.
You keep doing this, going from location to location, hoping to find leads or clues that will help you crack the case, until you think you have enough information to solve the mystery. At that point, you go to the end of the case book and answer a handful of questions. If you know the answers, awesome! You get points. If you have no clue what the question is even referring to, you don’t receive anything except a creeping sense of embarrassment. After you tally up your points, you read an epilogue where Sherlock smugly tells you how you how he solved the case and how many leads he used to figure it out. You subtract a certain amount of points based on the difference in leads between you both and if you end up with over 100 points, you have won!
You will not win.
Sherlock’s maddening, supernatural senses of deduction means he will use like 3 leads and insane leaps of logic to ascertain the solution to the puzzle. It’s one of the biggest complaints about this game and is often a source of frustration to many players. For me? I don’t mind it too much. I just have sort of come to terms that I’ll likely never break the 100 point barrier and instead try to make sure I can answer all the possible questions correctly. If I manage that, I consider the game a success.
I adore the elegance of this system. It manages to create a sense of discovery and immersion while simply being a couple of books and a map. I am one of those Luddites who can’t stand app integration in games and I think SHCD is a prime example of how to create a richly engrossing, cinematic experience with a minimalist, technology-free approach. Plus, it doesn’t create any sort of disconnect that would occur from being like, “Let me just grab my 1800s era iPhone to trigger the next lead.”
Speaking of immersion, that’s the next thing I’ll discuss. I talked about how good Arkham Horror: The Card Game was at drawing me into its world and SHCD is no different. When I’m playing SHCD, I’m transported to Victorian London. I can feel the cobblestones beneath my feet, the choking smog in the air and the taste of a jet-black stout at the local tavern. Okay, maybe that last one is just the beer I’m drinking in the real world, but you get my point. The act of taking down notes throughout the investigation further immerses me into my role as a Victorian era detective, as I jot down leads and attempt to draw connections between them. As someone who really likes the whole Victorian London era and aesthetic, this is endlessly entertaining to me.
This is a game that can technically be played with others. It’s often touted as a great couples game, where you and your partner can spitball ideas and possible leads, passing the case book between each other like it’s the beer list at a brewery. But for me, this is exclusively solo. I like the idea of trying to come up with connections myself rather than debating them with someone else and the thought of bringing others into the game makes me fearful of breaking that beloved immersion I was just gushing about. I’m sure I’d like it just fine with one or two others, but I can’t see a situation where I’d even want to try it. I adore this is as a solo experience, so why bother?
Out of all the games on this list, this is likely the most divisive and it is definitely not everyone’s cup of tea. For one, it is, as I said at the beginning, not exactly a typical board game, straying closer to the realm of a Choose Your Own Adventure or interactive novel. There is lots of reading in this game and if you aren’t prepared to take pages of notes, you will not get anywhere close to solving the mystery. Lastly, the open-ended nature of this game has also been loudly complained about by its detractors. As someone who grew up on old school point and click adventure games, I have no problem with this game’s nebulous nature and lack of guidance. I love that the case ends when you feel like you have enough information and that the game offers no hints as to when that might be. Again, personal preference, so if that sounds like something that would cause you to pull your hair out, SHCD may not be for you.
But if any of what I’ve described does sound interesting to you or if you think it’d be a cool experience, I implore you to track down one of the game’s installments (there are 3 available, I believe, each with their own ten cases) and give it a shot. Honestly, this game was close to being my number one, but barely missed it due the game’s one-off nature; once you solve the game’s cases, there’s literally zero replay value, a huge downside for me. Well, that and because of my how much I love my actual number one.
Speaking of which….
1. Viticulture: Essential Edition
Readers of the top 10 of my top 100 are likely experiencing some déjà vu. Viticulture is my number one favorite game of all time AND it’s my favorite solo game??? Yep. And one of the reasons why Viticulture IS my favorite game of all time is, in fact, due to its solo mode.
I mentioned earlier with my Raiders of the North Sea entry that worker placement games should all come with solo modes and Viticulture is the prime example of how to successfully pull it off. The dummy player you’re playing against is so simple to maintain and there are barely any extra rules beyond that to muddy the already elegant design of Viticulture’s base game. All you do is flip over the top card of a dummy player’s (called the Automa) deck and place their workers on the specified spots.
And that’s it! I’ve literally taught you the bulk of the solo rules.
Ease of play is a huge plus for me when it comes to solo games. I’ve played some solo games where running the dummy player is more work than your turn, requiring things like flow charts to parse what their move is supposed to be. So, the fact that Viticulture has barely any overhead in terms of running its Automa is one big reason why it sits at number one.
It’s also an incredibly tight experience. The goal of the solo mode is to surpass 20 points in 7 rounds. I have played this solo mode so many times and it seems to always come down to that last round, requiring some sort of clever combination of cards and actions to put me over the hump. Even though I’ve won the vast majority of my solo plays, it never feels easy and I always need to bring my A-game.
If you want to see why I love Viticulture so much, I suggest you read the top 10 portion of my top 100 that I linked earlier. Everything I say there pretty much applies here because Viticulture solo is essentially Viticulture multiplayer. Yes, there are times where the randomness of the Automa deck results in them taking a spot that makes no sense for that point in the game (“Drawing vine cards in the last round? You do you, I guess.”) but it feels so remarkably close to the multiplayer base game that I barely miss having others around the table with me as I play. At least with the Automa I can curse them out and not feel like I have to apologize later.
Listen, it’s pretty simple. Viticulture is my favorite game of all time and the fact that its solo mode allows me to play my favorite game of all time with little difference from playing it multiplayer is a HUGE reason why it sits at number one. It’s probably my most played solo game and despite the frankly stupid number of plays I have under my belt, I still love to go back to it.
If you want to see how solo gaming is done right, especially when it’s not even designed solely for solitaire play, look no further than Viticulture.