It’s easy to get bored of something when you know it’s going to be the same thing every time. Games are at their most exciting when you go in wondering what will happen. You would think that this aspect depends completely on the game itself but you’d be surprised at how many solo modes are static and played only to beat your own score. Caverna is one of my favorite games but the thrill of finding opportunity left open by other players is completely absent when playing solo. There’s something hollow about having the same options available every game. Once you get a winning strategy down the game will always unfold in nearly the same way, the slight action order randomness doesn’t do enough to shake things up. I’ve found the best solo variants have AI that competes with me or variables that change significantly with every game. It’s a lot more fun going into a game not knowing what options will be the most advantageous in that particular play through.
2. Easily Interpreted AI Actions
There’s nothing worse than reaching for the rulebook every turn to figure out what’s to do next. A good solo AI should only take a few turns before the actions become easily executed. This could be a die roll or a card flip but as long as the iconography is clean the game can keep flowing. Adding too many If/Then/Else statements to an AI action bogs down the experience. Tapestry is an example of a well implemented system, though the simplicity of the games core rules was a significant factor. Flipping over the cards each turn gives a clear indication of everything the AI will do. You know that there is one of five possibilities and you don’t need a lot of rules to determine which of those it will be. This kind of streamlined elegance keeps me engaged in the game.
1. Gameplay Closely Resembles the Main Game
If I’m playing a game solo it’s because I love a game but can’t get enough people to play it. What I’m looking for is a recreation of that experience when I see a game has a solo mode. I’m often disappointed when the solo game turns out to be something completely different. There are varying degrees of this. Scythe for example, feels completely different when playing with the solo rules. The slow planning and territory control aspect goes out the window with the how quickly the AI spreads over everything and how many core rules the solo AI breaks. It’s also slightly frustrating when the game feels on a clock with your action selection. Games like Everdell and Anachrony give the AI a benefit every time you take an action; this shifts the game into one of trying to take as few actions as possible. What I hope more designers to in the future is try to implement a solo variant that maintains as much of the core game as possible. Unfortunately this might compete with point #2, as they may require added complexity.
I have yet to find a perfect solo game. Teotihuacan matches the core game fantastically and has great variation but has one of the more difficult rule sets for its solo game. Caverna is incredibly easy to dive into and get going, but it doesn’t have much variation. Anachrony and Everdell offer easy solo rules with decent variation, but they don’t feel as close to the main game as I’d like. There is no perfect system but these three variables are how I measure a games success in its solo implementation.