Getting Into Solo Wargaming – Part One

January 7, 2019 by crew

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We've got @evilstu from the community working with us today on what will be the first of a few articles looking at Solo Wargaming, a pastime which is becoming more and more frequent amongst wargamers right now.

Getting Into Solo Wargaming

We can't wait to get stuck into this with him so follow along and tell us your thoughts on it too in the comments below!

Introduction

Welcome one and all to an article series exploring the idea of solo wargaming. With the increasing prevalence of solo mode gameplay on board games, I thought it might be time to consider solo gaming in more depth. Solo wargaming is, as it sounds, the practice of playing out a wargame with one individual taking command of both (or in some cases, all) sides involved in the contest or engagement.

While the application of these principles to board, card and role-playing games will be touched on in part two, the main focus of the series will be on wargames, as that is the area with which I am most familiar. If anyone reading this series has methodologies by which these principles could be better applied to other gaming mediums please do share your thought with the community. Hopefully, once we have a firm grasp on the basic principles and the ideas in hand we will all be playing with ourselves in no time. So, now that we have tipped our hat to the obvious innuendo, let us commence.

First, we're touching on the default assumptions behind the number of players involved in gaming formats and will then delve into the reasons why solo wargaming may be considered as an option for your games.

The ‘Default Assumption’

As I and many of our more venerable community members will recall, there was a time when every home did not contain a personal computer. In fact, gaming consoles were additionally quite rare until the mid to late 1980s. During these earlier times prior to the mass availability of electronic gaming devices, families and friends would gather around tables and pass the time engaging with one another over a card or board game.

old monopoly board

These games were often much less sophisticated than their modern equivalents, but that was what was available back then. The evolutionary path that these games took was guided by the need to entertain multiple individuals simultaneously and keep anywhere from two to even eight or more individuals engaged and involved. That is, the default mechanics and mindset was that board and card games were multiplayer affairs.

Once gaming consoles began to appear, there was competition for limited leisure time from the newer devices. The games available on these consoles were, by and large, single player affairs. While some games did have options for a second player to engage concurrently, most games were for one player, and social interaction was handled by people ‘taking turns’ at controlling the action on the screen.

With the advent of home computers, games were initially text-based adventures or simple games that required the use of the keyboard for controlling input. Again, the focus was on solo play. In time, games developed which allowed multiple players to control the events on the screen. From the early 1990s games could be played via dial-up modem against someone on another PC. By the mid to late ’90s game designers were utilising the internet to allow gamers to go head to head against one another from anywhere in the world.

zorkscreen

So nowadays, while online gaming is hugely popular, single-player console and PC games are by no means considered unusual. There is an almost default assumption that a PC or console game is generally a single player affair, although this is perhaps becoming less prevalent as we move forward. Conversely, board and card games are by default considered to be multiplayer endeavours, and any game with a ‘solo’ mode included, or with a solo focus has, until more recently, been noteworthy.

I appreciate that the above is an incredibly broad generalisation, but please do forgive me, dear reader, the idea I am trying to convey is that we generally approach gaming with a preconceived bias as to how the game format should be engaged with. And this, I believe, is in and of itself is worth examining.

Wargames have historically been more aligned with board games. That is, wargames are by default deemed to be multiplayer affairs. So, given that we are all fine with a solo console and PC game, can we allow ourselves permission to remove any unconscious bias which we may have and consider the idea of solo wargaming? Isn’t the idea of using tactile gaming components to play out equivalent games somewhat appealing? After all, when was the last time you had to stop playing a wargame with miniatures because your rules set needed to download a new patch or your board game got shelved temporarily because your graphics card was having a conflict with your new processor? Didn’t think so…

Is Solo Gaming A Replacement For ‘Social’ Gaming?

Am I advocating for solo gaming as a replacement for traditional multiplayer/social gaming? Absolutely not. Please let me be as clear as I possibly can on this one. Social gaming of any sort should be a fun and engaging experience for all involved. The opportunity to swap stories, share anecdotes, jokes and experiences with like-minded individuals should engage and energise the participants. Human beings are social creatures, and there is a wealth of information available on the benefits of social interaction.

1 Rangers of Shadow Deep and Frostgrave both contain mechanics which permit solo gameplay

Rangers of Shadow Deep and Frostgrave both contain mechanics which permit solo gameplay

I would encourage solo wargaming as an addition to any social gaming in which you may be engaged. If however, for any of the reasons listed in the article below you find yourself in a situation where conventional social gaming is not an option for you then please do consider using the projects system on the On Tabletop website to share your solo campaigns and exploits with the wider community.

Why Might You Consider Solo Gaming As An Option?

The following is a list of a few reasons that I had come up with why you may wish to consider solo gaming as a viable alternative to social gaming. The list is not intended to be complete so if you have any that I have missed please drop a comment below and let the community know your thoughts.

Learning A New Game

This one is the most obvious. The shiny new gaming box has just arrived in the post or hit the shelves at your friendly local gaming store and been promptly procured. You have popped open the box (struggling with the tightly fitting lid…), experienced the new game smell, punched out and sorted the tokens, de-sprued (totally a word now - Editor) the miniatures, admired the print quality on the board and read the rules the whole way through twice over.

learning saga

You are very keen to bring it along to your usual gaming night on Thursday and impress everyone, but you want to make sure you are able to each them all the rules correctly from the get-go. After all, gaming time is at a premium and you don’t want to spend half of Thursday night educating your contemporaries on all the rules for the game. Playing through a few turns can help add context to written rules set. Playing through a new game completely may additionally assist in identifying any unusual situations or highlighting potential ambiguity in the rules as written.

This will provide an opportunity to discuss these circumstances with your gaming group in advance of commencing the game and reach agreement on how such situations are to be treated – that way nobody will feel hard done by if and when such a situation arises.

Creating Or Playtesting House Rules/Amendments

Are there any rules in your favourite ‘go to’ game that just strike you as silly or ruin the immersion of the game for you? Solo gaming allows you to gloss over or ignore anything that you don’t particularly like in a rule set. Occasionally a game or rules set will be pitched at a level which is less detailed than you may wish for. To use an obvious example, in most combat orientated games, neither side generally runs out of ammunition for firearms or weapons.

Let us suppose that you were considering introducing a rule to your preferred wargaming system of choice that shots fired from heavy ordinance weapons would have a limited quantity. Before proposing your suggested rules amendment to your wider gaming circle, you may wish to playtest a few games or scenarios involving such a rules change to see if this adversely impacts on one particular side.

Asymmetric Games

Many games, wargames especially, are based on the idea that both sides are approximately equivalent – the aspirational and unachievable notion of ‘game balance’. In an asymmetric game, one force is at a substantial disadvantage when compared to the other – be it a numerical, technological or situational disadvantage. Engaging in solo play would allow you to explore the idea of contests between asymmetrical forces, just as occurred throughout history, and let you see whether the underdog can achieve an unexpected victory or meet certain predetermined scenario conditions without the need to have one player controlling the ‘always gonna lose’ force.

Narrative Games Or Role-Playing Scripts

Imagine if you will that you are a games master and you and your group of players are playing through a heroic fantasy campaign. Your player’s characters are assisting the local lord and his army in defending his lands against an invading force, and the players find themselves billeted at a small farming community while the bulk of the army commences a slow and dangerous river crossing a few days before the climactic battle.

1 Solo wargaming allows the focus to shift between small scale heroic actions and the wider campaign as you choose

Solo wargaming allows the focus to shift between small-scale heroic actions and the wider campaign as you choose

Whilst billeted, the players learn from the local farmers that in addition to the normal hardships experienced due to a time of uncertainty and war, that they are additionally having to deal with nearby bandits stealing their cattle. The players, being goodly sorts, investigate and deal with the bandits, returning the missing cattle to the farming community. In doing so, however, the players locate a hidden and previously unknown bridge at a narrow point in the river that the bandits had been making use of to evade capture. Reporting the bridge to the local Lord allows the Lord to dispatch some of his forces to cross the river more efficiently. This could be heavy cavalry, engines of war, a vanguard deployment to harass the enemies supply lines or similar force that the Lord would not have otherwise had had an opportunity to deploy were it not for the players discovering the bridge.

Now, while the Lord and player characters will spend the next session heroically resolving the conflict on the left flank of the army, the events on the right flank will happen ‘off camera’ as it were. It would be a simple affair to simply invent an outcome, but the events on the right flank might be conveyed in greater detail if you were to undertake a simulated play through on the tabletop and record events. Did the heavy cavalry arrive in time to support their comrades? Was their charge decisive or ineffectual? Did the war engines contribute to the outcome of the battle? Did the vanguard force capture or destroy any supply wagons? What proportion of the enemy’s effective fighting force was tied up in trying to capture them or protect lines of supply? Writers of fiction could employ a similar methodology to help populate the background to any conflicts occurring in their written works.

An Issue Of Time

Again, this one is reasonably self-evident. Gone are the days where people could be assumed to work a nine-to-five job five days a week. More of us are working shift work or long and unusual hours. This may mean that your gaming circle cannot meet up as regularly as they have previously been able to. And outside of work commitments, everybody has other things that they need to get done, be it social, sporting, study, family or parenting commitments, or the mundane but necessary grocery shopping and payment of bills. Free time is at a premium for all of us, and regrettably, the few hours of free time that you have may not necessarily correlate with that of your gaming colleagues. Solo gaming may provide an outlet which will permit you to get some gaming in such circumstances.

Availability Of Gamers & Capacity

Again, regrettably not all of us are fortunate enough to have access to a local gaming store or even a local gaming community. It may be that there simply are no gamers who live in your local area. This may be further compounded if the games you wish to play are of the less mainstream variety.

element-games

Social gaming, by its nature, generally requires people to be co-located in the same geographical location. If you live in an area where public transport options are less than adequate or find yourself without your primary means of transport unexpectedly, then social gaming might be less of a realistic proposition. Or, to use an extreme example, let us suppose you have just moved to a new country and are not presently familiar enough with the local language to be able to confidently engage in a social gaming situation.

A less happy example which I would not wish on anyone but one worth considering, people may be unable to travel due to injuries or issues with regard to health. In such circumstance, the intellectual engagement provided by solo gaming might be a welcome diversion and help to take the focus off present circumstances while recovering.

Your Niche Gaming Loves...

“Yeah, I really like the idea of a weird world war setting with the Cthulhu mythos and mad scientists animating the dead to fight for them through alchemical means, while elite Commando teams explore ancient ruins for lost lore, but I also want it to have more of a steampunk feel and be set in the late 1890s. Also, the allied powers should have a moon base to act as the first line of defence against the Axis powers stationed on Mars and their fleets of interplanetary star zeppelins. Plus I want the allied forces to have access to kangaroo cavalry...”

OK, this is an extreme example I appreciate, but If this all sounds like great fun to you, or if you have similar ideas for a niche game you want to play then chances are there are not going to be a high number of people in your local vicinity who are as enthusiastic as you are to develop and play such a game. Not to worry, solo wargaming might be an appropriate avenue to explore such themes or even some of the less commercially successful (but not necessarily less well rounded or well designed) games on the market.

There have been a wealth of great rules sets becoming available due to crowdfunding platforms in recent years, surely as gamers we owe it to these hard-working women and men to share in the gaming journey that they have invested so much time and effort in creating?

Playing Older Editions

I’ll own up here, I’m personally still not quite ready to move on from Warhammer Fantasy. Truth be told, I actually prefer 6th and 7th edition to the 8th and final edition. This isn’t me being against or in any way critical of Age of Sigmar, I actually quite like the rules set and the focus on narrative play, but I am personally not dome with exploring all the opportunities that the Old World presents. When the events of the End Times occurred, a friend of mine and I made a conscious decision to keep playing Warhammer Fantasy rather than shelving the rules system.

1 Retired games now no longer need to be relegated to the top shelf in the fabled 'Cupboard of gaming history'...

Retired games now no longer need to be relegated to the top shelf in the fabled 'Cupboard of gaming history'

Had it been the case that we had swapped over to Age of Sigmar, or 9th age or Kings of War or another style of game entirely I would have in all likelihood developed some in-house rules for solo play and continued with Warhammer Fantasy on my own. If a games system that you have invested your time and finances into is no longer supported, and the gaming community around you moves on to other gaming experiences, you should feel free to continue to engage with that games system until such time as you are finished with it. And, as an added bonus, all the supplements, rulebooks and miniatures are likely to be cheaply available second hand (at least in the short term…).

Exploring Games In Greater Detail

Solo wargaming does have one large advantage over traditional social wargaming. You can take things at your own pace and drill into as much detail as you wish. While taking fifteen minutes in a social game to carefully consider and weigh up all tactical options would be generally considered poor form in a social game, in a solo game you have as much time as you wish to invest to devote to such analysis.

bloodeagle-depth

Further, you can add in extra elements to increase the degree of intricacy and realism in your games. Most tabletop wargames ignore or give limited consideration to issues such as resupply or unit attrition, let alone touching on political implications of lengthy campaigns and support for key Generals, the impact on the economies of the nations involved in the conflict and so forth. Solo gaming provides the freedom for you to incorporate rules for any such elements you desire.

Adding In Your Own Homebrew Units

Non-standard or additional units in games. Solo wargames provide you with the flexibility to add any additional unit type to the game that you may feel would make an interesting inclusion. The army list which you are looking at does not accommodate light cavalry or skirmishing mixed weapons unit? A few minutes reworking and modifying an existing unity and you can be up and running.

Admittedly if you have a regular gaming group with whom you are familiar then they may agree to the incorporation of non-standard or unofficial unit types, but solo gaming removes the need for negotiation. Conversely, it also removes the opportunity for a peer review of the unit and potentially valuable feedback on how to improve the realism of its gaming statistics so there are pros and cons here.

...Getting More Games In!

This one is simple. Attention all gameoholics - solo gaming allows you to get in additional games on top of the social games you would ordinarily play. You are really excited by the shiny new rules set and had great fun at the club playing with it until early morning last Thursday night, and now can’t bear to think that you will need to wait another month before the next gaming night. Solo gaming might give you the required ‘gaming hit’ to carry you through to the next club night.

frostgrave-more-games

Similarly, you might be trying to refine an army list for an upcoming local tournament. All of your usual opponents are madly waging ‘war against the grey’ trying to get their armies primed and painted before the tournament commences. Solo gaming may provide an opportunity to go through some varied scenarios to help identify any weaknesses in the list that need to be considered and have counters prepared for prior to the tournament.

Using Alternate Miniatures

We are fortunate to be gamers at a time when there are a wealth of manufacturers producing a vast array of diverse miniatures. For those of us who play tabletop games with miniatures, as opposed to the collectors or painters amongst our ranks, it may be difficult to identify an opportunity to utilise boutique miniatures on the tabletop.

1 Solo wargaming permits use of miniatures from alternative ranges that you have accumulated but never quite worked out what to do with

Solo wargaming permits use of miniatures from alternative ranges that you have accumulated but never quite worked out what to do with

When playing socially, your opponent can, justifiably, expect that the miniatures that they are looking at across the table will be readily identifiable as approximate representations of their in-game representations. “So the three turtle miniatures are your chariots then?” “No, the dwarves riding the bears are my chariots, the turtles are my light cavalry.” So that means the gentlemen wearing plinth hats, carrying umbrellas and riding on giant dodos are your heavy cavalry?” “No, that’s my air support”...

While I am certain dear reader that you would do a much better job of informing your opponent of what your proxy miniatures represent that the previous example, in solo gaming you are free to incorporate any representative miniatures you wish as you yourself are unlikely to get confused as to what they represent.

Playing Large/Long Games

A standard large game of Warhammer Fantasy was deemed to be at the 2,000 point mark. Very occasionally we will have a game day where we will pay a 5,000 point game of Warhammer Fantasy. Setup and deployment can take two hours to complete, with the game itself usually running for another five or six hours before we call the game (ordinarily somewhere around turn four rather than the six full turns that the rules set calls for). Needless to say, this level of time investment is not feasible often. But let us extend this a little further. Let us assume you wished to play a 10,000 point game. Or a game of Apocalypse. Perhaps you have just procured a Titan and want to take over the spare room, dining table or garage floor for a large scale battle.

wargaming-large-armies

With solo wargaming, you can field armies as large as your collection permits

Unless you are fortunate enough to be cohabitating with your gaming adversary odds are that, space limitations aside, there will not be sufficient time in which your opponent will be present to continue the game. If we are generous and assume that your opponent is available for one full day each weekend (assume ten hours) with no other commitments and no chance of scheduling conflict then it may take three gaming days to work through the game to satisfactory completion. This would mean that the gaming space would need to be maintained in an undisturbed manner for the two intervening weeks between the initial, mid and final gaming sessions.

Any non-gamers that you are cohabitating with are likely to lose their sense of humour with regard to the endeavour and wish to reclaim said gaming space long before the game can be completed. If, however, you were approaching such a game as a solo gamer, you would be free to devote any spare time to the progressing of the game as you saw fit. It is entirely possible you could complete the bulk of the game on a weekend, with the final acts being played out after work in a few evenings. The two-week game could therefore potentially be compressed chronologically into a little over half a week, or a long weekend.

Slow Growing Armies

One form of PC game I always really enjoyed was the turn-based strategy games where your surviving forces from one battle would be reinforced and form the core of your deployment in the next engagement. It wasn’t a case of just winning the battle, a Pyrrhic victory or two in succession could cost the campaign. Applying a similar template to solo wargaming strikes me as an ideal way of slow-growing an army and attacking that stash of unpainted miniatures that we are all too embarrassed to admit we have accumulated…starting with a commander and a couple of blocks of foot for the first few forays may eventually allow you to add in a unit of archers once your forces have overcome their initial challenges and secured sufficient resources.

medieval-army

From there your commander may procure cavalry support, heavy foot units etc. Should your commander suffer a crushing defeat the process can be recommended from a broader pool of the initial painted models. Hopefully, the enthusiasm for the on-going games will assist in motivating the painting and completion of additional units, and in time, will provide you with a completed force large enough to deploy in standard sized social games or tournaments.

Just Because It's Fun!

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, solo gaming can be fun. As a gamer (if you have read this far I am inferring you are a gamer, or else you stumbled across this article and are just really really bored…) you, by definition, play games for entertainment. If, at a given point in time you have the option of playing a solo game or not playing a game, then even if your preference would be to play socially the solo game might be the preferable option over not gaming. And as we shall touch on later, solo gaming presents interesting cognitive challenges which social gaming does not necessarily permit.

Final Thoughts

A few final thoughts with regards to solo gaming. With solo games, it is easy to make retrospective in-game corrections if you realise you have missed an important rule or dice roll. If an unusual situation does arise in-game you can be pragmatic in determining a resolution without being concerned you are potentially treating an opponent unreasonably. And finally, if you do forget a rule, nobody else will mind.

This concludes part one but I would be very curious to hear the thoughts of the community with regard to the idea of solo wargaming. Have you ever considered solo wargaming as an option? Are there any reasons or motivating factors which you believe may encourage gamers to try solo gaming?

Are there games you have engaged in a solo play manner and if so how did you find the experience when contrasted to social gaming?

"Hopefully, once we have a firm grasp on the basic principles and the ideas in hand we will all be playing with ourselves in no time..."

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"Have you ever considered solo wargaming as an option?"

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