Wow, Top 20 time! It was tough sorting these out. I think they show diversity too, which explains why I struggled to sort them. There are games for all moods and all occasions. There are games I enjoy multi-player and games I enjoy solo. Our criteria is solo play, and this is where the stars of the solitaire show start to shine their brightest.
Let’s take a look at the final choices for #20-11:
20. Hostage Negotiator (Van Ryder Games)
I must applaud Van Ryder Games for taking on this game. Designing and trying to Kickstart a game that ONLY plays 1-player was always going to be risky. The solitaire game market is much bigger, I think, than many people realise, and reaching out to this market via Kickstarter was a gamble that ultimately paid off for A.J. Porfirio. It had to be a decent game to do that. The game approaches the theme sensitively enough, and delivers a lot of tension throughout, balancing well the need to keep the hostage-taker calm, whilst trying to successfully extract hostages. This is done via a neat mechanism that borrows from the deck-building mechanic – one I like to call ‘hand-building‘. Instead of managing a developing deck, each round of the game you buy new cards for your hand to be used in the next round. The currency of the game is ‘conversation points’, earned by rolling successes with your dice in response to effects delivered by cards played from your hand. These cards represent your negotiator skills, as you try to maintain an ongoing conversation with the hostage-taker to free hostages, calm the situation, and earn more conversation points. This constant recycling of your cards and trying to keep the conversation alive, having to spend cards to earn more, is what gives the game its spark of design brilliance and originality that so well reflects the theme. Hostage Negotiator gives many of us soloists what we want in a solo game: simple rules, challenging play, good components, quick to set up, a small footprint, zero down-time, a unique theme, and a good story. That’s a lot to pack into a small box, and few pull it off so well.
19. Bios: Megafauna (Sierra Madre Games)
What a superb game and a superb theme. Phil Eklund has his own very recognisable style, and he delivers games that you can tell are a work of passion. He admits that he is more of a game designer than a game player, but he has a ready critic in his game-playing son Mark, who in play-testing seems to ensure his father’s designs are very playable and not overly self-indulgent (!) It’s this passion for game design that comes across and allows the soloist to really appreciate the work that has gone into Eklund games. Megafauna, with its dinosaurs versus mammals theme, is a real treat for the armchair scientist and gamer. The joy is in watching your species develop, and in watching a game system model millennia, as ice sheets shift north and south taking many biomes and species with it. This game was so close to being top 10 material, but the solo variant is just not quite there. It works. I devour the solo game and relish its play, but the AI just misses the mark. The good news is that the rules are living rules and we have a community of players who are contributing towards making it better all the time.
18. Zulus on the Ramparts! (Victory Point Games)
Another States of Siege title from VPG. If you like one game in the series, there’s a good chance all of them will give you some entertainment. This time we’re defending the famous Mission Station at Rorke’s Drift, from the siege of the Zulu tribes. There are other SoS games on this list, but perhaps only one other communicates a sense of the theme so well. For the simulation of an historic battle, the scale and flavour of this one is unbeatable. The designer and developer team (Joseph Miranda & Alan Emrich) did a really great job putting this one together. It has proven so popular that it was also translated into a digital format. The relentless onslaught of the Zulus echos the desperation of the situation, and you can almost feel the tentativeness of the iButhu as they slowly emerge over the horizon, and then their tenacity as they rally to rush your walls, before retreating back to cover. Gallantry will be rewarded and heroes will be made. Win or lose, you will feel like you have achieved greatness.
17. Field Commander: Rommel (DVG)
The Field Commander series gives the board gamer a little taste of the war game genre. It is more strategy game than war game, despite the theme, because mechanically it falls closer to the resource management and positional play of euro games than to the detailed tactics and unit simulation of your typical war game. There are no hexes. There are no charts. It is rules light and plays relatively quickly, which makes it a wonderful first dip into the war game genre (especially for a non-wargamer like me!) I struggle with things like indiviual unit stats and abilities, or trying to move tens of chits around a large map. But Rommel doesn’t ask that of me. This simplicity will deter many war gamers I’m sure. But this is why I think it shouldn’t sit in the same pile of games. Instead the game gives me the strategic ‘chess-match’ that pits an operational commander against an abstract enemy. And this enemy can be relentless in its brutality. The game system is a little unforgiving. One little slip-up and you’ll never recover. This is a game that benefits from repeat plays and strategic analysis. You’ll learn from mistakes and plan better next time. These are the game’s strengths and what make it enjoyable to play. After every battle you’ll be wondering where you went wrong and thinking about what you will do differently next time…
16. Eldritch Horror (Fantasy Flight Games)
FFG deliver great games with great components and great themes. Eldritch Horror is set in the same Lovecraftian world we saw in Elder Sign. This time it’s a thematic card-driven game that has players exploring the globe, going on adventures and solving mysteries. I am going to start by answering the question that is oft asked, because I know you’re thinking it: Eldritch Horror or Arkham Horror? Arkham Horror wins, and it’s not appeared on the list yet. You will need to use your best deduction skills to figure out why(!) I’ll give you the reasons when we visit Arkham Horror (did I just spoil the surprise?!), but know that Eldritch Horror is a very different game. They have almost identical looking components, and the themes are identical, but EH works on a very different scale and puts very different demands on the players. It tells a good story, is driven by a series of short-term goals (these are generally ‘pick up and deliver’ type quests), and has you managing actions very tightly (more like The Witcher Adventure Game) whereas AH is more event driven with a single long-term goal that can be met in a number of ways. What I enjoy about EH is the way it distracts you from the mysteries with its side quests, particularly as you start to explore the expansions. I must confess though, that the side quests can become very incidental with a low player count, as you really must spend most of your time concentrating on the main story-line and completing those mysteries. So, as far as comparing EH and AH, don’t even bother. EH is closer to other games on this list than it is to AH (like the aforementioned Witcher). EH plays relatively quickly, is very approachable with its concise rules, has lots of exciting ways to explore the game, and is arguably the best way to explore the Lovecraftian world.
15. Apex Therapod Deck-building Game (Die-Hard Games LLC)
This game took me by surprise and a great many of you may not be aware of it. It was another Kickstarter project, and one that did not pass without its difficulties (consumers are still very demanding of independent publishers trying to develop and deliver a game for the first time – it’s a lot tougher than it looks!) The immediate attraction for me was the theme. These are real dinosaurs developed by someone with an understanding of the subject matter, not cartoon movie-style imaginations. Okay, there is of course dramatic license – this is a game after all, not a text book. The other attraction was that this is a game designed with the soloist in mind. In fact, my view is that this is best as a solo game and was probably better play-tested and developed as a solo game. As its name suggests, it’s a deck-builder too, and yes, this is a traditional deck-builder with everything you’d expect from such a game. What’s even more impressive is that the game’s designer, Herschel Hoffmeyer, also completed all development, graphic design AND artwork himself, as well as taking care of delivery and distribution. Pretty impressive, huh?! The game is now in its second edition, with an updated rulebook, updated cards, updated distribution model – lessons learned(!) As it goes, the first edition (now branded the ‘Exotic Predators Limited Edition‘) stands alone as a damn fine solo card game, despite the changes distributors asked of Herschel post-production, presumably to make the game scale better for more players. This is another game that sets up quickly, has a relatively small footprint (dinosaurs with small footprints?), and cracks along at an exciting pace for the soloist. There’s plenty of content to keep you amused, with lots of variability in its setup using the different alpha predators to play and compete against. Look out for the 2nd edition as it has extra goodies and a bunch of mini-expansions. Love it!
14. DRCongo – Hope Out of Horror (Ragnar Brothers)
DRCongo was one of my favourite games of 2015. I managed to pick up my copy directly from the Ragnar team, Gary, Steve and Phil, at the UK Games Expo this year, after having had access to a pre-production prototype that I was able to demonstrate on Box of Delights. I’ve not missed a game so much as when I had to send the prototype back, so was thrilled to get the final game into my hands in June. Once more I found a game with an interesting theme, and for once I found a game that had a couple of gaming elements I really like done well: economics and politics. Read Steve Kendall’s thoughts on the theme here. When a board game prompts me to widen my knowledge then I’m always impressed. History and current affairs are subjects I’m interested in, and there is no reason why games can’t focus on them, just like any other art-form. What these guys are good at doing is finding ways to present very interesting themes and to give them their very own brand of ‘British’ design. Their games, like many others on the UK scene such as Burley Games, Grublin, Surprised Stare and Yay! are delivering Euro games that don’t quite fit the ‘euro’ mould. The ‘Brit-Box’ (if you’ll forgive me coining a new term), is more thematically driven, but is not loaded with text; these designers welcome randomness, understanding the joy that comes from unpredictability; it has a quirkiness or eccentricity, and they don’t take themselves quite as seriously as your more Designer Euro. One of the joys of Brit-box design is that we like to break a game round into phases that each play in very different ways. Not content with delivering a game that does just one thing, they instead give us a game with variety, relishing the inter-play of different design ideas. And DRCongo is a great example of Brit-box design, by combining area-control, route-building, the economics of resource management and speculative trading, and even conflict and event-driven AI. I love the way, each round, you get to take on a ministerial role, allowing you to shape the market, or the military or the government spending in the round ahead; I like that that emerging game board tells the story of how the game developed as, right on-theme, the players develop the infrastructure to build a viable economy; I relish the puzzle that the game offers, challenging you to choose between short-term gain or long-term development, between defending against the mounting insurgency threat, or taking the fight to them; the variety of choices you have at every phase of the game keeps it alive with entertainment. It’s a joy to own and a joy to play.
Another DVG title, and a game that has flown somewhat under the radar. For me, this game delivers what I wanted from Ghost Stories and Yggdrasil. It uses the some precept of surviving against a timer deck that builds the tension and the pressure towards the game-ending climax, but this time it does so without it ever feeling like hard work. It’s a great solitaire puzzle. It delivers the simplicity and tension that we need from a card game that can be picked up, played, and packed away quickly, and without leaving you with a headache! The theme is really incidental, but it doesn’t feel that way, because the game is supported by some engrossing artwork from a wealth of artists, including digital artist Cloud Quinot’s epic box cover . I’m really looking forward to Ian Richard’s expansion Beyond the Veil (the Kickstarter finished in August 2015 and should hit the shelves early 2016) that gives each Cult a unique power, and offers the heros side quests as an alternative method to skilling-up. This game places so highly on my list not because it does anything revolutionary, but it delivers a very streamlined simple set of rules, great components, immediate playability, and an engrossing tension-building challenge. It’s the kind of game you can pick up and play solitaire, just to relax and pass the time.
12. Dawn of the Zeds (Victory Point Games)
The penultimate States of Siege game in the list (oh yes, there is one more time come), Dawn of the Zeds has claimed a late spot in the top 20. The 3rd Edition is in production and will be sure to hit the VPG best-seller list in 2016. Zeds is packed with the most action, the most thrills, the most theatre, the most drama, of any SoS game. You’ll be blasting Zeds with shotguns and sending them skyward with high-kicks; you’ll be fighting them in the sewers, and steam-rollering them in the streets. This is the SoS game that delivers the biggest thematic punch. It will have you screaming with terror as the zombie horde shambles through your road-blocks, swarms over villages, and is spewing up through the sewers and into your homes. They are menacing, and they are relentless. The 3rd Edition is the one I’ve listed, it’s the one that delivers the most content (though my copy is pre-production), and is one that also delivers competitive and co-operative play. There’s one heck of a lot of game-play in the box, and the game layers on the rules as you move from the basic game, onto the apocalyptic game up to the level 5 ‘Director’s Cut’. If you only ever want to buy one zombie game, then this is it.
11. Navajo Wars (GMT Games)
Navajo wars is a tough one to pick up and learn. On the face of it, it should be quite straightforward: it’s States of Siege meets resource management meets war game. It’s a beast! I think what makes it difficult to pick up is this unusual mix of genres. The mechanisms are familiar, but are placed together in an unfamiliar way. It’s not immediately clear what you should be doing, why you should be doing it, and when. The presentation of a beautiful board with ordinary looking chits is a strange juxtaposition that makes the game state difficult to read. You will need to spend time with the game, learning how to interpret the game state at a glance. It’s a game that doesn’t make its secrets immediately obvious. It walks you through, in micro-detail, how each atomic rule works, but it never reveals the big picture. This is where you need to explore the game and discover how to play and what you must do to win. There are indeed a sequence of cause and effects that you must learn, and follow, to put the big picture together for yourself. The rules are very well considered, and although the mix of genres will tangle you up as you start out, it ends up delivering a very rewarding experience, like the best cocktail with a kick. There are some dramatic turns in the game, like the temptation of the Ceremony cards that can backfire as you wait and wait to use them; or the game changing Victory Point Checks that either see you consolidating your position or, more likely, see your immediately priorities taking a drastic shift. The tour de force though, is the Enemy Instruction function which drives the AI (you know already how I’m a sucker for clever design ideas). The flowcharts and decision trees that deliver the war game feel are also present and kept thankfully concise, but the Enemy Instruction function bestows a really clever method of selecting the enemy actions that strikes that critical balance between the down-time of a complex heuristic and the arbitrary response a pure random method gives. Go check it out – it’s well worth the effort! I highly recommend this basic video overview from Lines42 which you can find here.