Transcript of our podcast from 18 September 2009

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The Resurgence of Solitaire Games

by Moritz Eggert

Most gamers say they hate solitaire games. They say it removes the social aspect from games that is the most fun - that it is some kind of exercise as in a word beginning with "m" which Tom wouldn't allow me to say on the show.

These people are the same who will happily play computer games alone, but would find it very nerdy to set up a boardgame and play against themselves or "the system". They will play multiplayer solitaire games like "Agricola" but refuse to try out some strategies on their own, just because they think they might be viewed as a...geek...well, they already are!

I have to admit: I love solitaire games, and I sometimes miss the additional time that is needed to play these games. Of course if given the choice between an evening with friends and a good game or an evening without friends but still with a good game I would prefer the former. I am very social and I am not loner or a nerd. At least my wife says so. But still, sometimes it is good to just sit down with a game and rules and immerse yourself in another world that doesn't consist of pixels and bytes but of cardboard and imagination.

In a way the 70's and 80's were the good times for solitaire games. Advanced boardgames were still a relatively new phenomenon and sometimes boardgamers didn't find regular opponents close by, especially wargamers. So it doesn't surprise that wargame companies like SPI or Avalon Hill always took care of the solitaire gamer. Hey, even their 2-player or multiplayer games were probably played more solitaire than with people.

But also fantasy gamers craved for more, and so the rise of the gamebook came about -a wonderful way to scratch that roleplaying itch when your friends couldn't be bothered.

For any collector interested in solitaire fantasy or wargames this decade is still the biggest treasure trove - some companies like Metagaming or Task Force Games practically specialized in solitaire playable games, and the result were games like "Musketeers" that today would seem very strange, as it is full of different scenarios for 1, 2 or 3 players that play totally different.

The late 80's saw a slow decline in solitaire games which was mirrored in the slow rise of computer games. The better computer role playing games became, the more limited fantasy gamebooks seemed in their multiple choices, and the more complex real time strategy games made the solitaire wargames look clumsy and slow in comparison.

In the 90's practically no new solitaire games were published, especially not in Germany, a market that was practically devoid of solitaire games anyway - probably because gamers could always easily be found close by. It really is a difference if one lives as a gamer in a city in Europe where nothing is far away, or in a little town in Arkansas, where even the next Wal-Mart is a half hour drive away.

But recently something very strange has happened - there is a tangible slow resurgence of solitaire games again, a trend that was started - strangely enough - in game genres that one wouldn't expect to be an experimental field for solitaire gaming, most notably Euro games.

Already the first edition of Vinci contained perfectly playable solitaire rules that made you learn the game and try out different tactics at the same time. The late, more Euroish, Avalon Hill games of the 90's all made an attempt to be playable solitaire, games like the original "Monsters Ravage America" or "Princes Ryan's Star Marines". Then came Splotter Spellen with the enormously influential "Roads and Boats" - also playable solitaire -and of course the hugely successful "Lord of the Rings" by Knizia which is nothing but a solitaire game in disguise. Many of these games make an effort to create an ever-changing environment for the players and to have the game act as an interesting opponent who acts via different rules than the players.

But one shouldn't also forget the renewed success of cooperative games, which take the basic principle of most purpose designed solitaire games: "let's play against the game" and simply turn it into an experience that can be shared.

Boardgamegeek has lately become a treasure trove for solitaire gamers. Not only are there countless new solitaire games, or multiplayer games like "Agricola" that also work solitaire - there are also countless wonderful solitaire variants for many popular games like "Descent". Also solitaire wargaming has experienced a boom - even the legendary John Butterfield who created fantastic, story-driven wargames like "Ambush", has returned with not 1 but 2 excellent solitaire games for Decision Games, "D-Day Omaha Beach" and "RAF". A great percentage of session reports is by gamers playing games like "Arkham Horror" or "Runebound" in single player mode. Even 2-player designed wargames often get a solitaire outing, because it is much easier to do a step by step session report with photos when nobody has to wait around for you taking these photos.

What is so fascinating about playing solitaire? In a way it is a bit like the difference between a book and a film. In a film the speed of the action is determined and you have to adhere to the pacing that is presented. In a multiplayer game there is lots of excitement but very little possibility to pause and take in what's happening. So a solitaire game is a little like a book - you are the master of time so to speak, and nobody is pressuring you to get on with your move. It is an excellent way of getting into a story or a theme and to concentrate on certain aspects of games. Most gamers recommend setting up advanced multiplayer games and play a few turns solitaire to get a better grip on strategy and to be able to explain them better. So contrary to common perception solitaire gaming is not only an emergency solution when nobody is around, but an equally valid way to learn, enjoy and experience a game.

I would never want to miss multiplayer gaming, but sometimes I really enjoy to get out a game that I can read at leisure like a book, having it set up for a couple of days and being able to return to it whenever I want.

I think it would be good to give solitaire gaming a place under the sun again - the seeds for this have been sown.

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2009, Westpark Gamers