The Compelling Power of Solo Play for Tabletop Game Kickstarters

14 January 2015 | 32 Comments

This blog is intended for anyone seeking to learn more about crowdfunding, but today’s blog post is specifically for tabletop game creators.

I recently noticed something rather remarkable and surprising in the world of tabletop game Kickstarter projects, something I started to realize was important back during my Tuscany campaign. I just didn’t realize how important it was.

So I asked the designer of Viticulture Automa, Morten Monrad Pedersen, to talk about the quantifiable impact a solo variant can have on a Kickstarter campaign. Just wait until you get to the “epic data” section–the data there will shock you. Thanks Morten!

Together We Game Alone

Sometimes I like being wrong – and something Jamey asked me to do last year proved me wrong in a really nice way that could prove useful to creators of board game Kickstarters.

So let’s wind back time to before Stonemaier Games launched the Kickstarter campaign for the Tuscany expansion pack for Viticulture. Back then Jamey asked me whether I’d have a go at designing a solitaire expansion that could be part of Tuscany thus allowing players to play without rounding up their gaming gang.

I thought it would be a fun challenge, so I took it on, and with a lot of help from others I got the expansion called Viticulture Automa done. It ended up adding 24 cards and 2 pages of rules, which added to the cost and thus it was made a stretch goal in the campaign. In other games, however, a solo mode might be achievable with just a couple of rule tweaks and thus no extra cost will be added.

While I love solo gaming myself, I was convinced that only very few players were interested in solitaires so to be honest, I didn’t really think that making Viticulture solitaire playable would make any noticeable difference in the number of backers.

I was wrong – very wrong

To my surprise, it seemed that the Automa expansion was the stretch goal that garnered the most interest. This led me to post a poll in the Board Game Geek forum for Tuscany about three weeks after the campaign ended.

In this poll I posed the question “How important was the solo version to your decision to back, preorder or buy Tuscany?” I was astounded by the results. Of the 117 people who replied 42.7% said that it was at least somewhat important, while 41.0% said that it had no importance.

solo poll

Before Automa was announced I would have been surprised to hear that 5% of backers had been influenced in any way by the inclusion of solitaire play, but this poll showed that to almost 1 in 5 it was at least very important and more than 50% had been influenced. As said, I was astounded, and the comments to the poll added to that. The first one read:

I said “no importance” because I knew I was going to back it before I learned about the solo play. That said, I am pretty excited to try the solo game.

This sentiment was echoed repeatedly in the comments, so even among those whose decision to back had not been influenced by the solitaire option there was a feeling that it was a valuable addition.

The numbers are even more surprising than they seem

Another comment added an important point:

Ditto what many have said. I had backed it from day one, so the solo rules were icing on the cake.

I think there is a community of backers out there that have the following reaction to a Stonemaier Games product:

TAKE MY MONEY NOW!!!!

If we divide the backers of a campaign into those like the above backer who’ll back a certain game no matter what and those who need some persuasion, then it’s only the second group whose backing you can win or lose during a campaign. For that group the fraction of backers influenced by the solitaire option must arguably be even larger than the numbers in my poll, since my poll also includes the first group.

Another reason that we should probably amplify the results of my poll is that the Tuscany Kickstarter had the cards stacked maximally against showing solitaire playability to be valuable:

  1. Stonemaier Games has a big fanbase who’ll buy their products no matter what and thus won’t be influenced by solitaire playability.
  2. The solitaire option was announced after the campaign started and the stretch goal was achieved only 11 days before the end of the campaign.
  3. Viticulture Automa was added as an afterthought, which in the eyes of potential backers will make it seem less likely to be good compared to the solitaire mode of a game designed for solitaire play from the get go.
  4. The campaign was for an expansion pack for a game that was originally multiplayer only and thus the people who’d pay attention to the campaign were likely biased towards multiplayer gaming.

Thus, the poll numbers are even more surprising than they initially appear.

Epic data

Now, my poll had only 117 voters out of 4,333 backers so it could very well be skewed and it’s based on just one single Kickstarter and could thus be an anomaly. A few days ago, however, another interesting poll was posted on Board Game Geek.

That poll was posted by Michael Coe of Gamelyn Games as part of the Kickstarter campaign for Tiny Epic Galaxies. The poll asked whether the $200,000 stretch goal should add either a fifth player OR a single-player option.

Now if you had asked me a year ago I would have said that it was a stupid question to ask and that the five player option would beat the solo option to a pulp. I would have been wrong, though–the solo option ended up winning!

tegPollFinal

3251 voters are more than just a few solo players mobilizing to skew a poll and the large number make the result much more trustworthy than my poll (note that it was possible to vote for both options, which is why the total is 101.9%).

Again a very clear statement that solo playability is highly valued by gamers.

Mining Board Game Geek

Apart from these numbers, Board Game Geek can be mined for other interesting stats. Data collected by the 1 Player Podcast host Albert Hernandez for example, shows that the 1 Player Guild is currently the fourth largest guild on Board Game Geek.

2015-01-14_1216Another interesting piece of information that can be pulled from the database of Board Game Geek is the fraction of games published per year that is solitaire playable. The diagram below shows this fraction for the past 20 years (I’ve included the games from the database that are announced for 2015).

This diagram indicates that solitaire playability hovered at around 10% for the first half of the period and then increased roughly linearly during the second half. The 2015 number is almost twice that of the late nineties, which is a rather remarkable increase indicating that interest in solitaire gaming is on the rise.

Solitaire gamers

You might be surprised by the large interest in solitaire gaming that the data from this post hints at – I know I was – because solitaire gaming has a very niche status in the board gaming community. On the other hand solitaire gaming has been extremely popular in another type of games: Video games, which went mainstream a long time ago and they’re to a large extent solitaires, so it could be seen as an oddity that solitaire board gaming took so long to start its rise.

You also might also think that solitaire gamers are antisocial loners and thus hard to reach with web based marketing, but that’s far from the truth. Many of them are active in online communities, and as mentioned above the 1 Player Guild is the fourth largest guild on Board Game Geek, it’s very active and its motto “Together we game alone” shows that community is very important in the guild and recommendations from its members definitely help sell games.

There are tons of introverts out there who fill their quota of social interaction through their daily doings and thus like a bit of solitude with a game to recharge their batteries. There are gamers who for geographical reasons are separated from other gamers. There are gamers whose physical or mental disabilities keep them from joining a gaming group regularly. There are gamers whose friends have less interest in gaming. There are gamers who because of work or being parents have too little consecutive spare time for a game night. And, there are gamers who dislike competitiveness and are therefore turned off by competing in board games.

Why leave all those potential backers on the table?

“Because my game can’t reasonably be played solitaire”, you might reply. You could be right, but then again you’d be surprised to see, how many games can have solitaire modes added. Currently we’re for example playtesting a solitaire mode for Stonemaier Games’ upcoming game Between Two Cities – a game that’s centered on partnerships and semi-cooperation.

Solitaire playability

If you’re a game designer who has never played a solitaire board game, then you’ll face the problem that you don’t grok solo gamers or solitaire mechanics, so let me offer you a few pointers.

First of all a solo mode should preferably feel like the original game. You should face roughly the same choices and have the same goals (including the win-lose criteria) as when you’re playing the multiplayer version. Cutting out major parts of the game is a surefire way to turn off many solo gamers and you’ll end up in a situation where you’re designing two games with the same components.

An exception is filler games, where turning the game into a simpler beat-your-own-highscore-challenge can be OK. Doing this for a longer game is likely to make it feel like an optimization puzzle, not a game, though that’s still better than nothing.

My approach is to ask myself: Which features of the other player’s presence are at the core of the game experience? I’ll then try to implement a simple “AI” opponent that mimics these features while abstracting everything else away.

In Viticulture, for example, your opponents place workers on action spaces. Here the core feature for you is that this block those action spaces, while the benefits the opponents get are less relevant. Therefore, I had an AI randomly block spaces without getting the benefits. Similarly, the internals of opponents’ vineyards are not crucial, instead the key is their number of points and scoring potential, so I abstracted the AI’s vineyard away and let it score a predetermined number of points each turn.

I could go on and on about this topic, and I likely will do so on my blog within the next week or two, but if you want to read more right now, then this link contains all the blog posts I’ve written on solitaire game design.

Adding backers

Not only can you expand your backer base substantially by adding a solo mode, you can also provide extra value for your multiplayer focused backers: Solitaire playability can add a fun way to learn a game before teaching it to others, and even those with very active gaming groups will sometimes have the time and desire to play a game, but be unable to get the group together. Solitaire gaming is not just for loners, it’s a way for all gamers to game more.

That said this post is not intended to argue that solitaire is a great way of gaming (though I think it is) it’s simply a small collection of data indicating that adding solitaire playability is one of the most powerful ways to increase your backer count.

***

Thanks Morten! I hope this will help people better understand the impact a solo variant can have on a Kickstarter campaign.

Also, Morten won’t say it himself, but I think his Automa system is the future of solo play in board games. It’s not just a few lines at the end of the rulebook–it’s an entire deck of cards created specifically for solo play. Basically, it’s an AI system in cardboard form. If you’d like to hire Morten to create an Automa system for your game, you can send a proposal to him at mortenmdk AT gmail DOT com.

Morten details his process for creating solo expansions on this blog entry.

32 Comments on “The Compelling Power of Solo Play for Tabletop Game Kickstarters

  1. What a great post Morten, you hit some important points there. Wether a game has a solo mode or not, I usually have some runthroughs alone to familiarise myself with the rules and find the easiest way to teach it to others. I haven’t received my Tuscany + Viticulture yet but be sure I will be playing your version first.

    1. Thank you for your kind words.

      I hope you’ll leave feedback about Tuscany and Automa on Board Game Geek after you’ve tried it out.

      Please note that Viticulture Automa is designed to be played with at least one of the expansions from Tuscany, but you can easily play with just the base game by giving the Automa a few victory points less.

  2. Great article, it seems obvious after reading the article but for many games I would have never even considered a solo variant. While for our game the solo-variant is a “beat your high score” construct and works well that way, I think you’re right that Morten’s systems will be the future of complex solo variants. The AI analogy is a perfect way to illustrate it.

    Gary

  3. I have to say, I’m rather excited by the upcoming Automa for Between Two Cities (and Scythe…hint, hint)….

    I would’ve purchased those games anyway, but for me, who mainly plays solo, this is awesome news.

    I’m slowly getting into a gaming group, but until that happens, I want to play my games and not just look at them and read the rules constantly!

    I hope future board game designers take the hint!

  4. Excellent post! Thanks to Morten for writing it and Jamey for including it here.

    I am a solo gamer, by preference as well as time schedules. One of the first things I look at when backing a Kickstarter is how solo friendly it is.

    1. Does it have a dedicated solo-mode. If so, I’ll explore further. The AI for Viticulture sounds great. And until now, I was unaware of it. I’ll have to check this game out more!

    2. If not, is it pure co-op? In true co-op games, ala Pandemic, you’re working together… but number of players and number of characters are not the same thing. You can have 1 character per player or 1 player run multiple characters. Usually the difference in each character’s roles determines the course of action. As such true co-op games are totally solo friendly.

    3. If the game is a standard one player vs another player, these can be solo-friendly as well with two factors: a) the game has minimal (if any) hidden information. It’s very hard to objectively pretend you don’t know what the other “player” is going to do when he (you) has that ace in the hole card. b) some method of limiting or randomizing each side’s available actions. In war games a chit pull is a great device. Draw tokens from a cup and that determines which side and units can act. At that point it keeps the solo-player honest and unable to skew things one way or the other.

    Thank again! So great to see solo games and gamers get more recognition. Now game designers make sure you make your games solo friendly!

  5. Thanks for the insight Morten! Great to see the data is so strong in this argument! A bulk of what FF puts out has solo variants and most Co-op games can be played solo as well. Not everyday is a con or a game day with friends so having solo games is a big bonus for everyday gaming. Personally I like solo games and find them fun. Not every game needs a solo variant but it is a benefit when I see it on the box, just another selling point. 3 player or more games I’m more hesitant on because the versatility isn’t there.

    Fantastic article! :)

  6. Solo play and online play are growing communities among gamers. More and more of my friends who live in remote areas are returning to their love of gaming or becoming new gamers as the hobby expands. These friends do not have local gaming groups, most do not have game cafe/shops near them, and many of them are single or have family uninterested in gaming. Add to that the number of people who are very transient including military personnel and private contractors who move from location to location. When a stable gaming group is not an option, solo and online play are your options. I would encourage anyone designing a game to not only include unique solo variants but also contemplate ways to facilitate online gaming. Online games do not need to be full app versions of the games but can be a Assistant App that keeps track of points and rounds or possible PnP cards/boards that remote players could use to facilitate playing a game through webcams (Skype, Google Hangouts, etc).

  7. Also thank you to you for the kind words.

    I completely agree with what you say, and no, not every game should a solo variant. Werewolf is an example that comes to mind as a game that would lose quite a bit in translation to solo mode for :-) But I think that way more games than one should think could have solo modes. In some cases they’ll be able to be enough reason to buy the game in others they’ll be added value.

  8. I’m so glad you covered this topic Jamey, as a solo variant is something I had been seriously considering for my game (well, it’s definitely going to happen now). About 6 months ago, someone on BGG noticed my game on one of the geeklists and asked if I would be including a solo variant. My response was something along the lines that I hadn’t given it much thought, but now that it was mentioned I would certainly consider it. First though, I wanted to see if there really was a market for solo game play, as I hadn’t ever played solo games myself. If there was a considerable demand for solo variants, I certainly didn’t want to miss out on the opportunity to engage this market.

    So, my dad and I put a poll up on BGG asking the question “how important is a solo variant to you”. We received well over 300 votes, and the data is very much inline with yours – with over 47.7% “preferring it but not a make or break” and 18.5% “must have”. This shows that over 66% of those who voted are in favor of solo variants! https://www.boardgamegeek.com/thread/1162624/poll-how-important-solo-varient-you/page/1

    Of course, this information made the decision to include a solo variant in my game very easy, and your data further supports my decision. I also enjoyed reading your section on solitaire playability, as this is something we’ve pondered on in what makes a good solitaire game. I’d agree that an AI element which incorporates the core mechanics, and doesn’t lose the feel and main idea of the multiplayer game seems to be more favorable, and more enjoyable.

    1. Hi Mike

      Thank you for the link to the poll. I hadn’t seen that, but it’s great to get further confirmation.

      If the Solitaire Playability section in my post interested you, then as mentioned in that section I’m currently hard at work on expand on that. So far it looks like It’ll be a 3 or 4 post series explaining my approach and giving concrete examples of turning real games into solo games using Automas.

      1. You’re welcome Morten, and thank you for sharing your info and data with us. I’d definitely be interested to read more from your series on Automas! We are currently still developing our solo variant for our game, so any input you have would be well received.

  9. I’m currently working on a social/hidden roles game (think Coup, The Resistance or Werewolf) – I’m pretty sure that by its nature, there’s no possible way of creating a solo variant of that, but I’m happy to be wrong! Do you think that’s the sort of thing that could be extended to include a solo variant?

  10. To be honest then I doesn’t seem likely to me. Solo games exists that has some similar features (e.g. Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective and Hero of Weehawken features some role deduction, but that said I think Werewolf is a game where a solo version would end up being a completely different game.

  11. Thank you for showcasing the solo gamer! (happened to find my way to the article via the 1 player BGG guild as well). Not all of us have gaming communities, FLGS or even families that enjoy the gaming as we do so the solo variant is very attractive for the purchases. This guarantees that the cardboard wont gather dust waiting for at least 1 other person to say yes to some tabletop. We are growing in numbers and it is great to see the gaming community starting to put that “1-XX” in the number of players on the box.

  12. Fantastic and informative article. Thankyou so much. I had not twigged to the benefits of a solo variant but it makes a lot of sense. Many serious gamers love to be able to practice a game as well as those who want to learn it early and those who just enjoy a game.

    This would also link to the success of the digital boardgames which I think would have some correlation to the reasons gamers would play a solo variant. I shall ask my backers about this at some point soon and see if there is similar interest in a solo variant of COGZ.

  13. Excellent! I quite like the Automa in Viticulture, and look forward to what Between Two Cities has to offer. Plus, if you need playtesters for potential solo in Scythe, I’m available… Seriously, I’d love to at least look at the rules and give some ideas. Sans solo it’s a tougher decision for me, but with solo it’s an auto-back.

  14. For me… Had you asked me just three years ago, I’d have said I have little to no interest in solo play. I’d tried solo Agricola; uninteresting. I’d tried solo Dungeon Twister: Prison; too fiddly. Pandemic; Decent, but I kept getting lost on which character’s turn it was. I’d come to the very comfortable conclusion that board games excelled at multiplayer experiences while videogames at single player experiences.

    …I then, sometime in 2012, wound up playing the first mission of Mice and Mystics, solo, just to help solidify a couple of rules details in my mind… And enjoyed it sufficiently to finish the play through after I’d figured out the mechanic I wasn’t entirely sure of from the video or rules. And that was with me deliberately skipping the story bits – half the fun of Mice and Mystics – so that when I first played it properly with my parents I’d be going in blind, story wise! Never done that before, but if I can’t get a new campaign going soon now that I’ve moved too far to conveniently continue the campaign of it with my parents so I can get to the first expansion I’m going to wind up cracking and start a solo campaign of it.

    Arkham Horror, I tried solo (I forget if I did that to help cerment the eight part and four part how to play tutorials and the thematically appropriate in a bad way eldritch abomination of a rule book that thing has, or after playing with a group), solo, controlling three characters. And enjoyed doing that enough that I’ve done it a couple of times since.

    Robinson Cruesoe, I played solo to cerment the rules, and enjoyed that so much I’ve played about half my sessions solo.

    Pandemic: The Cure, I’ve played solo about half a dozen times now, not got it to the table with anyone else… And I don’t regret getting it, or even when I got it.

    …And this Wednesday just gone, I picked up Friday. Only played it once so far, but I definitely liked it a fair bit… Even if it means I now own three games with the Robinson Cruesoe/esque theme (Friday, Robinson Cruesoe and Castaways)

    …There are some caveats to my enjoying solo, though – I’m still uninterested in trying a solo variant of a competitive game – coop only for me so far; if there are multiple characters, then turns either need to be very simple without much strategizing for (e.g. Pandemic: The Cure), broken up in such a way that you’re executing tiny increments of a turn at a time so the turns are essentially microscopic (e.g. Arkham Horror), or otherwize simple to mentally track (e.g. Mice and Mystics.) Honestly I couldn’t tell you why Pandemic didn’t work for me solo playing multiple characters, thinking about it, though, so it might just have been that game and my brain doing weird things that I don’t think I’ve seen in heaver, or lighter, games since (Though I’ll likely try it with the new solo rules in the latest expansion at some point…).

    From Morten’s description of his AI card pull system, it weirdly sounds reminiscent of someone’s description I saw of how to play historic miniatures games solo about twenty years ago, and I think the book was older than that, which was basically writing the sorts of things an opponant might do onto various letters, and somehow opening them in a random order (The suggested method was to give the post office instructions to send them to you one at a time, one a day, in any order they liked! These days, I think printing up a set of cards on something like The Game Crafter would be easier… And cheaper!)

    1. Thank you for your story, Gizensha. I love the idea of having the post office send the AI moves to you randomly one a day.

      I’m also one of those who years ago had no interest in solo games. Then I tried Lord of the Rings: LCG and Dawn of the Zeds and I was immediately hooked.

  15. Jamey,

    Anecdotally, I would have thought that the numbers skewed toward many solo players, given the extraordinary array of games suited or 1-x players in the past decade. I’m a 30-yr veteran (no pun intended) of military hex-and-counter war games, which by their nature are either played against only one other person or have alternate rules for solitaire play.

    Six years ago (this weekend), my brother and friend introduced me to Arkham Horror, and the love affair with that game continues to this day (as evidenced by my two Kickstarter Projects and my small business). When I first saw the game, I was simply intrigued by the game mechanics and the beautiful artwork. What sold the deal for me as a single parent, albeit not an introvert, was the ability to play the game solo. I knew that I wouldn’t spend an inordinate amount of time at the local game store. Six years later, and more than 125 games later, AH serves as the exemplar for a solid game (it’s celebrating its 10th Anniversary this year), playable in solitaire mode.

    Now, as a play-tester, game developer, and currently a co-designer, I’m very sensitive to the need for solitaire rules. It’s necessary not just to build the rules, but keep the game as fresh and as exciting as if you’re paying with friends and family around the table. A recent purchase (Backer on Kickstarter) is Historia, which possesses a clever mechanic for CivBots (Civilization Robots) which replace human players. Not only is it clever, there’s enough random possibilities that it makes for a powerful adversary.

    In short…great article and one that deeply resonates with me.

    Cheers,
    Joe

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