The ease with which some people make top lists has baffled me for a long time. How can you compare, rate and rank a hundred of something? How do you weigh new, fresh experiences against something you haven’t experienced in months or sometimes even years?
A good friend of mine used to mildly amuse me, or rather mildly annoy me, by saying things like “Tuna? No thanks. Steely Dan are better” or “I didn’t like Pulp Fiction – I prefer chewing gum.” But doesn’t it sometimes feel like that, listing things in order of greatness? Isn’t comparing Lost Cities to Kingdom Death: Monster just marginally less silly than comparing food to music?
Whenever I hear something like “… and that’s why Llamanomics knocked Monopoly: Warhammer 40 000 right off of my top 500″ I have to bite my tongue not to reply: “What was your hobby, again? Lotus 1-2-3 or Excel?”
Looking at people’s lists is usually interesting, though. A top list can be a good place to start your hunt for a new game, especially if there’s some overlap. A top list with five games you love and five you’ve never heard of is like the end of the rainbow…
I’ve always found the prospect of making top lists daunting – until two things happened almost simultaneously; I found the Ranking Engine, which made the process easier, and the hardworking kerskine started accepting submissions for the annual People’s Choice Top 200 Solo Games which motivated me to make my own list. I fed the Ranking Engine with a list of all solitaire games I’ve enjoyed. Then it led me through a series of choices where I had to pick one game out of two, and five minutes later I had a list of my current top ten solitaire games to submit to kerskine. And it was fun, too!
What’s In the Numbers?
For the nerdily inclined, a top list is an interesting chunk of data to sink ones teeth into. Once my top ten was made I started looking, comparing and analyzing…
Eight of the games are definitely about conflict but not one is of the wargame genre; in five of them your main focus as a player is some sort of combat, in two the battles are fought covertly, and in one you are a mostly innocent bystander. One, finally, is not about conflict per se, although war is a thematic background element of sorts.
Dice are used in nine of the games, chance plays a significant role in seven of them, and in all of them shuffled decks of cards are important.
Eight of the games are cooperative, one has a cooperative mode but was originally designed as a solo game, one is competitive when played socially and they are all FANTASTIC!
So what can we deduce from these stats, other than perhaps male, single, 35 years of age, few social obligations, no kids, part-time job, preoccupied with things that don’t exist in the real world? I don’t know.
With the stats out of the way, here we go!
When I read up on Galaxy Defenders I noticed that many people called it “X-COM in a box”. I wonder what those people call XCOM: The Board Game… I never played any of the X-COM computer games, but I remember a friend of mine being obsessed with UFO: Enemy Unknown back in the day.
Galaxy Defenders is a straightforward tactical miniatures game, and it sort of snuck onto my top ten; I’ve only played the game once, the day before I made the list. I had a great time playing the first mission. I used only one character, the infiltrator. Towards the end she got badly hurt, and as she was crawling up to the last alien spawning point to destroy the teleporter, two aliens closed in on her and mercilessly ended the game. Epic tension!
A game that tells a good story whether you win or lose is my kind of game. To tell its story, Galaxy Defenders uses a deck of event cards, another deck to control the movement of the enemy and lots of custom dice. It has a modular board, a campaign book with twelve successive missions and continuous character advancement. Wonderful game, and I can’t wait to give it another go!
In late July, I reviewed Race for the Galaxy and the outstanding proto-automa, the Robot, from the expansion The Gathering Storm. I summed it up like this:
Race for the Galaxy with the expansion The Gathering Storm is one of the best solo gaming experiences I’ve ever had . . . [It’s also] a fantastic game with two or more players. It has so much depth that it would be a good game to bring if you could only bring one game to a desert island. It gives you great value for money, it’s a true feat of game design, and the thing most commonly held against it, the “symbology problem”, is greatly overemphasized.
Number eight is another science fiction solitaire classic, but this one’s on the opposite side of the spectrum from Race for the Galaxy. Race is dry as vacuum – Death Angel is so wet with Genestealer blood that it’s slippery; you might easily loose your footing, topple over and die. In fact, that’s usually how it goes. It feels like an ameritrash skirmish game with cards instead of miniatures. It’s brutal, tactically challenging and randomness runs rampant.
Death Angel is also very different from my number ten, Galaxy Defenders, despite being thematically close. The tone is different, I guess. Where Galaxy Defenders is simply macho, Death Angel is pumped full with steroids and growth hormones. One of the nastier weapons in Galaxy Defenders is called the Grimreaper. Death Angel has you wielding Chain Fists and Assault Cannons – it’s simply further over the top, more excessively juvenile. It’s also quicker and more compact. And, sadly, out of print due to licensing issues.
In my review of Space Hulk: Death Angel, I summed it up as “a high skill, high luck game. It’s hard to win if you play poorly, but you can certainly lose despite playing well.”
Another science fiction game? Yes. I ‘m a sci-fi fanatic, and I’m particularly fond of the cyberpunk subgenre. Renegade is the newest game on my list. It was designed by the same solitaire gaming guru that taught us all how to play Mage Knight; Richard Wilkins, also known as Ricky Royal. As if he hadn’t already done enough for us solo gamers!
In my review of Renegade, I summarized my thoughts on the game like this:
The way this game has my mind working, gears grinding and logic circuits flip-flopping is what makes it such a great experience. Another important reason that I like this game is how the open-ended structure allows for very creative problem-solving.
Renegade is a very thematic, puzzly, thinky game about network intrusion in a future of neon-lit darkness. Some elements of the game are reminiscent of Mage Knight, some of Pandemic, but in the end it feels very unique. And this is the guy’s first game! Extremely impressive.
Robinson Crusoe is the second game on the list that I haven’t reviewed. I haven’t even played it enough to get a good shot of the cats messing with the components! I’ve played it enough, however, to learn that it deserves all of the praise it gets.
People seem divided about what kind of game this is. I’ve heard people calling it a eurogame. I’ve got news for those people: that a game is playtested before it’s released and happens to be designed by a man from Poland doesn’t mean it’s a eurogame. This is a story driven, richly thematic, innovative dice-chucker, full of semi-balanced randomizing mechanisms – I’d say it’s firmly rooted in the wonderful American hobby game tradition – a rhinestone in the plastic ameritrash crown, if you will.
Speaking of Europe and American-style board games, Black Orchestra has you conspiring and plotting to assassinate Adolf Hitler. In my review of the game, I summed up my impressions like this:
To any solitaire gamer who doesn’t shy away from a dark theme, who has an interest in history and appreciates a strong, immersive game with focus on narrative, I highly recommend Black Orchestra. It’s an elegantly designed game where the mechanisms do a great job in the background, helping to keep the historical theme in focus.
Another game about war, but whereas Black Orchestra has you intervening in the course of history on the grandest scale, This War of Mine (TWOM) has a micro perspective. One of my longest solo gaming sessions ever was when I played through an entire campaign of TWOM in one sitting, which led to the writing of the longest review I’ve written so far. I found it very challenging to put the experience into words. So I rambled on and on, I guess…
In TWOM you play as survivors in a besieged city, trying to make it until a ceasefire is declared. The game is not fun – it’s moving and thought-provoking. In my review, the closest thing to a brief description of the gaming experience is this:
This War of Mine is an exercise in compassion. Sometimes you’ll forget the very existence of concepts like min-maxing and optimization and statistics and think “I won’t do that! There’s no way I’d do that! We’ll have to go hungry tonight.”
If you get involved, this game might have you questioning your moral grounding.
This is also a game about violence and death, but it has a very different sensibility. Or perhaps rather a complete lack of sensibility. Dawn of the Zeds has five rule books, takes four hours to play, is number three on this list, has had two previous editions, and is one hell of a game!
From my review:
In Dawn of the Zeds the blunt brutality of exploitation cinema is brilliantly paired with wargame mechanisms and a tower defense challenge. It makes for an intense solitaire gaming experience; highly thematic, strongly immersive, brutally tense and tactically challenging.
Aeon’s End: The New Age was my introduction to Aeon’s End. When I reviewed it, I predicted that “[i]t will most likely have a negative impact on the publishing frequency on my review site.” I was right. Since then I’ve gotten my hands on everything that’s available for the game except for Kickstarter exclusives. Despite that I played it for the first time in September, it’s been my most played game of 2019. I played through Aeon’s End: Legacy in two days, then I kept playing in expedition mode, the campaign mode introduced in The New Age. I’m now acquainted with the base set, War Eternal and all of the small-box expansions and I simply love all of it! But I publish about three reviews per month now, rather than three per week…
In my review of Aeon’s End: The New Age I put it like this:
The New Age was my first encounter with Aeon’s End. I played it every night for a week, and then I ordered all content available for the game.
The rules are brilliant and make it possible to integrate lots of parts into a big system without making it incomprehensible. The simplicity of the rules belies the complexity of the challenge. Kevin Riley has done an impressive job.
Aeon’s End has the potential to become a lifestyle game.
Aeon’s End is a solo game that scratches my Magic: The Gathering itch, and that’s my second favorite itch to scratch.
My favorite itch to scratch is the role-playing and story-telling itch, and Arkham Horror scratches it rather well. It’s made up of lots of separate randomized elements, and through the use of arcane magic, forbidden lore and nameless secrets, the system manages to tell a cohesive story every time i play it – as long as I stay engaged and pay attention to the details. I lose most of the time and that doesn’t matter in the least! In my short review of the game, I tried to condense my enthusiasm into the following sentences:
. . . the brilliantly interlocked mechanisms of chance provide evocative snippets of narrative that are easily tied together into wonderful stories of both personal tragedy and cosmic horror.
Arkham Horror takes about four hours to play, has lots of components to keep track of, has quite a few rules and keywords to learn, often has you at the mercy of a die roll, takes up an entire table and is one of my absolute favorite solitaire games. Actually, it’s one of my favorite games period.
“Hey! No dexterity games!” you’re thinking. “The fact that there are no dexterity games on his list surely says something about his physique!” What an idea; putting dexterity games on a top list to appear vigorous in the eyes of people who spend their time online wishing they were playing board games… Wouldn’t that be the very pinnacle of 21st century slickness and playerdom?
Anyway! Those are my favorite solitaire games. At least right now. Their relative greatness fluctuates, of course. If I’d sit down and play Death Angel right now, it might very well rise above Renegade, for example. That’s how my mind works. When it works.
Some More Stats
Average BGG weight: 3.16.
Average game length (based on my own plays): 135 minutes.
Themes: Science fiction (4), horror (2), war (2), fantasy (1) , survival (1).
Lowest average BGG rating: Space Hulk: Death Angel (7).
Highest average BGG rating: Dawn of the Zeds (8.2).
Lowest overall BGG rank: Renegade (1279).
Highest overall BGG rank: Robinson Crusoe (44).
Oldest: Arkham Horror (second edition 2005, first edition 1987).
Newest: Renegade (2018).
Thanks for reading. It was a pleasure writing this, and I hope it can be of some use to somebody out there.