One of the best parts of playing board games is the shared experience with your friends. However, not everyone has the ability to play with their normal groups right now. Heck, I had to cancel my monthly Gloomhaven meetup because of COVID concerns.
But not all is lost! While there are plenty of digital options to play with your friends, there’s another option: Solo Board Games!
What is a Solo Board Game?
Simply put, they’re board games that are designed to be played alone. Or, at least they have the option to.
One of the recent trends with board games in the last five or so years has been the advent of playing board games alone. Not every board game can support a single player, and several of those may not be expertly designed to be fun for one player. Sometimes it’s just a game that can be played solo, but is much better with additional players.
The genre of solo board games is still somewhat niche, but it’s growing as more designers release fantastic games that work well solo. In recent years, we’ve even seen some solo-only board games as well, like Under Falling Skies.
Why Would I Play A Board Game Alone?
Not everyone has time to organize 3-4 friends for regular board game nights. Especially now, with new strains of coronavirus, my friends becoming parents, and jobs. It can get exhausting.
So why not just play a game by itself?
Most often, games that are excellent solo games are also excellent multiplayer games too. This means that you can play these games alone so that you can better teach your friends, or develop strategies.
John Gibson over at boardgamegeek made a fantastic list from some of the people in the 1 Player Guild, as to why they play solo board games. You can read that post here.
What Makes A Good Solo Board Game?
As I said before, not every game that can be played solo is exactly fun solo.
Games designed to be played alone need to keep a player’s attention and get a firm grasp on how to make them feel entertained. Sometimes this can be done with compelling narratives, but most are through engaging game mechanics.
For games that rely on mechanics, they’re often great puzzle-like games. Titles like Too Many Bones and Gloomhaven may appear to be heavy narrative-driven role-playing games, but really they’re crunchy puzzles with slight randomness, with a loose backdrop around them.
On the other hand, some games will draw players in with a compelling narrative first, and keep them around for the gameplay. Traditionally these fall into more RPG-like games, such as Folklore: The Affliction and Sleeping Gods. Overall, these are a much smaller subset of games, and the list is pretty short.
Common Solo Board Game Genres
If you’re looking to pick up a new game, most great solo games fall into one or more of these categories:
- Roll & Writes – These games are often super small and fairly easy to set up. Typically they’re dice reliant, as you roll the dice and write the results onto the given sheet. I feel like these are some of the most dynamic and interesting from a design standpoint, as there are so many ways to shake up the idea of transcribing dice rolls. In some games, you’ll do a sort of sudoku puzzle, while in others you may be drawing a map or plotting a city.
- Role-Playing Games – Just like their digital cousin, these are usually games where you take on a role or a couple of characters. Common RPG tropes like searching for loot, high fantasy settings, and such will all be found here. Many entries in this category are more gameplay-focused than story-focused, so don’t expect to be impressed by the narrative.
- Area Influence/Control – This is kind of a broad category, and has a little overlap with Wargames because they share a lot of similar games. These are usually combat-centric games, or are highly strategic games with political themes.
- Living Card Games – A unique genre all on their own, and mostly tied to Fantasy Flight Games’ own titles. LCG’s are commonly long-running games with mystery, combat, and storytelling elements all in one. Plus, these get regular updates constantly, usually every few months. Notably, Arkham Horror has a long-running history and offers years of content currently, if you manage to pick up all the content.
- Worker Placement Games – These are the most common type out there, and they’re popular for a reason. They feel like a great mix of puzzle games blended with enough randomness to feel fresh. Plus, they usually have enough variable ways to win that you can try different strategies each time.
- Wargames – Definitely the oldest genre on this list, wargames have been around for literal centuries. Originally used to make tactics, this has mostly evolved to just simulating battles within the last couple hundred years.
Using Board Game Geek to Find Good Solo Board Games
Anyone who knows their salt knows that BoardGameGeek (BGG) is the best website to get more information about board games. It’s the largest database of board games by a huge margin and has a massive community.
However, using it can be a daunting task at first, so here are some of my recommendations to explore:
Just Browse the List!
BGG’s ranked list of board games is a fantastic tool to see what’s good and what isn’t. While it doesn’t specifically show whether or not a board game is a good solo game, this helps you look at titles, in general, to investigate further to see if they are. Several games in the top 50 are fantastic solo or with other players.
Once I see a game I’m interested in on the list, I’ll check out both the forums and the game’s ratings, specifically looking for what others have said about the solo player experience. Filtering the ratings to only see the ones with comments has worked well in my experience to see good opinions about these games.
Follow the 1 Player Guild
The 1 Player Guild is a BGG guild (aka a group of people) that’s entirely based around solo board games. They have almost 17,000 members who all discuss different games, strategies, and recommendations.
They even produce an annual list of the best solo board games as voted by their community, and can lead you to make some great discoveries. They even extended the latest list to over 200 entries! You can check out the 2021 list here.
Recommended Solo Games
I don’t play solo as often as I probably could, but here are a few of my favorite games that work well solo or with your friends!
I picked these games out based on a couple of points that I find important:
- Complexity – Some games here are somewhat complex (because I like games like that), but not too complex that you can’t learn from a Youtube video.
- Player Experience – These games should offer a unique experience that you can’t really get from other board games that have solo modes.
- Replayability – Naturally, if you’re going to play these games, you’re going to play them a lot. I wouldn’t want to recommend any games that get stale after only a couple plays.
This is by far one of my favorite games of all time, and it plays really well at any player count. It’s a game where you play as spirits of an island, trying to repel colonists and invaders as they ravage your home. Playing similar to Pandemic, but at a much different level of complexity, I fell in love with this game immediately.
The game even comes with several levels of difficulty in the form of new enemies, with their own traits and abilities that change as the difficulty increases. It has a ton of replayability and is a fantastic solo game. I will warn those who are not used to complex games though, as Spirit Island is a pretty difficult game to grasp the first time. If you enjoy the game then I recommend its expansion Jagged Earth, which almost doubles the amount of content in the game.
- Highly replayable, tons of content.
- Scaling difficulty to keep you challenged.
- Great at any player count.
- Fairly difficult for your first few plays (there are a lot of rules).
- It has a long setup time and is a table hog.
- It’s a long playtime, averaging at least 90 minutes.
This was a breakout hit in 2019 and has only gone up. It’s got a lot of replayability out of the box, and the two follow-up expansions only add to it. There’s not much to the story or theme, as you’re supposed to be bird watchers adding to your collection.
However, this tableau-building game quickly feels satisfying and crunchy as the turns pass. Stonemeier’s Automata system for the solo mode is robust and detailed and keeps you on your toes the entire time. Plus, the artwork is beautiful. I will say that the base game without the Oceania expansion has a small balance issue, but it’s not overwhelmingly powerful.
This is also a great game at multiple player counts, in case you want to add some friends too. I even got my late-60’s mom into playing this, and now she owns all the expansions and plays daily.
- Easy to play, fairly lightweight.
- Beautiful Artwork
- Several expansions to switch up the gameplay
- The theme feels a little tacked on.
- Without the Oceania expansion, it can often devolve into the same strategy at the end.
Under Falling Skies is the only 100% solo game on this list, and it’s impressive. For such a small box, I didn’t expect to have as much fun with this as I did. It’s got a lot of replayability, a full campaign, and more. It’s a unique mix of worker placement, dice rolling, and Space Invaders that just fits so well.
The story isn’t super deep, but the gameplay more than makes up for it. Once I got a few plays under my belt, I was dying to play more. It’s also a small box and a small playtime, so you can run through a couple of games in the afternoon without spending several hours.
- Small box, tons of content.
- Quick Playtime.
- The rulebook is a little confusing at first glance.
These are true kings of solo play if you’re looking for strategy and dungeon crawling. Both of these offer a lot of content, with the main game Gloomhaven having the majority of it. The story is lackluster, but the gameplay is amazing. It’s a tight combination of the best parts of euro-style board games paired with the best of tabletop miniature combat. My biggest gripes with these games is that they are massive table hogs, and the base game can be difficult to learn.
If you’re not sure you want to commit to the huge box and price tag of the base game, consider Jaws of the Lion for an easier setup and a much better tutorial, for a fraction of the price. Plus, almost all of the content from JotL can go right into Gloomhaven, so you can still enjoy the two.
- Gameplay is fantastic, one of the best dungeon crawlers out there.
- Production quality is great.
- Tens of hours of content. You’ll never see everything in a single campaign.
- Price. The game is usually around $120 USD, and that’s before shipping (it’s a huge box).
- Massive table hog. You definitely need a large table for this game.
- The game can be really fiddly unless you use an assistant app to track monster stats.
I didn’t expect this game to be so good solo. This worker placement game is based on the book by Frank Herbert, but the art of the playable characters is taken from the newest film. It’s a robust and interesting worker placement, with a companion app for solo play (or the included solo rules). As you play as one of the main characters of the franchise, you’ll be assigning agents (workers) to different regions of the desert planet of Arrakis, or courting various factions to gain their favor. While you’re doing this, you’re also sending out warriors to fight in battles on Arrakis so you can gain more victory points and resources.
- Super simple to set up and play.
- Companion app for solo play really feels like actual players.
- Solo play without the app isn’t as enjoyable.
- The game is a little repetitive.
Putting A Lid On It
Solo board games aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. It’s still a pretty small fraction of the board gaming community right now, but with clear signs of growth. More and more game designers are thinking of how to make a game good for solo play, and it shows. If you’re looking for a really good experience as a solo board game player, it’s hard to go wrong with Spirit Island. The gameplay is fantastic and rewarding, and the expansions are amazing if you can find them.
If you want to find a good way to find board games, checking BoardGameGeek and seeing what other players are by far your best bet. Using that paired with the knowledge of what types of games are typically best for solo play will help guide you to some of the best solo games out there.
Frequently Asked Questions
Question: What is a solo board game?
Answer: Any game that has a single-player option can be a solo board game.
Question: Why should I play a solo board game?
Answer: You can easily learn a game before bringing it to your play group, or experience some unique games that your friends may not enjoy.
Question: What are the best solo board games?
Answer: It’s pretty subjective, but I recommend checking out the 1-Player Guild’s People’s Choice Top 200.