When my copy of Dark Souls: The Board Game finally arrived in the post, months after pre-ordering it through the Kickstarter campaign, I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, I’d been looking forward to playing the game since first hearing about it. As a devotee of the video game series on which it is based – having spent countless hours playing and replaying the Souls games – I was eager to see how it translated into a cooperative tabletop game I could play with my friends.
On the other hand, numerous reviews that I’d read in the lead-up to its release noted the extreme level of investment in time and effort required from players. Like the video game series it’s based on, players of the board game must kill many monsters and die numerous times before they are strong enough to fight the game’s boss enemies. The tabletop version also emulates the perma-death mechanic of the video games, introducing a rule whereby if players die too many times they lose all their progress and have to start all over again – which, after four hours or more of playing, would leave even the most seasoned cooperative tabletop game players feeling depleted. A ‘grueling slog’, read one Polygon headline. ‘Prepare to grind’, declared Ars Technica – a pun on the video game series’ tagline ‘Prepare to Die’. ‘Frustrating’, ‘repetitious’ and ‘tiresome’ were other adjectives I encountered in my online research, with a growing sense of dread.
With this in mind, how was I going to convince my regular tabletop game-playing friends to devote half a day (or more) to play a game which, in the end, might simply result in our characters’ deaths with nothing accomplished? While I was willing to go through this myself in the video game, with the knowledge that my actions would ultimately contribute towards completing the game as a whole, sharing this experience with friends in a one-off board game session was another matter.
Weeks passed as I mulled over whether to invite one friend, or several, to play it with me. Every time I considered bringing the game along with me to a board game session, or sending an invite asking if anyone wanted to try it, I held back. There was always another, much more appealing and fun-sounding, game to play. Or I convinced myself that as soon as I explained its perma-death mechanic to others, they would lose interest. About six months later, still not having even opened the box, I gave up any hope of playing it and sold it via a local second-hand trading website.
Dark Souls: The Board Game, like a growing number of board games, can be played alone. There are even numerous board games explicitly designed for one player, with no multiplayer option. And yet, during the several months that I owned Dark Souls, it never occurred to me to play it by myself. If I can sit alone in my lounge and play dozens of hours of the video game series over a period of several months, why couldn’t I spend four hours playing the physical tabletop game alone? I’d even played digital versions of tabletop games – Pandemic, Risk, and Twilight Struggle – on my iPad, not thinking it odd for even a moment. But there is something about setting up a physical tabletop game, with miniatures, a board, and cards laid out in front of me and that I manipulate in a room by myself, that I found I had a deep and probably irrational aversion to.
The Rise of ‘Solitaire Board Gaming’
This aversion, however, is not shared by a growing number of people embracing solo board games. Of course, games like Solitaire have been around for centuries. But following the recent renaissance of tabletop game production around the world, leading to surging interest and drastic reinventions of their style and form, board games designed for solo play or with a solo option are gaining mainstream appeal. The top-ranked board game on BoardGameGeek at the time of writing, Gloomhaven, is able to be played solo, and with an estimated 1,000+ hours of play packaged in its contents, this is perhaps the only way many people will be able to complete it. Popular games like Friday – in which the player assumes the role of Robinson Crusoe’s companion – are also designed only for one player. Meanwhile, numerous games, despite having a multiplayer option, are recommended to be played solo – such as the Mage Knight series.
But solo board gaming is not limited to physical tabletop gaming. With the growing intermingling and overlap of digital and analog gaming, many board games formerly confined to tabletop form are now able to be played digitally. First, there are the PC, console and mobile app adaptations of existing board games – like the aforementioned Pandemic and Risk apps – that can be played on a console, computer, smartphone or tablet – either solo, against a computer A.I. or online against other human players. This also includes app versions of solo board games like Friday, which adapt the solo experience into a digital version.
Second, there are online multiplayer services that players can join through a web browser and play adaptations of existing games with other people. Board Game Arena, Boiteajeux and Yucata.de all allow players to connect with either friends or strangers and recreate the experience of playing a tabletop game on a computer interface. Others, like Roll20, also allow players to create their own maps, characters, and other tools for playing tabletop role-playing games like Dungeon & Dragons.
And lastly, although they are somewhat clunkier, there are also online virtual tabletop simulators that not only emulate tabletop games but recreate the physical environment it is played in. Subscription-based services like Tabletop Simulator and Tabletopia present players with an online 3D sandbox environment and the components of a game laid out in front of them. They must drag and move these components much as they would in physical space while playing against other human players in the same environment. These platforms offer both sanctioned and ‘modded’ versions of existing games, with the latter created by fans and not officially authorized by the games’ original creators.
|Physical tabletop games that are designed only for one player, with no multiplayer option||Friday, Infection, Hostage Negotiator||Analog|
|Physical tabletop games that are designed to be played either alone or with others||Gloomhaven, Mage Knight, Onirim, Terraforming Mars||Analog|
|Physical tabletop games that are not explicitly designed to be played alone, but people might play them alone anyway||Dead of Winter, Settlers of Catan, Pandemic||Analog|
|Mobile app adaptations of card/board games for mobile (Android or iOS), PC, Mac or console with solo, A.I. or online multiplayer options||App, PC or game console versions of Pandemic, Risk, Twilight Struggle, Ticket to Ride, Friday, Onirim, Through the Ages: A New Civilization||Digital|
|Online multiplayer service for tabletop games that adapt the game for online multiplayer||Board Game Arena, Boiteajeux, Roll20, Yucata.de||Digital|
|Online virtual tabletop simulators that recreate the game in a virtual sandbox environment for online multiplayer||Tabletop Simulator, Tabletopia||Digital|
Table 1: A taxonomy of the different options for playing board games solo
As illustrated in Table 1 above, there are now numerous ways to play board games solo, in both analog and digital forms. These options are also growing in popularity, as evidenced on online board game forums. Since it was created in April 2012, the ‘1 Player Guild’ on BoardGameGeek had accumulated over 10,000 members at the time of writing – more than doubling its numbers in just two years, from around 4,100 in mid-2016. A similar Reddit Community has over 1,600 subscribers at the time of writing. These forums primarily focus on the best games to play solo, or ‘solitaire games’. But, just as significantly, they also provide a place for players who do play solo to discuss and share their gaming experiences in an understanding environment. The 1 Player Guild’s founder, Albert Hernandez, told journalist Tristan Hall:
One thing that makes the guild so popular is how friendly it is. Folks always comment on that. Nobody needs to look for permission or approval to do something that is helpful. I think that has really helped the guild grow.
Despite this surging interest in and uptake of solo board gaming, scarcely any attention has been paid in the scholarly literature to it – either in its traditional analog form, or in the many digital offshoots designed for mobile, game consoles or PC. There have been numerous mainstream articles that explore the reasons people play board games solo and the different ways of doing so. But this level of interest has not been replicated in academic game or media studies scholarship to date.
To redress this, I undertook an exploratory study of forum posts on the aforementioned 1 Player Guild to determine the primary motivations for people who play board games solo. My own situation – owning Dark Souls: The Board Game, but having no one to play it with – led me to speculate that many people turn to solo board gaming because they too like particular board games, but do not have other people to play them with some or all of the time. The discussion on these forums, however, indicated that while this was the case for some players, there were a wide variety of reasons for playing solo – including many that had nothing to do with a lack of fellow players.
I chose to source the forum posts from the 1 Player Guild because it was the most popular online group devoted to solo board gaming I was able to find, and it is located on by far the most popular forum devoted to the discussion of board games – BoardGameGeek. It was also the most fruitful source for data relating to my research question – what factors, circumstances or personal preferences motivate people to play board games solo? – with several forum threads asking very similar questions. Nonetheless, I should state that this forum should not be taken as representative of the general population of board game players, since the anonymity of posters makes it impossible to obtain demographic data. Furthermore, although the threads did not explicitly ask about tabletop games, digital versions of board games like the examples listed above were only very rarely mentioned. As such, my findings here are predominantly focused on the ‘analog’ options for solo play mentioned in Table 1. Despite these drawbacks, the threads offer a highly informative window into the multifarious reasons people play board games solo, with a wide variety of reasons and responses canvassed in discussions.
The responses were sourced from three different threads which asked guild members a variation of the research question above. The first two threads began with relatively neutral statements, asking out of curiosity why people choose to play board games solo. The discussion in the first thread took place from 2014-16 and the second solely in 2014. The third thread took place in December 2017, and its question was much more provocatively phrased. It began with a post from someone who did not play solo and questioned not only the value of it, but also the amount of attention paid to solo board gaming. They wrote,
As someone who was primary drawn into analog gaming, and continues to be drawn into it, because of the social aspect that board games provide as a shared experience with other people, I must admit that I continue to be baffled by the amount of overwhelming attention solo gaming gets here on. [BoardGameGeek]
I grouped the responses from these three threads by username and assigned each post a unique identifier. This identifier consists of:
- a letter indicating the thread the respondent first posted in (‘A’, ‘B’, or ‘C’ referring to the first, second and third thread referred to above);
- a number (1, 2, 3, etc) denoting the respondent’s username based on the chronological order I encountered them in; and
- a Roman numeral (i, ii, iii, etc) indicating the post from that username if they posted more than once across the three threads.
For example, A7ii refers to a post in the first thread (A), from the 7th unique username I encountered, and the second post they made (ii). I have chosen not to list thread posts by username to avoid unnecessarily identifying individuals and using their comments out of context.
Through this method, I collected responses from 123 unique usernames across the three threads. I excluded posts that obviously did not directly address the question, for instance those that only listed their favorite solo board games without explaining any reasons for playing solo. I also excluded posts in which I could not discern any explicit motivations for playing solo because of grammar, phrasing or insufficient detail. Six posts were excluded this way.
I then coded the responses thematically, grouping them according to commonly mentioned reasons for playing board games solo. After a close reading of all the posts, I came up with 13 codes representing specific reasons for playing solo. Only 2 other reasons were listed which occurred only once each, so I have not listed them in the results. I then divided the 13 specific reasons into 3 broad categories. These categories include social reasons, relating to particular social circumstances; genre reasons, connected to the particular genres or qualities of the board games themselves; and play style reasons, driven by particular personal preferences. After developing these codes and the broad categories, I analysed all of the forum posts to determine how frequently each code occurred.
Before outlining these findings, I would like to note that both the specific reasons and the 3 broad categories should not be considered as separate and discrete. Many respondents to the threads provided more than one reason for playing board games solo, with some numbering them and explaining them each in turn, often relating to 2 or more categories. For others, the reasons were very specific – predominantly, they did not have anyone else to play with, or they simply preferred playing alone even when they had the option to play with others. But overwhelmingly people play board games solo for a variety of reasons, some interconnected and others quite distinct. As such, individual respondents are often counted in multiple categories – they may mention one ‘social’ reason and two ‘genre’ reasons, for example.
As mentioned, I did count the occurrences of each code to determine the number of times each specific reason was mentioned. But I conducted this process myself, without a second coder to verify the results. Taking into account the fact that many respondents listed multiple reasons, some overlapping and closely related, the quantitative component of this analysis is too subjective to include here. Instead, in the results section I have chosen to list the reasons in each category by approximate frequency, without providing the exact number of occurrences for each. However, it is worth mentioning that based on my own coding, the three broad categories – social, genre, and play style reasons – each accounted for approximately one-third of the sample. This suggests that players’ motivations for playing board games solo are evenly divided across these categories. This finding, however, will have to be further tested out through more accurate measures, as I discuss in the final section of this paper.
As mentioned above, there was no one dominant reason for playing solo, with social, genre and play style-related reasons recurring in approximately equal amounts based on my analysis. In what follows, I discuss each of the three broad categories in turn, explaining in more detail the specific reasons listed for each. Where possible I have sought to illustrate the definitions of each reason with examples and quotes from the forum posters.
My own reasons for considering playing board games solo were social – a lack of people to play with – so I expected this to be the most common category. But my analysis showed that it encompassed only one of many reasons listed. By ‘social reasons’, I refer explicitly to people’s opportunities or capacities to play with other people physically present. As such, they relate to people’s social circumstances, rather than their preferences – the latter of which are discussed in the third category, ‘play style reasons’. In this category, broadly speaking, people want to play with others but for a variety of reasons are unable to some or all of the time. Below I have summarized these various reasons, in approximate order of frequency from most to least common.
I have people I can play with, but sometimes they don’t play regularly enough.
Unsurprisingly, the most common reason was that people played board games with other people, but not as often as they would like to. This echoes my own experience – I had board gaming friends, but our gaming sessions were limited and I was reluctant to take up this time with Dark Souls: The Board Game. For some respondents, their spouse or partner was their primarily co-player, but their partner’s enthusiasm for games didn’t match their own. One poster (A8ii) expressed this visually using emojis:
This issue of different schedules and sleeping patterns was a common theme, with some players going to bed later or waking up earlier than their partners, or both working at odd hours (A8ii, A31). Others mentioned that they want to play but often ‘no one else is available’ (A4i, A10i) so solo board gaming is a way to ‘still play boardgames’ (B35). Another mentioned playing solo some of the time to avoid ‘burn[ing] my wife out on board games’ (B46). For most respondents who listed this reason, solo board gaming is a necessity to satisfy their craving for board games: they would happily play with others, and often prefer to, but it isn’t possible as often as they would like. One respondent wrote,
I’ve only played solo if I was really jonesing for a particular game. I[t] hasn’t been satisfying, because it’s not the same experience as playing with other humans. (I will admit that if I lived somewhere without a thriving BG community, I would solo more […]) (C78i).
Some respondents kept this factor in mind when they were purchasing board games. One player mentioned ‘buy[ing] a game that I hope to play with others but don’t expect to play more than a handful of times […] but [I] know that I can play it many more times solo’ (C89). And two players mentioned becoming interested in solo board gaming after playing board game apps like those mentioned above. They turned to them in moments of boredom to satisfy their board game craving, which in turn then lead them to playing physical tabletop games solo (A31, C63).
I can’t find other people to play with, so it is my only option for playing board games
The second most common social reason was that people didn’t have anyone else to play board games with – friends, spouses or strangers – so solo was their only option. Whereas respondents who gave the previous reason had people they could play with some of time, those listing this reason had nobody at all. As such, it is mutually exclusive from other reasons that begin with ‘I have people I can play with, but…’ Here, solo is ‘about my only option’ (A21iii, A32, C94) or ‘pretty much it’ (A23). For some, this is because they live in a remote location (A23), they are elderly and/or too frail to leave their home (A18, C81), their friends are too busy to play at all (A28), or they simply don’t have anyone in their social circle interested in games (A12, C94, C99). For those latter respondents, it was unclear from their posts if they had tried board game meet-up groups as an alternative.
Some have gradually embraced solo play, fed up with trying to find other players. One respondent mentions travelling long distances to play with their friends, who never reciprocated, so ‘I’ve had enough, time to bust out my solo games and play what I want at my pace’ (A24). Another writes, ‘I admit I was a little sheepish about playing my first few board games solo. But I can now honestly say I love the level of absorption solo gaming provides’ (C53).
I have people I can play with, but I struggle to find the time to arrange or attend sessions
I have people I can play with, but they don’t always play the kinds of games I like
Less common, but still significant, reasons were that people had others they could play with some of the time, but they either struggled to find the time to arrange or attend sessions; or their fellow players didn’t always play the kind of games they liked. For those who listed the former reason, it was overwhelmingly work or family commitments that prevented them from meeting with gaming friends. For those who mentioned the latter, reasons ranged from the length of the game being too long for others in their social circle (A2); the game’s difficulty or level of commitment being too high for others (A33, B49); or simply their co-players having different tastes to them (A18, C59, C74, C106).
I would like to find other people to play with, but anxiety, an introverted personality and/or other social issues prevent me from doing so
Only a handful of people listed this reason, but those who did were open about how their circumstances and feelings prevented them from playing with others. One wrote, ‘being around new people stresses me out so it’s easier to solo game than go searching for new groups’ (A14). For another, anxiety was only a ‘partial’ reason – they also liked ‘alone time’ (B40). Yet another spoke about great difficulty in making deeper connections with people outside their everyday environment:
I’m generally not comfortable around others in person. I mean, I have a job in an office, and I interact with lots of people on a daily basis, but making a solid connection with others, making friends, just isn’t something I feel I’m good at. […] I don’t want to say that’s beyond my capabilities, but it’s close. The first time I went to my FLGS [friendly local game store] a couple years ago, just to look around, I thought I was going to get sick right there in the parking lot. Pretty sad actually (B45)
As I discuss in relation to ‘play style reasons’ below, there were many people who are simply introverted and choose to play board games solo. For those grouped in this reason, they explicitly expressed a desire to play with others, but described introversion or anxiety as preventing them from doing so.
Although social circumstances pushed some respondents down the solo route – often reluctantly at first – just as many listed the unique mechanics, characteristics, or genres of board games as their reason for playing solo. For some, solo board games were simply one type of game they played alongside many others. Other players were drawn to their particular qualities – certain games, particular modes or genres (primarily war simulations), their emphasis on puzzles, or their analog, non-digital nature. I summarize each of these reasons below.
I play solo board games all or some of the time for their unique mechanics, certain games and/or their puzzle-solving aspect
The most common reason listed by players in this category was that they played board games alone because of certain unique game play mechanics, their puzzle-solving nature, or for specific games or game modes that were only playable solo. Although these might be considered distinct reasons, I have grouped them together for two reasons. First, these reasons were frequently mentioned alongside each other, and are therefore closely related. Second, they all share a common, underlying theme: the specific game play or design features that are unique to solo board games themselves. All players grouped under this reason were enthusiasts of solo board games because of something unique or specific they offered over other genres or types of games.
Many mentioned the puzzle aspect of solo board games as providing an ‘intellectual exercise’ (A3) or ‘puzzly goodness’ (A7i) that keeps them occupied. For them, solo board gaming is comparable to completing a jigsaw puzzle: they are presented with a complex problem laid out in front of them they need to solve and piece together. Like puzzles, solo board games present a similar challenge, but one with more depth and intellectual involvement. One player (who, as quoted above, described anxiety as another reason for playing solo) wrote,
I think it stems from my childhood when I used to put together jigsaw puzzles, and I was always working on various logic, word, and number puzzles. Those were my version of solo games growing up. Obviously, I didn’t think of them in that manner at the time. I just thought they were fun […] I just like having my brain engaged with these types of activities. Maybe there is some deeper meaning to it, but I just enjoy them. And I think they have lent themselves to me enjoying a board game by myself. I look for the challenge, the puzzle quality, and that engagement with my mind, whether it’s just trying to beat my previous score or following along to the narrative that comes from the game play (B45)
Others liked to play certain genres – war simulation or historical simulation games that simply happened to be designed solo, with no multiplayer option (A3, B52 , C69). Others played solo variants of multiplayer games which ‘change how the game feels’, like Race for the Galaxy (A28) and Terraforming Mars (C62). Two mentioned the AI mechanics as an appeal: one liked that ‘good boardgame AIs [are] often more believable and realistic than computer AIs’ (B48) and another pointed out that ‘there are very few strategic video games that allow you to control all sides, especially more than 2 sides. Playing against a stupid AI can get boring. So analog allows what is not available digitally’ (C76i). Some claimed certain games ‘play better solo’ (C100) or that ‘solo games offer a lot more gaming possibilities than multiplayer’ (C66). In all these cases, players were drawn to solo board games for one or more unique game play mechanic or feature.
I play solo board games all or some of the time because of the tactile feel of the analog board/pieces and/or because they are not screen-based
Perhaps surprisingly, another common reason was that players were also attracted to the particular materiality or analog nature of board games as opposed to solo digital games. This reason was usually listed alongside others, but it was a particularly strong factor in respondents’ choice to play solo some or all of the time. Numerous players mentioned the ‘tactile experience of pushing counters’ (A3), ‘holding cards/dice/any gaming components and tossing/flipping them’ (A29), and the ‘tactile’ and ‘unplugged nature’ of board games (B38) as a motivation for playing board games both solo and with others. One wrote, ‘each play of a board game to me is an event, something you can feel and experience, something that you don’t really get from playing a video game’ (A5i). Another stated, ‘When the game shuffles a deck for me, i know it was shuffled; when i do it, i feel it’ (A27). One player expressed this particularly eloquently:
In a way it is the difference between reading a paperback and reading a book on kindle. There is something about the physical nature of a board game, the feel of the pieces, be they cardboard, wooden or plastic. The unfolding of a board or looking over play charts, appreciating the time that the artist and graphic designer has gone into when designing the look of a game (B33)
For just as many, it was this tactility combined with the non-screen-based nature of board games that made respondents opt to play them over other solo activities, such as playing a video game or watching television. They viewed solo board games as a counterpoint to other forms of screen-based media that one would normally consume by oneself:
Now I tend to stay away from digital games at all costs, nothing against them, but I enjoy playing my physical game and don’t want to be staring at the screen when playing my game. And I use computer a lot for studying, so last thing I need is a screen when I’m relaxing (A30).
I used to play a lot of video games, but they rarely grab me anymore and my reflexes and capacity to learn loads of button combos have atrophied over the years. (B36)
Solo board games are just one of many forms of games and/or entertainment I spend time with; I don’t want to exclude them
A third, also quite common, genre-related reason respondents provided was that solo board games were simply one of a number of games they played or entertainment that they engaged in alongside others, and they didn’t want to exclude them. I distinguish this reason from the first (their specific mechanics or qualities) because there was nothing specific about solo board games that attracted them. They were literally just one of many games – digital and analog – that they played. As one player put it, ‘more gaming choices… Why exclude solo games’ (A1). For some, they were simply an easy option, already set up on their table waiting to be played when they felt like it (A3, A13). Many who listed this reason compared board games not only with solo digital games, but other forms of entertainment – reading a book, watching a film or televisions show, painting, drawing, and so on. Often, they played them for reasons unrelated to those who played board games explicitly for their material component: ‘I love video games, and play a ton of them, but I just don’t see how playing a solo board game is any worse or more depressing than playing a video game’ (B47). It is ‘just another’ way of playing games or entertaining themselves, not an activity they distinguished from others.
I play solo board games all or some of the time because they help me unwind, relax, and/or I find them therapeutic
Another common reason players mentioned was that they found solo board gaming ‘relaxing’ (A2, B52, C89), ‘therapeutic’ (A17, C89), ‘cathartic’ (A31), or it helped them to ‘unwind’ (C88). This is the most difficult reason to categorise, since it relates both to the specific qualities of the games themselves – the design or nature of the game – and the next category, play style. I have opted to included it in the ‘genre’ category, however, because although it is not related to genre per se, most players who listed this reason attributed it to the particular nature of board gaming itself. Players also often mentioned this reason alongside two other genre-related reasons – the puzzle-solving and non-screen-based nature of tabletop games. For instance, one player wrote:
I have tinnitus as well as a high degree of light sensitivity and frequent migraines. It’s not something that bothers me all the time, but sometimes looking at computer or TV screens can trigger a migraine and/or exacerbate the tinnitus. Board games don’t do any of these things, and they help distract me from the tinnitus. Very therapeutic in a way that video games can never be (A17).
Yet several players also mentioned the relaxing or therapeutic nature of playing board games solo without referring to certain genres or the fact they aren’t screen-based. For some people, solo board gaming is simply relaxing – whether it’s because they prefer to play without the stress of others around them (A2, C89), they are not screen-based (A8iii, A17), or it improves their mental wellbeing (A31, B43). As such, this is a separate reason itself, although it is frequently synonymous with other genre-related reasons.
Play Style Reasons
This category is distinct from the previous two in that it refers to players who explicitly chose to play board games solo because of their personal preferences or approach to playing games. Unlike the ‘social category’, they chose to play board games solo, rather than necessarily doing so because of circumstances. And in contrast to the genre-related reasons above, these players were not necessarily drawn to the particular qualities of solo board games, but played them solo specifically because it suited their own personality or habits. But again, it is important to emphasize that many players listed reasons in multiple categories, and some of the reasons mentioned in this section are closely related to others.
I have people I can play with, but I prefer to play solo all or some of the time for game play reasons (so I can be more immersed in them, be in control and/or go at my own pace without the distraction of other players)
This is both the most common play style-related reason and, based on my coding, the most common overall reason for playing board games solo provided by forum posters – likely because it is quite broad. These players mentioned that they had other people to play with, but they preferred to play alone at least some or all of the time. The reasons they provided varied, but they all related to the game play process itself. A common theme was immersion in the game play – numerous players mentioned that ‘immersion is easier to gain’ (A4i), and they experienced ‘total immersion no [sic] distractions from other players’ (C67). In some cases, they viewed other players as a distraction or obstacle to a more immersive experience, ‘compromising’ their enjoyment (A21iii, C122). One preferred it when ‘pacing and direction are completely in my control’ (C60). The following two respondents also explicitly demonstrated this attitude:
I’ve lost interest in bring [sic] new humans home to try gaming. Don’t care about it anymore. I find the developing story, watching what the rolls of the dice brings each turn wholy [sic] satisfying, without the needless distraction of arguments [sic] about the rules, cell phone breaks, pack up times. I leave games out and play them when the mood suits me. (B44)
I find dealing with other people (beyond a tiny handful of exceptions) exhausting. I play to have fun and relax, not to be dragged through a social quagmire of forced interactions. Gaming with a group means compromises – in choice of game, time frame, waiting one’s turn, maintaining table talk, ensuring one does not annoy one’s fellow gamers, gathering location, etc. Gaming solo is a purely selfish activity, in that there are no compromises necessary. (C122)
Other respondents enjoyed playing with others, or even preferred it, but also chose to and enjoyed the experience of playing solo some of the time (A23, C88, C105). Often, this was because it offered a different experience to multiplayer – they could take their time and go at their own pace. Sometimes they were the kind of player who took a long time to decide their turns (referred to as ‘analysis paralysis’) and didn’t like to ‘worry about others getting bored’ (A6) or ‘pressure from other people to hurry up’ (A10i). They could go ‘at my own speed’ and ‘revel in learning a new system without the pressure of opponents’ (B35). For others, time was a factor – they could play whenever they felt like it, often (but not always) overlapping with the social reason above that their friends didn’t play regularly enough since they didn’t actually prefer to play with others. And they also liked being able to play whatever they liked, without having to discuss it with others. As one player stated, ‘that’s one of the big appeals to me of solitaire board games. I can play when I want, what I want, and for how long I want’ (C51).
I have people I can play with, but I prefer to play solo all or some of the time for personality reasons (because I like to be in my own zone and/or I need some time to myself)
There is a strong overlap between this and the previous reason, so originally I had grouped them together. But I realized that for many players, their reason for playing solo was more about an internal personal preference, rather than only or just related to the game play process. Some of these players mentioned ‘stepping into my own “zone” to enjoy gaming in a quiet atmosphere’ (A2); that ‘I like my own company’ (C86); and it allowed them to ‘be myself’ (A9). Some of these players were introverted (A9, C117, C118), but in contrast to those who wanted to play with others but this introversion prevented them from doing so (c.f. the ‘social anxiety’ reason above), they simply preferred to play alone. Others stated that solo board games allowed them to carve out alone time: they enjoyed coming home after a day at work and having some time to themselves (B38, C123). Interestingly, some did this with other people present in the room: ‘my wife often works from home (in the evenings, on weekends), and I can sit in the same room as her playing something so we can be together while still doing our own things’ (B42).
I play board games solo to learn or experiment with the rules and/or improve my skills before playing with others
I play board games solo so I can stream and/or write up accounts of them
Other players had more pragmatic reasons for playing board games solo. The most common of these was so players could learn the rules of a board game before playing with others (B35, B46, C78, C85, C107). For some, this was instrumental: they played solo so they could get better at multiplayer games and improve their scores against their opponents (A10i, C90). One player, however, mentioned a downside to this: they were concerned when they did play with others they might become ‘nearly unbeatable, effectively rendering the game unplayable for my usual gaming group’ (C85). But for others, they just liked to pick apart a game, explore different aspects of it, and maybe play their own variations of it or its rules. Some mentioned resetting the game whenever they felt like it: ‘I can take back moves as I like’ (C106); ‘I like a reset button […] Try doing that at your next multi-player game’ (A10i). And lastly, a handful of players mentioned that they liked to stream or write up their own accounts of games for themselves or others to watch/read, and for some playing solo was the most practical way to do this (A4i, A5, C107).
Discussion and Future Directions for Research
As summarized in Table 2 below, the results of my qualitative analysis of comments by members of the 1 Player Guild show a diversity of reasons for playing board games solo. In some cases, they were straightforward and easy to categorize. For others, though, their motivations were highly complex, overlapping, and difficult to code. Some listed as many as 8 different reasons – some of which were closely related – while others posted long personal accounts of their gaming history and/or how they first came to play board games solo. Some people much preferred to play with others, but were forced to play alone either some or all of the time. Others found they occasionally enjoyed playing solo when it suited them or the situation arose. Others still were vehemently opposed to playing with other people and ‘compromising’, so they only played solo.
|Others don’t play often enough|
|No one else|
|Not enough time|
|Others don’t play games I like|
|Anxiety or social issues|
|Unique mechanics or puzzle solving|
|Tactility or non-screen-based nature|
|Just one type of game I play|
|They help me relax|
|Play Style Reasons|
|More immersive or don’t like distraction|
|Prefer alone time|
|To learn rules, experiment or improve skills|
Table 2: A summary of the reasons for playing board games solo, listed by category.
Based on my quantitative analysis, explicitly social reasons accounted only for approximately one-third of respondents’ motivations for playing solo. In fact, the most common reason listed according to my coding was that people prefer to play solo to feel more immersed in the game and play at their own pace, without the distraction of others. Other common reasons given were that respondents had other people to play with, but they did not play often enough so they turned to solo board gaming to fill their cravings; and because of specific genres, mechanics or the puzzle-solving nature of solo board games. Uncommon, but still significant, reasons provided were social anxiety preventing respondents from comfortably playing with others; and respondents documenting their board game play either for others or just themselves.
Due to the unverified nature of my coding, however, further research needs to be done to determine how common each of these reasons are. To accomplish this, I aim to implement an online survey of solo board game players using the table above as the framework for a question asking why respondents play solo. The responses will provide a more accurate indication of how common each of these reasons are and whether or not respondents’ motivations for playing solo are approximately evenly distributed each of the three categories, as my own analysis suggests.
It is also important to note that, because the data discussed here consists of self-selected responses to relatively open-ended questions on a public forum, respondents were free to shape their responses as they wished. While this provided fruitful data for analysis, there is scope for much deeper investigation into the motivations for playing board games solo that contextualizes solo play within the broader social and gaming routines of players. A handful of forum respondents did indeed reflect on this, explaining anecdotally their history with tabletop games, or discussing their other gaming and media habits. But in-depth, semi-structured interviews with solo board game players would be valuable in further understanding how, why and where people play board games solo, how often they do so, and what other deeper, underlying factors influence their solo play. As such, in future research I hope to also use the survey as an instrument to approach solo board game players for interviews about the social, cultural, practical and personal factors that motivate them to play alone.
Yet from this analysis, already several important themes and issues are evident. Although social reasons only make up a third of those given by respondents, sociality and social factors are strong theme underpinning many of respondents’ motivations for playing solo. Even outside the social categories, respondents frequently discussed how their preference to play solo intersected with their social lives and relationships with other people. Some referred to the ‘pressure’ of playing with others – worrying about how long they were taking to decide a move (‘analysis paralysis’) or having to accommodate others’ preferences and play styles. For them, solo board gaming offered a welcome counterpoint to these pressures. One respondent even viewed their decision to play solo not as selfish, but as an altruistic decision. They mentioned ‘wear[ing] my emotions on my sleeve’ and sometimes appearing ‘grumpy’ when they were losing, but still having fun even though this isn’t visible to others (C59). So they chose to play solo most of the time to avoid imposing this on other people and making them uncomfortable. In effect, they played alone because in their mind they were sparing other people their personal quirks.
Numerous other respondents demonstrated this attentiveness to how the personal habits and gaming preferences impacted on others. One aforementioned respondent didn’t want to ‘burn’ his wife out from too many board games (B46). Another worried about setting up a time to play with others and not feeling in the mood when that time arrives (A14). And one forum post I encountered on another thread (not included in this analysis) even mentioned one downside to playing solo – sacrificing time with his family. He described reflecting on his solo play after his father’s recent death:
Thinking back on him and the way he lived his life in some ways makes me sad about my own. While I’m also a loving husband and father, it also makes me regret the time I spend in solitude at the gaming table; making me feel that I should spend my time in other ways – better connecting with the people around me.
The comments in the threads I examined demonstrated time and again that – perhaps unsurprisingly – board gaming is an intensely social activity. Players constantly reflect very deeply on other people’s expectations around board gaming – from being wary of burning people out to choosing games that others will be interested in and modifying their behavior accordingly. Solo board gaming is also closely entangled in the broader social dimensions of board game play – whether it is an alternative or supplement to playing with others. The starting post in thread C, whose author was ‘baffled’ by the number of people playing games solo, illustrates how, for many, board game play is an inherently social phenomenon – and this is what they associate board gaming with. To play solo is to challenge the seemingly fundamental sociability of board game play. But as this article highlights, a growing number of board games are now designed only for one player or feature a solo option and a significant number of people now choose to play solo. Sometimes this is to a lack of co-players. But just as often players happily choose to play solo, whether because of the particular qualities of board games – from better A.I. to their very analogy, non-screen-based nature – or due to their preferred play style. This article offers one step towards exploring these issues further by considering the wider, situated context in which board game play takes place.
I would like to thank Ben Nicoll and Jan Švelch for their invaluable thoughts and comments on a draft of this paper.
Featured image “Mage Knight Dice” by Guido Gloor Modjib @Flickr CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0
Dale Leorke is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Centre of Excellence in Game Culture Studies at Tampere University, Finland. His primary research interests include the role of games and play within urban policy, mobile and location-based games, and how social interaction and isolation unfold through play. He is the author of Location-based Gaming: Play in Public Space (Palgrave, 2018). His most recent publications can be found at: https://uta-fi.academia.edu/