Cooperative Board Games Are Great for Solo Gaming
Fun Board Games for One Player or Many
I love board games, but I'd given up playing them due to a lack of gamer friends. When I watched Wil Wheaton's series TableTop, I was thrilled to discover that cooperative games can be played solo, so you don't need other people to enjoy them. But they're also suitable for multiple players, so if you do have friends over, they can join in too!
I'm now happily playing Castle Panic, Pandemic and Elder Sign (all featured on the show) as well as Forbidden Island, which Wil recommended on his blog. I've also got Flash Point Fire Rescue on my wish list.
Read on to learn more about these fun cooperative board games! Titles have been listed more or less in order of difficulty (easiest to hardest).
Castle Panic - 2011 Games Magazine Top 100 Traditional Board Games
Castle Panic is a tower defense game; you have to protect your castle against an army of orcs, goblins, and trolls (plus the occasional giant boulder that they hurl your way). The goal is to defeat all the monsters and still have at least one tower standing; otherwise, the monsters win. Players alternate turns and work together to defeat the invaders by trading cards and conferring on strategy.
I was sure I'd like Castle Panic based on the description, but after watching it played on TableTop, I was a little hesitant; while the group was clearly enjoying it, I wasn't sure how the experience would translate for a single player. I took a chance and ordered it anyway, and I haven't been disappointed. It's fun and great for solo play.
There are special single player rules for Castle Panic, but they aren't much different from cooperative play; you get an extra card in your hand and you can exchange two cards for new ones from the deck instead of just one. With other coop titles, I've always controlled multiple characters, but for this one, I used the solo variation and I've been very satisfied with it. (Plus there's no danger I'll forget which character I'm currently playing!)
I also like that the game has variations to make it easier or more difficult. So you can start with the easy game (removing specific monsters from play) and add difficulty options as your skill level improves. There's also a great expansion available to make it even more complex. (The expansion adds a Wizard's tower and magic spells, plus new cards and monsters.)
If you want to see the game in action to get a sense of the mechanics (or pick up some clever tips), here's Wil Wheaton and friends playing it on TableTop. (Note: episodes are edited down to 30 minutes, so you won't see every single turn.)
This is the core game. One to six people can play.
Time to play is roughly an hour; you can play the "less panic" option for a shorter game.
This game is appropriate for kids, and reviewers have said that they enjoy playing as a family.
If you want a bigger challenge, you might also consider the separate game Munchkin Panic, which is a mash-up of Castle Panic and the card game Munchkin. It's definitely harder, with monsters that take more strikes to kill -- and it removes the brick and mortar cards from the deck, so once a wall is gone, it's gone for good. (I have another article that discusses Munchkin Panic in detail if you're interested.)
In Forbidden Island, your goal is to capture four hidden treasures and escape before the island sinks. You gain treasures by collecting four treasure cards, then going to one of the two squares that hold that treasure to claim it. The island itself is constructed of 24 cardboard squares that represent different locations; the squares are laid out randomly, so the configuration is different every time. A number of locations "sink" every turn, based on the current water level; if a location sinks once, it's flooded, but twice and it's gone for good. If both locations for a treasure disappear before you claim that treasure, you lose the game. You can also lose if the water level gets too high or if the landing pad sinks completely.
Forbidden Island is a cleverly designed game and it's easy to learn, particularly if you're already familiar with Pandemic; they use some of the same concepts and mechanics, although Forbidden Island isn't as complex. I like that you can adjust the difficulty level of the game to accommodate the skill of the players; I can almost always win on Novice, but I'm struggling a bit with Normal level -- sometimes I win, but more often, I get very, very close and then lose. (I was using four characters to play, but after some experimentation, I've recently switched to just two. There seems to be a definite advantage to having fewer players, despite losing the special abilities different characters bring to the table.)
One of the best things about Forbidden Island is the price point. It's very affordable, and amazingly, they didn't sacrifice quality. The island cards are very sturdy and are gorgeously illustrated, and I was impressed with the tokens that represent the various treasures. The water level counter is also well designed and sturdy, so it won't get damaged with repeated use. I really appreciate the game tin as well -- it's rugged, pretty, and is designed to easily store all the pieces when not in use. My one complaint is that I wish there were more "treasure" cards, because it's difficult to thoroughly shuffle a stack of 28 cards, and that problem gets worse when you have to re-shuffle, because many cards are still in play. (Given that you discard four of the same card when you claim a treasure, you want to be sure the cards are shuffled well.)
While this game is listed for 2 - 4 players, it can be played solo by controlling multiple characters.
Playing time is 30-60 minutes.
Forbidden Island is appropriate for kids, particularly if playing as a family.
Pandemic - Best New Family Game of 2009 (GAMES Magazine)
Pandemic is a cooperative board game where players take on the roles of researchers, medical personnel and others to combat and ultimately cure four diseases before they spread across the planet. Players lose if any one disease spreads too far or if too many outbreaks occur. They also lose if they run out of time (as measured by the number of cards available -- each player draws two cards per turn, and when the cards run out, the game's over).
When I first read the description of this game, I thought the theme sounded gruesome and I really had no interest in owning it. After I watched it played on TableTop, I completely changed my mind. While Pandemic is difficult, it's challenging and engaging. I got a copy a few months ago and it's now my favorite game!
One thing I really like about Pandemic is that it keeps me thinking strategically right up until the end. With some games, it's easy to become complacent and start going through the motions. But with Pandemic, it's never a sure thing; I've pulled out a win on the very last card, and I've lost more than once when I would have cured the final disease on my next turn. If you like strategy games and enjoy a challenge, Pandemic is for you.
While Pandemic is for 2 to 5 players, a single player can enjoy it by controlling multiple characters.
Time to play is roughly one hour.
Flash Point Fire Rescue
Flash Point Fire Rescue is another cooperative game with a real-life theme; in this game, you assume the roles of fire specialists trying to fight a building fire and rescue the trapped occupants before the fire becomes too widespread or the structure collapses. As in Pandemic, the game mechanics ensure that the threat spreads in random fashion, so it's different each time you play. There are also variations and options that can be used to make the game simpler (if kids are playing) or more challenging.
The board is double-sided, giving you two different building configurations. The expansion set adds another two buildings.
I found it particularly interesting that some reviews were written by actual firefighters! They enjoyed playing and felt like the game did a good job of capturing the urgency of a true fire situation.
Many reviewers stated that they liked this game even more than Pandemic, so I'm surprised that it hasn't become a breakout game yet. I guess the word will spread among casual gamers sooner or later.
There was also a Kickstarter campaign to create a new expansion, Extreme Danger, and re-release the existing expansions, which were out of print. The campaign was successful and the expansions were released in late 2013.
The rules call for two to six players, but a solo gamer can play using multiple characters. One reviewer had played solo and confirmed that it works just as well as with multiple players.
Play time is roughly 30 - 60 minutes, depending on the difficulty level used.
While this is considered a family game, the theme might be scary to younger children. However, some reviewers say they've played it with young kids, so use your own judgment.
Elder Sign is a themed dice game set in the universe created by author H.P. Lovecraft. You assume the role of investigators trying to block an Ancient One from manifesting in our world. You seal away the Elder God by collecting Elder Signs -- get enough and the Ancient One's path to our dimension is blocked for good.
As far as the mechanics go, you roll dice to complete challenges on different location cards. If you succeed on a challenge, you collect that card's reward: new weapons, clues, allies, or Elder Signs. Each investigator also has special abilities that can assist in meeting challenges: you might be able to use extra dice, re-roll dice, get bonus rewards, or ignore certain penalties. I've been playing with four investigators, which seems like a good number since it corresponds to the four turns in each clock-hour. Every time the game clock hits midnight, you draw a new Mythos card, which usually makes things harder. Often, the Mythos will add a token to the Doom track, which measures how close the Elder God is to awakening; one the track is full, investigators have to battle the God and hope to defeat him. (Fail and you lose the game.)
There are a lot of rules, so the game does take time to learn. But I thoroughly enjoy the game and found the learning curve worth the effort. Watching the TableTop episode for this game really helped; I had seen it a couple of times already, and then I viewed it again after I tried playing a round myself. The repeat view helped me catch some mistakes I was making. (Like I said, there are lots of rules, and when you play solo, there's no one else to help you remember them all!)
Non-solo players may prefer Elder Sign to other some of the other choices, because I think each player is more active in this game; in some cooperative board games, the most dominant player can end up taking over, leaving everyone else to just follow directions. (I can easily see that happening in Forbidden Island or Castle Panic.) But here, no one else can roll the dice for you, and I feel like that gives each person a real sense of participating and contributing to the group's efforts.
The TableTop team recommends you start with the four character combination used on the show: Amanda (the student), Carolyn (the psychologist), Dexter (the Magician), and Darrell (the photographer). I tried that combination, but there are other characters I really like also: Jenny (the dilettante), Bob (the salesman), Vincent (the doctor), Kate (the scientist), and Sister Mary (the nun). I tend to rotate my choices and keep the others for backup in case an investigator dies and needs to be replaced.
Elder Sign can be played solo or accommodate up to 8 players.
According to Fantasy Flight, game time ranges from one to two hours -- but in my experience, it's usually more like two to three.
Due to the subject matter and complexity, this game is not appropriate for children.
This episode of TableTop is a huge help in learning Elder Sign. It might also help you decide if this is a game you'd enjoy playing.
Elder Sign Expansion Unseen Forces
The one thing I would do to improve Elder Sign is add more helper cards (common items, unique items, and spells). An expansion has been released that includes additional helper cards, plus more investigators, more locations, more monsters and Ancient Ones. It also introduces some new game elements: blessings and curses. All in all, it sounds like a great addition to the game, and I'm looking forward to getting a copy.