Drew Hicks and I are working on a top-secret project that calls for a solitaire variant. Neither of us has done much solitaire development yet, so I thought it would be good to talk to Willie Hung since he's an avid solo gamer. We asked about the basics of what makes solo gaming so appealing to him and how to capture that fun.
Below are his responses to our questions, which I thought were very useful for anyone who ventures into the realm of solo play.
Do you find "grades" a satisfying victory condition for a solitaire game? In other words, certain spans of victory points are categorized as being C, B, A, A+, etc?
I find them quite satisfactory. It beats just trying to get a "high score" as many other games have done before. Good examples are Imperial Settlers, Skyline, Hostage Negotiator, and The Gallerist. Even games like Dungeon Roll have small "achievement" awards to strive for that I found amusing. In addition, the victory point categories in The Gallerist also contain sub-victory conditions; in addition to achieving the proper score to enter that rank, they also check if you met other sub-goals, if you discovered a minimum number of artists, etc. It adds more depth and indirect incentive during gameplay instead of just gunning for a high score.
Do you prefer perfect information throughout the game, as if it's a pure puzzle, or randomized input, so you have to adapt to somewhat unpredictable circumstances?
Most of my solo experiences deal with randomized input (dice, random card draws). When I think of perfect info, I think of Neuroshima Hex and their set solo puzzles. While I've never played them, I can surmise that they'd feel their replayability is lost once solved. But at the same time, I can see how people may dismiss a game BECAUSE of randomized input.
But, I do enjoy a rather finite set of randomized input. Like, if you're selecting 5 objectives from a pool of 10, not 50. Or if certain components can be slotted in and out in modular fashion. That way, I can better prepare my strategy mentally for how I'll play my game. In that way, it's not randomized if you know abstractly what's going in, but it's still random in that you won't know the specific details of it. Hope I didn't just complicate my explanation there...
Maybe a better example is Sylvion. In the advanced game, you draft cards to use in your actual game. You would select what column of cards you want, and the AI randomly elminates another, until you finalize your deck. This ensures each game is "randomized," but you still have pefect information of what your deck contains (since you determined what went into it).
How do you feel about time limits in solitaire games, whether they be real time or just limited numbers of turns? Do they enhance the challenge or just seem arbitrary?
Probably the only real-time solo game I've played with a time limit has been Escape, and that is probably not the best example. Mainly because that one involves a HIGH amount of random dice-rolling luck. Something more appropriate is The Gallerist's method, where the AI player would, in each turn, take one ticket token per turn. The moment ticket tokens were exhausted, the game would end. What's particularly interesting about that is that you yourself often need those ticket tokens, too. In taking them, you yourself are actively shortening your game time. In addition, if you knock the AI gallerist from a position to use that action your turn, that will trigger YET ANOTHER ticket lost, so it impacts you whether you REALLY need to perform that particular action this turn or later.
Then there's games that apply pressure than time, like Hostage Negotiator. In there, it's the number of hostages and the threat level marker that determine how you use your time, not to mention that terror levels are finitely set to 10 cards, and that you draw one every turn. So, you can run out of "time" when you exhaust your terror deck, if you lose more hostages, or if the abductor escapes. But in there, just about everything is linked up. This multitude of losing factors emphasizes the theme to a boiling point.
Speaking of linked, one of my favorites in terms of turn-based time limit is Pandemic. The 3 different ways the game can win is a great example of a time limit instilled into a game that doesn't use any time-limit tracker, per se (per say?). Well, maybe exhausting the player's deck is the official way to say time's up (and that HAS happened to me often enough). The other methods (exhausting all virus cubes of one color, more than 8 outbreaks) are more pressure-sensitive, but are based on how you handle your moves each turn in a timely manner. It greatly enhances the game's urgency theme of rushing to cure people of deadly diseases.
How do you feel about AI opponents? What are some good examples and poor examples? I gave this a shot in Curse You Robin Hood, but I'm not sure if that's a good example. :D
AI opponents...I personally would rather just play a game with as little involvement handling AI opponents as possible. It's hard enough figuring out your own moves, but if you have to determine your opponents, it puts me off sometimes. It's why I can't seem to complete a solo game of Suburbia to succession. I would need to smartly determine where the opponent's tile goes on THEIR board, which only grows more complicated further along the game I go. And that's all sheer math calculations in the end. I still enjoy the game, but it's certainly taxing.
Imperial Settlers is a good one. It has an AI deck that simply razes lands depending on what icons appear. Keeps their turns short an sweet, but it also allows the AI to attack twice per turn. But Portal kept it simple: It attacks twice, and any cards it razes, it collects into THEIR total count. The victory condition is that you own more faction cards than cards in their collection. So, if you're not actively razing THEIR cards and they attack yours well, you have a higher score to compete against in the end.
Bottom of the Ninth, while interesting, is an example of a fiddly AI. Sure, the pitch deck helps determine the pitcher's selection, but the lookup table for how the pitcher reacts to their dice roll (not to mention each pitcher's individual stats and traits to consider) makes the learning curve for their turn to be quite high before you get the hang of it. And, for the record, their solo variant is the best score out of 6 different games. I've barely finished one so far. Love the game still, but man...
Hostage Negotiator has their different abductors as AI opponents. The base game comes with 3, and 4 additional ones have been released as 4 separate booster packs. I love the modular aspect of these. Each abductor comes with 1-4 demands, and you only select 1 randomly. Also, the added booster scenarios often slot in more negotiator cards, special small decks, and other scenario-related components. What's great is that these are limited to the 12-cards-only booster packs.
I actually did like the simple AI rulesets from Curse You Robin Hood. It was easy for me to assign roles to players without any specific additional setup other than "you are this, you are that," and then just remembering their one rule. At the same time, though, playing with 3 other artificial players really drove the aspect home that I was truly solo, and felt like I was playing a simple computer program that had simple commands. It was an overall mind puzzle, but it's one that takes time to develop in each game. That's actually the selling point for me to keep trying new combos of AI each play.
Our conversation continued from there, but this on its own is an awesome overview of solitaire gameplay in modern games. Thanks, Willie!