The Top 10 Best Solo Board Games (for Coronavirus Quarantine)

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Board games have been wildly successful in the last ten years. Much of this can be attributed to people’s need to socialize in person. That’s why many are surprised to hear that solo board games not only exist but are very common.

Good thing, too. In 2019, no one could have predicted that we all have to isolate ourselves in our homes to hide front a yet-undiscovered virus. At the tail end of the year, the coronavirus was just starting to spread in Wuhan, China, and now people across the globe are sitting six feet apart, looking for ways to entertain themselves.

Odd little world we live in these days. To help you survive not only the virus but the stultifying boredom of being stuck in your own home, I’ve put together a list of the very best solo board games in the world.

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How I Chose the Top 10 Solo Board Games

First things first, I want to go over how I chose the top 10 best solo board games. As you can imagine, any “top 10” ranking of any sort is subjective by nature. To keep things as fair as possible, I referenced Board Game Geek’s Top 100 best board games.

From there, I started at the top of the list and worked my way down, finding the highest-ranking board games with solo modes. Of the top 25 board games, 12 – almost half – had solo modes. As such, this list has a lot of overlap with The 10 Best Board Games of All Time.

Is there a better way to pick the best solo games? Oh yeah, definitely. And in fact, I’d love to hear your favorite solo board games in the comments below. We’re going to inevitably miss some phenomenal solo games in this article. There are too many to choose from!

10. A Feast for Odin

A Feast for Odin is a truly epic game: it takes a while to play (usually) and it’s got a whopping 3.83 out of 5 complexity rating on Board Game Geek. That means all the satisfying strategic maneuvering that hardcore gamers appreciate is present in this game.

The publisher describes it as a “saga in the form of a board game.” In it, you play as a viking tribe that explores and raids new lands. The end goal: accumulate the most material wealth.

While generally considered a multiplayer game, A Feast for Odin can easily be modified for solo play. In the robust solo mode, your goal is simple: achieve the highest score you can.

9. Wingspan

Photo by PZS69, CC-BY-SA 2.0 license. Source: https://boardgamegeek.com/image/4647501/wingspan

Wingspan is one of the most recent board games published by Stonemaier Games, a name you will see a few more times on this list. Designed by
Elizabeth Hargrave, it is described on Board Game Geek as a “competitive, medium-weight, card-driven, engine-building board game.”

Despite the avian theme, Wingspan has a lot in common with another perennial strategy gamer favorite: Terraforming Mars. It is an easy to approach, relatively quick-playing engine-building game.

In Wingspan, you use the Automa Factory when flying solo. After each of your turns, you flip over Automa cards, resolve the effects, and then proceed with your turn. The effect is that game builds an engine all on its own while you are. It’s pretty challenging too!

8. Viticulture

This is the second of three Stonemaier Games that you will see on this list. Much like Wingspan, Viticulture also has an off-the-beaten path, natural world theme. You and other players now have vineyards to run in the Tuscany region of Italy.

Over the course of the game, you allocate your workers and resources in different ways. This lets you slowly change your vineyard to take advantage of different seasons, create more attractive winery tours, build structures, and plant vines. Your goal: run the best winery in Tuscany.

When playing solo, you again have an Automa deck just like you do with Wingspan. Your goal is to score more victory points than the Automa. What makes Viticulture remarkable in this regard is that there are five different difficulty levels, and you can also use an “aggressive variant” that changes how scoring is calculated. The means you have a remarkable variety of options.

7. Arkham Horror: The Card Game

Arkham Horror is based off of the terrifying works of H.P. Lovecraft, complete with “mystery, monsters, and madness.” In the game, your characters reside in the New England town of Arkham where things are not quite as they ought to be, what with the haunted houses and hellish creatures…

The game itself is a living card game in which you can create custom decks of cards. The multiplayer game is cooperative. You’re playing against the evils of Arkham.

Now beware, solo gamers. It’s said that playing alone is very similar to playing in a group, but you lose the player interaction. For this reason, it’s said to be very difficult, but very satisfying to win!

6. 7th Continent

Imagine this: it’s the early 1900s and after a sailing voyage, you discover that there is an entirely new continent that no one has ever seen before! But after you visit it, you are cursed and you must go back to the continent to have the curse lifted.

Like Arkham, 7th Continent is a solo or cooperative game. It’s also an exploration game in which you must create tools, weapons, and shelter to survive. It’s also a brutally difficult game that will kill you again and again and again.

Similar to Arkham again, 7th Continent does not change much at all when playing solo. All you lose is the ability to rely on others to back you up. The game itself is largely unchanged!

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5. Spirit Island

Spirit Island is another cooperative game, but what really sets it apart is its unique theme. In this game, you play as an island spirit with unique elemental powers. The villains in this game are colonizers who wish to exploit your lands for profit. (Which they won’t if you have anything to say about it!)

The invaders act in ways dictated by the game itself, spreading across the island and attempting to build an engine. Meanwhile, you spread to other parts of the island, seek to increase your powers, and then eventually wipe the invaders off the map.

While many recommend playing Spirit Island with 2 or more players, it is a perfectly serviceable one-player game. You don’t have to change anything about the game itself in order to play it alone. You just don’t have backup when you may want it!

4. Scythe

The final Stonemaier game on this list is a big one: Scythe. A ton of physical and digital ink has been spilled to describe this game and I don’t know if it’s ever fallen off the Board Game Geek Hotness list in the last four years.

To borrow directly from the Board Game Geek page: “it is a time of unrest in 1920s Europa. The ashes from the first great war still darken the snow. The capitalistic city-state known simply as ‘The Factory’, which fueled the war with heavily armored mechs, has closed its doors, drawing the attention of several nearby countries.”

This is an engine-building, competitive game at its core. Every single aspect of the game has some engine-building element to it. There is also very little luck in the game, making in the kind of brain-burning, crunchy game that hardcore board gamers adore.

Scythe relies on an Automa deck for its solo mode. Each card specifies what the Automa player gets, does, or deploys. In short, the game builds its own engine while you do the same. Some even describe the Automa as being aggressive, so in many ways, the game will feel like you are playing against other real people!

3. Gaia Project

As if Terra Mystica weren’t a fantastic achievement in board gaming in its own right, Gaia Project is a souped up version IN SPACE. It doubles down on everything that made Terra Mystica brilliant – the complex decision making and the epic theme of expanding civilization. Then it marries the game to a theme board gamers have demonstrated time and time again that they love – science fiction.

Gaia Project is a picture-perfect study on how to “fix something that ain’t broken.” The game’s existence is proof that the creators were listening to feedback on a deep level, addressing gamers’ basic needs while taking the game in a surprising cosmic direction.

The 10 Best Board Games of All Time and What We Can Learn from Them

Gaia Project uses an Automa deck to play solo. The Automa takes one action per turn and slowly builds its deck by adding random cards. Much of the surprise comes in how familiar cards are used in odd and new ways. The clever chemistry between different cards keeps the game fresh for a long time.

2. Terraforming Mars

In Terraforming Mars, you and your opponents play as different corporations. Each corporation does its part to make Mars a more liveable place by raising the oxygen level, creating oceans, and increasing the temperature. You can do this through clever allocation of resources as well as the use of different project cards.

Terraforming Mars has so many unique cards that no two games feel alike. This penchant for creative play is extended to the solo mode as well. The board starts with a couple of neutral cities and greenery, whereas it would normally be completely barren. You have 14 generations to terraform Mars to a livable state. That’s not much time, and you have to be very efficient to make it happen.

1. Gloomhaven

Photo by Daniel Mizieliński. Found on Board Game Geek under the CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

Last but not least, we have the ultimate in all epic games, the #1 on Board Game Geek for two or three years running: Gloomhaven.

Goodness, where do you begin with describing this game?

You play as a wandering adventurer in a dark, menancing world of dungeons and ruins. The story branches and unfolds in unique ways that always feel fresh no matter how many times you play. Many people have likened it to “a choose your own adventure” book in board game form.

Gloomhaven is a cooperative game based on dungeon crawling and hand management. It’s a heady, complex game for people who love complex games.

When you play solo, you act as two or more characters at once. Not only can you play the game with minimal changes to the rules, but you don’t even see many changes to the gameplay itself because you take on multiple roles. Gloomhaven is a formidable challenge in solo mode, and that makes it quite possibly the perfect game to learn while under lockdown!

Honorable Mentions (September 2020 Update)

This post got a bit more attention than I expected when I posted in April 2020. I’m updating this list as of September 2020 since this article is still highly relevant to our current time.

Here are a handful of favorites mentioned by commenters along with their short BGG descriptions. Carl King left a big list, including:

  • Nemesis: Survive an alien-infested spaceship but beware of other players and their agendas.
  • Everdell: Use resources to build a village of critters and constructions in this woodland game.
  • Anachrony: Venture into the wasteland, or back in time, to gain resources & avert the cataclysm. 
  • Rurik Dawn of Kiev: Claim your father’s throne! Build, tax, & fight through unique “auction programming.”
  • Barbarians the Invasion: Enter the mysterious World of Thunmar, a place where barbarian clans rule the wild lands and corrupted civilizations live in their decadent cities.
  • Raiders of the North Sea: Assemble and prepare a formidable crew of vikings to pillage towns and gain glory.
  • Architects of the West Kingdom: Will you be a virtuous or nefarious servant of the king? Build your way to glory.
  • Paladins of the West Kingdom: Invaders are coming from everywhere. Keep the faith and defend your homeland.
  • Bag of Dungeon: A dungeon crawling tile-based game harking back to the good old deadly days of exploring dungeons, slaying monsters and stealing treasure.
  • Mythic Battles Pantheon: Gather your team from the vast Greek pantheon and fight to the death!

Everett So recommended Hellenica: Story of Greece, which is where you “lead your city-state to become the preeminent symbol of Greece in this 3.5x game!” Wicaksono Adi recommended Mage Knight, a game in which you “build your hero’s spells, abilities, and artifacts as you explore & conquer cities.”

Want me to include more games? Let me know in the comments below! I’d like to keep this list updated so that nobody gets bored during this pandemic.





In the Board Game Industry, the Rules Always Change

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If you stay in the board game industry for long enough, you will hear your fair share of conventional wisdom. Board gamers like minis. Conventions are good for promoting your game. The list could go on forever.

Some of this wisdom is true, and some is not. The veracity of advice you hear will change year over year, and even month over month. This is not just because we’re experiencing an unprecedented shake-up in day-to-day life because of the coronavirus. It’s just a simple fact of life: the rules always change.

To succeed in making the game you want or building a business, you have to constantly question both your own assumptions and the conventional wisdom you hear. Listen to everyone, but maintain some skepticism. Be skeptical even of what you read here!

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The Flawed Assumption That Many Gamers Think is True

I’ve noticed a peculiar trend in the hobby board games industry. The hobby board game industry was said to pull in about $1.5 billion in 2018. When you dig deeper, you realize that hobby games are a very small part of the overall tabletop games industry.

The tabletop games industry is actually $12 billion in size. The lion’s share of that figure went to Chess, Scrabble, Monopoly, and Ludo. For comparison, collectible card games as a category, including Magic the Gathering, represent about $625 million.

In short, the vast majority of the games people talk about on Board Game Geek make up a pretty small segment of the hobby board game industry as a whole. Yet it gets even stranger. Of that $1.5 billion, $200 million was raised on Kickstarter.

So in summary, what you see on Kickstarter makes up a fraction of the global $12 billion market. As little as 1.6%, in fact. Board gamers focus a lot on that small sliver of the industry, while ignoring mass market games and the surprising amount of best-selling products on Amazon.

This leads to a massive distortion in thinking. Hobby board gamers often think that games have to be made in a specific way, ignoring successful products along the way. Azul is a fantastic game, but What Do You Meme is making the money printer go brrr.

Kickstarter Isn’t the Same as It Was in 2010 or Even 2017

Kickstarter used to be a lot more welcoming toward board game projects that were not ready to print. Over time, though, production values went up and it was expected that your game would be complete before you launch.

As recently as 2014, Jamey Stegmaier advocated for leaving projects “pliable” so that backers could request meaningful changes to the game during the campaign. At the time, that was best practice. His advice was spot-on. However, to launch a “90% complete project” would make backers suspicious and hesitant since more complete options exist.

Kickstarter is slowly transitioning into a store, at least functionally if not in name. I don’t think this is a bad thing – not at all! Stores provide more consumer protections than 2010-style crowdfunding campaigns. Yet it does mean that many creators need to pair reading classic advice from 2009-2019 with an actual fresh look at Kickstarter as it is right now in 2020.

Board Game Media is Important, But You Can’t Rely on It to Generate Leads

I’ve seen a lot of board games get reviewed positively by Dice Tower and Geek & Sundry, only to fail on Kickstarter. I’ve actually privately consulted with some people in this situation. Using data available to me, I’ve found that most have made no mistakes with their campaign pages and indeed have high conversion rates. That is to say, people who see the page are buying.

So what gives? Well, it’s a lead generation problem! As it turns out, a lot of people who are watching the videos of these big board game media outlets and reading their articles are not actually visiting the Kickstarter campaigns.

This is why I’m very bullish on advertisements. They are proven ways to generate traffic. If you don’t get a return on your ad spending, you can always cut them off. Many media outlets, on the other hand, you end up paying a fee in advance and not actually getting a return on your money. This is okay if you’re trying to get “social proof” that your game is good, but it’s not okay if you’re trying to generate leads!

We Have No Idea What Virtual Cons Will do to the Board Game Industry

The board game industry has historically been thought of as a “boots on the ground” industry. I’ve always been a bit skeptical of that narrative for reasons I’ve mentioned above such as missing Amazon as an eCommerce outlet. Plus people tend to forget about the costs of flying, lodging, eating, attending, and setting up booths. Networking is good, but doing so through conventions can be very expensive!

Nevertheless, it’s undeniable that a lot of people have made important connections and friendships at board game conventions. Put the convention online, though, as so many are doing, and…well, I have no clue what that’s going to do to the experience!

Nobody really knows what’s going to happen now that board game conventions are online. The only thing I can say for sure is that digital marketing is going to be paramount, since the main two venues people go to in order to buy board games – conventions and gaming stores – are going to be closed (or dangerous to go to) for a while.

Tabletop Simulator & Tabletopia Are Growing

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, it is generally a good idea not to gather with others right now. That means a lot of board gamers can’t go to cons, local meet-up groups, or even over to their friends’ houses. Thus, a record-breaking number of people have downloaded Tabletop Simulator in the last few months.

This surge has been so meteoric that it’s created an entirely new niche within the tabletop gaming world: virtual board game creators. There’s no telling what else is going to come out of this recent trend. All we know for certain is that board gaming is likely to be inexorably and inevitably changed, even if that means nothing more than the birth of 10,000 board game live-streamers.

Final Thoughts

The rules of the board game industry are always changing. It’s always been that way. Every other industry is like that, too.

To be successful and to meet others’ needs, we must always check our assumptions. Always question the conventional wisdom and don’t believe everything you read!





4 Lessons from Exit Games for Aspiring Board Game Designers

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I’ve written before about my fondness for Escape Rooms. Certainly, board game designers can learn a lot from well-designed escape rooms. The only trouble, of course, is that being in a small indoor area with a handful of other people in close contact isn’t exactly a great idea right now. Exit Games by Kosmos are the closest we can get to the authentic in-person experience right now.

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I’ve wanted to write about Exit Games for a while, but it’s tricky! You see, the whole concept of the game is that you are trapped in [insert place] and you have to solve riddles to get out. The game is full of mysteries, riddles, and puzzles. They can also only be played once due to their nature.

This, of course, means that any specific discussion of any particular Exit Game will ruin the game for you. However, I will talk about them generally and summarize key lessons that I’ve learned from the six or seven that I’ve played so far. If you’re a fan of these games, don’t worry, I will not spoil them!

1. Use components uniquely.

Exit Games come in small boxes. Each one comes with two decks of cards, one containing riddles to be solved and another containing hints in case you get stuck. They also all contain a booklet full of riddles and clues as well as a short leaflet containing basic instructions. You will also find unique components in many of the Exit Games, though the specifics will vary from game to game.

It’s not a lot to work with, and yet Exit Games make ingenious use of their limited physicality. I have seen Exit Games deploy the box, inserts, required legal labeling on the back, and bar codes into the game. In other cases, players are asked to use scissors, markers, and even candles to modify the game and give it new life.

After a few games, the novelty wears off and you begin to see patterns. I don’t blame the creators for lack of cleverness, though, since there are only so many ways you can use limited parts. The point is: they make a lot out of a little, and game designers, particularly ones working with a tight budget, could really learn from this.

2. Give the players a way to get unstuck.

Some of the puzzles in Exit Games, much like in real-life Escape Rooms, are devilishly hard. Other puzzles are more obvious, but for whatever reason, you hit a wall and you spend 15 minutes making zero progress. This is a motivation killer and it’s something you absolutely have to avoid as a game designer, even if that means reducing the purity of the game’s challenge.

Exit Games find a workaround. They give their players the opportunity to take hints, but only if they want them. If you want to play with no hints, you can. It will probably take you hours to complete the game, but it can be done. Similarly, if you’re just in it for fun and four minutes of puzzled grinding is too much, the hint cards are always there to help you.

3. Use technology to enhance the experience.

Board games are special largely because they are an analog, physical hobby. Being able to step away from the computer screen in our digital era, particularly under coronavirus-related lockdowns, is both an economic luxury and a psychological necessity. That doesn’t mean that board games are only for Luddites, though. We’ve seen the industry adapt to concepts as alien as digital play-testing.

Kosmos was smart and they released a companion app for your smartphone to be played alongside Exit Games. If you use their app, it will count down a timer, calculate your score at the end based on the hints you use, and play a soundtrack during the game.

You don’t need the app. It’s purely for show. Yet isn’t it remarkable that they took the time to come up with a way to digitally augment your experience?

4. Build a lasting brand so you can release multiple products.

Kosmos has one of the cleverest, least appreciated business models I’ve seen in the board game industry. Exit Games have a defined purpose and clear branding. If you like one, you’re likely to buy others. They completed nailed their vibe, brand recognition, and purpose.

That’s remarkable from a business perspective. They’re able to crank out genuinely new and unique experiences to please their audience without long development times. This is great for customer retention, community-building, and, yes, money-making. They come in small boxes, too, so shipping and manufacturing costs are not that high either.

Sure, I will grant you that there are purer, better board game experiences on the market. Yet Exit Games are consistently good and sometimes even great. That’s hard to do, period. It’s a miracle to do that with a great business model.

Final Thoughts

Exit Games can teach board game designers a lot. They are good at teaching us how to be resourceful with components. Their hint system provides a good way of keeping challenges present but not overwhelming. The companion app is a good example of using technology to enhance the board game experience. Finally, it’s just a plain good business model!

Have you played any Exit Games? How’d you like them? Let me know in the comments below!