According to songwriter Harry Nilsson, one is the loneliest number. Well, here are 10 reasons why he’s completely wrong. Solo board games are on the rise, with more single-player games being published than ever before and an increasing number of the best board games out there coming packaged with a solitaire variant.
Playing tabletop games alone has gone from sad to rad, and it's easier than ever to take your first few steps into the vast world of solo board games that cater specifically to a party of one.
But what makes a great solo board game? Obviously, it has to be just as fun as playing it with other people (or, if it’s a one-player board game, as fun as playing any game with other people). But whether it's one of the best co-op board games or best beginner board games to play after Catan, it must also not feel like its solitaire mode is an afterthought, or that there’s something missing - especially in the case of experiences designed for multiple people, such as the best party board games to play with big groups. Often, it will have an immersive theme that fits a solo character; it won’t ask you to handle too much in the way of dummy player actions; there will be minimal rule changes; and it won’t take forever to setup.
Best solo board games
So, whether you want to explore a distant land alone, defend a kingdom against demons, solve an Elizabethan mystery or just be the best scientist you can possibly be, here’s our pick of the best ways to board-game alone.
1. The 7th Continent
In the credits for Ludovic Roudy and Bruno Sautter’s narrative-driven card game, you’ll find a very revealing dedication: to Gary Chalk, Joe Dever, Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone (among others) for their “inspirational work”. These writers were behind the adventure-book boom of the mid-’80s, and their influence on The 7th Continent oozes from every card.
Casting its player (or players; it works with a group, too) as an early-20th century explorer trying to lift a deadly curse in a distant, mythical land, it doesn’t only replicate the story-fuelled, explore-and-survive atmosphere of an old-school Fighting Fantasy-style book. It also elegantly translates that into a slick, easy-to-learn, map-building tabletop experience, with no leafing backwards and forwards through text-heavy scenarios.
Even better, it replaces constant dice rolling with judicious deck and hand-management, making it far more strategic and less reliant on chance than those gamebooks of old. But the best thing about it is the thrill of discovery it creates, as you venture forth into its wild unknown. Powerfully compelling.
Buy The 7th Continent directly from publisher Serious Pulp.
2. Mage Knight
These days, Vlaada Chvatil is best known for his highly accessible party game Codenames. But for serious gamers, his magnum opus remains this 2011 deckbuilding epic, which demands the absorption of a knotty ruleset and rewards you with a game whose multi-layered, fine-tuned mechanisms translate into a fascinatingly challenging fantasy adventure.
The problem is, it is such a thinky game it leads to a lot of downtime. Which is why many Mage Knight fans agree it’s actually best appreciated solo. Freed from the sighs and foot-taps of other players, you’re able to spend as long as you like over each of your turns, carefully playing down your cards in just the right order to maximise your actions, and better guide your spell-slinging warrior through a treacherous landscape towards city-conquering victory.
3. Black Sonata
Originally a print-and-play-only title, John Kean’s ingenious solo board game finally received a ‘proper’ release this year by Side Room Games, who have given its elegant Elizabethan styling a high-quality polish. Casting as an early 17th-century detective, your aim is to figure out the identity of the “Dark Lady”, who inspired William Shakespeare’s sonnets. To do this, you must move around London, picking up clues about her identity, and searching for her in different locations.
The game’s hidden movement and deduction elements are implemented brilliantly, via a “stealth” deck which determines the Dark Lady’s path, and location cards with holes punched through them in such a way that, when you make a correct guess at the Lady’s location, her silhouette is revealed on the stealth card you’ve slid beneath it. The puzzle is certainly challenging, but the sense of achievement you feel when you win is immeasurable.
Buy Black Sonata directly from publisher Side Room Games.
4. Spirit Island
Smartly flipping the colonial conquest theme of classic board games such as Catan on its head, R. Eric Reuss' Spirit Island is all about taking control of furious forces of nature and co-operatively using their powers to scare off a violently invasive European force. Like Mage Knight, it has a high complexity level which makes for very long group sessions, but also like Mage Knight it scales perfectly down to a better-paced single-player experience.
This mostly involves a lot of very focused concentration, figuring out the puzzle each turn presents you, in terms of how best to employ your gradually thickening deck of elemental powers and send those pale ravagers back across the waves before they overwhelm your precious home.
5. Gloom of Kilforth
Though it looks and plays like a blend of Talisman and Forbidden Island - one of the best family board games to play at Christmas (or anytime of the year, for that matter) - Gloom of Kilforth’s roots are very firmly in Dungeons & Dragons, being based on designer Tristan Hall’s own teen-years campaign for the venerable RPG. And it does have the feel of an entire campaign boiled down into a two-hour game, with your character given a “saga” to complete, levelling them up in a card-grid kingdom via quests for keywords, before you’re ready to destroy the hideous demon who’s gradually casting the land into deadly shadow.
Unlike many solo variants of some of the best co-op board games, which require you to take two or more party members, Kilforth allows for a true Lone Wolf experience, weaving a tough but satisfying, one-person-against-mounting-odds story with each solo playthrough.
Buy Gloom of Kilforth from Amazon UK.
Like Black Sonata, this solitaire title was originally a hit on the print-and-play circuit, before being published this year by Side Room. Set in Vichy Paris, it’s a smartly compact worker-placement game which gives you a pair of randomly assigned missions to complete, such as blowing up a supply chain, or sabotaging the munitions factory.
The range of objectives keeps each play fresh, as you place resistance agents in the field to gather the necessary resources, then try to bring them back to base along paths that might be blocked by the authorities, causing you to lose the workers. It is packed with the kind of tension and drama that most people would think impossible in a solo board game.
Buy Maquis directly from publisher Side Room Games.
7. This War of Mine: The Board Game
As a tabletop adaptation of a video game, it should come as little surprise that This War of Mine: The Board Game works well with a single player. But what makes it really stand out is the stark boldness of its theme, where you have to manage actions, workers and resources to survive in the rubble-strewn heart of a modern-day war zone.
It also proves to be a strikingly emotional experience, thanks to the ethical dilemmas it presents and the strength of its (branching) narrative elements, which are enshrined in the game’s Journal and Book of Stories, drawing extensively from real, historical events.
8. Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island
Given it’s based on one of the best-known individual-against-nature stories, it’s hardly surprising Robinson Crusoe should be so highly regarded as a solo game. The survivor of a shipwreck, you need to carefully plan out your actions to eke out some kind of life on a desert island, having to find shelter and food, while fighting the fauna and the elements, and also exploring, drawing from a reassuringly thick event deck to find out what unexpected boon or hindrance lies behind the next palm frond.
It benefits from a strategic depth which justifies its complexity, but be warned: it can get pretty brutal, and will likely take several attempts before your score your first win.
Despite its theme of rivalry in the 17th-century scientific community, the pleasingly intricate Newton is a relatively gentle engine-builder, with very little player interaction. Which means it translates smoothly and painlessly to a single-player mode, with barely any rulebook exceptions.
With so many routes to success enshrined in its sprawling boards, and a pleasing mix of puzzles, which combine point-to-point movement, tile placing, deckbuilding and judicious hand management, it proves to be a tight, neat and engrossing solitaire experience.
A very recent entry, but one which earns its place through the game’s engrossing, Alien-style sci-fi horror-survival theme. (Although it's not actually based on the film, so it doesn't quite qualify as one of the best movie board games that are actually good.) Though much of the drama of its multiplayer core game comes from the fact that each player has a secret objective, the absence of this agenda-conflict element in solo mode is more than compensated for by the way it so effectively weaves an atmosphere of ‘one person alone in a vast spaceship full of deadly aliens’.
Having been rudely awoken from hibernation, you must race against time — and combat deadly, slimy extra-terrestrials — to complete a solo-calibrated objective, trying to move around the ship as carefully and silently as possible, as noise attracts the nasties. It’s this tension between stealth and speed which really creates the drama in Nemesis, though the quality of the board and miniatures certainly doesn’t hurt.
Buy Nemesis from Chaos Cards.