Today I want to talk about the enigma of solo wargaming.
Of course I’m not the first person to write about playing wargames without a human opponent. I am sure I will not be the last. It’s a subjective topic, and one that will evolve over time. The considerations may develop, and solutions to hitherto problematic conundra may be presented.
I’ve decided to write a bit about the subject because it is something I have pondered on from time to time. I have experience of both ‘solo gaming’ and ‘vs gaming’, and also, I wanted to try to bust a couple of myths. It will also be good to think about tackling one or two of the trickier points raised in discussions. Plus, I have been unable to drive to our local club for over three months, and the voices in my head are getting louder…
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What is Solo Wargaming?
Let’s start by understanding what we are actually talking about here. I think some people may make assumptions based on what they personally know about wargaming, without accounting for other people’s understanding.
Solo wargaming, by my definition, is the playing of a wargame of any description (miniatures, map based counter games etc.,) without the need for a human opponent. In other words, we are the only person involved in the playing of the game. So, why are the majority of wargames played by more than one person in the first place?
It’s because we normally have more than one side or faction involved in the game. Each faction requires a decision-making mechanic to be in play. That is a necessary part of the way the game works. It is the function that is performed by the players of the game – they make decisions, tactical and strategic.
All a solo wargaming systems does is replace the default decision-making mechanic with an alternative mechanic. This allows the game to be played with only one person.
We need to remember that the games that we play are not the only wargames around, and that the concept of games being played by just one person isn’t a new idea. A book I own (pictured) was first published in 1988. It may be that it was first developed by historical gamers, however, the idea has been expanded to other gaming systems.
Let me be clear – there is nothing wrong with gaming solo. As wargamers we’re already used to being part of a minority group with a niche interest. Many of us know what it feels like to have others try to tell us that what we are doing is somehow unacceptable or wrong, but this is definitely not the case. To suggest otherwise is to insult fellow gamers and their personal situations and wishes. It is also to fail to respect the hobby. Miniature Wargaming has a limitless capacity to be whatever we need it to be. Playing wargames solo is just another facet of this inclusive and wonderful hobby.
When I talk about my experiences of solo wargaming, I am talking about playing the kinds of games that readers of this blog tend to play: Games Workshop games, Bolt Action, Kings of War, Frostgrave etc.
Why play Solo?
This is a good question. Although the answer may be superficially simple, many gamers seem to have difficulty empathizing with solo gamers’ reasons. Let’s examine the circumstances:
That’s how this game is played
Some games are designed to be played solo. Or at least have options for playing solo. If that’s the game you want to play, that is how you will play it.
I have no local opponents
In some areas wargamers may be few and far between, or at least players who enjoy the same games as you. If you don’t have anyone to battle against, but really want to put to use the miniatures and scenery you have spent time and effort assembling and painting, of course you will want to play games as well. Solo may be the only option.
I want to practice/try out new units/lists
Maybe a gamer plays in a semi-competitive environment and wants to know how their new unit functions before sending it into battle against a human opponent. They may want simulate a counter to a tricky enemy unit that is causing them problems. Perfectly understandable.
I am new to gaming and want to get the rules down
Another perfectly understandable reason to play a solo game. It helps a lot to see the game rules in action for getting things clear in your head, especially the sequence of play etc.
I don’t have the time to go out to game
Modern life is busy, and not all of us have the spare time to dedicate to going out to play toy soldiers for 3 or 4 hours, plus travel time on either end. It may be a whole day affair just to travel somewhere, which is why some gamers go to tournaments occasionally. They can get several games in over a day or a weekend. This is great, but might happen only a couple of times each year, and they want to be able to game in between events.
I said at the start of this article that I have experience of playing solo. This is something I haven’t done for some years, but I recall the reason that I did it was that I liked having complete control over the experience. I could choose all the units involved, play whatever scenario I wanted, try out crazy new home brew units or scenarios. Best of all, I could play to my own timetable. I could play a couple of turns each session and take a week or more over a game if I wanted to. A bit like having a pause function on a video game. It was my game, and there were no limits on time or anything else.
I’m fortunate to live in the UK in the midlands, and there is no shortage of clubs in the area. I tend to play at one not too far from me, but at the end of August my family and I were involved in a nasty car accident. Unfortunately, I am still not back to driving after suffering a bad femur fracture. This has meant that of course I haven’t been able to get to the club, and as time has gone on, I am getting more and more frustrated with the lack of gaming. After seeing a post on solo wargaming pop up on Facebook a couple of days ago, I decided it was time to write this article.
But how can I play both sides impartially?
This is probably the biggest discussion point on the subject that I have seen swing back and forth between the ‘yays’ and the ‘nays’. Comments like ‘of course you can’t play both sides impartially, because one will always be your favourite.’ and similar comments. It seems it may just be one of those things, either you get it or you don’t, and there is little in-between. Like watching ‘The Only Way is Essex’.
The argument seems to be that it can be very difficult, if not impossible, to play both sides of an engagement, because you know what both sides are likely to do. This is because you know what you would do. This is true, but what I have found (and what is advocated by other gamers who play these games solo) is that you simply have to adjust your approach to how you play the game.
There are many options for playing a wargame solo, while retaining the element of unpredictability in enemy actions. The simplest options involve things like a die roll to determine whether a unit will move or stay put, and if they move, in which direction. The roll result will be different if there is an enemy unit close enough for the activated unit to attack. Determining the actions that may be undertaken can often come from a table, with each die roll result indicating a different action, or it may involve multiple tables, depending on the proximity of the enemy or an objective.
Or perhaps not so simple…
This kind of system can certainly give an element of unpredictability. It can also become more and more complex depending on how many variables you want to take account of. For example, a unit may need to advance to take an objective, but there may be one unit that it could shoot at, and another it could assault. It may be in range of a character’s bonus special rule, and would lose that benefit if it moved away. It could also be the case that there’s no unit close enough to engage this turn, but moving to close the gap to the enemy line might leave another unit exposed to attack.
Lots to consider
As you can see, there are many factors which could need to be accounted for when deciding how a unit will act. The number and scope of tables could end up being both detailed and time-consuming to apply. However at least enemy action will be fairly consistent. Assuming you don’t miss one of the many elements that affect how a unit behaves when activating it.
There are also things like random chance cards that could be used to completely change the tack of the enemy focus if they came up. This could help to prevent things becoming too automated. It is a bit like the old rules for robots in Epic; a set of tables that would determine what the robots did each turn, without the need for orders to be given turn by turn, just wind them up and let them go.
Personally I would hesitate before using a system of detailed tables. To a degree, it removes the need for me to involved at all, other than to move the models around. This is fine if I’m content to let the game play out without my input, however I don’t just want to be a bystander.
I also feel that a simpler approach is perhaps easier to implement, and can give a result that is just as good. It’s OK if you are playing a game that is designed around solo play, but a different beast when taking a game that isn’t. Games like 40K, and Kings of War, and trying to apply those same principles to it.
A Different Approach
The option that I envisage most players of games like 40K going with is the ‘play both sides’ option. This is like playing a normal game, but you move around the other side of the table each turn and take control of that army. This is the sticking point for some players. They can’t stop themselves from thinking about how they will respond to each move as they make it. This prevents them from being able to remain impartial when making tactical decisions.
To those people I would suggest that what they need to try to think about is how they would adapt to beat their own tactics. If you think that a move would be bad, because the response would be damaging, then do something else! Think about what the options are in that moment, and go with the one with the greatest chance of success. If there are two equally viable options, and you don’t want to have to choose which to go with, then roll off and decide that way. However, if there is only one sensible and tactically sound option then that’s what you do.
The key in my mind isn’t so much trying to be tricksy and hide our plan from our opponent. It’s about forcing them to respond a certain way, or doing things that they can’t counter. If a person says to me ‘I see what you’re going to do, my answer will be ‘yes, but what can you do about it?’
Gamers, allow me to take you back a few years, to the onset of the Third War for Armageddon. Ghazghkull Thrakka, returned to exact his revenge on the world that had defied him a half century before. Armageddon saw some of the hardest fighting in the history of Warhammer 40,000, and the conflict is ongoing even now.
I remember the awesome White Dwarf coverage of this amazing and immersive global campaign. One huge battle report in particular, was fought at the Games Workshop Studios. The game was fought across multiple combat areas on something like four different tables, and the largest of which was a colossal urban battle.
If I remember correctly, players were assigned to move models around on each of the tables, but on the main table there was also a ‘high command’ element. This consisted of Jervis Johnson (I think) in another room, who was passed polaroid photographs showing the dispositions of the forces at the time they were taken. He used these to make decisions about deploying reinforcements, and targeting orbital bombardments on the main table.
This was a fantastic game to read about. The thought has occurred to me many times over the years that the ‘high command’ element, picking out targets for lance strikes and choosing where to launch surgical strikes with Astartes assault companies, need not necessarily be in the next room. Or even in the same building. Hell, the ‘off table’ gamer element doesn’t even have to be on the same continent!
With the ability we have these days take and upload images almost instantly, and the access we have to a global community of gamers, if a person had space and models, but no local gamers to act as the ‘decision making mechanic’, why not go further and play the game across the internet? It would not be dissimilar to the older ‘wargaming by post’ idea that already exists, but could be done much quicker. If no one has tried this already, I will eat my hat. I would love to do this. If I had a huge and great looking table at home and multiple fully painted armies.
One day my friends, one day.
Secrets and Lies
Thinking about my experiences, I think the real question that needs to be addressed is this. How to tackle things which are meant to be secret. If you’re choosing both forces for the game, then some things become impossible to implement. This is because by their nature they rely on deception. It could be a feint, a diversionary attack. Equally, it could be a combination of magic items which could have a profound effect in the battle played at the right moment. A bit hard to secrete an assassin in a unit without your opponent knowing which unit they are hiding in if you are placing the assassin.
Equally, setting up hidden units which may be marked on a map of the battlefield or on a numbered counter. Your opponent shouldn’t know where each unit actually is. Or dummy unit markers to mislead the enemy. None of these things can work properly without making adjustments to how they work, but a tweak here and there and you’re good.
Example; the hidden assassin. If I were looking at an enemy army, I could guess which units are likely to conceal a nasty surprise. Rather than assigning the assassin to a specific unit, I choose 3 units. Any of them could be hiding the assassin. To negate the extra flexibility this gives the player with the assassin, when activating the model, I could roll a D6. On a result of 3+ the assassin appears right where I want. On a roll of 1 or 2 it appears in one of the other two units that I nominated.
It’s like I said earlier. If there is an obvious and optimal tactical option, that’s what you go for. The enemy knowing what you’re going to do isn’t necessarily the issue if they will struggle to counter it.
I have been thinking Dropfleet Commander, which is a fantastic game, but one which uses a system of ‘battlegroup cards‘. Each of these cards represents a group of ships operating together on the table. Each group has a ‘strategy rating’ that determines which player activates their group first when the cards are revealed. This depends on who has the smaller (and therefore generally speaking more responsive) battlegroup.
There is a strategy to the order in which you stack your battlegroup cards each turn. You try to make sure the ships you need to act do so when you need them to. You try to push your opponent onto the defensive. It’s like having an element of poker in a naval combat game, and it it’s cool. But how do you retain the potential for surprise and deception?
Invent Your Solution
The answer is I don’t know…yet. When playing intro games with my son, we simply shuffled the battlegroup cards and played them as they came up. This is of course fairly random in the results, and means we are missing out on the strategic element. However we’re playing at home and still learning the rules, and having fun, so, at this stage it doesn’t matter.
I expect what I’ll try is creating a set of ‘attack’ and ‘defence’ plans. These could determine how the cards are stacked. This would be dependent on the conditions on the table at the start of the turn. If the UCM control more clusters, then the Scourge implement ‘Attack Plan Alpha’ and stack the cards one way. If the Scourge have the upper hand, they implement ‘Defensive Plan Zeta’, which stacks the cards a different way.
I will have to try it out and see how it goes.
I guess the aims I had in writing this article are twofold. The first point is that solo wargaming, whatever the system, can be done, and done well. The second is that solo wargaming is almost a hobby in itself. It’s perfectly fine to choose to play games solo. Whether due to lack of a local scene, time restraints, or simple preference for having complete control over the game, it’s another aspect of miniature wargaming.
I am wholly supportive of anyone who decides to game solo, as in my view we all should be. The name of the game is fun, and if fun is being had, then you’re doing it right.
I would love to hear from any solo gamers out there. Whether dedicated solo play systems, or players setting up for 40K, Kings of War or other typically 2+ player games. Tell us about your experiences, and preferred approach and mechanisms for facilitating solo play.
Thanks for reading, Eternal Wargamer
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