Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Solo Wargaming

As a latecomer to the hobby of wargaming – board wargaming, at least for the present – I am rapidly finding that my reach is exceeding my grasp. I am fortunate to have friends with whom I can play wargames on a regular basis via VASSAL, but I'd like to be able to play more often. Partly, this is a case of my simply wanting to play catch-up on decades of games I've not yet played and partly my desire to experience different design approaches to strategic and tactical events

It's my latest obsession and I've observed, in the course of having played Falling Sky and Liberty or Death!, that there's a lot in these and other wargames that can serve as inspiration for RPGs. That only makes sense, of course, given that roleplaying games arose out of wargaming (primarily miniatures, it's true). Despite the decades of formal separation between these two types of games, I'd like to think that there are still lessons they can learn from each other, which is why I'm making a strong effort to educate myself after years of neglect.

For example, I've learned is that there's a long tradition of solo wargaming. in both the miniatures and board wargaming fields. Despite the cover I've used to accompany this post, my present knowledge of the topic, such as it is, comes largely from the world of board wargaming, though I do hope to change that. From what I have learned, there are, broadly speaking, two types of solo wargaming. The first is when you a single player chooses to play a game by himself. The second is when a game is designed to be played by a single player. 

I had a brush with the second type long ago, in the early 1990s, when GDW published Phase Line Smash, a solitaire game of the Gulf War. At the time, my friends and I joked that the real Gulf War was itself a one-player conflict, given how comparatively ineffectual the Iraqi forces were, so the design of the game made sense. What I didn't know at the time was that this was no innovation of Phase Line Smash but rather a not uncommon design choice in wargames design. More recently, I learned that many of the COIN games include "bots," programmed choices for each faction that allow it to participate in a game with fewer than the recommended number of players. I'd never heard of such a thing before and must confess to being amazed by the existence of such an option.

The first type, in which a single player takes on all the sides in a wargame intrigues me. On the one hand, it strikes me as if it'd be very difficult to do this effectively, since, in my own experience anyway, one quickly comes to identify with one's side and do whatever one can to ensure its victory. Would I be able to play each side equally effectively? On the other hand, one of the points of wargaming of any kind is to come to a better understanding of the conflict being simulated. "Cheating" by playing one side better than another defeats that purpose. More to the point, what's the fun in stacking the deck? One of the things I've most enjoyed about the wargames I've been playing is the way that I can be surprised by the interplay of events. Indeed, I'd go so far as to say that that's a big part of why I enjoy roleplaying games too. The emergent "story," for lack of a better word, that comes from the protean interactions of choice and randomness is intoxicating to me. I also very much enjoy looking back on those interactions after the fact and pondering what might have ben if things had gone differently.

For that reason, I'm starting to consider seriously picking up a board wargame or two and playing it solo. I'm not yet sure which games I might choose and have been asking for advice from anyone who might be willing to offer it. Most people I've asked have said that it's more important to find a game whose subject matter interests me than to worry about other factors, though game mechanics do, of course, matter. I've taken this to heart and begun to consider my options. In doing so, I realize that I'm not all that interested in ancient or medieval warfare. Instead, the wars of the early modern era, such as the Thirty Years' War, the English Civil War, and the Seven Years' War hold much more appeal for me. I'm investigating in print wargames that cover these conflicts and trying to settle on one or two that I could devote myself to in the weeks to come. If anyone has any suggestions on this score, I'd love to hear them.

The ultimate goal in this exercise is to come sufficiently comfortable with playing a solitaire wargame that I might be able to develop something wargame-y that could aid me in simulating large scale events in my various ongoing  campaigns. I'm particularly keen to figure out something that might work with my House of Worms Tékumel campaign. There are a number of high-level events brewing in the background, such as the start of the war between Tsolyánu and Yán Kór, that I'd like to adjudicate in an "objective" and genuinely unpredictable fashion. I don't want things to turn out according to my own designs but according to the inexplicable designs of Fate. If this sounds like I'm beating a dead horse, you have my apologies. Like a dog with a bone, I can't let go of this idea, which has seized my imagination in a powerful way. Solo wargaming is yet another avenue by which I'm grappling with it. 


  1. Most wargames come with a solo suitability rating. For example if you goto Compass Games they rate how well their game plays solo style.

    In general I found wargames that uses cards as a integral mechanic don't work out well solo. Along with wargames like Diplomacy that require a lot of player vs player interaction. The traditional hex and counter wargames generally work out.

    I suggest reading up on the game at Boardgamegeek and see if the manufacturer as a solo rating for it.

    Finally as to why it is fun. Primarily it because of the randomness of dice. And the fact one's choice of initial strategy leads to varying outcomes of play. So if you keep varying the choices for both side the result is generally entertaining and instructive.

    Another choice if you get into some of the more popular games like Settlers of Catan is to see if there is a Android or iOS app. They come with computer opponents and they are a great learn how to play the game and learn the strategies. I personally own Settlers of Catan, Evolution, Ticket to Ride, Elder Signs.

    I also strongly recommend trying out King of Dragon Pass. It about Glorantha but features the rich depth of history the setting in a manner like Empire of the Petal Throne.


  2. Maybe Bob Cordery's "The Portable Pike & Shot Wargame" may interest you? It's the latest in his line of "portable wargames". From what I've picked up, Bob primarily is a solo wargamer, so his wargaming rules facilitate that style of play. His blog is here if you're interested:


  3. Playing wargames solo had a long and proud history, as you have noted. Like Rob says, many publishers print something like a complexity scale and solo suitability, like GMT Games for example does. I would actually try to seek out the good folks on the ConSimWorld forums (http://talk.consimworld.com/WebX/.ee6b2f5/) and put the question there.

    Personally sadly I don't have any good suggestions and your era is the one that interests me the least, being a Ancients and Napolenic nut!

  4. Mark Herman's "Peloponnesian War" is designed to be played solo, but with an interesting twist. At the end of each turn, the better you are doing the more likely you are to be forced to swap sides, and start playing as the losing side. If you already are the losing side, you're stuck with it until you start winning.

    The game also has a turn limit so you can't afford to keep changing sides. To score enough points to win win you need a quick, clean victory, without doing so well that you're forced to change sides. . . and that's not easy.

  5. Just a +1 for Bob Cordery and his blog. He is an excellent and entertaining writer.

  6. I'm a long time miniature wargamer *and* a roleplayer ;-)

    Solo games in miniature wargames can indeed take many forms. However, it's best to see them as exploratory games rather than win or lose games. After all, as you say, there's not much challenge in playing both sides and then (perhaps subconsciously) playing such that the preferred side will win.

    A better approach - and which is widely known (see also Charles Grant book Programmed Wargames Scenarios, which was reprinted this year; see also Matrix Wargames by Chris Engle), is to define various options to the side whose turn it is, assign a probability to each, roll a die, and execute that option. E.g. you might want (in broad terms) define "attack on left flank", "hold the line", "move the cavalry forward", etc. Depending on the outcome of the die roll, that side does as governed by the die.

    The advantage is that you can include more exotic and risky options, but give them a low probability. So the unfolding narrative of the battle might develop along expected paths, but with quirks thrown in. You might also go for a more conservative stance with one side, and a bold approach by the other, etc.

    Such an approach to a wargame works best if you see the wargame as a story to be told. You can inject all sorts of other aspects to spice up the game: give personalities and numbered characteristics) to commanders, give names to units, give names to places, ... all to make the narrative more compelling.

  7. I do like Nemo's War. The latest supplement (which allows you to also get the complete game is up on Kickstarter at the moment if you want to see what it's like. Nice system, but I did get it for it's theme. You can choose how you want to play Nemo (explorer, scientist, protector of the oceans, etc).

  8. Back in the '80s there were plenty of designed-for-solo wargames, from dicefests like B-17 Queen of the Skies to the intricate programmed enemies of Ambush. I was partial to the SF/F solos in Ares magazine, which ended up deeply influencing my own Last Frontier made-for-solo design.

  9. As a kid I wargamed solo. My soldiers always won but the action was fierce. As an adult, I wargame solo by choice. I like to explore and tinker and learn, and play more "intelligently" and be pleasantly surprised by outcomes I didn't predict. If you play with the mindset that you are the general of whichever side has the initiative, and you will do your best to lead that army to victory at that moment, you then have the benefit of being several generals, each facing different situations, all in one battle. It just takes imagination. However that is not enough. Fog of war (I love that expression) is what every general has ever had to deal with. Weather change, low supplies, defections, revolts, incompetent sub-leaders, etc and etc. I've tried all kinds of very specific ways to incorporate each of them in a wargame, and more often than not got bogged down with the "rules" and not the action. Simple is better, and in the long run, just as realistic. I discovered this from reading some really great wargame book authors (Bob Cordery, Neil Thomas, William Sylvester especially). I enjoy playing wargames in the context of a campaign. I enjoy the bigger picture planning, as well as the in the trench tactics.

    So, with all that, these are a few of my favorite techniques or concepts for fun solo campaigning and wargaming:

    1. For campaigns, Wm. Sylvester's SCMR (Solo Campaign Mobilization Rules) work better than anything I've tried. I've had campaigns turn out in crazy ways I could never predict, but amazing fun along the way.
    2. For wargame battles, 2 randomization techniques by themselves are all I really need, again having tried zillions proposed by "the experts".
    a) Ancient wargaming's DBA (De Bellis Antiquitatis) move sequence rules. It's IGOUGO with a great twist. It forces you to be a great strategist each move.
    b) Bob Cordery's random unit activation rules using a card deck. I vary it a little so when your "side" has the initiative, it can move either a limited number of units, or all the units. The cards decide. As general, I have to play the best "hand" I can given those restrictions.

    That's is. I still tinker search, but for the basics, these are my go-to methods. I won't take the time to describe them all here since this post is now longer than I expected. You are probably familiar with some/all of these. If not, I'll be happy to add more.

    For now, that's my 2 cents. Thanks for listening.


  10. I'm curious to know how you are doing in your quest. It seems like wargame hobbyists are always "questing", looking for adventure in new games, rules, periods. It's a great part of the fun of this hobby. I'm always on the lookout for that clever idea, campaign scenario, etc.

    Talking about boardgames ... as a kid I loved warlike boardgames like chess, Risk, Stratego. My current wargame approach is to play out battles on a "board" so to speak, roughly 2' x 2', laid out with terrain for the period. I don't use miniature figures (I don't have the skill or patience to acquire, paint, mount, etc. them), but rather markers of various kinds (Kriegspiel-like blocks, Risk blocks, cardboard markers). They work fine. For me. When I started, I used a square-gridded board. Then I tried hex grids. Both were fun, and I was a little unsure of a battle board without grids, because I would have to measure move distance with a stick or ruler. I thought it might get in the way. But I watched a Youtube of an ancients battle being played with DBA rules. Movement was free form, and measured with a stick, but it didn't seem like an impediment. So I tried it, and it is now my preferred way of playing. I draw a new battlefield, pencil in terrain to try it so I can erase it if I don't like it), and move my markers freely up to the move distance. It's a lot more creative. I saw a youtube of a wargame called Pub Battles (PB are the rules, different battles are fought) with a beautiful map on which Kriegspiel-like blocks are moved. Very military looking, like Kriegspiel. Movement was interesting. You move your unit (brigade or regiment) block up to max. number of move units in any forward or oblique direction. If you move through rougher terrain (woods, hill, etc.), deduct one move unit. This simple rule made movement on the map very interesting and challenging, more so than restricted grid movement. I think the point I am making is that wargaming on a "board" can be more than just a boardgame in the classic sense. Figures can be used, markers, whatever your choice. And setup and takedown is so much easier and faster than large battle tables. They certainly have their appeal, and are beautiful to look at. I started wargaming in my retirement years, so I have to catch up to the more experienced gamers in learning rules and battles.

    Most of all, have fun. I am :)

    1. I have sadly not made much progress on it, mostly due to being distracted by other matters. I'm still regularly playing online with friends via VASSAL, for which I am grateful. Maybe, once things settle down – ha! – I can return to my quest for some games to play solo.

    2. If you are going to be distracted from one wargame "quest", what better form of distraction than another wargame activity. It's all good.

  11. I’d suggest something from DVG Games. Fantastic company that puts out a quality product. Personal favorites are Pavlov’s House and Thunderbolt/Apache Leader, and I’ve heard great things about Field Commander Napoleon as well.

  12. Reconquista from White Dog games (P&P is available)and Constantinople from Decision Games (2019) are both designed for solitaire play and, dealing with the ebb& flow of medieval empires, might suit what I percieve to be your interests.