SOLITUDE: DISCOVERING SOLO PLAY IN AN EMPTY GAME CAFÉ
Casual Game Insider|Winter 2021
In a time of isolation, like the lockdowns of 2020, the modern board game hobby has a weird identity.
Kevin Hadley

On one hand, families are desperately looking for activities for their kids to engage in beyond video streaming and digital media; on the other hand, gamers may be left with either no one to play with or restricted to simpler “family-friendly” games. As I sat by myself in front of my board game library, I decided to find solace in the back of the rulebook; the place where the rules for solo mode are typically found.

Spreading the Love of Gaming

As a board game café owner, my family and I were hit especially hard due to the lockdowns. We opened The Meeple’s Café in Gilbert, Arizona, during the summer of 2019 with an unstoppable motivation to bring a hobby we loved to others. Our mission from conception was to provide fun, food, and fellowship. Unfortunately, all three became extremely difficult to fulfill in 2020.

One of our niche services is renting out board games, like video stores used to do for DVDs and VHS tapes. Our rentals picked up quite a bit for families who were looking for a digital alternative, but I felt ill-equipped to offer a solution to those casual and serious gamers who needed something beyond family-friendly games. Applying my problem solving, I was reminded of the solo mode of one of my favorite games, Wingspan by Elizabeth Hargrave. While we could only offer food for takeout and fellowship was strictly forbidden during the lockdown, I had to investigate if solo games were a solution to the first third of our mission: fun. Could I recommend games based on their solo modes to our more hardcore customers?

Party of One

The solo version of Wingspan not only has its own rulebook in the box, but it has its own title: Automa. The Stonemaier game Viticulture, by Jamey Stegmaier and Alan Stone, first introduced a solo mode by the Automa factory. Automa is a loose Italian translation for “robot”, so it represents the idea of having a robotic opponent to play against for solo players. Typically, the Automa system is a deck of cards dictating what the robot player does, while trying to mimic the moves of a real-world opponent. The Automa follows its own rules, including how points are generated as dictated by a pre-programmed logic. In Wingspan, bird cards and food resources are accumulated similar to a human opponent to set what is (and is not) available to you as the solo player. In addition, they are earning victory points at an unpredictable rate, giving the player a sense of excitement and uncertainty towards the idea of “am I winning?” The Automa’s victory points constantly progress while their actions influence available choices for the human player.

My assessment was that I did enjoy myself. Being diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), I have found gaming as a perfect outlet. Mainly, games allow someone with ASD to overcome some of their limitation (e.g., trouble socializing) by leveraging the strengths of being on the spectrum (e.g., hyper-focus and a set of rigid rules). As a kid, I did not grow up playing Monopoly and Uno. I played card games like Pinochle and Rummy, and I was taught many versions of solitaire. While the Automa system does not allow for socialization, it does let me engage my problem-solving mind for an enjoyable experience like when my dad taught me solitaire.

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