Solo Mechanisms: A Comparative Review

I have been playing solo wargames a very long time and over the years quite a few conceptshave come and gone for doing it well.
Early on playing solo simply consisted of “playing both sides”. In this method made popular by wargamers like Donald Featherstone and Tony Bath the solo players merely set up both armies or parties “and played”. This is also the form of solo wargaming I am most familiar with and have done more of.
Over the years however as more wargamers became “solo wargamers” there arose among them “the need” to ‘automate’ or drive both sides or at least one of the two sides independently. This in turn led to the need to come up with a system or mechanism for controlling all of the important actions of the opposing side.
Today there are three commonly accepted methods or mechanisms for doing this.
  • Card Driven. The card driven method relies on either creating a deck of cards specific to the game or scenario and drawing the cards when an action or decision is required of the opposing force. The advantage of card driven systems is that the cards can be quite specific to the game or period. Another advantage is that the cards can be easily interchanged or modified by simply creating new cards, adding cards to the deck or taking cards away or even adding a second deck altogether. The disadvantage to card driven systems is that the cards tend to be very random and can lead to unusual or inappropriate events or decisions at inopportune times. Another disadvantage of card driven systems is that the cards are finite and can run out before the game is complete.

  • Paragraph Driven. The paragraphs driven system relies on a book or manual of paragraphs that a player refers to during the game at specific times in the game. Often the paragraphs are numbered and/or coded so that simply reading through the book or manual will not reveal key events or decisions ahead of time when another paragraph is referenced. The advantage of the paragraph driven system is that initially it affords much more uncertainly than the card driven system as the paragraphs can literally deal with anything from mere dialogue to a game ending event. Another advantage of the paragraph driven system is the paragraphs can provide much more detail than a card. The disadvantage of the paragraph driven system however is that because the paragraphs are so varied and so detailed there are usually only ever a few dozen for any given random result. So a 100 paragraph booklet may have 24 dealing with combat, 20 dealing with encounters, 20 with events and 20 or so dealing with treasures, the rest may be all dialogue. This is as opposed to cards where a 100 deck of cards may all be treasures, or all NPCs. Another disadvantage of paragraph driven systems is that the paragraphs tend to become circular meaning one paragraph may direct players to three different results. So paragraph (A)(4) may say “you reach a fork in the road, if you go left see b., if you go straight see c., if you go right so d.”. A paragraph manual or book may have dozens of these ‘roadposts’ paragraphs which really slow the game down. Finally unlike a card game the paragraph system remains the same “every time” you use it. You can’t easily substitute paragraphs in or out.
  • Emulators Driven. The final I will discuss is what I call the emulator system. This system has become very popular with systems like Mythic. In an emulator system you direct questions or inquiries to a table or paragraph driven “algorithm” that in essences answers the question for you. So with Mythic you may ask “will they attack me”. The emulator will then provide you with a series of modifiers or conditions and then a result. So it may ask are you “alone”, do they have better weapons than you, etc. Depending on the conditions it will provide a final “YES” or “NO”. The advantage to the emulator is that you can ask whatever you like and get an appropriate answer. Another advantage is that it is the most unpredictable of all the mechanisms for solo gaming. The disadvantage of emulators is that they given no “flavor” or setting to the results. You have to make this up on your own. Nor do they tell you why the answer is “yes” or “no” you have to make that up as well. So in the end players who like emulators are very much into the ‘storytelling’ aspect of the game. Another problem with emulators is that there is no filter for the questions you may ask. Meaning sometimes you should not be able to get an answer to your question. A knight asking “where did this dragon come from” may not be able to know. Some players get around this by asking instead “do I know where the dragon came from?”. The problem with this is no different however because if you are “the knight” you should already know if you know where the dragon came from. That is like asking “do I know that he is my brother?” In essence emulators are very susceptible to subtle but significant cheating in my opinion.
Having listed the three solo mechanisms commonly in use today I have come to rely on a combination of cards and paragraphs in my solo games that require automation. On the other hand I don’t start from the premise that simply because I am playing “solo” there has to be some type of automation. If it is possible to line up the game and play both sides then that is first and foremost what I do. So if I am refighting the Battle of Gettysburg I don’t need cards or paragraphs to tell me that the Confederates are attacking and the Union is defending (the Rebels would not be in Pennsylvania if they did not intend to attack). The same is true if I am playing an ambush in a pass. I do not need Mythic to ask “is there an ambush waiting for me”. If I want to play “an ambush” then YES there is going to be ambush waiting for me.
On the other hand when I want more a roleplaying or progression to my games I will use cards in dungeon adventures or paragraphs in city settings. These allow me to quickly bring monsters and NPCs in and out of the game without having another player to play them.
You will note that I have not mentioned the use of “emulators” in my games. While I have seen some excellent use of emulators in a solo game like Aleksander Saranoc’s Ghoul King Battle Report based on Kenneth Hite’s Trail of Cthulhu I have for years merely reduced such decisions to a die roll based on modifiers that made sense to me at the moment. Certainly something that is not as “formal” as an algorithm but equally as effective.

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