Thursday, 6 December 2012

Solo Wargamer: Outcast Among Outcasts

Now, this is a subject I have thought about and talked about at length with many people, and I have developed various views on the theme. This is a rundown of where my views have settled. Don't pay too much attention to the sweeping tabloid-esque title. I don't consider wargamers of any ilk to be outcasts, I just wanted to get your attention! People who like Jedward on the other hand...
I'll start by confessing that I have played several games solo over my years in the hobby, including various editions of Warhammer 40,000 and Warhammer Fantasy, Epic (under most of the half dozen different names it has had), Battlefleet Gothic, Blood Bowl, the list goes on. In fact, thinking about it, I have played pretty much every game I have owned solo at some stage or other, and with only the odd tweak to minor rules here and there, they have worked just fine, thanks mainly to this great piece of kit I happen to own called 'a brain'. I have also read and been inspired by a book about it called 'Solo Wargamer' by Stuart Asquith. This book is full of simple but great ideas and starting points, and is well worth a read.
Let make my first point clear. Playing solo, however well it can be made to work, whether it's a game designed for solo play or not, is rarely equal to playing against a human opponent (face to face I might add. I am not a fan particularly of online gaming).
Point two is this. People tend to play solo for one of two reasons. Option one: they are trying out new rules, a new unit or scenario, or new tactics. Whichever it is, it is more for 'research purposes' than for fun. Option two: they have no one to play against. It is this second reason that I want to concentrate on. This is because playing small non-battles for reason one is generally accepted and undertaken by many people, and doesn't seem to raise any eyebrows. Option two has raised many in my time.
Now, I am fortunate in that I have a club I can attend and play games as frequently as I wish (family commitments permitting). I also have a tolerant spouse, which in turn allows me to have a gaming area set up in the garage, in amongst the clutter, though it has to be said that heating in the garage would be a definite boon at the moment! I have found through online discussions and during my own time away from club gaming, that people are not always fortunate enough to have frothing opponents on tap, and this creates a dilema. The dilema is this: I love these models, I love the rules, background and imagery of this game. If only I got to play it.
Now I don't think that in principle anyone would object to a person with no other viable way of playing games using their collection of lovingly painted models and terrain, but in practice, it seems that in a hobby that still sits somewhat apart from the mainstream, gamers known to play games typically played by two or more people without a human opponent sitting across the table from them are even further from social acceptance than the rest.
Now I will pause briefly to state that this is just my perception, having been on both sides of the fence, and I don't know whether this is something that is peculiar to players of certain games, but if anyone finds the situation to be very different to what I am describing, please let me know so that I may adjust my view.
Why should it be that it might be considered strange to play wargames solo?
I guess the answer to this question might have several components. The first is familiarity. If a person is lucky enough to always have access to gaming opponents, then it is quite possible that they have never considered playing solo, or what it might be like, and so as an alien concept, they view it as strange. This doesn't necessarily mean they are wrong to think like this, just that the concept is unfamiliar to them, and their view is formed accordingly.
Second I think is drive. I would say that the drive to play wargames, or any other game, is two fold. The first is the game itself, the nuts and bolts of actually playing, the appeal of the playing pieces, any story that sets the scene etc. The second is the social aspect. If the social aspect is key to your enjoyment, then you are likely to make a very reluctant solo wargamer. If you like the social aspect, but the playing of the game is more important, then you could probably play your game of choice without having to rely on another person being available to play against you. Lord knows that we have all been let down by an opponent at some stage or other because they have to cancel at the eleventh hour.

The third (and the last that comes to mind at present) is practicality. Generally speaking, when playing against an opponent, you just need your army and it's accompanying rules, and perhaps to contribute to the scenery if any is used. When playing solo, not only do you have to provide a place to play, all necessary battlefield and scenery resources, you also have to provide enough models for two opposing forces, not just one. The other and most important bit of the practicality bit it is how you play against, well, yourself!?

There are two ways to play a game with just one human player. The first is for one or even both armies to be directed using some kind of rules set that can be used to determine how an army acts and responds to the enemy dependent on the situation they are faced with. This might be simply done with games that have relatively few possible maneouvers or action options, or horribly complicated with a game like Warhammer Fantasy, where you would have to consider both individual unit actions as well as army wide strategy.

Being as the object of the rules set used to direct the army should be to simulate a thinking opponent, it should not be too rigid or predictable. Given that, and the huge array of unit categories available across the dozen or so armies available for Warhammer, and then more abstract things like get the idea. It could be done, but to do it well would require a fair amount of effort and attention to detail. I might try it some time, just to see if it can be done. I recently asked online whether people would be interested in such a set of rules, and the concensus was generally yes.

The other way is far simpler, and at the same time infinitely more difficult, depending on what kind of player you are. It is the option of controlling both sides yourself, just as if you were playing against a human opponent. This is simpler because it requires no artificial unit direction rules, but more difficult to do successfully because it requires you to be competely impartial, and avoid using tactics, units and magic items that rely on the element of suprise. (Really? ;-))

I haven't tried the first option, because I haven't come across a set of solo rules that are suitable for the games I play, and haven't got to the stage where I have decided to tackle the task of creating a decent set of rules. I have however played solo using the second option, and had some great games.
The reason I can play this way I think is to do with my love of the background, and the stories I have written to accompany my various armies, all of which are interlinked. I like all of my armies and their respective leaders for different reasons, and this allows me to set up what I see as the next step in their stories by writing a short lead up to an encounter, then impartially playing it out on the tabletop. 

Because the story is ongoing, it doesn't matter if my army of choice is defeated, because they will get a chance for revenge later down the line, and when they are victorious against the odds, it is all the more glorious. Think of yourself as the director of a movie, rather than a general. The objective is an exciting story, rather than victory for a particular side or the other.

I have to admit that this option is not for everyone. At the end of the day, either you can be impartial, or you can't. You can leave the armies to the fates, or you can't. 

My current stance on the subject is as I mentioned earlier. Playing solo isn't always going to be a suitable substitute for a living, breathing opponent that you can thrash and humiliate, or be tabled by in turn, but if I were suddenly living in the middle of nowhere, the nearest club so far away it might as well be on Mars, I would be playing solo.

The gaming is important to me, and solo gaming is vastly preferable to no gaming. For anyone who doesn't have the luxury of opponents queing round the block, maybe this post has given you something to think about. The same goes for anyone who thinks the whole idea of solo wargaming for fun is just naff. It's all part of the whole gaming experience. If people can play video games without a human adversary, why not tabletop wargames? Who needs a computer controlled opponent when you have a perfectly good brain?

However you play, whoever you play, enjoy it. Thanks for reading.