Friday, December 2, 2011

Solo Gaming with Hand Management Systems

One of the common refrains you hear from people on forums is "How can I play the game [some name] solo?" Some common answers come out, but in many cases the process and mechanics change depending upon the nature of the game being discussed. For example, Board Game Geek lists the game mechanics for BattleLore as:

  • Campaign/Battle Card Driven
  • Die Rolling
  • Hand Management
  • Modular Board
  • Variable Player Powers
In this article, I start looking at the Campaign/Battle Card Driven and Hand Management mechanics, as are found in Richard Borg's designs in the Command and Colors family of board games. Board Game Geek defines Campaign/Battle Card Driven as:
The Campaign/Battle Card Driven mechanic is a relatively recent development in wargames that focuses the players' actions on cards they have in their hand. The very basic idea is that performing a single action uses a single card. Games where cards are used to determine the outcome of battles do not use this mechanic.

This GeekList argues that it is simply a subcategory of Hand Management.
The definition of Hand Management is defined as:
Hand management games are games with cards in them that reward players for playing the cards in certain sequences or groups. The optimal sequence/grouping may vary, depending on board position, cards held and cards played by opponents. Managing your hand means gaining the most value out of available cards under given circumstances. Cards often have multiple uses in the game, further obfuscating an "optimal" sequence.

Hand management has no relationship to action/dexterity.
The key to this definition is "reward players for playing the cards in certain sequences or groups". Where this becomes a problem for the solo gamer is when the sequence plays across several turns, as it does with games in the Command and Colors family. It then becomes hard for the solo gamer to 'ignore' the sequence being setup by his 'opponent'. So, how do you solo game when these type of game mechanics are in play?

Survey Says!

Perhaps the most common response I have heard to the question of how to play a Battle Card Driven/Hand Management game is: "I simply play each side as if that were my side all along and to the best of my ability."

JF, over at the Solo Nexus blog, wrote an entry about solo skirmishing. In that he defines two broad styles of tabletop solo skirmishing:

  • Player commands both sides, but with incomplete control.
  • Player completely controls one side, and auto-rules govern the other.
In this article, he defines "control" loosely, primarily as "random factors [that] alter or inhibit what the player is allowed to do".  JF has an interesting footnote in that "the concept of a player who commands both sides and has complete control on each turn is not, in my opinion, gaming."

So, the question is: does the player have "complete" control or not? One could say that the random element of drawing cards – which dictate which units may move and which may not – constitutes incomplete control. I tend to disagree with that assessment in the case of the Command and Colors family of games. Granted, your card choices may not allow you to select a unit on the right flank, which you might desperately want to do, but when given the option to order, say, three units on the left flank, the choice is your and not a random factor, and once you make the choice the control is absolute, within the confines of the rules. No random factor is used to determine success in activation or in how the unit reacts to your orders; control is absolute.

That would leave the typical response – faithfully play both sides to the best of your ability – a less than ideal method. So, what else can you do?

Flush the Hand

I've tried flushing the hand – drawing a full hand of cards every turn – as a means of simulating how much luck a side would have. If you are allowed a hand of five cards and there are 60 cards in the deck then you have essentially 5 chances out of 60 in drawing just the card you want (or more, if there are multiple copies of the card).

The problem, of course, is that what makes these games interesting is to string a sequence of cards together, turn after turn; the key is in the word management. Pulling off a plan that you have been working on for four or five turns is much more rewarding than getting the lucky draw turn after turn and playing the card just drawn. Flushing the hand means a really bad hand typically only stays so for a single turn, unless your draws continue to be unlucky.

Having one side manage their hand and the other flush allows the player to compete against a very lucky solo opponent, so the idea should not be completely discarded. It is certainly a quick-and-dirty way to play, requiring little pre-programming, and would probably provide a better game than trying to manage both sides and "play your best on each side".

To be continued...


  1. As a solo gamer I'm looking forward to your future postings.

  2. Dale,

    Check out my geeklist on bgg I did a few years ago regarding a solo system for virtually any game.


  3. Following with great interest.