A Retrospective on the Solo Tabletop Experience
The impact of solo tabletop gaming on a life
I watched tepidly as the end credits of The Two Towers slid down my television screen. I wasn’t going to finish watching the trilogy just as I never finish most things that take more than an afternoon. Instead, I dragged my phone to me, yanking it by its power cord until I could reach for it, and typed in the search bar: "good Lord of the Rings games".
As I perused the Internet, I watched many reviews for Shadow of War, enthusiastic “is it still worth playing?” videos for Lord of the Rings Online, and nostalgia-filled retrospectives for The Return of the King made for the PlayStation 2. I then crossed a video with a thumbnail of a fashionably dressed YouTuber accompanied by a large font that read LORD OF THE RINGS LCG with the video title “Lord of the Rings LCG ~ Revisiting an Old Friend”.
It was mysterious; what is an LCG anyways? I sat in a meditative state as the voice of Clay Dogh washed over me with praise for this solo card game that showcased gorgeous art, and their commentary shot true in explaining what this game meant to them. I needed this game. I stopped my download of Lord of the Rings Online and opened Amazon in a new tab.
The LCG (Living Card Game) is a label given to modular released card games sold by publisher Fantasy Flight Games. The Lord of the Rings The Card Game is one such LCG designed by Nate French who you may know better from his most recent LCG, Arkham Horror The Card Game. In video games, purchasing a new video game had grown into a stale experience. Conveniently, I would hit a button and then a game would appear on my PS4 as if it had always been there, waiting for that sweet money transfer. Receiving a new game in the mail that was a real box was new for me, and the excitement brought me back to when I’d get disc copies of games for Christmas as a kid.
I frantically ripped the wrapper open and started flipping through cards, excited to see what they could do. Clay Dogh’s video already showcased many of these cards and how brilliant they looked, but having them there in my hands to inspect at my own leisure was something else completely. Beautiful renditions of popular characters alongside just as gorgeous original images of unpopular characters made it a beautiful set of cards to own. I can say with certainty that I’ve never once thought that Denethor would be a character that I would even consider wanting to play from a narrative perspective, but his art (and busted defense stat) made him one of my favorite cards to play as.
Then came the hardest part of owning board games like these, the manual. I held what seemed like a tome in my hands and wondered who could ever find the patience to read this 30-page volume when it’s the game we want to get to. At that moment I realized video game tutorials had spoiled me and I’ve not been the same since.
I had my first game set up and sat down with the incredible Howard Shore soundtrack to The Fellowship of the Ring blaring in the background. I tentatively played cards and moved tokens, glancing haphazardly at the rule book from time to time, begging it to validate me in that I was following the rules. It didn’t, and then let me know that I broke a rule three turns ago though. My first game ended in failure as a puzzled expressionfilled my face. It was hard, the random nature of the encounter deck was unfair, and some of my cards weren’t even useful!
As I started packing everything away my mind raced, how could I have prepared better for that situation? Did I even play the game correctly? I pulled out the player cards and started to make a new deck. I started setting up the scenario again, and again, and again. I glanced at my phone, 1:03 AM. I audibly groaned and retreated to bed realizing that I’d for sure be late to work the next day if I kept at it, but I was hooked.
The next few months involved searching for local game stores that let you play at their tables, buying any game that was mentioned on Reddit, and finding excuses to get people to try these games with me. There was a shift in my life caused by suddenly being into solo board games. I was suddenly known as "the guy who likes complicated board games" among my friends. I had shelves in my apartment dedicated to boxes of cards and dice. I helped create a real Dungeons & Dragons group with real dysfunctional scheduling issues. I had a game or two hit my coffee table every week just to play by myself. But I also had to deal with the fated worry from my friends, “Isn’t playing a card game by yourself… you know… lonely and sad?” Of course, I didn’t see it that way; most board games are just like video games but you can hold and change things in ways you can’t in a video game. It was just like playing Solitaire with a deck of cards and that’s a completely normal hobby. Right?
I continued and found growth and definition to feelings that I’ve had about video games my whole life. Aeon’s End taught me that I actually really enjoyed deck building and, in extension, character building in video games. In Aeon’s End, you choose just nine cards at the beginning of the game as a group (or by yourself). Then as the game progresses it is easy to see how that choice of load-out works or doesn’t.
This happens much like the modern rogue-lite game, except with the physical cards and mechanics accessible on the table I was able to articulate exactly what it is I liked about fine-tuning a character. I had no idea that you could feel such strong looming dread in the atmosphere until I played Legendary Encounters: Alien as Xenomorphs flooded the play-mat. I’ve never won a game of Legendary Encounters and I actually think that not seeing success heightens the horror element of the game to a level I wouldn’t ever think possible for a card game.
I realized the effect that difficulty had on a horror experience. For a beginner to succeed at this game they would need excellent planning and a strong stroke of good luck to win, and that makes this horror card game able to carry the power to elicit strong player emotions. Many more games that I procured over the months gave me really similar experiences and I couldn’t get enough.
After a year of being addicted to the feeling of setting up game after game, I sat at my computer ready to buy the holy grail of fantasy board gaming. Coming in at 20 pounds in the Heavy Euro division at a price point of $140 USD, this was Gloomhaven. I scrolled through pictures of people with huge tables set up with maps and mini-figures ready to write their own stories either alone or with their friends. It was the most excited I’d ever been to drain my checking account.
But then I saw the post that slowed it all down. A reviewer explained that for solo play, why not just buy the Steam version and play on the computer? It made perfect sense; less mess and set-up, half the price, and no keeping track of many complicated rules. The convenience was unmatched. I sat at my computer watching review after review of the PC version feeling disappointed that the bubble had burst. I was so deflated that I ended up not getting either.
It made too much sense to get the PC version, and yet it took all the fun out of the Heavy Euro board game to simply cram it on a computer screen. I looked longingly at my stack of board games, and for several weeks it was hard to get myself to even entertain the idea of going through the work of setting up a huge game. My PS4 library was just a button press away and I could easily get a digital version of any of my board games anyways.
Maybe a few more things than a revelatory blog post robbed my motivation. It was also most likely the release of a video game I had been excited for, or maybe even just long days at work that made shuffling cards and separating tokens feel like a chore. I started to see that video games may have always been the natural evolution of the tabletop game. Slay the Spire does many things that the modern physical deck builder has trouble with and makes it accessible in its PC and mobile formats.
There are almost endless miniature games on PC that try to emulate the same tabletop experience although most are solo, and you can take many examples from Tactics Ogre, all the way to Warhammer 40,000: Chaosgate. For the King almost nails this concept by making a fun Pathfinder type of experience that is easily accessible with a 6-7 hour campaign that can be run on local and online multiplayer. I played Ascension on my phone almost every night as a substitute to finding people to play the physical game with, just out of convenience, as the computer opponents are really smart and always available to play a match.
The final nail in the coffin came when my partner and I split up. Like a great many things during a break-up, solo tabletop gaming really can feel lonely and sad. And when you are "the guy who likes complicated board games", a lot of sympathies can come in the form of “hey, maybe you’ll find someone who likes to play complicated board games next time.” So that was it. Board games are too expensive, take too long to set up, and have too many convoluted rules to follow. They've been eclipsed by the modern legion of video game adaptations of board games, and Solitaire is a lonely sad game for lonely sad people. My shelf of board games would remain a shelf of boxes with strange words and art more representative of geeky furniture than an actual toy or game.
A month later I roll myself out of bed on a lazy Saturday, deciding how early I’m going to start opening beers. I drag myself to the bathroom and see myself in the mirror. I look like a lot of things but we’ll keep it at "tired". I run some water through my face and hair, look over and see a shelf, adorned with colorful boxes that aren’t organized in any particular way.
I shift to stand in front of it and pull a box from the shelf. The Lord of the Rings The Card Game, that title art of Gandalf riding into danger greeted me with a daring smile and the cheeky subtitle of "Adventure and Peril in Middle Earth" had me walking to the living room box in hand. A new resolve filled me as I sat down with the box and laid its contents bare on the coffee table and played this game as though I had done so every day since I bought it.
Aragorn using extra turns to plow through the spider-infested Mirkwood, a party of Dwarves multiplying with effects and storming the treacherous halls of Kazad-Dum, and a spirited re-enactment of the battle of the five armies starring the brilliantly drawn Bilbo Baggins card in a guest appearance after vanquishing a very powerful Smaug card. The feeling of immersing myself in my favorite hobby with tactile objects flowed through me again. I wanted to flood my table with board game pieces. I wanted to take 30 minutes just to set up. I wanted to buy weird, expensive expansion packs to keep old games feeling fresh. I wanted to refer to a 30-page book every time I forgot a rule. I wanted to sit and play a board game by myself without it being lonely and sad.
I am "the guy who likes complicated board games" dammit! At the end of that Saturday, I packed up The Lord of the Rings The Card Game and opened a new Amazon tab, I hear that Terraforming Mars is good these days. The road to moving on is not as simple as playing a game, but the first step doesn't have to be harder than revisiting an old friend. And this time, the first game is going to be played solo.
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