A defense of low-interaction games, and why I hate the term “multi-player solitaire”

by Gil Hova

multiplayer solitaire

“Tabletop Players” icon by Delapouite (modified), CC BY 3.0

My least-favorite term in board gaming is “multi-player solitaire” (MPS). Gamers will usually sneer this when they come across a game that has low player interaction. Each player plays their own game with little interference from others. The challenge is to optimize your performance versus everyone else.

So-called MPS games usually have some interaction. It’s subtle, and sometimes it only emerges once players have experience with the game. But to exaggerate and call them “solitaire” is inaccurate enough that it makes me question credibility.

Look, hyperbole has its place. It gets attention. It’s fun. But it has a way of obscuring meaning. There are only so many times you can cry wolf before the villagers begin to ignore you.

Also, there are many kinds of interaction in gaming. High interaction, where one player can attack and take things from another player, is a perfectly valid approach. Low interaction, where players are restrained from directly influencing another player, is also valid. Each will result in a distinctive game experience. But calling a game MPS when it has low interaction displays a certain amount of ignorance and closed-mindedness.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with having a preference for high-interaction games and eschewing low-interaction games. That’s totally understandable! But I’ve seen gamers (and sometimes reviewers) who feel that low-interaction games are objectively lacking, and aren’t really games unless attacking is allowed.

Of course, these folks tend to prefer high-interaction games. And again, there’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s the extra step, the claim that games they don’t prefer are invalid, that pushes my buttons.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with low-interaction games. Games don’t need high interaction in order to be proper games. It’s okay to play a game where you can’t directly attack someone. It may not be to your taste, but those games still have a place in our hobby, even if you don’t like them.

And of course, I have a horse in this race. I personally prefer low-interaction games, and my most recent game The Networks is a low-interaction game. It is to my benefit to try to make it clear that low-interaction games belong in the gaming landscape, even if they don’t necessarily belong in your collection, depending on your taste.

With all that said, let’s go through some games that people claim are multi-player solitaire, but are really not.

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Race for the GalaxyFirst one I can think of. And when you first learn the game, it truly is MPS, because you’re so focused on learning the system, you can’t really pay attention to what other players are doing.

This is a great example of a game where the better you know it, the more interaction there is. Once you get a sense of the different rhythms of the game, you can start anticipating other players’ actions and leech off of what they’re trying to do.

This is a tremendous source of fun in the game. It’s always an awesome moment in the first few turns when no one picks Explore because they thought someone else would.

Is the extremely low interaction for new players a fault of the game? I’d say it’s a minor one. Race for the Galaxy has a difficult heuristic tree to climb (similar to a palm tree in my Board Game Design 101 seminar). It gets away with this because once you get to the first few branches, you find a lot more to climb.

pic860217_md7 WondersHere’s another game that gets dinged for not having direct interaction. And yes, it’s true, there’s no way you can directly influence a player who is not your immediate neighbors (I’m talking about the base game here, not the expansions that let you withdraw from military evaluation).

But this drawback ties into the game’s greatest strength: it is a game that plays 7 players, takes about 45 minutes to play, and has some strategic depth. This is a niche that no game outside the polarizing genre of social deduction had claimed (and social deduction was just starting to become a phenomenon when this game first came out).

If the base game had allowed players to directly influence players who were not their neighbors, it would lose its incredible ability to scale to high player counts and still deliver a consistent experience in a proper amount of time. From this perspective, the low player interaction is most definitely a feature, not a bug.

Also, like above, 7 Wonders does reveal the need for increased interaction as you get better in the game. If you notice a player two seats to your left is collecting Science and you have Science in your hand, you may want to consider using that card to build a Wonder, depriving them of the card permanently.

Are there things it could have done differently regarding player interaction? Tough to say, because the game’s perceived flaws are so tightly coupled to its award-winning strengths. But I think one thing that messes with new players is the idea that the game has a “military” element which doesn’t really attack players. Moreover, the game adopts the trappings of a Civ-style game, but that Civ-style direct interaction is missing. So new players must adjust to what the game delivers against what it promises. Happily, most players seem to enjoy the game.

pic199316_mdNotre DameThis is an older Stefan Feld game, but I chose it because it’s probably the one that has the lowest amount of interaction, and is therefore most likely to be considered MPS.

There are only a few ways to interact with players: through the draft, through the Carriage tiles, and in Notre Dame. Otherwise, players are following their own scripts, with very little interaction from other players.

Is this a bad thing? If one player has shot out to a big lead, perhaps. The game wisely obscures points by recording them on chips instead of a central track, which mitigates this feeling somewhat. But if one player is doing well, it’s tough to slow them down.

I know a few people get frustrated when playing games like this. Some feel that a direct way to attack a leader is the best way to to mitigate a runaway leader. This approach leads to metagaming and table talk (“Don’t attack me, attack her, she’s in the lead!”), which some people feel is the center of any good game, but others (myself included) feel distracts from the game. High interaction can be just as polarizing as low interaction!

pic345747_mdTake It EasyThis is an important one to put in the list. The other three games are not MPS, despite what their detractors say. They have player-to-player interaction, just not a whole lot of it.

Take It Easy (and similar games in its family, like Cities and Karuba) is genuinely and honestly an MPS game. There is literally no player interaction. Nothing you do ever affects another player in the game. The only thing you’re doing that binds you to the other players is the fact that you’re all working on the same puzzle.

And here’s the thing: it’s an excellent game. While some gamers hurl MPS as an epithet, it turns out that multi-player solitaire can be extremely fun. Take It Easy doesn’t require player interaction; all it needs is the players to be working on the same set of tiles.

This lack of player interaction opens doors. I’ve heard of conventions that ask attendees to bring as many copies of Take It Easy as they can, and then they hold 100-person games. There aren’t many other games that allow that sort of experience. And it’s something MPS can do that no other style can.

It also makes the game approachable. Take It Easy can be taught in a few seconds, and new players seem to really enjoy it. It’s a great little filler game.

Are there drawbacks to true MPS? Sure. Many people will want to interact with the game leader to make sure they don’t get too far ahead, of course. And interacting with the game state is fun for a while, but MPS games seem to be best when they’re brief. Take It Easy is only about 20 minutes long. I don’t know how well a 2-hour MPS game would be, but it would have to provide an extremely immersive experience to be engaging.

Let’s explore one more little nook here: cooperative games. How much interaction can they be said have? It really depends on your group. I’ve written about competitive imbalance here before, and I still believe that a co-op needs a well-balanced group to be enjoyable. Everyone should be playing at the same level of competitiveness, be it highly competitive or not at all competitive. If there’s a mix, you get the commonly-derided “alpha player” issue, and the less-commonly-derided-but-still-problematic “beta player” issue.

And I still believe: for most co-ops, this is a problem with the game group and not a fundamental problem with the game’s design or its genre. So if you feel that co-ops are broken because one player tends to take over, I would suggest you look at the composition of your game group, and see if there are more optimal arrangements of players. The magic circle can be a delicate thing, and for a co-op, players should all be on the same page about how much they’re expected to contribute and listen to other players’ contributions.

But I hope this little diatribe has shed some light on low-interaction games. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, and whether you agree or disagree. But these kinds of games are very close to my heart. So if you ever see me twitch when someone dismisses a low-interaction game as “multi-player solitaire,” you now know why!