When I was very young, I played quite intricate games with plastic toy soldiers; first with what I now know as 54mm Timpo knights in armour and Cowboys and Indians, and later on with the Airfix ho/oo sets of figures. I think I had everything from Queen`s Guard Bandsmen, Modern Civilians, WWI, WWII, Napoleonics, American War of Independence, American Civil War, Romans and Ancient Britains, Sheriff of Nottingham and Robin Hood, Arabs and Foreign Legion... and I believe there was even an Apollo Moon Landing set. Later on I collected the entire Airfix 54mm WWII range as well, and all this was long before I even knew there was such a thing as the `unofficial` body of hobbyists known as wargamers.
I was always inspired by war films as a kid, and I can remember thinking, as an enthusiastic 10 year old does, “Wow! I wish I could do that.” I think my own effort were always somewhat less spectacular than the films I`d watch on the telly, which were all viewed in black and white for most of us (unless your parents were rich enough to be able to afford a colour TV... which mine weren`t).
I don`t recall even using any proper rules to speak of. I used to make up simple little rules in my head using a single six sided die. If a little plastic man fired his gun: a 5 or a 6 was a hit (no thought was ever made to range) at which point I used to throw the die again: 1, 2, 3 and the figure had taken a flesh wound and was knocked over and was out of the game for a few minutes! 4 and the figure was seriously wounded and couldn’t fire his gun any more. 5 or 6 and the figure was clean K.O. and removed from the game!
I recall artillery was conducted a little differently, and I`d either roll a few marbles from a yard or two away: or (as I got more sophisticated) by scrunching my hand into a fist, closing my eyes and spreading my fingers as wide as they would go and seeing how many figures fell over from the blast effect.
Similarly with melee, I`d pair off the figures (no such thing as 2 to 1 odds or such like) and throw a die: 1 or 2 and X side has scored a kill. 3 or 4 and neither figure hurt the other this turn. 5 or 6 and Y won the fight. Melees were always to the death in my games because as a kid I figured that historical close quarter fights must have been more vicious than ranged combat.
Actually moving the plastic figures was a matter of eye. The length of a fully stretched middle finger and thumb would suffice for most infantry, and double this for cavalry. Of course, the fingers used to stretch just-a-little-bit wider apart for my favourite pieces, or a newly purchased box of soldiers.
The first time I saw a real wargame was on a children`s program that used to be on TV back in the 1960`s and early 70`s - called "Magpie". The show`s team had invited some gamers into the studio to show the audience The Battle of Waterloo. That was it…. From that moment on, I think I spent every penny I had on buying up all the Airfix Napoleonic boxes I could lay my hands on (in those days, kids could buy these boxes of figures usually 48 to a box at the newspaper shops on the corner of any village street).
I must have replayed “Waterloo” the film version of course a hundred times and more.
I also remember seeing a British film and series called “Callan” about a cold war secret agent, and in the film (and pilot episode of the series) they played a few wargames with little painted soldiers. This really peeked my curiosity, but at the time, I still didn`t make the connection between watching something on telly and actually doing it myself.
My life changed when I discovered Solo Wargaming, and Skirmish Wargames by Donald Featherstone at my local library; sitting dusty and neglected at the far end of the hobby section. I wore those books out – literally, over the next four or five years and I remember that in the end the lady at the library gave them to me. But this was all the nucleus for my lifelong passion for wargames. I believe it is chiefly because I discovered Featherstone`s Solo Wargaming at such an early age (a more innocent age where such books were as rare as gold dust) that I continued my love of solo gaming throughout my early childhood... my teens... and way way into adulthood, and eventually into middle age.
It seems strange to me and totally incongruous with the notion of using ones imagination NOT to enjoy playing alone. With the advent of computers, I am always shocked nowadays to hear that we soloists are the tiny stoic minority and not the norm. I have read so many on line threads in sites where hobbyists simply don`t get it and shun the very notion of playing solo as... weird... alien... unsatisfactory or even impossible...
...“yeah I guess you could try it to test the rules or something” is the general line I`m used to reading when someone asks can it be done.
The general consensus of opinion is that it can`t be done, or if you try, it can`t be any fun.. or at most, it`s a way of learning the rules, but won’t help you to win a game against a real opponent.
Most male hobbies seem to need to make the game all about winning. No... no... NO!!!!
If you want to win, play football, or watch motor racing, or take up a hobby that`s all just about either winning or losing... or play a standard wargame against an opponent. The subtle art of wargaming does not need to be competitive at all, and in this respect solo wargaming is the King of participation, and `wins` (ha ha) hands down every time over the base need to prove oneself as somehow better than the next person by thrashing them in a testosterone induced orgy of table top aggression.
The true subtle nuances of solo wargaming are: A) the ability to suspend disbelief, allows a deep immersion to soak in, and lets total imagination take over... like reading a good book, but one in which you have some say over the eventual outcome: B) playing solo allows you to enjoy the luxury of being able to absorb fully into your chosen subject, free from the fetters of time constraint or always having to consider an opponent and his/her wishes (i.e. you can be as selfish as you like and indulge your ever whim without ever having to worry about pleasing anyone else): and C) you never have to compromise what you believe to be right... which oh so often happens when you have to play a shared participation game with those who don’t always see eye to eye with your own views and beliefs. Only you know and admire that gallant captain of many past games, who somehow always manages to survive each battle, and who you have so aptly named Captain Endeavour L Morse (after your favourite TV show character), painted in favourite colours with no real regard to historical accuracy, but standing gallant and proud with one foot upon a rock as he carefully surveys the distant horizon for hidden dangers... why, in actual fact, he quite reminds you of yourself. No... to anyone else, he just looks like a tiny miniature naval marine boat officer, with a few shiny buttons painted on his collar to denote his rank. Pffft! Only YOU know who he really is and how important he is to your enjoyment.
Effectively, the solo gamer can wallow about happily in the hobby to his heart`s content; switching and changing rules (even mid game) without any fear of being accused of cheating or `not playing the game`.
I sometimes set up a game with no clear notion what the outcome might be, and just go with the flow and see what happens as ideas come to me. Try it sometime. For example, lets imagine a Victorian Lost World setting: just anchor a small (home made) steamboat on the bank of a nice wide river, place some appropriately positioned crew and marine complement on the boat and upon the shoreline (three, 4 man units should do the trick)... already my imagination is sparked by the notion that perhaps they have anchored to cut some wood to stoke the boiler... having unfortunately just run out of fuel.
Next, place lots of jungle foliage slightly inland. Yes, the natives round here are known for their ferocity, and seem to display an intense lack of tolerance for the white man.
Now have the marines run a race against time. Allow any marine who reaches the jungle tree line and who spends an entire turn doing nothing else but chop wood, to increase the fuel supply of the boat by 1 point (once he returns to the vessel of course). Once the boat has acquired 6 points of fuel, it is once again ready to steam away to safety and continue its journey up the Cango.
However, throw a D20 once every turn and -1 from the roll for each marine currently chopping wood (thus making lots of noise). If the roll if ever 10 or below, the natives will be alerted to the presence of the intruders and will immediately attack en masse.... let’s say, 20 or 30 natives, who will be evenly placed along the edge of the tree line on the first turn they are activated.Hmmm, maybe there is a woman explorer/botanist on board the boat... and of course, she will need to be protected. Perhaps the boat has a maxim gun aboard, for added firepower? As ideas come to you, just add them to the game (even mid game), and before you know it, you`ll be totally lost in your little solo adventure. The scenario idea I mentioned above literally just came to me as I sat writing this. It’s really that easy. Not all games need to be fleshed out into a tome of background material... though they can be, and are often a lot of fun to plan out properly in that way.
Of course, employ your favourite rules to play the type of game you like. Personally, I like simple rules that don`t interfere with the atmosphere I am trying to create in my head. The less rules the better, so long as they feel right to you. When I play solo, I tend to imagine myself the `director` of a film set. My miniatures are the actors, the scenery become the background props used to bring the story to life, and the game plot-line is the choreographed script the actors use as the framework to perform their parts in keeping with the piece.
You can play just about any era or genre of game you like as a solo experience, what ever your preferred tipple may be... is can be done. All of this can of course be totally applied to role playing games as well. But for this thread, I will just stick to talking about table top wargames using miniatures.
Because I mostly always like to play solo, I also like to make sure my games never become stale and too same-y. This can easily happen if you stick to just one or even two preferences. If, let’s say, you just stick to collecting and playing 1920`s/30`s Pulp era and WWII games, however much you try to maintain your enthusiasm, your interest will probably wane and eventually dry up... leaving that unsatisfied feeling, which is (from time to time) the bane of all gamer`s table top pleasure and staying power... not just soloists.
I like to collect miniatures and play games in multiple eras. Fantasy, Dark Ages, Medieval, English Civil War, French & Indian War, American War of Independence, American Civil War, Victorian, Colonial Africa, Colonial China, Victorian Steampunk, 20`s Pulp, Horror (especially H.P. Lovecraft), World War II, Zombie Apocalypse, Science Fiction, role playing games... such as Dungeons and Dragons, and even anime `chibi` rpg. Of course, you don`t need to go as mad as I do... I`ve been gaming all my life and have collected a heck of a lot of period interests in my 40 odd years of gaming. But I do advice that you try to ensure that when painting and playing with one favourite era starts to become dull and boring... set it aside for a while and turn to something else until your desire to pick it up again returns (as return it will). In this way, you will always have something new and fresh to enjoy. I find that I like to play about with one project for about a month or two at a time; and once I start to feel staleness creeping in, I quickly switch focus to something else. It’s not chopping and changing, it’s simply making sure you never lose interest in the hobby as a whole... which can easily become a bane in itself especially for solo gamers, who lack the bonus afforded to the more sociably inclined gamers who enjoy the hobby interaction of friends.
For me, the thing becomes a little more problematic because I choose to help run (co run) this blog, and also a few other websites and blogs so that others may enjoy (and hopefully become inspired by) what I do, so they themselves can go and do their own thing with renewed enthusiasm. I find a lot of my own enthusiasm comes from reading what others are doing. Gamers who share their passion in blogs and websites for others to enjoy are the life blood of soloists. But you can`t beat a good film to get you motivated and inspired either. A lot of my deepest imagination for putting together games comes from watching a great DVD. No wonder really that my collection runs into several thousand films and documentaries.
But no, switching interests mid creation is a problem when running your own website or blog, simply because anyone reading what you write, especially if they are following a series of articles (like a campaign for example) might easily become frustrated when... just at the exciting bit, the writer stops dead, and suddenly starts enthusing about some other aspect of the hobby entirely.
I agonized about this initially when we first started this site. But eventually came to the conclusion that it really didn`t matter too much. I myself have often followed some amazing blog threads, only to be disappointed when the blog owner decided to take a break, or started something else about an entirely different subject. I simply saved the site to favourites on my computer and checked back regularly, waiting patiently until the piece I was interested in was again resumed at a later date (after telling the author how much I enjoyed reading his stuff, of course... always polite to do so I think).
Another thing I think is important to solo gaming is to write an account of everything you do. This can be a personal journal with some digital photos pasted in to remind yourself of your hobby progress, to a full blown `suspension of disbelief` in game narrative campaign diary, detailing every battle report that takes place along the way. The more you breathe life into your creations, the more enjoyment you will ultimately receive from your own efforts. You don`t need to be a skilled writer to do this... I`ve read and enjoyed many amazing online campaigns written by `joe blogs` who possesses no especial skill for narration or writing style. But BOY have I enjoyed and appreciated every word they have written. It’s the EFFORT that counts, and no one is going to look too closely at how well a piece is written as long as it is exciting and sparks the imagination.
I like to do campaigns... yes, going back to chopping and changing, I suppose it must be frustrating for anyone else who reads something I write, only to have to wait ages when I stop mid flow and start on something else. But yes I DO very much enjoy campaigns. They allow me to do what I love most... narrate them into stories and inject lots of in-game photos and cameo scenes to bring everything to life; and in a way you simply can`t usually do with one off scenarios.
The solo campaign game allows you to immerse, dabble, cogitate, extrapolate, and enthuse massively about your chosen subject in ways very few group participation game sessions will allow (rpg being the exception of course). You can explore facets of interest that might bore an opponent to death if you were to include them in a face to face game with him. For example: the soloist can stop a battle mid game and take a bunch of photos (totally irrelevant to the game itself) but which satellites a small skirmish taking place between a single unit of infantry entering a building and an equally small opposition force. The solo gamer might pause the game for a couple of days, while he attempts to model the building (or even draw it on graph paper like rpg Dungeon Masters do for their Dungeons and Dragons), then take the encounter to another small side table... and fight the cameo out as an entirely skirmish affair involving just a few painted personality miniatures); only resuming the main game again once this fight has been fully resolved. The results of this small skirmish game might not be relevant to the main game in hand, but could massively influence the campaign in the long run. Perhaps one of the officers involved in that fight for the building was none other than the youngest son of the overall commander of the regiment. What if that son was fatally wounded in the fight... how would this affect the future mental state of the general in command? If you like your rules to allow for such things, all this can be easily factored in during successive games.
In another example: the solo gamer playing a campaign where a main force has entered deep into enemy territory, will have to keep a close eye on the logistics of supply; how is the commander in charge feeding his men, where are the men finding water... are they foraging as they go (this allows for lots of mini skirmish encounters with enemy forces.. each of which can literally be played out separately with just a few miniatures). One such mini encounter might entail a night time ambush as a small naval vessal quietly slips past the enemy blockading the entrance to the river estuary and makes its way stealthily up the water course to a prearranged rendezvous point. However, enemy intelligence is aware of this and come upon the shore party desperately trying to unload the much needed cargo while the boat captain makes ready once again to depart into the night. Perhaps turn the skirmish into a race for time. If the shore party can hold off the ambushing enemy for ten moves while they unload the cargo, and can escape off the edge of the board relatively unmolested, then they succeed in their mission. If not, the cargo is captured and the mission fails and the shore party and the boat are captured!
The possibilities are endless, and it can all be written up into a campaign journal, to be enjoyed and read even years later. It always brings a smile to my lips to read campaign write ups and battle reports I played out during the last twenty years or so; made much easier for me (I should add) by the invention of the word processer.
I shall try to add more to this subject in the future, as time allows. Hopefully some solo gamers will find some of it useful. I think it’s always nice to see how others are playing their solo games, if only to keep a rain check on the hobby as a whole.