Saturday 5 March 2011


My very minor claim to wargaming ‘fame’ if such fame there be, is to have started the Solowargames Yahoo! Group. It has been going a while now, and has a fair number of members, and even a few participants. It is a friendly place and new posters usually find a good welcome, advice and encouragement there.

Nevertheless, there is still a bit of a stigma hanging over the solo wargamer. I mean, wargamers as a whole are generally regarded as being a bit odd by society. A solo gamer doesn’t even have the excuse of social interaction at a club to hang his hobby on. Even other wargamers might view solo wargamers as being odd, or sad, or antisocial.

I’ve always been a solo wargamer, ever since I finished throwing marbles at Airfix figures. The number of competitive wargames I’ve had can probably be counted on the fingers of one hand, if you exclude role playing games. There too, somewhere in my cupboard I have a Musketeer who is busy escaping from a Spanish castle (which looks suspiciously like the Tower of London, but I digress). So even role playing games can and have been played solo.

So what is it about solo games as opposed to face to face wargames? That is, why bother as a solo gamer?

I suppose that most of the aspects of wargaming are still the same. You research the period, choose the figures, paint them, base them and then are ready to commence. Aside from the fact that you have to do this for both sides, this is all fairly similar to everyone else. You can even pontificate on your hobby in public, either through Lone Warrior, august journal of the Solo Wargamer’s Association, or on a blog such as this one. I’ve done both in my time.

The thing I suppose that solo wargaming lacks is the competition, the facing another across the table and beating them (or being beaten, but I’m still trying to be upbeat, here). At least as a solo gamer you both win and lose. I imagine that this turns on whether, as individuals we are either competitive, in which case taking on a live opponent is important, or gregarious, in which case meeting with others is important, or not. I guess I fail on both counts.

On the plus side, as a solo wargamer, you never have to have arguments over rule interpretations or how many gaiters the Imperial Guard were issued with in 1814. Solo gamers also seem to be more likely to run campaigns. This is possibly because there is not the same imperative to get the armies out and fight as when a live opponent appears, and also possibly because, as a solo gamer, unfair fights can be envisaged.

We’ve mentioned before that one of the discourses of wargaming is about fairness. I remember reading about one participation game where the participant was charged with scouting a farm in Normandy, 1944. They were given a small foot patrol. The German forces at the farm were generated randomly by the umpire, and could range from nothing to a Panzer division. Quite often, in the latter case, the participant would calmly start to dig in, assuming that the game in some way had to be fair, and they had to have a chance. Fairness, equality, a chance to win is somehow expected in our games.

As a solo gamer, I’ve found that often it is best to stack the odds against you. A few years ago I developed a system for fighting campaigns in preconquest Aztec Mexico. It was based on the DBA campaign system and I used DBA to resolve the battles. I think it used cards to determine my opponent’s strength, and any ambushes they had set. Events such as wandering tribes and revolts against my rule were determined randomly. This worked really well, until the system conspired against me and my 12 base DBA army, depleted by battle losses but strengthened by an ally went down to something like 28 bases of enemy. But it was fun, even though my last battle looked more like the Alamo than anything else. I was so impressed that I wrote it up for Miniature Wargames and they even published it.

It seems to me, then, that solo wargaming can work around the discourse of fairness that pervades our hobby. I’m not arguing that every game should have one side fighting against impossible odds, but that imbalance exists in our games, even in rule systems that claim to create fairness through a points system. In such systems players can spend long hours obtaining the best army under the rules for a fixed number of points. Real life generals, I suspect, have to go with what they get.

Is this discourse of fairness a bad thing in the hobby? Not necessarily, I think. But being aware of it is a good thing. Fairness is something we are brought up with, but it is not something that can be readily applied to the conduct of real wars. A general who waited until his enemy had received reinforcements before he attacked would, in real life, be rapidly sacked. In wargaming this might be acceptable, because it is fair.

The only circumstance when unfairness might be acceptable in a wargame is when the game is part of a campaign, or when there is a carefully designed scenario where the disparity in numbers is balanced by advantage in position. Even that is fair, to some degree, so really we need to run with campaign games. But even there, both sides have to have a chance, even if it is only overall and not in a particular encounter.

So this discourse of fairness seems to pervade our hobby. Fair, I might say, enough. I suppose it is something like that which determines whether the activity is a hobby. A game of chess, a round of golf or a rubber of bridge would not get played if there was no chance of one of the participants winning, even though in skill, practice or experience there may be big discrepancies. Perhaps then, the discourse of fairness in wargaming is something that makes it a hobby. Unfair wargames could be a bit too close to the real thing.


  1. Fairness is almost part of the definition of competitive game - 'competitive' usefully covering both senses here.

    I think the main problem with 'fairness' is when we forget what we are doing when making things fair. I think that this may apply sometimes to your bugbear - extended-period rules. It may just be that no Hittite Army would ever be able to take on a HYW Army of either side - there were just too many threats that no Hittite could have imagined.

    In many historical battles, especially in more modern periods I would suggest, the results were often not really in doubt given the initial set-up of the forces involved (using 'set-up' in its widest sense). It would be fascinating to play 'Bagration' say, without the sop of victory conditions or points values.

    Have you ever actually played (solo) a 'hopeless' battle - I don't think I ever have; part of the fascination for me is seeing who wins, even if it isn't me. However, I wonder if, in practice, even solo gamers rarely take on this kind of challenge without some sop to 'winning' or 'balance'.

    (Perhaps) when I get round to it, I'm going to get a copy of FNG and play a full campaign and see if that makes me play differently (if I win by getting my US squad through its tour of duty)


  2. Thanks for this post - an original and insightful take on why we (mostly) play solo! And thanks for setting up the Yahoo group, which I've found very valuable indeed. Cheers, Jay.

  3. Thanks for setting up the yahoo group.
    I play solo as an escape. For me it is all about the story. An opponent will normally ruin the story by trying too hard to win.


  4. I feel the same as Joe. It's about the story, not about winning per se. I like to have some chance of not getting killed if I'm playing an rpg or of winning a battle or skirmish if more characters or troops are involved. But mostly I want to be entertained and have unexpected things to happen along the way. Set-backs are part of that. As are long shots and winning out over great odds. Winning in this sense isn't always measured up the way it often is in non-solo games. I can still win if I have been entertained and if I have had fun even if I fail to achieve all of the game objectives.

    (great blog and thanks for the Yahoo group! I've gotten a lot out of it over the years)

  5. Thank you for all the comments.

    it does seem from here, at least, that the story for a solo wargamer is more important than for face to face gamers, but bearing in mind some of the previous comments on campaigns, that may not be true of all face-to-facers.

    The opponent trying too hard to win is interesting too. I wonder if that is because of the lack of campaign context.

  6. Excellent stuff David I think it expresses very concisely just what Solo Wargaming is really all about. It is never the winning or losing but the actual journey and the unexpected that makes it all so worthwhile.

    Also a thank you for setting up SoloWarGames an excellent forum for our nich within a niche hobby

  7. Wow, hadn't considered it this way. Excellent post! Really opens my eyes to solo gaming possibilities!