Welcome to the second of the two articles on the best single player board games. If you came here directly from the first article, one dedicated to strategy games, continue reading.
If you missed my first article and even if you are not interested in solo strategy games, I invite you to read at least the part on Selection Process, since it applies to the selection of games in this article as well. It will make you better understand why I have selected the games below and why a particular game may not have been selected.
Enjoy the read, and I hope you find something for yourself. I’ll name my personal favorites in the conclusion.
Table of Contents
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- Nemo’s War
- The City of Kings
- Mage Knight
- Sword & Sorcery
- Conclusion (with honorable mentions and personal recommendations)
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Players: 1-4, but it’s meant to be played as a single-player game.
Playing time: 60-120 minutes
Theme and setting:
Nemo’s War is based on Jules Verne’s classic novel, Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea. It’s about Captain Nemo and his famous submarine, the Nautilus. It is a game of underwater exploration, combating vessels, wrestling the sea, and seeking wonders, secrets, knowledge, and vengeance.
How the game is played out, is heavily dependent on Nemo’s motives. There are four available: War!, Explore, Anti-Imperialism and Science. They provide scoring multipliers for victory points, obviously scoring more points for actions, relevant to their flavor. How many victory points you accumulate, determines if your game was a success or not.
How it’s played:
Game is played on a series of rounds, and each round is made of 3 phases.
- Event phase, where you draw an adventure card and immediately resolve it. This phase progresses the story.
- Placement phase where according to the two rolled dice, you place ship tokens on the oceans. The difference in numbers on the dice also represents the number of action points, you get for the round. (If you roll doubles, you can end up in special Lull turn, where you place treasures and uprising cubes.)
- The action phase is the meat of the game and it’s time to spend your action points here. In this phase, you have options to:
- draw another adventure card from the deck.
- attack ships (bold or cautious attacks + torpedo attack, once you have that upgrade) – combat sequence is initiated to determine the outcome.
- incite uprising, if there is an uprising cube available.
- move to an adjacent ocean
- rest to gain crew points
- repair to gain hull points
- refit (upgrade): double hull, fog machine, hydro drive, magnetic mines, periscope design,
- search for treasure.
If you don’t spend all the action points, you can transfer one to the next round.
It is worth mentioning that performing most of these actions is not a given – many of them must go through a test sequence to see if they succeed. This is done by rolling a die against a table, and you can spend resources (hit points) to add to your throw and enhance your chances.
The game is played until you are defeated:
- you lose your hull hit points,
- crew hit points,
- Nemo’ sanity points,
- the oceans become overwhelmed by ships.
Or you reach the Finale cards, that instruct you to end the game. Depending on your victory points, the manual will tell you if you won and to what degree.
Sunken ships fill-up the Tonnage table. How much of the table you fill out, directly affects the number of victory points you get at the end. But if you are not careful at sinking, it can affect your notoriety, which is another way to lose.
A lot of the outcomes in Nemo’s war are affected by dice. You indeed have a level of control over them, but in the end, it’s a moderately luck dependent board game. But it’s not really about luck or all the intricate game mechanics that run this game.
This is about you being Captain Nemo and reliving his adventure through your own experience. As such it’s an exceptional experience, especially if you play in solo mode, which is what it is primarily designed for. It does not work well if there is more than one playing.
Who it’s for:
Adventure cards that you draw during the game put you on an epic adventure, paralleled only by Jules Verne’s novels. If you read his novels at a younger age and found them fascinating and immersive, you will feel the same thing playing Nemo’s War.
The City of Kings
Players: 1-4, best experienced in solo (controlling 2 characters) or 2 player mode.
Playing time: 45-180 minutes, depending on player number.
Theme and setting:
City of Kings is a cooperative adventure board game (with elements of worker placement) set in a fantasy kingdom. Only one city still exists in this once-powerful kingdom, as everything else is taken over by the mighty Vesh. Game is played on a 4×5 tile board (tile in the bottom left is the city from the title), which is custom-made for each scenario and placed face-down, so you can explore it as you go.
You can choose from six different characters (once great leaders from the title) and each of them has a unique skill tree as you level up. Characters will travel the board (but not diagonally), explore it, exploit the land for its resources (with the help from workers they control) and collect weapons and items, that you will need for fighting the monsters you encounter on the way.
How it’s played:
During the set-up, you will select either Story (7 available) or Scenario (12 available) and set-up the tiles for the board according to instructions provided by it. There are different types of terrain tiles with different features and as you reveal them, they will provide resources, quests, items, spawn monsters, etc.
As you encounter creatures, you draw a creature card from a deck, its stat bar from another deck, and a special ability from a sack. This means every creature is unique and it also gives way for some interesting combinations to appear. Like a dragon-type monster with freezing ability instead of by the genre-norm expected fire blowing capabilities.
Game is played in rounds, and each round consists of three stages:
- Resolve impairments (like effects of fire and poison if any of those are on the map)
- Activate creatures (they will heal, attack, move and use their special abilities)
- Hero and worker actions (by using 4 action tokens). A hero can move, explore, attack, heal, perform special skills, and interact with special tiles, while workers can move, explore, or work (gather resources).
Resources that are gathered by workers, are shared by all the characters and can be used to buy new equipment or to upgrade certain buildings on the tiles. Another collective thing among the characters is experience and leveling up. They all share the same XP table and progress together.
Rounds continue, until player(s) complete the objective provided by the scenario. Or, if they run out of Hope or Morale, they lose.
Who it’s for:
City of Kings is a peculiar character. An adventure, using worker placement mechanics as your action points is a unique approach.
Combine this with monsters, that are always unique and random, combating them creates a puzzle, unlike any other board game. Fighting them is a tough cooperative challenge and every one of them demands a different approach.
I’d suggest The City of Kings to seasoned adventurers, who are seeking for something fresh.
Playing time: 60-240 minutes, depending on the scenario.
Theme and setting:
In Mage Knight, players play as powerful wizards/warriors, named mage knights. You will explore and roam around a beautiful hexagonal-tiled landscape full of natural (forest, plains, deserts …) and artificial (villages, cities, monasteries, mines …) features, but also full of fantasy creatures that are just waiting to be fought with and defeated for Fame.
Victory conditions are determined by the scenario. Usually, a player with the most Fame wins, but in some scenarios, certain actions may produce more Fame than others. For example, if you play a scenario to conquest cities, you will get more Fame from cities you take. Or in Mine Liberation, you take extra points for mines you clear.
How it’s played:
At the beginning of your turn, you will draw a certain number of action cards (starting with five, but it will increase as you level up). They determine what you can do in a turn: movement, attack, block, recruit minions, draw mana.
Each action card has a weaker top row action and a stronger bottom row action. If you have mana of specific color, you can use the bottom row action. Combining these cards to achieve what you want in a turn is the core of Mage Knight.
Let’s say you want to move two tiles and attack a creature. First, you must look at the terrain (because different terrain types require different move points), to see how many move points you need. Then you look at the creature to see how much damage you need to do to defeat it.
Now you look at your cards: Do you have any move cards or attack cards? Do you have any mana to enhance a certain card? Then you try to combine the cards in a way, to achieve your goal. If cards don’t allow it, perhaps you could do something else. Maybe visit a village instead and recruit a minion? Do you have enough influence cards for that?
The combining is deepened by the fact that you can always use any action cards for one (one movement, attack, block, influence). It all gives you a lot of tactical options and I believe it’s this deck combining that keeps Mage Knight so popular even 8 years after the release.
As you level up, you will obtain special skills, draw stronger action cards, increase your armor, and ability to lead more and better minions and become an overall much stronger Mage Knight. Not that you weren’t strong from the get-go, you are a hero after all.
Special mention must go to the day/night mechanic. When you run out of deck cards, time changes from day to night (and then back again). This changes some moving points required for terrain types (i.e. deserts are easier to move through in the night, while forests become harder), but also allows stronger spells with black (night) mana to be cast.
- Mage Knight Ultimate Edition Review
- Is Mage Knight Ultimate Edition Worth It?
- Mage Knight vs Gloomhaven
Who it’s for:
Mage Knight is a fantasy role-playing game with deck-building mechanics, character progression, and different scenarios to play – including a superb solo mode. If you enjoy adventures, exploration, and fighting mythical creatures, you will love Mage Knight.
Sword & Sorcery
Players: 1-5, best played with no more than 3 heroes.
Playing time: 60-90 minutes per scenario, also depending on the number of heroes and players.
Theme and setting:
The kingdom is in trouble, evil is on the rise and it’s time to call in our champions to defeat it. You know the drill, you’ve heard it a thousand times before in these fantasy games. You play as a group of those heroes, crawling through dungeons, slaying enemies, and unraveling the story of the campaign.
Sword & Sorcery is a cooperative dungeon crawler. Your group can contain up to five heroes, but the game becomes a bit chaotic with that many (since more enemies are spawned when there are more heroes). Two or three heroes is an ideal number.
That does not mean you need the same number of players as you have heroes. You can play alone and control all the heroes yourself – which is a pretty good experience.
How it’s played:
Sword & Sorcery is a narrative campaign game. There are seven scenarios in the base game and you should play them in order since they are connected by the story.
After flavor text, you set up a dungeon, as is instructed in a scenario, and after you complete it, go back to the storybook and read what happens next.
A scenario consists of a dungeon, that you must clear of monsters. Doing that, you’ll also discover weapons, items, and secrets helping you on your journey.
What you can do in a turn is dependent on your hero’s stats, but usually, your turn will go like:
- Move for a certain number of tiles.
- Combat enemies.
- Perform actions like dash, focus attack, open chest, open door, pick up or drop items.
After each hero’s turn, it’s the enemy’s turn. You draw Encounter cards to determine how many of them will activate, and then they will be controlled by their cards, which act as a very clever artificial intelligence.
Depending on distance to heroes and what items certain heroes carry (some creatures like to attack wounded heroes, other target heroes that have coins on them), conditions on the card will tell exactly what to do: move, attack, range attack, etc.
Combat (attacking and blocking) is resolved by dice. But it’s not down to just luck, there are shields, armors, weapons, and abilities that all have weight on the dice and you must take into account.
A player with good armor can still be hit if the dice fell the wrong way, but it’s much less probable than if he had none, so your decisions matter. I think they’ve hit the sweet spot with how much luck affects the game – it brings excitement and uncertainty but it’s not a rule-all.
This creates great cooperative gameplay, where you have to plan ahead, depending on your characters and map. You also can’t play it too safe and risk running out of encounter cards, because then you lose the game. Sometimes you just have to take a risk and move into an unexplored room to see what you wake up.
Who it’s for:
Sword & Sorcery is for people looking for a dungeon crawler with good combat mechanics, good AI, good progression system for heroes, and good (although a bit cliche) narrative. It’s also a very good single-player experience. Trying to juggle three heroes and their abilities, to work out how to defeat a dungeon, bring home loot and stay alive is quite an undertaking.
Game’s main drawback is the number of scenarios, especially if you compare them to our next entrant.
Playing time: 60-120 minutes per scenario.
Theme and setting:
If you’re into board gaming and haven’t heard of Gloomhaven, you must have been living under a rock for the past few years. The game was published in 2017 after a very successful Kickstarter campaign. It’s currently ranked number one on BoardGameGeeks (most comprehensive online board game database) overall list.
Gloomhaven is a narrative-driven tactical role-playing dungeon crawler placed in a fantasy world. You will explore the world, clear the dungeons, improve abilities with experience, find, buy and sell items and loot, and discover the story, depending on the decisions you make.
The bulk of the game are scenarios (95 included in the base game), connected by the story. Each of them includes some narrative and a dungeon to clear. That’s what you’ll be doing most of the time – clearing out dungeons in tactical combat.
Players play unique characters with their own set of skills, abilities, and agendas. Characters level up, improve, and grow during the scenarios, so players can feel connected to them. The world also changes depending on how characters progress and what decisions the players take.
Unlocking new stuff comes in mysterious envelopes, so you never really see all of the game’s components and you only open them, when you advance that far. It’s always something new and exciting to look forward too.
How it’s played:
The gameplay is divided into rounds. Gloomhaven uses very clever action card mechanics for characters.
Characters start a scenario with a predetermined number of action cards in their hand (depends on the character, it’s usually around ten): everything from moving, fighting, looting, healing is decided by these action cards.
Each character plays 2 action cards per round and reveals them face-up. Numbers on the cards (correlated with their strength) determine the order of play.
Including monsters, cards are played from the lowest initiative value to the highest. Actions are carried out immediately and are of course affected by combat modifier cards.
Action cards have top and bottom action (typically – but not always – the top being for attacking and bottom for moving) and you have to decide on one top action and one bottom action from each card. Used cards are discarded, and you can only regain them by resting, but that means you have to give away one of the cards for good. But beware – if you run out of action cards, the scenario is over for you – you are exhausted.
Deciding what combination of cards to use, when to use them, and what is the most effective way of doing that, is the core of Gloomhaven’s gameplay, and looking at it from a distance it’s a giant puzzle. How do you come through a dungeon with your hand?
Combining cards is what you’ll be doing in Gloomhaven for the vast majority of the time. Fortunately, it’s an excellent game mechanic and a very enjoyable challenge, disguised in an immersive adventure.
Monsters are controlled by drawing from an artificial intelligence deck of cards, so you’ll never know how exactly approach a certain monster since it can behave differently as last time.
Who it’s for:
Gloomhaven is a gigantic game. It’s made of hundreds of components and just setting up a scenario, sorting everything to its place, can be quite a daunting task. The gameplay itself is smooth, but it’s very mentally demanding on the players. There are hundreds of small rules you have to take into account, and you’ll find yourself constantly going back to the rule book for clarifications. Game is challenging, but you can set the difficulty lower if you find it too hard.
If you’re a hardcore enthusiastic gamer that has (both physical and mental) space and time, Gloomhaven is the best available. Solo experience is also brilliant – pick a couple of characters and enjoy watching them grow, change the world, and engage in an innovative combat system.
If you like the idea of Gloomhaven but are scared away by the number of components and complexity, look up for Jaws of the Lion, its younger brother. Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion takes the best bits of Gloomhaven, simplifies the rest, and makes itself accessible to less-hardcore players.
First, some honorable mentions, that barely didn’t make the list.
- Kingdom Death: Monster, a combination of civilization building, adventure, and tactical combat. Highly rated, I can only recommend, but the entry price is very high.
- Too Many Bones, a dice builder role-playing game with its unique strategic use of over a hundred dice. Again, highly rated, but expensive.
- This War of Mine. Experience of civilian survival in a city under siege. Adapted from the video game of the same name, it is inspired by events of Siege of Sarajevo in the 90s. A frustrating and depressing experience is well represented by game mechanics and presentation.
Now, my promised personal recommendations. If we break our five candidates into categories, we get a unique novel-based adventure in Nemo’s War, two adventures in an open world (The City of Kings and Mage Knight), and two dungeon-crawlers (Sword & Sorcery and Gloomhaven). The better ones in the latter pairs are Mage Knight and Gloomhaven.
Mage Knight is my favorite. I believe it’s the best thematic single player board game.
- For more thematic games, read my article on best Horror Board Games
- Best Solo RPG Board Games
- Top 10 Pirate Board Games
- Best Lord of the Rings Board Games – Top 6
Have I left out any games, you think should be on the list? What are your favorites? Please leave a comment below.