Solo Wargaming, what’s that all about?

Something a bit different from me this time, no pictures of new models or battle reports just me waffling about something that I think is great fun in these strange times…

As the title says “Solo Wargaming, what’s that all about?”

With the UK in lockdown because of the virus and with all the gaming clubs shut and most of us unable to meet friends or family for a game, what are we wargamers meant to do?

Solo Wargaming is a thing and something that this wargamer is glad that he knew about.

You can find many great articles written about solo wargaming around, but I thought that I would put my two penny’s worth in about the subject… it probably won’t be great like some of the articles that I have read, but it will be my take on solo wargaming and the ups and downs that I get from this strange side of our wonderful hobby, and if reading this post gives someone the incentive to actually play a game on their own then I am fine with that.

So why play by yourself?

Well for me there are many reasons, but I guess the main and most important reason is “playtesting” as I write rules I need to check them quickly and for me the only way that this can be done is to solo play.

I can’t just call someone up and say drop everything and get over here I need to check if this frigate can shoot this weapon and move like this!!

So if I change a certain rule for a weapon or a ship, all I need to do is get a couple of ships / vehicles / spaceships on the table and roll some dice to see if the changes work.

Also playing solo means I get to actually play something when a real live opponent is not available, this at the moment is due to the lockdown but this also happens when I can’t get to my club to meet my friends for a game.

So rather than just sitting at home twiddling my thumbs dreaming about gaming I just get some figures and scenery on the table and play.

I guess one of the other reasons for me to play solo is when I get a new rule set, I find playing through the rules on my own slowly is a great way to learn the new rules.

Being alone you can take your time and read through it all and play out small bits to see if you understand the rules and if they work, and this is without upsetting your opponent because you take so long to do anything.

I also simply like playing solo…  yeah ok that may sound crazy, I know that it is great fun to sit opposite a good friend and move your armies or ships or whatever about the table rolling dice and indulging in friendly banter and discussion, yes that is great.

But solo play also gives me a lot of enjoyment and fun playing both sides, it allows me to see the battle from the point of view of both commanders especially if there is a scenario with objectives involved.

For me it could be two post-apocalyptic vehicles fighting and racing over a wasteland or two spaceship fleets fighting in a unknown sector of space or two great armies fighting on a grassy plain, it doesn’t matter as long as I can see a story unfolding as the battle plays out.

That for me is the most exciting part, the story, yeah again I guess that sounds stupid, but when I see that lone squad of troops fight their way through that village and survive, or that last shot from the cruiser as it finally takes out that enemy battleship, or the gang that survives the attack by the rival gang, the game has told a story, and it doesn’t always have to have a happy ending that lone squad of troops could have been caught by the chasing force and killed or captured, to me it doesn’t matter it’s all about the fun of the game and the story.

I am also lucky enough to be able to set up a game and play it out over a few evenings taking breaks when I want and not being dependent on my opponent getting back to my house each evening to continue the game.

Playing both sides also means that I will always win 😊

How do you play by yourself?

There are many ways to play solo but these ramblings of mine will only cover the few ways that I play.

Split your brain in two!! Ok you don’t have to go that far but playing both sides as fairly as you can without favoring either side more than the other is probably the way I play the most.

It feels as if you are two players if only slightly, my brain is weird so this is very easy for me to do, but I know some people say that they can’t do this and find this a terrible way to play, they get very little enjoyment from playing both sides as they know what each side is going to do!!

When I play both sides this doesn’t seem to be a problem for me, I take the battle as a story and want to play it out seeing what the outcome is and don’t care which side wins or which side loses, for me it’s all about the fun of the game.

If you have a favorite army / force then it will be hard to play both sides fairly, because you will probably want your favorite side to win.

Many rules designers and writers have delved into solo rules over the past few years as this side of the hobby has grown, or at least come more into the limelight. This makes it a lot easier to wargame solo as there are now many systems available to buy, I use a few of them for my games.

But can you use any rules system to play solo?

The simple answer is yes… well ok there may be a few systems that don’t work well solo, systems where both players write down movements and actions for their troops in secret to be revealed each turn or any similar secret system, not even my weird brain can separate or split itself enough to manage this! With these types of games you would need to find other ways to control the secret orders system.

The majority of games out there could be played solo, I have far too many rules books for wargames on my shelves and I have played almost all of them solo at one time or another and they all worked. These rules cover pre-historic man fighting dinosaurs all the way to the future and space battles and lots of stuff in between.

Although I have to say some rules systems work better solo than others.

What I mean is rules that have a simple way to alternate activations within the rules are easier to play solo, for me anyway.

If you can’t predict when your ship or car or squad will activate during a turn it will automatically give a little more of the unknown feel to the game which makes solo play a little more exciting.

It takes that predictability away from controlling both sides in the battle, these unpredictable activation systems are already in many games around today, they could be drawing a dice from a bag to activate your units or by the turn of a card etc. each will take away that “all knowing” feel from the game.

Games such as Bolt Action, Chain of Command, I Ain’t Been Shot Mum, Sword & Spear and my games Stars & Lasers, Blood Sweat & Iron and the Last Drifters all use a system to activate units randomly or semi randomly and make solo gaming easier.

( note: this is not a complete list of games and is in no way suggesting that these are the only ones or the best ones, these are just some of the games I have on my shelf and have played solo )

I have also used this random activation on other games that it wasn’t designed for such as Epic and 40k and it works very well.

Are there any pre-made solo rules?

Some games come with solo rules already built into the rules system, and some games are design just for solo playing, they have some sort of mechanism that has been written with the solo player in mind.

These will probably be a game where you play against a side / force controlled by an AI – artificial intelligence, this can be a real simple fast system, or it could be a very in-depth and sometimes complicated system.

These will vary from game to game, but they normally all set out to do the same thing, allow you to play a game against a reasonable non-player opponent.

Games like these will normally let you control a small warband or squad or even a group of heroes and the AI will control all the bad guys, this can be done by using a set of instructions to cover all the actions of the enemies or it could be done simply by rolling dice to decide what your enemies might do in response to your actions.

There are many games around at the moment that are designed for solo play, games like Rangers of Shadow Deep, Hardwired, NUTS!, Six Gun Sound, 5150 Fighter Command etc. etc. these have been designed for solo play and do the job very well indeed.

( note: again this is not a complete list of games and is in no way suggesting that these are the only ones or the best ones, these are just some of the games I have on my shelf and have played )

You will have to expect that these rules will not and can not cover every possible choice or response to any given action, for a rule set to do this it would be huge!! And in my opinion would certainly not be fun to play.

Most systems will try to give reasonable responses to your actions but sometimes you will get that ( as a friend put it ) ‘that Kamikaze moment’ when you know a real live opponent would not have reacted like that ( for me that just adds another little layer of fun to the game )

The Kamikaze moment will happen sometimes but if the system is reasonably good it will not happen too often to make the rules seem silly, and I think you also need to throw in a little common sense into the mix as well… would that single unsupported light unit charge headlong across that open field against that dug-in heavy weapons unit, probably not, so not a hard thing to alter to make the game feel right.

Some rules sets use tables to make these decisions for the enemy units on the battlefield, some will use cards and some just use a roll of a dice, but what most of these systems do is just randomize ( to some degree ) what the enemy will do.

What other things can help with playing solo?

I find that random events can help a lot when playing wargames solo, these can be simple things like a tank or a squad of infantry or even a spaceship suddenly finding that they are low on ammo and will have to reduce their rate of fire, or a unit leader is a little indecisive so his unit can’t do anything for the next turn while he decides what to do next! Or a squad has found a secret stash of wine in the cellar so their morale is increase for the rest of the battle, but they can’t do anything for the next turn as they are busy having a little drink!

Some games will use cards to add these random events or there might be a table of events that you must roll on at certain times during the game, these events again add a little of the unknown and the unexpected to your games and can be a lot of fun if done right.

I find that campaigns are great and can be a lot of fun when played solo, unlike a normal standalone battle you can bring in all sorts of things to the game that would normally not be thought of.

Things like supplies for your forces, do they have enough ammunition for the next fight? or will the casualties from the last battle survive? Will you of your units be in the right place at the right time for the battle, did any of them get delayed so can’t fight?  these types of things will make several linked battles more interesting and I personally find that playing them and dealing with all of the in between stuff is a lot of fun when played solo.

Also when a campaign is played solo it doesn’t matter if it takes weeks or months to complete as its only you playing, how many campaigns have just ended because some of the people playing just gave up half way through or haven’t managed to play any games etc. I personally have been in several campaigns that have ended early because of these reasons and others, so solo campaigns for me are great.

Another thing that I feel makes a solo game more interesting is something that at first may seem impossible to do for a solo game and that is concealed troop movement!

I simply use cards on the table to represent the units in the battle, but some of these cards will be blanks or dummies and once shuffled or mixed up and placed face down on the battlefield I have no idea which is which, so as they move onto or around the table I have no idea where the real units actually are.

These of course could be units moving onto a battlefield and you do not know what they are until they have moved into range and have been identified.

Only when they are sighted and identified do you reveal if the unit is actually there, if it is you place them on the table if it is a dummy then there was nothing there… maybe the confusion of the battle, the smoke on the field and the noise confused the situation and the reports of that unit were false there was never a unit there.

Or these cards could represent individual figures in a skirmish type game maybe moving through the jungle or a village and only becoming visible when within sight / range, just turn over the card to see what’s there if anything.

This system works for many games and will allow for some surprises in your games, it’s the unknown that makes it fun.

There are many books and PDF’s around that can give you ideas and tips for playing your games solo, books like Solo Wargaming guide, this can be a help by giving ideas and charts and tables covering things like time, weather, logistics, etc. etc. that you can use in your solo gaming and campaigns.

Platoon Forward covers things like setting up the individual members in the squad and what happens to them between battles and more.

Programmed Wargames Scenarios gives details for complete battles covering both sides units and what they will do during the battle and the scenery they will fight on, I have used these many times with different rule sets and is very useful.

There are plenty of books and pdf’s around that do similar things as the ones mentioned, these are just a selection of the ones that I use.

Final thoughts…

I think solo wargaming is such a big part of my wargaming especially in these strange times, it is a great way to keep enjoying this great hobby, it’s no good doing all that lovely painting of your soldiers or ships or tanks or whatever and all they do is just sit gathering dust on your shelves!

Me I would rather use them in a battle on my gaming table and get some fun out of them.

I know that a part of the fun of wargaming is the social side of things like the banter with friends, the jokes and the laughter at the club or in a friend’s house, but when none of that is available then for me solo wargaming is the way to go, so go on try it you may find you like it.

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  1. Vic

    Hi Mac,

    I totally agree 🙂

    Solo gaming is a must for me. I live in a part of the UK that can best be described as a wargaming dead zone – it’s proved next to impossible to locate local players & the nearest gaming clubs have proved just distant enough to make reaching them difficult & ‘unfriendly’ enough I won’t try a second time.

    As a result I try to avoid rules sets that require secret written orders (or I gloss over that bit if they’re not 100% essential) & stick to rules that have, or can be adapted to, solo play.

    But, no matter how much fun can be had playing solo, nothing but nothing beats playing against a living opponent.

    Here’s to lockdowns end & seeing our friends again.


    • Mac

      Hi Vic,

      I am lucky in that I am a member of a fairly good club, but it’s not been possible to get there for a game for a long while so it’s been solo gaming for me.

      I agree is it great playing against a real opponent, but I still love solo gaming.


  2. Dale Munz

    I am a solo wargamer and periodically look around the internet for others who like to play wargames this way. This was a great discussion and I found myself nodding my head in agreement many times. I’m glad you mentioned Bolt Action and Nuts! For WW2 solo play, they are both about the best I’ve found.

    There are two points you made about solo wargaming that I found to be the key to enjoying this aspect of the hobby:

    1) “Split-braining” (great expression!). I don’t have the patience for the “other side” to look up all their tables, plot their next moves, while I twiddle my thumbs. I want to stay in the action ALL the time, and see the battle from both sides. All it takes is focus and imagination. If you do not have these, then better join a club, solo gaming is not for you.
    2) Randomization – As a boy, I played with soldiers and always knew who was going to win. MY side. But as an adult, I like the intellectual aspect of coming up against the unpredictable and dealing with it, no matter which side I am playing that moment. Many of my most enjoyable games and campaigns have arrived at conclusions I could not possibly foresee, and I was surprised and delighted at the outcome. How did that little country with a little army beat the big bad aggressor? Randomization comes in many forms, simple and complex, and can appear at many places in a game/campaign. Sometimes I just simply change around and experiment to find the right combination. But the main thing I’ve learned is that the SIMPLEST is the best and actually most effective. For example, I play DBA rules for ancients. I’ve not found anything that compares to the simple elegance of the PIP system. It makes every game exciting. And for campaigns, using SCMR (William Sylvester’s Solo Mobilization Campaign Rules) takes away that “all-knowing god” feeling and keeps me on my toes constantly. Randomization – a solo player’s best tool.

    Thanks for listening.


    • Mac

      Hi Dale,
      Thank you for your comments, as I said in the post I am a member of a local club but as I get older I am finding that solo gaming is more and more a thing for me, also my club has gone through a few changes recently so I am finding that I don’t go as often lately which makes solo gaming even more important to me.

      “Split-braining” hey I have an odd brain!

      But splitting your brain in two was / is very easy for me and is probably the simplest way to play solo.

      The “unpredictable” is the hardest part of solo wargaming, if you get this right then it makes the game so much better, dare I say, closer to playing a real opponent!!

      I have not seen SCMR before so I will have to have a search and see what that is all about.

      I did play DBA a long while ago and I did enjoy those games, although they were normally with a real live opponent, but over the last few years I have moved over to Sword & Spear ancient rules, their order dice system makes for a great game, full of tension and excitement, and does work well solo “Split-braining”

      I do agree that SIMPLEST is the best.
      Thanks again for your comments.

  3. Dale Munz

    Thanks Mac. I guess if you can “split-brain”, you can play solo. I’ve tried programmed non-player methods, but my “other brain” just wants to take over. SCMR is William Syvester’s method in his book “The Solo Wargaming Guide”. It has been my main inspiration for solo play. Great ideas. Especially SCMR. William describes it so well, but in a nutshell when the General (you) is preparing an attack or a defense, you come up with 3 possible and realistic plans. Then, roll D6 to pick one of them. That becomes your strategy. You play it out until you either engage the enemy or have reached your objective. Then you repeat the process, 3 more plans, roll D6 to pick one. Do this for both sides. It is amazing the combinations you arrive at. I do this mostly for campaign movement, but even in a battle. Talk about creating tension.


    • Mac

      Hi Dale,

      I am a muppet, I have the Solo Wargaming Guide ( see the last picture in the post above! )
      I didn’t remember the name of the writer, I got this a few Christmas’s ago and have read through it only the once when I got it and didn’t remember the three possible plans etc. in the Solo Campaign Mobilization Rules, I have used some of the tables from the book in my games, ones like the random terrain set-up and the weather stuff, and a few other bits.
      I will have to read through it again and see how the “three plans” works.


      • Dale Munz

        I didn’t get it at first, because I was fairly new to wargaming. When I started doing campaigns, I went back and reread it. It made a great difference for me playing solo. I’ve played around with a home-made campaign (black powder era) using the game RISK as “the world”, 4 randomly-setup “powers” and started each off using SCMR. It was a wild ride and I keep playing with it to change some of the parameters.

        Happy Gaming

  4. Great article! I have re-posted it to my own gaming blog with attribution since I mostly play solo games from Two Hour Wargames – which also play well in co-op, which is one of my favorite ways to play.

    • Mac

      Hi John,

      Thank you I am glad you liked it, I have no problem with this being re-posted, it is just me waffling on about solo wargaming but if you find it interesting then that is great.


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