The 4 Types of Solitaire Variants in Board Games

Board games from my collection

Every game I research that has been out for at least 2 months and isn’t from 1967 has a solitaire variant, usually multiples ones, posted on BGG.  And if they don’t, it is because the game comes with one or the publisher has published their own at some point.  But that doesn’t stop gamers from improving or tweaking “official” variants either.  We solitaire gamers are tinkerers, if nothing else.

I have played a good number of these variants in my young board gaming career, and plan to talk more about the best ones on this blog in the future.  For now, I would like to outline the 4 main types of variants I have encountered and discuss why I enjoy or do not enjoy each type.

1. The Race Against Time

Lets say you have a game that is normally competitive, where the players are trying to get to a certain objective or number of points before the game ends.  The player who has the most points or who triggered then end is thus the winner.  These games are super easy to transform into solitaire games with a slight rules tweak.

Take Splendor.  A resource management, engine building game where they players are racing to 15 points.  Need a solitaire variant?  Set the game up, see how many turns it takes you to get to 15, 20, x points.  Presto!  But is that fun?  It depends, but my answer is usually, yeah, for a couple plays.  But after awhile you get sick of racing for a high score.  Or you can’t possibly go any faster unless you get the luckiest card setup/draws in the world(Buy Splendor and support the blog).

The positives of this type of variant is that it is almost not a variant at all.  It is more of a slight rules modification if anything.  The mechanics and flavor of the original game tend to be preserved though, and this type can be useful for players to refresh or learn the rules of a game before teaching their friends.

On the other end you must realize these are usually just simple timers or shallow races lacking much tactical an strategic depth.  They can be useful if you have a craving desire to play a game or want to get refreshed on the rules or mechanisms but can often lack re-playability.

One of the simplest and best of this type is a simple timer variant for Istanbul that I have reviewed on this site.

2.  The Massive Overhaul

Lets say a game has beautiful artwork, a innovative combat system, awesome story, but the special powers, character development, and activation system relies on hidden information and reactionary type mechanisms.  NOT SOLO FRIENDLY!  What are lonely gamers to do?  We can either just play with everything face up and see if it still works(that is what I do for Imperial Assault, and it works..ish) or we scrap everything we don’t like and forge a new path!

The best example of this type of variant I can give you is Nerdook’s Descent Variant that removes the need to have an Overlord or Dungeon Master player.  The work he has done is inspiring and this variant is almost an entirely different game.  It is not for the faint of heart mind you– this requires you to learn new rules and print or somehow create the new components required to play.  If you want to see how fast it takes you to kill 10 myrmidons then this is not what you are looking for.

The advantage of overhaul variants like this is that if they are popular enough there is a good chance the are actually somewhat balanced, tested, and fun.  A lot of variants are designed by amateurs and not vetted enough(nor should they be) and can sometimes require or invite further tinkering on the part of the solitaire gamer.  Nerdook’s variant has had multiple versions, iterations, comments, and suggestions from fellow gamers.

The disadvantage to this is you might not want to put this much effort in.  One could spend the time used to construct these elaborate variants working and use the money they earn to buy another game!  Personally, I usually only dive into these type of variants if I am absolutely in love with the game and can’t devise an easier way to get it played.

This type also covers things like using Aramada rules for Star Trek.  Whether that counts as a variant or not is up for debate.

3. The Improvement

More and more games nowadays are listed as 1-x players which means they have a solitaire variant, mode, or option built right in.  The truth of the matter, though, is that a lot of the time these are half-baked afterthoughts.  Improvement variants seek to do the impossible; creating a better solitaire experience then even the designer could.

One of my favorites and the 1 player Guild Award winner for 2014 is Jeff Hannes’ Lord of the Rings: The Living Card game Back to Basics variant.  This variant takes a somewhat intimidating and challenging game and reduces the barrier to entry by giving you a pre built deck that is viable in most of the scenarios and comes with cards from only the core set.  While different in structure then most variants and perhaps more of a really really good deck-list than a variant, it is still awesome nonetheless.

The deck building, while enjoyable, is what prevents me from playing this game as much as I should.  Whenever I think about breaking it out I always get into the mindset that I need to alternate deck building with playing and then deck building again until I beat each scenario and then start over to get my full enjoyment.  Ultimately, that usually never happens and I get turned off or distracted by another shiny game on the shelf.  Jeff’s variant has helped me get more plays in and simplify the psychology of LOTR:LCG and for that I am grateful.

Other ones of this type worth mentioning are improvements to Agricola’s solitaire mode and a better Ascension solo mode.

4. The Smorgasbord

While the above types are specific, the last one is a catch all for every other variant out there.  The most common type is a variant that tweaks a few rules, changes some numbers here, a touch of different scoring here, but overall seeks to preserve the feel of the original game.

I think on the whole a good portion of variants do this reasonably well.  Of course there are a number of stinkers out there, but it is hard to fault anyone as most of these are created by amateur volunteers in their spare time.  The BGG community and especially the 1 player guild is so incredibly creative and passionate every time I log onto the site I find something new and exciting that it constantly amazes me.

I hope this post has opened your eyes to some of the advantages and disadvantages to different solitaire variants and given you some fun ones to try out.  My apologies if you have to buy a new game or two to try them out(not really :D!).

What is your favorite type of solitaire variant?  Have you ever made one of your own?  Is there a type I missed?  Let me know if the comments below.


  1. Arkham horror should be included un the list. AH is a moderna classic of cosmic horror. It’s like an rpg un a box.