Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Going solo

Some time ago I was asked if I could explain how I play solo wargames. At the time I promised that I would write a blog entry about the methods that I use or have used, and that time has now arrived.

Using Playing Cards 1

One of the problems associated with solo wargaming is the natural bias a wargamer can show to one side or the other. One method of ensuring that a solo wargamer can only activate the units under their command randomly is to use playing cards. The playing cards are thoroughly shuffled at the beginning of each turn and dealt face down to each unit on the battlefield. Once all the units have been dealt a playing card, the cards are turned over. The value of the card them determines the order in which the units are activated. The order of activation is numerical (i.e. Ace, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, Jack, Queen, King) and by suit (Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades). Thus any unit dealt the Ace of Hearts is activated first, followed by the Ace of Clubs etc. through to the King of Spades. Once the unit has been activated, its card is returned to the pack before being shuffled for the next turn.

It is worth noting that the playing cards that are used are not of the standard size, as these are far too large for a normal tabletop battlefield. Smaller cards designed for playing Patience or Solitaire are much better and are not too intrusive when dealt onto the tabletop.

I first came across this mechanism in Ian Drury’s REDCOATS AND REBELS, although as far as I know it had initially been used by Richard Brooks. I subsequently used it in my rules REDCOATS AND DERVISHES, REDCOATS AND NATIVES, and RED FLAGS AND IRON CROSSES, and it is a fundamental mechanism in all the RED SQUARE games that have been developed over recent years.

Incidentally, one advantage this method has over many others is that if the game is interrupted for any reasons, it can be resumed without a hitch because it is obvious which unit is next inline to be activated.

This is my default choice of rule mechanism for unit activation because it can be used in rules designed for both solo and face-to-face wargames, and it will probably remain as such for all my future designs.

Using Playing Cards 2

An alternative method of using playing cards is to allocate a colour or suit to each side. The pack is shuffled as normal, and the top card is turned over. If the card is from the colour or suit allotted to one side, that side may activate a unit or – in certain cases – two units. This continues until all the cards in the pack have been turned over.

I devised this method when I wrote BUNDOK AND BAYONETS, and used it again in RESTLESS NATIVES. It randomises unit activation, but does not force a solo player to choose to activate a particular unit. It is possible, therefore, for the player’s bias to be exercised, something that I try to avoid in mechanisms used in solo wargames. It does have the advantage of being useable in both solo and face-to-face wargames, although it is probably more suited to the latter than the former.

Using Playing Cards 3

Larry Brom has used a third method of unit activation using playing cards in his rules THE SWORD AND THE FLAME. His method is similar to that outlined in Using Playing Cards 2, with the exception that once every unit on the battlefield has been activated, the pack of playing cards is shuffled again and reused.

This method remains very popular, and works for both solo and face-to-face wargames; however if one side has more units than the other it is likely to end up with some of its units inactive until late in a turn.

Activation Cards

I first used a pack of specially made Activation Cards when I designed MIMI AND TOUTOU GO FORTH, a wargame about the battles between British and German gunboats on Lake Tanganyika during the First World War. The pack of Activation Cards comprised ten each for the MIMI and TOUTOU and five for the KINGANI. The pack had different numbers of cards for each participant to reflect the fact that MIMI and TOUTOU were twice as fast as their opponent and carried guns that fired twice as fast.

A similar method was used in SOLFERINO IN THIRTY MINUTES except that the Activation Cards were for each of the commanders present (e.g. Emperor Napoleon III, Emperor Franz Josef, and General Niel). Each commander had a different number of Activation Cards in the pack; this reflected their ability.

This method has several advantages over the use of ordinary playing cards. Firstly it is possible to skew the number of each Activation Card in the pack to achieve a level of differentiation between units or commanders. Secondly it is possible – using one of a number of desktop publisher programs, an inkjet printer, and sheets of pre-cut business cards – to produce Activation Cards that make it easy to identify which unit or commander is next to be activated.

Travel Risk Dice

TRAVEL RISK uses a set of special dice. The have a different symbol on each face of the dice; a General’s head, a cannon, a cavalryman, a single infantryman, two infantrymen, and three infantrymen. I have used them to determine how many of each type of unit either side can activate during a turn, with a different number of dice being thrown by commanders of different abilities (e.g. a ‘Poor’ commander throws two dice; an ‘Average commander throws three dice, and a ‘Good’ commander throws four dice).

Whilst this method works well with ‘Horse and Musket’ era battles, it seems out of place with other historical periods. It also allows player bias, which militates against its use.

Memoir ‘44/Battle Cry Command Cards

Both these games use a form of activation card (called Command Cards) that players use – and then discard – to determine how many units they can activate in one or more of the three sectors of the battlefield (e.g. Issue an order to two units on the left flank and two units on the right flank).

By shuffling these Command Cards and dealing one or more face down to each side at the beginning of a turn, and then turning them over it is possible to have a variable number of units on each side activated each turn and reduces the level of player bias.

Like the TRAVEL RISK dice, the Command Cards work well with World War II (MEMOIR ’44) or American Civil War (BATTLE CRY) era battles, but seem out of place if used with other historical periods. That said it would be possible to copy the method without too much trouble.

- o 0 o -

The above is by no means an exhaustive list of methods that can be used to help players fight solo wargames. It is, however, a list of the methods that I have used, and as will be obvious from my comments, I have found some of them to be more effective than others.


  1. Bob,

    While I don't recall who it was, recently a blogger was talking about some changes he'd made to "Victory Without Quarter" to make it more suitable for multi-player games.

    He numbered each unit for each player. Then if a black four was drawn, all Royalist players got to move their number four unit; if a red six was rolled, then all of the Parliamentarian players get to move their #6 unit.

    One of the advantages with this is that not all commands need be the same. One card could activate a gun for one player; a foot unit for another; and a mounted unit for a third.

    This technique could even be applicable for solo play. With multiple commands, there could be activity all across the front.

    -- Jeff

  2. Jeff,

    This sounds similar to the method used by Rudi Geudens ( and in several of his sets of rules.

    He developed the method after using the Command Cards in BATTLE CRY, and although I have never used it myself it seems to work well for both solo and face-to-face battles.

    The idea of combining numbers and colours would seem to make for greater randomness, something that I think is more important in solo battles in order to counter player bias.

    All the best,



Thank you for leaving a comment. Please note that any comments that are spam or contain phishing messages or that come from Google Accounts that are 'Unknown' will be deleted.