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Solo Games – an Interview with Unbroken’s Artem Safarov

Solo games and solo modes are among the most popular trends in board game design nowadays. Sure, their origins are much older, but only recently we’ve seen successes such as Unbroken – a solo only game, that got really popular on Kickstarter. This week, we’ve had the pleasure to talk with Artem Safarov – the author of the game. We couldn’t resist the opportunity to ask him some questions about solo games, their design and where he gets his inspiration from.

Hello Artem!

Hi, Gwido and the KA | Board Game News readers! Thanks for this opportunity to chat! Before we dive in I will right away point out that those looking for information on issues with Unbroken’s fulfillment came to the wrong place. The project updates continue to be a better fit to learn the latest / discuss those. I have also spoke about it in previous interviews. Now that we covered that off – let’s get to your insightful questions!

Unbroken really made us fall in love with its concept right when we found out about the campaign. Which was the first during Unbroken’s design: the idea of creating a solo game, the mechanics or the story?

It was story first, then the focus on the solo game only and mechanics was the last thing to click into place. One kind of led into the next. The story was engaging and a new way to look at a premise that has really become a tiresome cliché (dungeon delving has been done to death). The spin I chose to pursue was a perfect fit for a dedicated solo experience (Friday by Friedmann Friese was a great inspiration in that regard).

Mechanics went through a series of iterations. The initial draft was super focused on micromanagement (to the point where each of your survivor’s limbs would have its’ own set of statistics like health, armor and available actions). That was tedious as hell and I abandoned that idea very quickly. I really like where the game ended up – a resource management dungeon crawler – somewhat abstract, but hopefully not sacrificing the “feel” of survival in a perilous underworld.

How did you get the idea of a story about a lonely wanderer exploring dark, damp dungeons? 

So, this whole premise is “inspired by real events” as they say – at least as real as they get in the gaming world. A few years ago I was really into Darkest Dungeon – it’s a very dark, brooding RPG that really emphasizes the horror aspect of dark fantasy genre (it’s also a fantastic rogue-like RPG that I encourage everyone to try. Best voiceover in gaming, hands down.) In the game, groups of up to four adventurers descend into the catacombs on a variety of usual quests. Naturally there is no “save” function to reinforce the perilous feel of the game. So, one of my expeditions saw three of four of my characters being killed and the last one crawling back towards the exit with minimal health left. 

It was a very memorable, tense experience that inspired me to dig deeper into what it would feel like to be such a survivor.  Turned out it made for a great premise for a solo game, and I got to apply my own take on the darkness and danger of the adventuring and the truly deadly nature of monsters lurking in the shadows.

Did you consider any other themes or was it supposed to be dark fantasy dungeon crawling right from the beginning?

Not at all, it was dark fantasy from start to finish. I believe firmly in designing games for themes that you know well. I think that way you can design mechanics that organically translate into the kind of narrative that you want the players to experience. I know I am not nearly as well-versed in sci-fi or modern tactical combat, so I try to play to my strengths in storytelling. I believe that players who live and breathe certain genres can easily tell whether the design represents a theme well or was just a lazily applied “skin”. I wanted Unbroken to feel authentic and firmly rooted in dark fantasy.

How did your experience from designing Cauldron help you in creating Unbroken? Or are the genres too different?

The two games were very different, but the process of iterative creation of prototypes was the same. For Cauldron I would craft a prototype, then run games, keeping track of irregularities or things that seemed off-balance, so that I could later smooth it out through balancing. This philosophy was applied with even more rigor on Unbroken where I had statistical analysis of hundreds of plays between iterations. As a result – I am very pleased with the balance of the final product.

Solo games are a unique genre to test. Do you do the tests yourself, ask your friends or maybe reach out to solo gaming communities? How did this process look in Unbroken?

I played hundreds of games of Unbroken myself, especially early on, but the game benefited hugely from the support and input of a wonderful solo community. Folks over at Solo Gamers Facebook Group and the BGG 1 Player Guild  tested the game probably over a thousand times. Some of the testers, whom I have been speaking with for a couple of years now, have become my good internet friends. The feedback that I got from testers was extremely helpful in getting Unbroken to be what it is – I am super grateful for how generous they were with their time and advice. Finding testers wasn’t that difficult (that’s the beauty of testing a 20-minute solo game – it’s not very demanding to get to the table!) as I would just put out the call and had lots of interest from knowledgeable and committed players.

I think creating this community around the game was a huge reason why the campaign was successful right from the get-go – these folks have been amazingly supportive of the game and it showed on the campaign. All the more reason to get the games out to everyone as soon as possible.

This may sound strange but solo gaming is sometimes considered… weird. I keep meeting board gamers who keep asking why the hell would someone play games alone. Do you think this mentality will change in the near future?

I remember some time ago, probably 6 years or so, I gave a copy of Lord of the Rings LCG to a friend as a gift. He looked at the “1-2 players” on the box stupefied. “Playing a game with just one person?” he asked – “what, is this like the equivalent of Forever Alone meme?”. That was weird to me. We play computer games alone and that’s considered perfectly normal. Why not a board game? I think this “weird” mentality still exists, especially among the non-gamers (though in gamer circles solo games have certainly become more normal).

Most of it has to do with the fact that people think of the gaming experience a certain way – bunch of people, around a table, interacting over a common activity. There are many games that are just that and those are great games – there are many that depend deeply on player interaction and are fantastic games specifically because of it. But it’s not the only way to make a great game. The card-based solitaires have been around for a long, long time. Reading or video games allow people to experience stories on their own and no one bats an eye. Even choose your own adventure books are basically text-based games. So, I think there is very much a sub-set of games that work well solo – those can and should be explored and developed further.

In my opinion (as I have explained in detail in another interview) I prefer to have a clear distinction between games that are best with other people vs. games that are played “against the game”(and I don’t mean a “fake AI player”). I think the two experiences are very distinct, so playing a game that was meant as multi-player against AI, you are by default settling for a subpar experience. By the same token – if the game can be enjoyable without the addition of other players – I think the design misses out on opportunity to make presence of other players and interaction with them more meaningful.

This is mostly theoretical – I do play and enjoy these “solo-playable” games (Tiny Epic Galaxies and Imperial Settlers hit my table regularly). I just think both those games shine much stronger in multi-player and there are other games that do much better for solo play. 

One of our favourite things about Unbroken’s campaign and the game itself was the writing style. I know that you have a mathematical background but have you ever done professional writing? Maybe some favourite authors? 🙂

Well, that’s very kind of you to say. I really enjoy writing and I do a lot of it at work (my role has gradually shifted away from statistical research into project management into more of a leadership/communications position). Writing fantasy was definitely never a part of my professional responsibilities :). I do have a rich experience writing and running RPG campaigns (I take pride on my ability to actually run coherent campaigns that span 1-2 years and have a definitive end point of the overarching story). I think that helped a lot.

My taste in fantasy writing is pretty classical – I adore the stately, soulful prose of Tolkien and really like the dry wit and gritty descriptions of Andrzej Sapkowski. Patrick Rothfuss has always inspired me with his incredible ability to construct worlds that are simultaneously feasible and fantastic. The severe, laconic writing of Darkest Dungeon game (that I mention before) has also had a big impact on how I approached Unbroken.

More than anything else I appreciate that I got to bring this world to life through some of the short stories that I wrote – it was very rewarding to hear that people enjoyed those.

Do you play bigger games with solo modes? I’m recently in love with 7th continent and have put over 40 hours into soloing it.

Haha, I have kids, man. I can’t remember when was the last time I put 40 hours into anything that wasn’t work or Unbroken- related. I think the most ambitious that my solo gaming gets is Eldritch Horror – it plays in 1.5-2 hours but even that duration really limits how often I can bring it out. It’s just a fact of life for me as a parent of young kids with a demanding job (and a troubled Kickstarter) that most of games I play have to fit into an hour or so.

I do feel this limits the kinds of gaming experiences that I can have. I hear wondeful things about the detailed immersion of behemoths like Gloomhaven, Kingdom Death: Monster, This War of Mine and 7th continent. I dearly want to try those games, but I think that will have to wait a few years until I have a bit more free time.

Final question! 🙂 Name your top 3 solo games (or more if you have more favourites).

#3 would be Space Hulk: Death Angel. I love the brutal, merciless feel of the game, the dynamic it creates with a fairly abstract set of rules and the fact that defeats feel as cinematic and awe-inspiring as victories.

#2 is the old reliable Friday. It’s such a smart, compact little game – I love taking it with me on work trips and camping, it delivers a challenge play after play. It was also my first experience with a solo-focused game, and I think it taught me a lot about the genre, which gives it a special place in my heart. Also – it plays in 25 minutes, which ensures I get it to the table often :).  

My absolute favourite is the Lord of the Rings LCG. It’s such a rich and evolving representation of a beloved world with a ton of content available and an amazing community around it. I love the deck construction aspect, the variety of quests available, the gorgeous art on the cards and the fact that individual games fit within an hour.

Honourable mentions – I also enjoy the campaign nature and a more “zoomed in” micro focus of Arkham Horror LCG. The Lost Expedition is a challenging resource management brain-burner with very cool retro art reminiscent of Tintin comics. Elder Sign (with Gates of Arkham expansion) has a very smart dice-focused task resolution system that makes for exciting and memorable games.

You’ll note my solo taste is focused on games that have been released 3-5 years ago. I must admit that right now I’m a bit short on time and energy to actively learn and explore new games (that Unbroken KS takes a lot of time and energy). But I definitely look forward to exploring lots of new titles in the future – it’s great to see the genre continuing to develop and grow!

Thank you again for this interview and for your thoughtful questions. I hope my answers made for an interesting read. All the best to you and the KA team!

Artem.

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