Soloing Board Games - Talk With Liz Davidson of Beyond Solitaire

"Soloing a board game? Why.....?" you might ask. At least, that was me when I first heard of this form of entertainment. Fast forward 1.5 years, I have Too Many Bones and Nemo's War proudly sitting at the top of my wishlist. And now I'm talking with Liz, one of the biggest proponents of solo gaming in the industry.

Hey Liz, thank you for making your time! First up, could you tell us a bit about yourself?

Sure! I review solo board games for my own site, Beyond Solitaire, and for The Dice Tower. I also create solo tutorials on my YouTube channel, as well as interview interesting people about board game history and culture on my podcast. Both are, shockingly, called Beyond Solitaire. In regular life, I am a high school Latin teacher. 

Teachers are awesome (in hindsight). How has that experience been for you and if you were to go back, would you still choose to teach high school students? (I teach high school students too by the way!)

I will admit that COVID has me feeling a little less enthusiastic about my job at the moment—I am currently doing “concurrent” teaching, which means I have some students physically in the room with me while others are online. I teach both groups simultaneously. It’s not a sustainable way to teach. But in a normal year? Being a teacher is awesome, and I particularly love to teach high schoolers. They are great because they are starting to develop more “adult” opinions and perspectives, but also have a lot of growing to do. Plus, teenagers are hilarious. 

How aware are your students about your love for board games? (Have they subscribed to your YouTube channel?!) Also, have you ever tried using board games (or its concepts) as an example when teaching?

In a normal year, students know I love board games because I play with them all the time! (Unfortunately, that’s not the case right now.) I’m actually pretty open about the fact that I have a YouTube channel because once the kids know about it, it’s not interesting to them at all anymore, and they leave me be. I have no interest in interacting online with students who have not graduated yet. I haven’t fully had the opportunity, but I want to play more games with the kids in Latin. I’ve made a Latin UNO deck before, but I have a draft translation of “Love Letter” that I’m dying to test out. 

What is your "teaching philosophy" and do you find that it carries over into how you approach the "how-to" videos on your channel?

My teaching philosophy is that every student can learn Latin, if they are supported and allowed to learn at their own pace. I also believe that learning should be enjoyable. I try to break games down into digestible chunks on my YouTube channel, just as I would any concept for class. My gaming and teaching philosophies also line up in the sense that I believe that everyone can learn games and enjoy gaming. But my “real life” classes are a lot more interactive than my YouTube channel. 

Don't give up on Mage Knight! Liz has an awesome series of tutorials to tackle that bear.

What has been the most rewarding part of running your YouTube channel and what is your vision for the channel?

Just having a channel and watching it grow is tremendously rewarding. I think I get more enjoyment out of my games by communing with them and then interacting with others about them. But my vision for my channel is constantly in flux. At first I thought I just wanted to do tutorials, but I’ve really started to enjoy interviewing people, and my interest in historical games is evolving in some unknown direction. My podcast is my favorite project I have done to date, because I’m having so much fun looking at and thinking about games on a deeper level and with such great conversation partners.

I feel like most solo gamers go through a transition point of "before solo" and "after solo". Could you share how your transition went?

My solo transition isn’t all that exciting. I may cover only solo games, but I play both alone and in groups. The simplest version of the story is that I really loved to play Magic: The Gathering, but it was too expensive and annoying to keep collecting all of the cards. I switched to the Lord of the RIngs LCG to scratch that deck construction itch, discovered I could play it by myself, and boom, I was a solo gamer. 

What do you think are some of the biggest barriers to solo gaming? (whether for people not yet into solo gaming or for solo gamers)

I think there are two main barriers. The first is that it’s a pain in the butt to learn a bunch of games all by yourself. It is far easier to have someone teach you a game. I personally like to be taught by others whenever possible. The second is that I think people still struggle with the idea of doing most things by themselves. I value my alone time, and I was willing to go to the movies or eat in restaurants by myself before I discovered solo gaming. I think that made it easier for me to give it a shot.

The "soloness" of Liz's gaming is debatable :)

Despite the "barriers," solo gaming has gained a lot of traction over the years, where it now seems almost criminal for a game to not have a solo mode. What do you think are the main reasons behind this trend?

People like to pretend that solo gaming is some weird niche activity, but in reality, it is hugely popular. The solo community is huge and vibrant—just take a look at the 1 Player Guild on BGG, or the Solo Board Gamers group on Facebook. We solo players are enthusiastic about games, we play a lot of them, we gather to discuss them online. There is no online gaming community I’d rather be a part of. To me, it makes perfect sense that a publisher would want to capture a little of that magic. 

There are all sorts of different solo modes these days. What's your favorite and why? Actually, do you happen to have a favorite designer whose ideas always seem to resonate with you?

Overall, Mage Knight is my most beloved solo board game and I don’t see any other game unseating it. That said, I particularly like board games that are truly designed for solo players, and I like to play against some kind of game system. I don’t necessarily have a favorite designer, but I do love Chip Theory Games. I also adore solo war games designed by David Thompson (Pavlov’s House, Castle Itter) and Robert Deleskie (Wars of Marcus Aurelius). 

Have you ever had a designer approach you and ask for feedback on their solo mode? What do you think are your personal criteria in judging whether a solo mode is good or bad?

I’ve been approached to playtest but I hate doing it. I prefer to review a finished product. For me, a solo mode is good if it is engaging and full of interesting choices, and I like it even better if it plays very smoothly. A solo mode is bad if it’s needlessly complicated, unclear, clunky, or an underdeveloped tack-on to a multiplayer game. 

Let's say I had a friend who is new to board games but enjoys a puzzly kind of experience. Which game(s) would you recommend? How about for a friend who is a polar opposite of that and wants an epic experience under 2 hours?

These are really questions for 1PG or the Solo Board Gamers Facebook group. But if you want a puzzle, go for a Euro. If you want a thematic experience, go for a fantasy adventure or a wargame. 

You've been a Dice Tower contributor for a while, but it was my first time seeing you featured on one of their Top 10 videos (which I loved by the way!) How was the experience and if you were to go back, would you do anything differently?

I loved doing those Top 10 videos for Dice Tower! The entire Dice Tower crew is friendly, relaxed, and fun to be around, and it’s been really nice to get to know them better over the last year or two. I don’t think I would do anything differently—it was a blast!

 

If you could do another Top "X" video on The Dice Tower, what would you love to talk about and who would you like to have join you?

I actually am not a great person to ask about this because I am not actually a big fan of Top 10 lists. (Heresy!) They are just arbitrary fun, and my rankings change all the time. It might be fun to do a Top 10 of games set in the ancient world, with Morgane Gouyon-Rety (Pendragon), Robert DeLeskie (Wars of Marcus Aurelius, Stilicho), and Tom Russell (Agricola, Master of Britain and much more). 

If you could change anything about your favorite solo game (Mage Knight), what would it be and why?

I would not change Mage Knight. I would change my schedule so that I had more time to play Mage Knight.

I love that answer.

Which game has been on your radar for 2021, and what makes you excited about it? Also, which game do you think has the highest potential to make big leaps in rankings on the Solo Guild's Top 100 games for 2021?

My big game for 2021, barring a huge surprise, is going to be Hoplomachus: Victorum from Chip Theory Games. I am a huge Hoplo fan, and I absolutely cannot wait to see how they renew/rework the game system I know and love. Honestly, whatever makes a surprise leap onto the Solo Guild’s Top 100 will be a game that gets a lot of press, and I’m terrible at predicting that. My feeling is that the upper end of that list is fairly static, and as you get further down, you see more games that rise and fall dramatically due to reprints, representation on Facebook or BGG, etc. 

Is there a super underappreciated game that deserves more attention? If so, please make your case on why we should try it out!

Everyone acts like war games are so brutal and scary, and they have been falling off of the People’s Choice Top 100 at an alarming rate. I say go ahead and try one—Thunderbolt: Apache Leader gets less love these days than I think it deserves, as do many DVG games (Cards of Cthulhu, David Thompson’s Valiant Defense Series…) Also, if you haven’t tried something from Hollandspiele yet, do it. Don’t expect luxury components. Do expect a thought-provoking experience and a sassy rulebook. 

Lastly, are there any exciting developments in the works you would like to share with us? What would be your dream project? (Please let us know how we can stay up to date with you too)

I’m working on Season 2 of my podcast right now, and it’s going to be awesome! I’m reworking how I want to approach my YouTube channel, but definitely expect more tutorials, and maybe more deep dives into the history behind some of my favorite games. Also, I read as much as I game, and I finally started a BookTube channel so I could talk about books. You can find me pretty much anywhere as Beyond Solitaire (and as Beyond Solitaire Books if reading is your thing).

Thanks again Liz! Loved hearing your thoughts when I watched you on Dice Tower's Top 10 and I knew I had to reach out. And I'm grateful for your tutorial on soloing Pax Pamir (Second Edition), it came in very handy and you were absolutely right—it was a real treat :)

 

Thanks for the read everyone and here are some links for you to stay up to date with Liz:

For those who are new, you can find the rest of my interviews here: https://www.boardgameatlas.com/topic/fFPci5qT1d/bga-interviews



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8 days ago

I was already a fan of Liz's, and all the great work she shares, but I didn't know she was a teacher! I'm an even bigger fan now. And a teacher of high school Latin?! Latin was one of my favorite classes in high school, and was taught by one of my favorite teachers. I enjoyed it so much that I ended up taking more Latin in college as an elective (I know), and continued taking more until, had I taken a few hours of introductory Greek, I would have accidentally qualified for a minor in classical languages. (That minor, in conjunction with my major -- Creative Writing with a focus on poetry (egad!) -- would have made me even harder to employ than I already was.)

Latin is something I use daily, be it via new vocabulary or informing my use of English, and I wouldn't trade my knowledge of it for anything. I'm happy to know that Liz and others like her are still disseminating that knowledge to minds that likely don't even yet realize how valuable those gifts will be.

Supporter7 days ago

That's awesome, I never took Latin but I imagine it's handy. I on the other hand took Japanese for 4 years and it only comes into play when I watch anime lol

7 days ago

I'd love to learn Japanese. Heck, I'd love to learn any additional language at this point but it definitely becomes more difficult as we age. And no matter how or when it comes in handy, that it does at all is valuable in itself!

9 days ago

What's that in the sky! It's the geek signal calling me to binge the entire first season of this podcast!!

Supporter7 days ago

DO IT!

Supporter9 days ago

Liz Davidson is incredible. She's a blessing to this hobby and her enthusiasm and teaching skills helped me learn Mage Knight quite quickly. Fantastic interview

9 days ago

Whoa I missed this post - I'll have to read this tonight! I really enjoy Liz when she's on the Dice Tower, though I haven't seen enough of her!

Supporter7 days ago

Yup, I really enjoyed hearing her thoughts when she was on the Top 10 video :)

9 days ago

Great interview ! I don't think I've noticed you posting content like this before but it's wonderful!

I'll definitely have to give her podcast a listen. She just gained a subscriber in me!

Supporter7 days ago

Thank you! Liz is great.

Interviews used to be my go-to content. I just took a very long hiatus after 2020. My most memorable interviews are with the artists of Wingspan and with the designer of Unbroken, who went through an absolutely disaster working with Golden Bell Studios

7 days ago

Cool I'll have to check them out!

10 days ago

Big fan of Liz, great interview

Supporter7 days ago

Thank you!

Supporter10 days ago

Wow, you are up late. LOL

I have been wishing you would interview her.

Amen, get into war games.....LOL

 

Supporter7 days ago

Ugh, yeah it was very last minute and I wanted to fit it into the newsletter lol. I want to interview Solosaurus as well. How has their podcast been lately ever since the swap?

Supporter7 days ago

It's been fine. I think they are still finding their feet. I am worried about some of their judgments, but so far I am hopeful.

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