Interest in solo gaming has picked up in recent years and for us 1-player gamers, it’s been great to benefit from the boom. Most board games these days include some sort of solo mode, and if there isn’t an official one, there are likely several fan-made options posted to BGG. But that’s not to say that every game is worth playing solo. Merely having a solo mode isn’t necessarily enough; it needs to be well-designed and engaging. While I still give priority to solid mechanisms, I’ve lately been more and more drawn to thematic games that offer an immersive experience in a world that’s exciting to explore.
Theme can manifest in a variety of ways, whether that be through mechanisms, artwork, or a captivating story. On this list, you’ll find entries that make the cut because the gameplay elicits a strong sense of immersion in an interesting theme. Many of these games also have mechanisms that tie well into the theme, emphasizing the feeling that you’re doing something mechanically that makes sense thematically.
The games below are either predominantly considered solo games or are known for their strong solo modes. So, while theme is the most important factor, a solid solo experience is still critical to being included on this list.
Top 10 Thematic Solo Games
10. Coffee Roaster
I drink a couple of cups of coffee every day, so this theme really perks me up. In this bag-builder by Japanese designer Saashi, you’re roasting coffee beans to achieve that perfect cup of joe. You do this by upgrading the levels of the beans and adding them back to your bag, where you’ll also throw in tokens representing things like acidity, aroma, and even burnt beans. It’s a great calm, puzzly game to play while you’re drinking your morning coffee.
9. Baseball Highlights: 2045
If this game is any indication, baseball in the future will be a blast, with cyborgs and robots on the field next to human big leaguers. This 2-player game plays great solo and has a simple “AI” that manages to top-deck double plays when you’ve got runners on or home runs when you’re all out of defense. Everything in Baseball Highlights makes perfect sense if you’re a fan of the Show, and it really draws you into this world where cyborgs get robots to K on a well-placed Uncle Charlie. So, stop riding the pine, get on-deck, and try to avoid that golden sombrero.
1-2 Players • Ages 9+ • 45 minutes
8. Arkham Horror: The Card Game
In Arkham Horror: The Card Game, you’ll be delving deep into Lovecraftian lore to investigate horrifying mysteries, and if you’re lucky, you might avoid going insane in the process. The deck construction gives you the agency to craft your characters’ strengths and weaknesses, while the campaign nature of the game means you’ll be pulled deeper and deeper into the mind-shattering world of Arkham Horror. Story is king in this game, and there’s enough content to keep you occupied until an Ancient One arrives to devour the world.
7. Star Trek: Super-Skill Pinball
Star Trek: Super-Skill Pinball is really two themes wrapped up in one package: you’ve got mechanisms replicating pinball machines and then there’s the Star Trek theming of the four tables. Even the other entries in the series are thematically fun, especially the Holiday Special featuring National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. In this roll-and-write, you’ll be rolling dice, nudging the table, and hitting bumpers, spinners, and drop targets, all while wrangling Tribbles, beating the Kobayashi Maru, and sending your fleet to Wolf 359 to engage the Borg.
6. The 7th Continent
In this choose-your-own-adventure style game, you’ll be exploring a lost continent filled with dangers and wonders to chill the bone and excite the imagination. There’s a great sense of mystery and discovery as you search the landscape for tools and weapons to aid you in removing a terrible curse. You’ll hunt for food, craft items, navigate around obstacles, and fight wild beasts in this epic sandbox experience.
5. Trickerion: Legends of Illusion
This worker-placement game does an excellent job of bringing to life the theme of late 19th-century stage magicians. If you’re a fan of Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige or you just like stage magic and illusion in general, this game is for you. Under the hood of the unique theme, though, is a solid mechanical foundation, with an interesting action selection system that tasks players with planning well in advance. You’ll go Downtown to learn new magic tricks, visit Market Row to collect components such as doves and rope, then head to the Theater, where you and your assistant will stage a performance to shock and awe a captive audience. Are you watching closely?
Note that the Trickerion: Dahlgaard’s Academy expansion is needed to play this game solo.
4. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns
In The Dark Knight Returns, you’ll be playing out Frank Miller’s classic story of an aging Batman returning to action, working to clean up the streets of a dystopian ‘80s-era Gotham City. Throughout the game’s four books, you must survive an onslaught of mutants, cops, rogues-gallery staples Two-Face and the Joker, and even the government’s enforcer of law and order, Superman. There’s a solid sense of narrative in this as it faithfully adapts the comic, but you’ll also be able to author your own outcomes by making choices that rally your allies, determine your utility belt’s loadout, and permanently alter the cityscape. So grab your cape, cowl, and explosive batarangs, and call Green Arrow, because Gotham needs saving.
Time travel is my favorite theme in movies and books, so it was only a matter of time until this showed up on the list. Anachrony deals with time travel using an interesting mechanism that allows you to borrow resources from your future self at the beginning of a round. But those resources must be sent back to your past self later in the game or you risk generating paradoxes that will tear at the fabric of the space-time continuum. Great Scott! The Chronossus, Dávid Turczi’s excellent solo bot, does solid work replicating human actions and behaviors, allowing you to anticipate possible choices while managing to remain unpredictable.
1-4 Players • Ages 15+ • 30-120 minutes
2. Big Trouble in Little China
Have you paid your dues, Jack? Yes sir, the check is in the mail. John Carpenter’s action, comedy, fantasy, martial arts movie is full of thrilling moments and memorable quotes. From the rulebook and cards to the minis to the board itself, the game evokes the excitement of the classic ‘80s film. When playing the game solo, you can run one or more characters, fighting through the alleys of Chinatown as Jack Burton, Wang Chi, Egg Shen, and Gracie Law, just like you always dreamed. Big Trouble in Little China plays out over two acts. In the first, you’ll be completing quests throughout Chinatown, battling Lords of Death and Wing Kong hatchet men, collecting items and weapons, and leveling up your characters. The second act takes place in Lo Pan’s lair, where you’ll face off against the ancient sorcerer David Lo Pan and the Three Storms. Will you be able to shake the pillars of Heaven and save Miao Yin? It’s all in the reflexes.
1-4 Players • Ages 14+ • 60-120 minutes
1. Final Girl
To steal a line from my review, this game oozes theme like blood dripping from a razor-sharp machete. Final Girl pits you against a killer straight out of a horror movie and the tension never lets up. You’ll just be trying to survive as you stumble through the location, maybe a creepy summer camp or a quiet suburban neighborhood, desperately searching for something to use as a weapon to defend yourself. Then suddenly, the dice will fail you as a masked killer appears before you, sledgehammer in hand, and the screen goes black. Horror fans in general (and slasher aficionados in particular) will revel in the bloody carnage packed into this game. With numerous feature films to add to your core box, there are plenty of final girls, killers, locations, and themes to fit your mood, be it a summer camp slasher, dream-invading stalker, ghostly haunting, or creepy carnival. And Season 2 has recently arrived, so Final Girl versions of Alien and John Carpenter’s The Thing are now in the mix, along with zombies. So, pop your favorite slasher movie into the VCR (it’s obviously Halloween), put Final Girl on the table, and let’s see what Laurie can do.