Solo board games have become an indispensable phenomenon in the board game world since the corona pandemic at the latest. When it comes to solo variants, there's one name you can't ignore: Automa Factory. All Stonemaier games get their solo variants from there and many other great games like Glen More II: Chronicles also get their solo modes from there. We spoke to Morten Monrad Pedersen, founder of Automa Factory, about the process of developing a solo mode.
Playing solo on the computer or consoles is very common. Why not, if you're using the robot as a means of playing. In the analog world, it initially seems absurd to develop an artificial intelligence that simulates a fellow player. The word “company” is also in parlor games.
The reasons for playing solo are varied and so are the different characteristics of the solo variants. From high score hunts in which you try to get better with every game, to moderately complex card-controlled bots, to opponent simulations with detailed rules, there is something for every taste. One name is present in the world of solo variants like no other:
Automa Factory – solo mode as a branded product
Even board game fans who rarely or never play solo should be familiar with Automa Factory. Their logo is emblazoned on games like Flapping wings, Scythe, Viticulture or Glen More II The head and founder of the Automa Factory is Morten Monrad Pedersen. The Automa Factory “brand” is now so widespread and respected that it can be operated as a full-time profession. It all started with the solo mode for Viticulture of Stonemaier Games, for which the Automa Factory develops solo variants for all games to this day. Many recurring elements can already be found here.
The elephant in the name is the term “Automa”. This term is often used synonymously with terms such as bot, artificial opponent or AI. The term originally originated there Viticulture takes place in Italy and José M. Lopez-Cepero (co-designer of the solo mode) suggested the term as a simple Italian translation of the word Automat.
A “real” Automa from the Automa Factory follows six principles that Morten uses in his Blog on BGG clearly explained. Of course, the individual principles also appear at various points in this article.
How does the Automa come into play?
Before we start developing a solo mode, we first have to create a game with a missing solo mode. As a rule, it is now the case at Automa Factory that publishers/designers approach them and they do commissioned work. Since solo variants are now almost standard, the requests here far exceed the personnel and time available.
Individual solo variants were also created on the Automa Factory's own initiative. Have so Glen More II: Chronicles or patchwork fabric will also receive a solo mode, although the publishers have not actively requested this. However, such cases are the absolute exception.
Once the game is on the desk, the first thing to do is to work out the main interaction points in the game. After “The Automa takes on the role of a human player” and “The human plays according to the same rules as in a multi-player game,” this is the third main principle by which an Automa works. The existence of a win/defeat condition is also central here.
The main thing here is to distinguish between direct (attacks, worker locations) and indirect (upgrades to personal tableau) interaction. The latter is ignored in most cases because simulating it is often very complex and the added value in terms of gameplay is negligible. In general, the balance between the points “complexity of the simulation” and “importance for the feel of the game” is very important.
In Viticulture The central point of interaction is the deployment of workers. Therefore, the Automa blocks these at the beginning of each season. What is blocked is determined by the Automadeck. There is still a crucial point missing here that will become an integral part of later automata: humans should have an influence on the automaton's actions.
A special case that should not go unmentioned here because of its uniqueness is the additional downloadable solo mode for Roll&Write Rolling Realms, which did not make it into the official release due to the divided opinions in the test. In a way, this breaks with the fifth principle that humans should never make decisions for the Automa. However, this is absolutely justifiable, since humans are the automatons here. You play a game with slightly adjusted rules and have to score as low as possible (which is made difficult with the special rules) in order to beat the score of the first game, now with the normal rules, in a second round. The official solo mode that comes with the game is an 18 scenario campaign themed as a mini golf course.
Automa – Stupid but happy
An automaton doesn't make smart decisions. To do this, he cheats and performs actions that are, in themselves, superior to those of humans. In this way he compensates for making decisions that make little sense.
The Automa's decisions are usually dictated by a deck of cards. Putting it together is always a challenge and requires a delicate balance of predictability and chance. An important decision-making aid when determining the number of cards is the options that a person has on their own turn. The distribution of actions in the deck is also determined taking into account human capabilities.
Once a first draft is in place, it is tested, adjusted, tested again and further adjusted to meet the sixth Automa principle. The rules of the Automa must be streamlined as much as possible without negatively affecting the feel of the game and complying with all other principles. This can go so far that individual sections and formulations are spent several days in order to make everything as concise and precise as possible.
In the development process, the scope of the rules can go in both directions. Sometimes things start out complex and you can make a lot of shortcuts without disrupting the core of the game. In other cases, something has to be added to make the gaming experience really complete. Before a solo mode is really ready for the market, the internal tests are followed by many external playtests (approx. 200-300).
Thematic work is rarely done at Automa Factory. Apart from the name of the machine, there is actually no thematic reference in the development process in order to stay as close to the original game as possible.
Solo mode or solo play?
A few weeks ago it was at in Patience Morten's own game Skoventyr appear. I was able to play it once at SPIEL last year and, based on my first impression, I can highly recommend this quick solo/co-op game. The new publication served as the basis for the final part of the interview with Morten: The differences between solo mode and solo game design.
Here he made a really exciting comparison. The difference between developing a solo mode and an entire game is similar to the difference between a designer and a craftsman. The former thinks up something, for example when building a house, and the other then has to implement it (with a little freedom) in a fairly defined manner.
The freedom in game design, like the restrictions in solo mode design, is both a blessing and a curse. If you come across a problem, you can simply work around it in your own design, while a solo mode cannot change the source material. On the other hand, the specifications for a solo mode also allow “processing” according to tried and tested work steps.
Basically, in this comparison, Morten sees himself more like a craftsman. Skoventyr As a passion project, it was a nice side task and yet significantly more time-consuming than developing a solo mode. Developing solo variants secures income and, especially in Stonemaier's case, the requirements for multi-player games are many times greater than those for a solo game. With the established brand “Automa Factory”, the craft of “solo mode” pays off.
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