Solo Dexterity Games

Dread is a tabletop RPG in which you build a Jenga tower, and whenever you want to do something risky, you pull some number of blocks from that Jenga tower. If it topples over, you are dead! This is of interest to me because it’s the kind of thing that can sustain solo play. Could you adapt an RPG’s combat system to work on Jenga blocks without simply rebuilding from the ground up? Doing so would replace tactics with dexterity, which is good for solo play, because dexterity can be tested against arbitrary goals, like “pull 20 Jenga blocks without knocking over the tower,” while tactics requires building some kind of AI.

The main issue with using Jenga for these purposes is that once the tower has been knocked over, you’re done. A scheme to do something like convert the CR of enemies into a number of Jenga blocks to pull – in addition to totally removing all differences between builds of all characters – is inevitably a game of seeing how far you can go before you topple the tower and the game comes screeching to a halt. If you aren’t actually dead, you may as well be, because you probably won’t want to continue play if it requires resetting the tower. Not only that, but any kind of healing in this system is horribly laborious. What do you do, pull a block off the top and try to insert it back into the middle? That’s as likely to knock the tower over as taking damage. Just give yourself a number of free pulls, where you get the benefits of pulling a block without actually doing so? Then a major component of game strategy is to avoid actually playing the game as much as possible. And while resetting the tower when you take a long rest or equivalent isn’t terrible, because that’s probably a good time to unwind anyway, it’d still be better if you could make a system where resetting a Jenga tower wasn’t a necessary step of play mid-game.

The problem might get easier if we look at other dexterity games playable by one person. For example: Crokinole, highest rated dexterity game on all of Board Game Geek despite having been created in 1876, and that’s not just because the dexterity game category is barren – it’s not, and Crokinole is rated 77th overall. Crokinole is a dexterity game in which you can score either 20, 15, 10, 5, or 0 points on your turn, which maps well to a d20 roll, if we swap the 0 for a 1. Crokinole isn’t nearly as much fun with just one player, because you cannot attempt to hit opponent discs and knock them out of the scoring area if you have no opponent. You could begin with several opponent discs on the board instead (though probably best to waive the rule requiring you hit an opponent’s disc for a shot to count if you’re using the shot as a die roll), or you could just use an empty Crokinole board and simply use the shot to replace die rolls.

With a bit of creativity, Crokinole can do a surprising amount of heavy lifting. For example, add a new rule that you can flick your disc from any quadrant that isn’t occupied by an enemy disc, and that hitting enemy discs has some effect on them in addition to whatever the results of your score. Then you can have an enemy backline on the far side of the table guarded by discs on the two intermediate quadrants. Maybe enemies in the center gain some benefit, so knocking discs out of the middle denies the enemy powerful artillery. Combine this with Jenga and it takes away the biggest drawback of Jenga-as-health: If you use shielding or healing to avoid damage, that doesn’t mean you aren’t playing the game, it just means you’re playing more Crokinole and less Jenga.

Maybe modern games can provide more fodder? Dr. Eureka is pretty highly rated, a game in which you have three plastic beakers with two colored marbles each, two red, two green, and two purple. You draw a card that displays a different arrangement of the same marbles in the beakers, for example, one green and purple beaker, one purple and red beaker, one red and green beaker. Then you must rearrange the marbles in your beakers to match the cards without touching any of the marbles or letting any of them leave the beakers. In a regular game, you race against other players, but you can also race against an arbitrary time limit. You could use Dr. Eureka as your spellcasting system, with particularly fast mixtures allowing you to cast a spell as a bonus action instead of a standard, while running out of time might waste your turn and force you to choose next turn between attempting to finish the spell (picking up the game of Dr. Eureka where you left off with a reset timer) or letting the spell fizzle to do something else.

So how can all of these systems come together? I dunno. I just needed a Friday article and couldn’t think of a topic, so I slapped together some half-formed thoughts.

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