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Four great board games to play solo now, then enjoy with friends in 2021

Fresh single-player experiences for every skill level

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Game pieces from Dune: Imperium laid out on the game board, which is a map of the planet Arrakis. Image: Charlie Hall/Polygon
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Even before the global pandemic, board games were undergoing a quiet revolution. Not only are more games coming to market than ever before, the games themselves are more complex and feature multiple modes of play. You can enjoy many of 2020’s best games solo, then share them with your friends once we can all be back together in 2021.

These new solo experiences include multiple campaigns with increasing levels of difficulty that reward patience and practice. They’re also excellent ways to learn the fundamentals of play, which can help you to become an expert when it’s time to teach your friends.

Here are our top four picks for great board games to tide you over this winter.

Dune: Imperium

Dune: Imperium plays incredibly fast — especially compared with the classic strategy game from the 1970s. This latest iteration blends worker placement mechanics (common to modern classics like Lords of Waterdeep) with deck-building (found in games like Gloomhaven and Clank!).

Best of all, Dune: Imperium launched with a handy iOS and Android app. It’s not a tutorial, but a full-fledged AI that drives the action of the game for a single player. If you’re not into the app, there’s also a deck of cards inside the box that accomplishes exactly the same thing.

For hobbyists, there’s also a deluxe upgrade pack with 3D plastic miniatures that could use a nice coat of paint.

Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion

Good Dungeon Masters are hard to find. That’s why Isaac Childres’ Gloomhaven is such a joy. Not only is it a stellar dungeon crawler with easy-to-learn mechanics, a branching narrative, an open world, and around 100 encounters, it also involves everyone at the table as a player character. That’s how the sequel, Frosthaven, became the biggest tabletop Kickstarter campaign of all time.

Unfortunately, you won’t be able to play Frosthaven until at least March 2021.

So why not give Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion a try instead? This mass-market adaptation of the franchise is a bite-sized version of regular Gloomhaven. It also comes with a much lower price tag — $49.99 versus $140 on Amazon. Not only is the game perfectly playable in solo mode, it also serves as an expansion to the original game. That makes it an excellent foundation to grow on.

Imperial Struggle

A game of Imperial Struggle Struggle laid out for solo play.
Imperial Struggle laid out on the table for solo play.
Image: Scott Mansfield/GMT Games

The spiritual successor to Twilight Struggle one of the most critically acclaimed board games of all timeImperial Struggle tells the story of the conflict between England and France during the colonial period. The game comes with multiple scenarios, including one that will be perfect for fans of the musical Hamilton and the American Revolution.

However, unlike the other games on this list (and some of my other favorite GMT Games, especially Labyrinth: The War on Terror, 2001 — ?), Imperial Struggle does not actually include a proper solo mode. Instead, you’ll need to play a simulated game against yourself.

Imperial Struggle is not your average mainstream board game, however. It’s not even a good fit for the hobby games category, in my opinion. Instead, it’s more of a hardcore experience on par with traditional chit-based wargames or grand strategy PC games like Europa Universalis or Crusader Kings. This is the kind of tabletop experience that will reward careful study before placing it on the table across from a friend. If you’ve put together more than one 1,000-piece puzzle during quarantine, this is the board game for you.

Imperial Struggle is currently out of print, but additional copies are available for pre-order from the publisher.

Marvel Champions: The Card Game

Image: Charlie Hall/Polygon

Released in 2019, Marvel Champions: The Card Game was one of the standout titles of that year’s Gen Con convention in Indianapolis, Indiana. In 2020, Fantasy Flight Games’ living card game has released a multitude of expansions — including a new campaign in Marvel Champions: The Card Game — Rise of the Red Skull.

What makes Marvel Champions so much fun is its cooperative style of play, which allows multiple heroes to work together against the same villain. It scales up to a full table of four, or down to a single player quite nicely. There’s also a new campaign coming out in 2021 titled Marvel Champions: The Card Game — Galaxy’s Most Wanted.

Note that you’ll need Marvel Champions: The Card Game — Core Set in order to play.

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