If you take up Biology in college, before long you get to hear all about the humble fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster
. Not because it’s the biggest bug out there, or the most dangerous or most interesting, but because its characteristics make it an ideal model organism for research in genetics, embryology, and a variety of other specializations. It’s easy to breed in a lab, its genome is comparatively tiny, and it exhibits a plethora of well-described, highly visible mutant phenotypes. For science, the species is a simple tool that can be readily used to demonstrate a variety of genetic phenomena.
If anyone ever teaches a graduate course on how to design a single-player card game, Jason Glover’s Desolate
should be their Drosophila
Despite its concise package, this well-designed strictly solo game demonstrates all of the elements you’d want to have mastery over if you were making your own. There’s a time clock in the form of Oxygen consumption. There are rounds of combat dictated by dice roll, and there are beneficial or harmful locations dictated by card draw. There are item cards that let you improve your odds, but most of them are consumable, so you have to use them wisely. But most importantly, there is Balance, with a capital “B.” Any single-player game is inevitably a case of player vs. random chance, but the death knell of a poorly designed game is inability to mask this fact. No one is too eager to play a game where “all you do is draw a card and do what it says,” or “all you do is cross your fingers and throw dice.” In a good game, luck-of-the-draw and luck-of-the-dice need to be countered by player choices, most of which usually boil down to some sort of resource management. Glover clearly knows this, and has demonstrated it almost to textbook precision with Desolate
Consider a standard turn in the game. You play as an astronaut who has been stranded in an abandoned lunar base. Invading aliens, similar in appearance to the classic grey from UFO lore, have overrun the base and killed the other inhabitants. Your depleted ship needs five fresh power cells in order to launch, and you can only find these by rummaging through the base, level by level, fighting off alien attacks as you go. In any given turn:
- You draw two cards from the exploration deck, which represent two alternate paths through the base. One is dealt face up; the other stays face down (luck of the draw.)
- You need to make the “Let’s Make a Deal” decision of whether to go with the option that you can see, or to discard it and go with the option that you can’t see yet, in hopes that it winds up being the better of the two (player choice.)
- Some exploration cards are beneficial, and will provide the player with free resources, or even one of the five needed power cells (luck of the draw.)
- Many exploration cards are hazardous. If you buy the two Dark Matters expansion packs, you get a greater variety of hazards, but in the base game most of the hazards are alien attacks (luck of the draw.)
- You almost always suffer some initial damage from each alien attack before you can defend yourself. This initial damage is determined by drawing a card from the conflict deck (luck of the draw.)
- The strength of the alien, and the size of the reward you get for defeating it (although not the actual identity of said reward,) are determined by combining the exploration and conflict cards that were drawn when you first encountered it (luck of the draw.)
- You choose how much of your limited ammunition you want to use to fight the alien. “Ammunition” translates to number of dice rolled in an attempt to beat the number showing on the alien’s conflict card (player choice, resource management.)
- You roll your chosen number of dice, taking your shots at the alien (luck of the dice.)
- If you fail to defeat it in one round of combat, you suffer more damage, determined by drawing the next conflict card (luck of the draw.)
- You repeat the previous three steps until you either defeat the alien, or run out of ammunition (player choice, resource management; luck of the dice and draw.)
- Provided you survive, you claim your reward by drawing the next encounter card, inverting it, and either taking both printed rewards if the alien was stronger and held a large reward crate, or choosing one of the two if the alien was weaker and held a small reward crate (luck of the draw, some player choice and resource management.)
- In the base game, you get two items out of the item deck at the start of the game, (luck of the draw, although you get to draw three and keep two, so player choice is also a factor.)
- You may use items at any point to improve your chances of survival, but many of them are one-use-only (Player choice, resource management.)
- At most, and this is using the expansion packs, you can only draw a maximum of four fuel cells in your first run through the encounter deck. Usually, you’ll be lucky to happen upon two of them. Depleting the encounter deck represents having completely explored one level of the base. You re-shuffle the discarded encounter cards, and you work down (or up) to the next level of the moon base, hoping to find the remaining cells necessary for the win. However, since your character is wearing a spacesuit with a finite supply of breathable air, you lose two units of your Oxygen resource every time you complete a level. Since you only start with a paltry four units, and running out means death by anoxia, you have a limited amount of time in which to find your five fuel cells (time clock.)
- Certain locations will automatically reward you with a small amount of free oxygen, ammunition, or health points, but since all aliens carry reward crates, deliberately choosing an alien attack, preferably from a weaker alien, becomes a necessary strategy for replenishing your resources before you die or become all but defenseless (player choice, resource management.)
- Using the expansion packs, a few locations or alien rewards are actually hazards that either waste your valuable oxygen or give you psychoses. These afflictions either alter the rate at which you consume resources, or remove the option of choice when claiming a reward from a small crate, which impacts resource consumption indirectly (luck of the draw, resource management.)
The point is, whenever Glover’s game throws elements of luck in your path, it usually also throws a player choice down, too. Desolate
never puts you entirely at the mercy of bad luck; the player always has a role in determining how best to use their available resources to survive. Synergy between random actions and player strategy lies at the heart of designing a single-player game, and Desolate
is a quick to learn, easy to play, uncomplicated card game that serves as an excellent demonstration of how to achieve that balance. It’s an ideal model.
Unfortunately, people buying card games aren’t looking for succinct academic models, they’re looking for stimulation and challenge. Many of the critics of Desolate
find it lacking in one or both. How you play has a lot to do with how challenging a given hand is, and how much brain power you have to devote to it. Since most of the impact of any single turn comes from which of the two exploration cards you chose, it’s easy to wind up cruising through this game pretty much on autopilot, rejecting all alien attacks that are dealt face up and always choosing to throw one more die than the alien has showing so long as you still have ammo enough to do so. You may not win that way, since your gun tends to run dry pretty quickly if you don’t conserve, but since this is such a straightforward game, playing it with even an average chance for success doesn’t automatically demand a whole lot of thought. It also doesn’t require a whole lot of time; one game fits into fifteen or twenty minutes, and resetting for the next round takes about all of one. Anyone looking to this game for an entire evenings’ worth of fun will have to play several hands. The fuel cells that you need to find for winning can’t be created, they can only be luckily happened upon. (There is a multi-player expansion that does have a mechanism for cobbling a fuel cell together from random scrap metal, but I don’t know much about it, since I don’t own said expansion.) Your strategy boils down to trying to replenish resources in order to survive long enough for the random action of finding a fuel cell to eventually happen five times. That’s still strategic, but indirectly so. Some players may be turned off by the fact that how you play doesn’t make it much more likely that the prize will fall into your lap, it just makes it possible for you to stay in the game long enough to allow the fuel cells to fall when and where they will. People reading all the high praise that reviewers such as myself have heaped onto this game may mistake it for something bigger, bolder, and more involved than it’s actually trying to be, and they may become quickly disenfranchised by how small of a footprint it makes. This is a great game for fill-ins, when you don’t have the time or the desire to shuffle several decks or organize oodles of tiles and tokens. One YouTube reviewer (and I would give credit if I remembered which one it was) made a great point and said that it was a good game to have in the wings on game night, so that players who were dealt out of the main event early had something fun to do in the corner while they were waiting for the next deal-in. Personally, I’m glad that I have a game or two that doesn’t
demand the entire evening in sacrifice, for nights when I only want to feed the beast intravenously.
As for looks, Desolate
relies on black and white, almost Moebius-like comic book art. The alien exploration cards and the conflict cards all have the same artwork, either a stereotypical grey alien head for the exploration cards, or a sort of undefined tentacled cone on the conflict cards that could be interpreted as a piece of the alien vessel, a piece of alien weaponry, or a piece of alien (and let’s not worry about which
piece.) The alien head and the alien tentacle-cone-thing look like they should have come from two different species, but since the latter is more atmosphere than specific prop, it doesn’t matter. Our actual lunar footage is mostly black and gray, since the Crayola corp. just hasn’t made it there yet, so Glover’s stark monochromatic depiction of the sterile lunar environs is perfect for the setting and tone of his game. But, like the game itself, it can’t pretend to be any bigger or better than it is. If you use the Character cards from the expansion packs, you at least get a human face on your game (or half of one, since the characters’ helmets cover up their mouths and foreheads.) Other than that, it’s mostly location art or some very basic item art, and a lot of it is fairly similar looking. Given the price point of this game, you shouldn’t be expecting a masterpiece on every card.Desolate
has been expertly crafted by a designer who clearly knows how the sausage gets made, but anyone expecting it to become their favorite child will be disappointed. It’s a good thing in a small package, but it’s junk-food fun. If you’re used to bigger challenges or more involved gaming systems, or if you demand a full-course banquet every time you sit down at the table, you’ll get bored with it fast. If someone really is looking for an educational model of how to balance luck with strategy within a single player game, you won’t find a more apt example than Desolate
, and if you are interested in breaking into game design, even though I’ve never pursued that course myself, I would recommend you familiarize yourself with its anatomy. If you’re looking for fun, I still recommend it as a small potato, provided you aren’t going to ask more of it than it was engineered to provide. It’s a good quickie, and it’s a game that you can still enjoy when you just don’t feel up to a more complex one. Or, to put it another way:You can play it when you’re frazzled;
You can play it when you’re fried;
You can play it when you’re sick, or drunk,
Or too pre-occupied.
For those nights when tricky games just aren’t
Jejune enough to take,
You can shoot the moon with Desolate,
And veg within its cake.