The Best Solitaire Gamebooks Evar!

Thursday , 4, May 2017 5 Comments

Solitaire gamebooks.

Love role-playing games like nothing else, but don’t have a game group or else don’t know how to game master…? Yeah, that was me for a long time. I’ve played scads of the things.

What makes for a good one? They have a unique set of constraints. On the one hand, the illusion of choice has to be convincing even though you’ve got something only marginally more sophisticated than a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book. On the other, it has to succeed both as a story and as a game. And that’s a tough line to walk!

Here’s my take on the best of the genre:

The Rose Estes TSR Endless Quest Books — There is no game system with these, but the classic Larry Elmore covers certainly stand out. The interior illustrations give a look at a mass market approach to D&D from before Forgotten Realms. Also… these are actually kind of fun! (My kids wore these out.)

The TSR Super Endless Quest Books — These are bigger. They are explicitly based on AD&D. They have a stripped down rpg system. Everything about this looks good on paper… but for some reason it just doesn’t work. There’s a ponderousness to these, an excess of prose. I’ve had these for decades and never played them– and my kids wouldn’t either.

Tunnels & Trolls Solitaires — These are especially cool because they are the first solitaire line ever. The early ones are pretty wild and are a must-play for anyone that is into gaming history. They’re kind of all game and light on story. But the game is so lightweight, it doesn’t bog down. Compared to other game books, these have no qualms about arbitrarily killing you or making situations where mediocre stats will kill you outright. To my knowledge, this is the only game line that solved the problem of allowing magic wielding characters to use their games spell system at almost any significant decision point. (You cross reference the spell with the location to see what happens.)

GURPS Solitaires — The big ones here are the four Conan solitaires Steve Jackson Games came out with. Your mileage may vary, but for some reason I just bogged down with these. The combats are so elaborate and the system is so intrusive, I just never seem to circle back and do more with these.

Dark City Games Solitaires — These are based on the solitaire-oriented game system by Steve Jackson that came out between Tunnels & Trolls and GURPS– the legendary Fantasy Trip. These come with a map and counters for playing out the fights. And yes, it’s more about the combats than about the story much of the time, but these games are much easier to acquire than a lot of the vintage stuff.

I.C.E.’s Tolkien Quest / Middle Earth Quest — These are my favorites, true masterpieces of game design. The rudimentary rpg system is up to the task at hand. Total freedom of movement is achieved through a hex-crawl system. Plus… it’s Middle Earth!

Infocom Text Adventures — These classic games show what happens when you take both the rpg system and the finite number of choices out of a game book. You end up with sort of a pure logic problem where solving it is not unlike debugging a computer program. In some ways, this is still the state of the art in what’s come to be called “interactive fiction.” This is still the closest you can get to being inside a story. Historians of gaming will note that Zork and Enchanter present a window into the MIT D&D culture, however.

Classic Traveller — This is a role-playing game, not a game book. But more than any other game, people just tend to pick up Traveller and start rolling up characters, worlds, and subsectors and designing starships… and it’s so fun they don’t care if they never get a game session out of it.

The Hunters — This is a war game, not a game book. But it shows what you can do with a solitaire that is unencumbered by either prose or rpg mechanics. This game allows you to play out month by month entire careers of WWII German sub captains. It’s fairly simple choosing your range and selecting your targets… but there’s a lot more to this than just luck. A first rate piece of design work.

5 Comments
  • Gaiseric says:

    I was a big fan of the Lone Wolf books at one point too, which are now available online for free. https://www.projectaon.org/en/Main/Books

    The Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks were probably among the most mass market of these, but only a few titles were really memorable.

    I loved the hexcrawl TolkienQuest books. Night of the Nazgul is still my favorite gamebook.

  • Jon Mollison says:

    For a couple of interesting print-and-play games, you can check out the DwarfStar line, here:

    https://dwarfstar.brainiac.com/

    Barbarian Prince is a classic hex-crawl/exploration game with high re-playability. I’ve found that surviving the first several turns is the hardest, and that once you get over that hump survival gets easier. Still never beat it the dang thing, though.

    Star Smuggler is right up your alley, Jeffro. It’s a solo-Traveller adventure where you have one year to pay off the loan on your ship. Or you can just skip out on it, but then you have to worry about repo men coming after you. You can try to play safe (as a legit trader), but you’ll never make enough to win the game that way. You have to take risks and smuggle goods that might put you in trouble with the law.

    It’s an impressive game, but I struggled with the need for detailed book-keeping. Expect a write-up for a Wargame Wednesday sometime in the next few months. (I’m still working my way through my first game – this thing is worth dozens of hours on a single play through.)

  • Brian Renninger says:

    You might also check out Four Against Darkness.

    http://www.ganeshagames.net/index.php?cPath=1_55

    I haven’t played it yet but, have heard good things about it.

  • Bill Anderson says:

    Which Super Endless Quest books do you have? I’ve found the Ghost Tower (based on the C2 AD&D module) and the Soulforge to be both pretty good. The Soulforge covers the wizardry test of a well known character if you are familiar with the Dragonlance setting. This gamebook uses the AD&D spellcasting mechanics where you have to select a number of spells to memorize from a particular list and have the required spell components. Throughout the book, you get a option to use your spells and turn to specific page number (similar to what you stated about wizards in T&T solos).

    The most open ended gamebook series I’ve read is Fabled Lands by Dave Morris and Jamie Thompson (http://fabledlands.blogspot.com/p/fabled-lands-gamebooks.html). This set of interconnected gamebooks allows a reader to select a character class and roam from location to location in a fantasy setting. There is no overall strict plot, but each book has a variety of quests that characters can find.

  • Terry Sanders says:

    Second ORIGINAL TRAVELLER. I only remember one actual adventure I was involved in that was more fun than ship design.

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