Dora Guo

It’s the middle of the pandemic (and it’s been the middle for a long, long time by now), and I am bored, and all my friends are busy, and am struggling with hard Zoom fatigue. What shall I do? 

Well, with pen and paper, imagination, and a working laptop that can display and download PDFs, I’ve read, played and enjoyed many fantastic single-player tabletop games that I am happy and excited to share with you all today!

Tabletop games are, well, games you play on top of a table (usually). Chess is a tabletop game. So is Dungeons and Dragons. Settlers of Catan. And Monopoly. As you can see, there’s a wide variety of offerings that I believe many of you are already familiar with.

The single-player TTRPGs (tabletop role-playing games) I’m reviewing today are a different breed. Usually, they come in PDF form, downloaded from itch.io, and you can play them through journaling responses to specific prompts. Sometimes, they’ll require dice or cards. Every single-player TTRPG I’m reviewing now comes from an indie artist. I hope you find some you’ll want to support! Alongside my review, I’ll be providing parts of my playthroughs, so you can see for yourself what play is like!

RUINS (by Ash McAllen)

This one is interesting in that it includes a video game component. You cannot play Ruins solely as a video game, though; there are both digital and analog aspects. You design your character, write out their statistics and inventory and take notes outside of the digital game application. I drew my character, Lady Mira, in my sketchbook, next to her personal details and inventory.

In the video game application, you can move your character across a procedurally generated dungeon. There are encounters you can have, such as with rats, goblins, wizards and so on, which you can deal with in various ways. Whatever you pick, you may be prompted to roll a die for STR (Strength), INS (Instinct), CHA (Charisma) or AGL (Agility) and can add a number to your final roll based on the items accrued in your inventory, or Craft (basically a profession). It’s kind of like playing Dungeons and Dragons as a video game, but alone. 

Playthrough snippet:

Over the course of half an hour, my Lady Mira accumulated a pitted ring, a Path to Enlightenment, 13 pennies, a worm-ridded turnip, a stick, a rusty scrap and a bone. Her stats were STR: 0, INS: 1, CHA: 2, and AGL: 1. Standing at a healthy 12 HP, Lady Mira fearlessly stalked the ruins armed with her craft of archaeology and a fierce thirst for treasure. She found the secret of Ilyius the monstrous kobold and investigated the truths of the five gods.

That’s about everything!

Review proper:

I appreciate how innovative this game is. It has procedures and rules for playing with multiple people, sharing skills and item crafting recipes. I did not use them because I was playing by my lonesome, but I’m impressed with their existence. In comparison to the other entries in this review, Ruins has an immensely broad scope and creative vision, trying out all sorts of features — support for multiplayer, mixing digital and analog, the name-based save system, the fascinating snippets of lore. It’s definitely the most unique on this list. 

Unique isn’t enough for a truly good game, though. The art of Ruins is simple and minimalistic, to the point where I started to get bored. Every part of the dungeon that I encountered looked basically the same. There was little to no sense of progression. Granted, I only played for 29 minutes. Still, I think, without a community (Ruins is meant to be played with multiple people, which confuses me because I got it on a sale marketed as providing exclusively single-player games, but alright), there’s not much to sustain interest. Encounters feel random. They are random. There’s little “flavor” to establish setting. 

Also, my laptop got hot enough to burn my skin while I was running the application. Therefore:

My rating: 2/5 stars 

(If you only play by yourself. I’m sure the multiplayer experience is much better)

(I really like Lady Mira though, I might play her in a different tabletop game)

UNRAVEL (by Emma Larkins; oddly, on my MacBook the PDF is titled our-innermost-thoughts)

This one is a short one! But of course, you can play this many, many times. It relies on us humans being meaning-making creatures, and on language, all language, carrying meaning that can be remixed and reinterpreted. 

All you need is a bookmark (the PDF I got provided a printable bookmark, but I don’t have a printer, so I made my own). The bookmark will have two needles on it. Place the bookmark’s needles anywhere in a book, and note the two words the needles’ ends land on. That’s all you need to get started, and the rest of the rules are simple (Roll a six-sided die. Say you roll a two. From the first word you found, go back two words for your third word. From the second word you found, go forwards two words for your fourth word. Repeat this process until you have 12 words).

Playthrough snippet:

My 12 words: 

reach, some, no, in, fact, meet, should, Miusov, solving, you, episode, about

The Unraveled Meaning/Sentence using those 12 words: 

You should reach some fact in episode about meet solving Miusov, no?

Review proper:

I used “The Brothers Karamazov” and my game theory notes for Unraveled. In hindsight, I realized when crafting my Unraveled Meaning that this game was meant to evoke a sense of… perhaps finding deeper meaning in one text. A hidden message inside of one particular book. A lovely little secret. And by mixing together “The Brothers Karamazov” and my class notes, I took away from myself the feeling of unraveling a code within a singular text. Now the sentence feels random. Note to future players: play as intended! Only choose one book.

Other than that though, I found this game very fun! It’s short, sweet and simple. You can play it with pretty much any text!

My rating: 4/5

LOW SPELL SLOTS (by Amber Logsdon and Seth Witucki)

This one is not quite a game! Or, you could call it a game that asks you to do activities that most people would just consider “real life” and not game activities. It’s meant to address executive dysfunction, but honestly, anyone can play it!

All you need is a six-sided dice. Depending on the result of your roll, the game may prompt you to text a friend, or clean your room, or take a break and play a video game. It’s really that simple.

Playthrough snippet:

A few weeks ago I played this game. I had been browsing the Internet for one hour, solidly ignoring all my commitments and homework assignments and upcoming midterms. I was struck by a wave of apprehension about my impending deadlines, and rolled a die to break the spell of inactivity over me. The result was six, and so the game prompted me to go do something relaxing, like read a vampire romance novel. That was not the result I needed. I went and made a custom hack of the game, where all die results, one through six, corresponded to work-related things. I added an eight-sided die to denote how many minutes I should devote to a task once the six-sided die chose a task. I ended up working for 20 minutes before going to bed.

Review proper:

Well, frankly, this game did not make me much more active or productive than I was before. It does provide a new perspective, and I appreciate that. Sometimes it is easier to get the ball rolling when you get the dice rolling. 

My rating: 3/5

YOU ARE THE DUNGEON (by Tracy Barnett)

Many games ask you to explore a dungeon. In this game, as the title suggests, you are the dungeon. 

As a dungeon, you answer questions about who made you and where you come from. When you’re done drawing your own shape, feel free to consult a tarot deck to craft a party of adventurers who can undergo 100 unique events within you. When done tormenting and killing some of these adventurers, draw out how your boundaries expand and describe which new resident lives in your walls. Repeat this for as many times as you like. 

Playthrough snippet:

I was a buttery-dungeon, whose first victim was a hungry young freshman. A brave party of five adventurers sallied forth to defeat the evils of greed and gluttony within me, but unfortunately for them, the wits and wiles of a devout beggar, diligent baron, punctilious architect, conservative kennel worker and unbalanced mayor were not enough to ensure that more than 40 percent of them survived. At least Andrea and Rachel got out with a nice apple and a scepter with the power to raise the dead. Alphonse is still stuck in a maze of identical tunnels.

Review proper:

This is a little more complex than Unravel or Low Spell Slots but definitely simpler than Ruins to pick up. If you love to write and answer prompts, this will be a fun game. The more effort you put into crafting your beautiful dungeon, the more you’ll enjoy! It very much is a villain-protagonist game, which serves an underappreciated niche. 

My rating: 4.5/5

You can get any of these games on itch.io! I highly recommend checking them out.

Claire Fang | claire.fang@yale.edu

CLAIRE NING FANG