Table(top) For One
Board games with player counts of exactly one comprise the tiniest speck of stardust in the expansive board game universe. While games designed solely for solo players become more emergent in the hobby, it’s still rarified air and the search to find a great one can be as epic as a grail quest. So when a new solo game makes an impression as big and as confidently as The Dead Eye – designed by Robert van Zyl and Simon McGregor and published by Pleasant Company Games – one (player) can’t help but notice. The Dead Eye is the delight: solid mechanics and replay value, eye-popping graphic design, and a deeply immersive theme packaged into a card game. It’s a solo gaming standout and one of the better additions to any 1-player board gamer’s shelf.
In The Dead Eye your spaceship crash-lands on the titular planet, irradiated and shrouded in toxic gas clouds that render it virtually uninhabitable (to you, at least). Stranded in this hellish, dystopian landscape, you must make a long and perilous pilgrimage to “Safe Havn” for rescue. (Apparently in the post-apocalypse, everyone has lost their vowels.)
Survival isn’t easy. The planet gives no quarter and there are a million ways to die: by natural and man-made disasters; poisonous flora and mutated fauna; and lurking, mutant “Band’ts”. Presuming of course you don’t succumb to the harsh environmental conditions of extreme heat and unbreathable air of the planet itself (aka the “Tox”).
The deck is stacked against you – literally. Every turn of a card pits you against challenging hazards. Some cards contain a vital resource called Juice, which can be banked to gain powerful items. But it’s a gamble; there are also Heat cards in the deck, which are very bad for you. The more Heat you take the more bad events you attract. As you churn through your deck you may add useful cards from the Strength and Hope stacks, but this invites risk. Because Strength and Hope cards are like hit points; adding them to your deck helps later, but if either stack empties during the game then The Dead Eye will likely be your final resting place.
The Dead Eye is refreshingly diceless. Luck, unluck, and suspense is generated by the shuffle, reshuffle, and reveal of only 38 possible cards:
- 14 Core “starter” cards consisting of six cards with Juice icons, six cards with Heat icons, and two special event cards: Tox (bad) and Rest (good).
- 12 Strength cards (with Heat icons) and 12 Hope cards (with Juice icons)
Juice icons are usually good. Juice is banked to gain Distance (a prerequisite to reach new Destinations), Partz (recurring powers), and Safe Havn (to win the game).
Heat icons are usually bad. Gain too many and you are forced to discard Partz and Distance cards. They also force you to discard from your Strength or Hope stacks. Remember that after five strikes you’re out: if you need to draw from Strength or Hope (five cards in each stack) and there are no cards left to draw, you lose.
The coin of the realm is Juice and Heat. During the game you splay card sets with Heat icons and/or Juice icons on the table. These tableau cards are banked. Subsequent cards you draw are checked against these splayed icon sets. If the number of icons on a drawn card “meets or beats” the number of icons on the table, then the drawn card triggers its Heat or Juice result, and good or bad things occur.
The Dead Eye is a cruel place, so bad outcomes must resolve before good ones. Which means Heat icons are always checked first against each drawn card to see if their Heat results trigger. If Heat doesn’t trigger, only then are you allowed to check Juice icons to gain potential Juice benefits. This means to progress and prevail in the game, you must keep Heat card levels low and Juice card levels high on the table as you mill through your deck to find the cards needed to progress “Furtha” and reach Safe Havn.
The Dead Eye is played over a series of “runs,” or separate sessions. Each run ends one of two ways: 1) by gaining a Destination card that has a Safe Havn icon (you win the run); or 2) if you must draw a Strength or Hope card and there are none (you lose and must reset the game). Acquiring the final card in the Destination deck is your last and most successful run; it means you escape the planet and win the game.
The Way Back
In The Dead Eye, cards are Swiss Army Knives with multiple uses. Each card triggers a multiverse of possibilities: Juice or Heat, Events, Partz, or Furtha points. And every card fires differently depending on the current game state, creating a constant fog of war and forcing moment-to-moment tactical decisions.
The Dead Eye feels like a skirmish card game. Runs are tense and fast and like walking on thin ice at all times. How many cards will you flip before you fall through? Sessions take as little as 15 minutes to complete. Games are even shorter when beset with a series of unfortunate events and you are eliminated before you even have time to catch your (poisoned) breath. The vagaries of the shuffle make every game different and every decision a mitigated leap into the unknown. And each “Safe Havn” you reach allows you to “save” the game in that current state and hold off on playing future sessions for later.
Many solo games don’t have the multi-dimensional weight and heft seen in The Dead Eye. And as a solitaire game it doesn’t settle for being another Freecell With Shiny Chrome variation or abstract card puzzle to physically slide around the table. The Dead Eye leans into mechanics usually reserved for multiplayer games and incorporates them dynamically for the solo-gamer: deckbuilding, asymmetrical, press your luck, resource management, legacy games, and even RPGs. And while all solo games play against the game itself, The Dead Eye never feels like a rote exercise against the predictable machinations of preset, AI card decks.
Gameplay is crisp and clear despite The Dead Eye committing hard to its mise-en-scène by using guttural, vowelless slang in the rules booklet. Naming regular game mechanics “Juice” and “Postpone” and “Furtha” and “Partz” can cause unease. However, the clean and intuitive design of the multi-use cards and the game’s minimal footprint on the table flatten the learning curve, and after one or two sessions the visuals become muscle-memory that transcend the stylistic, Mad Max-esque dialect.
The Dead Eye’s extras include a 12-page prequel comic book with artwork that instantly transports you to the horror-tinged, post-apocalyptic grimdark world where you are stranded. The radioactive day-glo yellows and blacks on the cards seem to give off their own roiling heat. The worldbuilding is three-dimensional – which is apt, since the game features “Stereo 3D” card imagery and even includes 3D glasses. The glasses are not required to read or play the game, but they certainly enhance the game’s pulpier influences.
The Dead Eye universe is a flip book of thematic and pop cultural influences from comics, books, and films including Judge Dredd 2000AD, Tank Girl, the Mad Max and Alien franchises, the Mothership RPG, Fallout, and many more. The game also harkens back to one of my favorite 80’s board games of all time: Chainsaw Warrior, which is another solo, card-based, futuristic, survival horror game with comic book artwork. Chainsaw Warrior is the gold standard upon which I rank other 1-player games and The Dead Eye is a worthy spiritual successor and a welcome addition to any solo gamer’s collection. The Dead Eye launches on Kickstarter in June 2020.