Solitaire games are still something of a rarity in the tabletop space, which makes some sense since the hobby is very much a social one—as distinct from videogaming, which can be social but where almost every game is designed to be played solo. There are a few strictly solo games worth trying, including Friedeman Friese’s Friday (I swear I didn’t make that up) and Shadi Torbey’s Onirim, both of which boil down to pitting you against a deck of cards, where you have to complete some objective before enough negative things happen to you to end the game. Torbey has released a handful of solitaire games now in the “Oniverse,” with the latest one, Aerion, very entertaining to play but perhaps a little too easy to defeat unless you add in one of the included expansions.
Aerion is a dice-rolling/card-drafting game where you are trying to collect specific cards in sets of three to build the game’s six airships before the card supplies run out. On each turn, you roll the game’s six dice, and then you can acquire the displayed card from one of the game’s six decks, each of which requires you to match its pattern before you can take the card on display. The patterns are pretty straightforward: three of a kind, four of a kind, two pairs, a full house, two triplets or three pair, and five unique numbers. If you roll one of those patterns on your first attempt, you can take the displayed card and end your turn. If you don’t match a pattern or don’t want to (or can’t) take the displayed card, you can trash one of the displayed cards and reroll as many dice as you want one more time.
You can build two ships simultaneously, and must get the blueprint and equipment cards for a ship first before you acquire the crew card. Each deck also has book cards that you can acquire and save to play later. You play a book card to reroll as many dice as you want up to three times, or to bring back some cards you’ve trashed previously, or to acquire a card and store it for later—such as a crew card that you need but can’t play yet on the ship you’re building. I can’t imagine what the spreadsheet outlining this game’s distribution of cards must have looked like. Once discarded, a card is placed in a discard pile and lost for the game unless you bring it back with a book card.
You have the option to play with three single-use tokens called Pixies, which give you the power to change one die to any number you want, although their inclusion may make the game a little too easy to beat. I actually haven’t lost Aerion yet, with or without expansions, which isn’t to say it’s not fun—it is, and there’s enjoyment in the challenge of figuring out what cards to take and whether to press your luck with the dice.
Aerion comes with six expansions in the box, although they’re more like rules variants; most of them require you to complete a second objective in addition to building the six ships for the base game and make it more challenging. The Flagship expansion gives you two bonus powers, added at random, but also requires you to finish a seventh ship that requires five cards to complete; it’s not that challenging. Four expansions shuffle more cards into each deck; one, the Piers, also adds three cards (piers, obviously) you need to build by rolling five of a kind, which is probably the most mechanically consistent of any of the expansions. The sixth expansion, the Hellkite, is the most challenging, and definitely the most amusing: there’s a plastic token called the Hellkite, which is indeed shaped like a kite and has an angry face on it, and two more sets of cards to distribute adjacent to the six decks for the game. Each turn, the Hellkite will sit on one of the new cards and prevent you from buying that card type for that turn. If, however, you can get the sum of your six dice down to 15 or less, you can blow up the top card on which the Hellkite sits, exposing the one below it; if you blow up the bottom card, you get a card you’ll need for a ship for free. You have to blow up all twelve of the new cards and build the six ships to win the game.
Aerion also includes rules for two players to play cooperatively; each player takes three ships, at random, and tries to build their own ships, but there’s also a shared space between the two where they can collaborate on one ship at a time. The art is pleasantly goofy, similar to that of Onirim and other games in the Oniverse, with a dash of steampunk to the airship drawings too. What keeps Aerion from a higher score is that the game is just not quite challenging enough; I’ve had games come down to the very end, but I still haven’t lost, even with the Hellkite expansion. Each play is fun because it’s a puzzle with some strategy to it, and I’d rather a game that’s a bit too easy than one where you are eviscerated by randomness, but I think the long-term replay value here is compromised by the level of difficulty.
Keith Law is a senior baseball writer for ESPN.com and an analyst on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight. You can read his baseball content at search.espn.go.com/keith-law and his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.