Solo board games are often the cult films of the gaming hobby (whether The Rocky Horror Picture Show, The Room, or Clue). Solo games aren’t big box office because as tables for one they are niche by default, so most never reach a tipping point in mainstream discourse nor find a mainstream audience. The best case legacy for many solo games is to build a following of passionate and vocal enthusiasts – say, a cult – who through a shared enthusiasm generate newfound appreciation for said game as time passes. To one day be called “an overlooked and underrated gem” is many a solo game’s Valhalla. (That and possibly commanding extortion-level, out-of-print prices on eBay).
A Gentle Rain (designed by Kevin Wilson and published by Mondo Games) is the latest title to join the Cult of Single Player. I’m hoping it won’t have to wait the requisite period of time to be recognized as a holistic gem of a game, and that it bypasses cult status and ascends directly to a more mainstream breakthrough.
Everything about A Gentle Rain is minimalist: 26 tiles and eight wooden tokens housed in a box smaller than a half-sleeve of Oreos. No excess, no wasted space. Marie Kondo would be proud. Gameplay is also bare-boned. Shuffle the tiles and create a facedown pile. Draw and place the top tile as your starting tile. Each turn you draw one, place one. Subsequent tiles must connect orthogonally to tiles already on the table so that all connecting edges match up by their blossom symbols. In the rare case you cannot place a tile, remove it from play and draw another.
If you connect four tiles with four matched/completed blossoms in a 2×2 square, you can place one of the eight blossom tokens in its center. Blossom tokens placed in this manner must match one of the four matched blossoms on the completed 2×2 square. It is possible for blossom tokens to be unavailable in this step if eligible tokens were already placed previously; in this case no token is placed and “draw one, place one” turns continue.
If you go through all 26 tiles (whether placed or discarded) and did not place all eight blossom tokens, the game is over. Alternatively, if you manage to place all eight blossom tokens before running out of tiles, the game is over.
Notice the game summary did not include the words “win” or “lose.” The rules for A Gentle Rain take great pains to leave these words out. (For the white-knuckled rules lawyers who cannot abide such ambiguity: losing is ostensibly when you burn through 26 tiles before placing all eight blossoms, and winning is if you place all tokens with tiles left to spare. Technically the more tiles you have remaining the higher the score. And also: maybe don’t play A Gentle Rain if deemphasizing the concept of victory makes you itchy.)
As you play A Gentle Rain it’s clear that to fuss over scoring or victory conditions is to actively resist the game’s nature, which is to not worry about these things at all. The game doesn’t want you to plan ahead; its randomized stack of tiles and “draw one, play one” golden rule makes it impossible. There’s some strategy with tile placement but with so few tiles choices are clear and finite, and no one tile laid is ever too game changing.
And that’s the point. Concerning yourself with strategy or tactics or winning or losing a game of A Gentle Rain is to miss the forest for the trees, or to miss the game’s journey for a final destination. The game doesn’t want you to flash forward to the endgame goals 15 minutes and 26 tiles from now. It wants you to slow down and embrace its stillness. It wants you here and now to experience the game as a series of meaningful micro moments in and of themselves.
A Gentle Rain practices mindfulness, and mindful gaming is the ultimate goal. There are no punitive decisions. Nothing is overpowered. Analysis paralysis is nowhere to be found. With each flip of a tile and non-crunchy decision you make, as tiles pleasingly knit together on the table and blossoms bloom, you are rewarded for your patience. You have not only done justice to the spirit of the game – you have honored the time you granted yourself to play it.
A Gentle Rain contains multitudes. It reminds you that the minutes and moments that make up your day aren’t mere interstitials or way stations to other places. There’s grace and gratitude to be found in the microcosmic world you create, tile-by-tile, one drop of rain at a time. A Gentle Rain is solo gaming as self-care: a beautiful, meditative, introspective, and wholly restorative experience. In the Cult of A Gentle Rain, count me as a charter member and fervent fan.