The Solitaire Phenomenon Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Solitaire Phenomenon

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The original Microsoft Games Pack, released with Windows 3.11, contained some hidden gems. A fun little skiing game, the annoyingly addictive Tri-Peaks1, the original Minesweeper, the insistent Jezz-Ball and two or three puzzle-solving games in lurid 8-colour - all of these gained their fans. However, none was even fractionally as popular as the spearhead of the package - Solitaire.

Cards on your Desktop

'Patience' games have been traditionally differentiated from 'solitaire' games as those which, when successful, will sort a pack of shuffled cards into rank and suit order. Solitaire, conversely, is defined merely as a card game for one. Therefore the two terms are not necessarily synonymous; there are several patience games for two players.

Microsoft's Solitaire takes its origins from a patience game known as Klondike. To add to the confusion, there are two patience games with this title: the American version, which was adopted by Microsoft, and a British version played by completely different rules. For anyone who still doesn't know, the basic rules of Klondike are as follows:

  • The cards are shuffled and laid out in a seven-column 'tableau' as follows: One card is placed face-up; to its right a card is placed face-down with another card face-up on top; then, continuing the row, a pile of two face-down cards with one face up card on top, then successive piles of three, four, five and six face-down cards, each with a face-up card on top. The remaining cards are placed in a face-down 'stock' pile.

  • The object of the game is to 'build' cards, in ascending order to four 'foundations', one for each suit. To facilitate this, the player may rearrange the 'stacks' (the seven columns of cards, usually built with a slight overlap, so the player can see the motif in the top-left corner of each card) in the tableau, in order to build in alternating, descending, colour order. Therefore a red Queen will stack on a black King, a black Jack will stack on a red Queen, and so on. The player may only move an entire stack at once, not a portion thereof2. If a face-up card from the top of a stack is moved, the face-down card immediately below it may be turned over. If all the face-down cards in a column have been turned over, the gap may be filled by a King. A card at the bottom of a stack may be added to the appropriate foundation if it is the lowest remaining card of the suit that is remaining in the tableau and stockpile. Therefore, any Aces may be added to the foundations immediately.

  • A player may turn over three cards at once from the stockpile (from face-down to face-up), and build the uppermost face-up card to the tableau or the foundations as appropriate. This will then of course reveal another face-card which can be treated similarly. As soon as all further moves have been made, a further three cards are turned over on top of the first three. When the stockpile is depleted in this way, the turned-over cards are turned back over to become the face-down stockpile once again. The stockpile can be recycled in this way as many times as necessary.

  • The game is deemed to have 'come out', or been completed, once all the cards have been transferred in order to the foundations. Klondike has one of the lowest completion rates of any one-pack patience game, only (roughly) one game in eleven will actually come out.

Not content to let the game stand, Microsoft added assorted new rules, such as the option to only draw one card at once, and limit the stockpile to three 'recycles'. This had the effect of lowering the come-out rate even further, to about one game in 21. Also featured were a timer, two different scoring schemes ('Vegas' scoring, was based on an uncommon casino variant of the game, where you turned over one card at a time and could only use the stockpile once), and of course a choice of card-backs, including most people's favourite - the animated robot.

Sounds Dull...

Well, you'd think so, wouldn't you? There is, admittedly, not much appreciable skill element; the only valid tips to obey are as follows:

  • Make sure that you uncover as many face-down cards from the tableau as possible. When you are faced with a choice of movements, always take the one that uncovers face-down cards.

  • Don't be afraid of removing the top card from the foundation piles back into the tableau. This is frowned upon as 'unsporting', even though there is no actual rule against it, but is a good way to remove small cards from the top of stacks.

  • Try to avoid the situation whereby the number of cards you build from each rotation of the stockpile is a multiple of three. This will not rotate the cards closer to the bottom. For the same reasons do not build all three cards from each 'turn' - the final one will turn up next time round.

  • Try to avoid stacks of the same colour progression (ie, both topped by the two black, or two red, Kings) - this will halve your options for adding cards to the tableau. Additionally, as far as possible, aim to compile each column of just two suits - this leads to easier building.

The Phenomenon

Quite simply, the game was an astounding success, not least because you didn't have to go through the dull routine of shuffling and dealing every time a game failed. Microsoft had unwittingly produced the right combination of semi-brainless activity, simple point-and-drag interface, and addictiveness (the low game completion rate generally kept people hooked) to complement what many people have called 'the perfect game'. Many players would play over and over again just to catch the pretty animation after a completed game where all 52 cards cascaded and bounced off the screen.

To Microsoft's credit, the game remained free with all future versions of Windows - another aspect of the appeal was that it generally came as standard with the PCs at work and many an employee spent many a minute between important documents frantically trying to complete a game before the lurid green background betrayed them to the boss3. Bosses eventually grew wise - the pattern of mouse-clicks from a Solitaire addict is easily distinguishable.

Solitaire was, and is, an integral part of computer culture. It is highly unlikely that anyone reading this entry has never played the game, which is a mind-blowing statistic. It made endless appearances on lists of the 'Ten Reasons You're Addicted to your Computer' genre, and even gave birth to a joke, one variation of which goes something like:

On a routine inspection of an airbase, the Prime Minister asks one of the pilots whether he felt safe flying the country's most advance aircraft.

'Completely', replies the pilot. 'We've got all the modern safety precautions - ejector seat, lightweight parachute, life-raft. And, of course, the pack of cards.'

'Pack of cards?' asks the bamboozled Premier. 'What's that for, then?'

'Oh, it's quite simple, sir. In the event of my having to bail out over the sea, the cards ensure that I will be found within ten minutes.'

'How do they do that?'

'Well, sir. I inflate my life-raft, unwrap my pack of cards and deal out a game of Solitaire. And we can absolutely guarantee, that before I've finished the game, someone will be right behind me, saying 'No! Put the red Eight on the black Nine!'

Time to Kill?

H2G2 might just be able to help. If there's too many of you to play Solitaire, try the following card games instead:

1A game that incited many people to 'talk along' with it. If you ever hear someone spouting a string of adjacent cards ('two, three, two, ace, king, queen, king, queen, jack...'), then it's a good bet they've been playing too much Tri-Peaks.2These are the rules of the original game, but the computerised version does actually allow you to move fractions of a stack.3Early versions of Solitaire had an option to change the card-table-green background, but this proved unpopular and was removed for simplicity.

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