Solitaire. Next to Minesweeper it’s one of the most popular videogames of all time. It’s a safe bet that you’ve already lost hours to the hunt for one of gaming’s finest rewards: the bouncing cards that marked a successful run at Wes Cherry’s classic, which shipped with Windows from 1990. And you should therefore be very excited by PopCap appropriating the game for its Blitz series, joining Bejeweled and Zuma, both released in 2010.
About to go into beta for full release in early March, Solitaire Blitz is PopCap’s first leading new IP since 2009’s Plants Vs Zombies, even if it’s based on one of the most widely recognised parlour games. But its jaunty nautical-cum-art nouveau theme is just the start of a series of tweaks and inventions that transforms a game you might think you already know backwards. The result is a typical – for a Blitz game – furiously captivating and dopamine-spouting one-minute score challenge. Yet Solitaire also has a distinctive flavour that’s all its own.
Playing the card marked with the key will unlock the pile on the top right, adding to your chances to make matches, but also meaning that you'll deplete your stack of spare cards sooner
The game, which unfurls from one of PopCap’s signature beautifully crafted tutorials, has you moving consecutively numbered cards – ace on king or two, seven on eight or six – from seven stacks to three piles, with the aim of clearing all the stacks within the time limit. You start with just one pile, unlocking the other two – and therefore increasing your chances of finding matches – when you play special key cards.
Being a Blitz game, it isn’t about pure chance, nor is it about predetermined destiny through the lie of the cards. Instead, it’s a melding of player reactions, strategy and PopCap number magic. Chance here is steered by bonus level, which increases the probability of getting runs of cards, and what it’s tempting to call ‘Blitz benevolence’ – cards that simply seem to go your way – all accompanied by heady swells of Solitaire’s fantastically opulent music, performed, incredibly as it might seem for a mere Facebook game, by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra.
The skill comes, as it does with standard solitaire, in strategy: making decisions that keep high your chances of finding matches. But Solitaire Blitz’s big difference is the fact that you’re chipping away at high stacks while storing wildcard jokers for the right moment under serious time pressure.
Score bonuses come from many sources, including game completion streaks. You can get new decks of cards by buying them or winning them through levelling up
Psychology plays a part, too, of course. You can just hold the number of the topmost card in the seven stacks in your memory – it’s surely no coincidence that your brain is wired to hold seven bits of information in its operational memory. But also remembering the cards on the three piles? That’s the challenge. And the though ever-ticking clock makes dwelling on missed matches impossible, the flash of pain when you realise you’ve dropped a howler is as keen as ever. On the other hand, Solitaire rewards with superb sound design – the xylophone as you increase the bonus level, the surging orchestral flourishes and the satisfying flick of dealing a card being highlights. PopCap’s iron grip on brain chemistry is as strong as ever.
The ultimate aim is to come top on your friends list scoreboard, and massive scores are a matter of real skill. Great scores appear to run above a million; a nondescript one would be around 200,000. Runs of same-suit and colour cards get special score bonuses, as will time left on the clock and the number of cards you have left to draw. You can ease the pressure with winning time bonuses awarded by levelling off all your stacks to a level denoted by a yellow line that runs across the background. Solitaire is a little more strategic and considered than the headlong rushes of Bejeweled and Zuma Blitz, but it draws a beautiful balance between pondering and panic.
Clear stacks and you reveal treasures under them at the end of the game, which in turn award Silver, the game's currency
Facebook’s economy raises its head through Energy which, as in the other Blitz games, you spend to play games. Up to five slots recharge over time, plus you get a bank in which you store Energy awarded through playing, by buying with Facebook Credits and as free gifts by friends. You also spend Silver, awarded through playing and available to buy with Facebook Credits, on Boosts that extend your chances of a high scoring game. Solitaire Blitz is a fully monetised game – the extent to which the highest scores can only be achieved through the benefits of the game’s purchase-only Boosts and will become clear through extended play.
What seems sure, though, is you certainly need serious skill, too. PopCap has performed its great trick of teasing invigorating challenge from one of the most familiar games around. If you think you already know solitaire, then one of Solitaire Blitz’s greatest achievements is that, helplessly and happily, you’ll find yourself learning it all over again. In other words, it’s a fine addition to the Blitz series, and therefore surely another Facebook classic in the making.