It’s a fair question to ask: is it possible to spruce up Solitaire – one of the simplest of card games – so that it has a story and power-ups? Can you buff it to make it almost AAA in production value, throw in some straight-to-camera FMV sequences like a modern day Command & Conquer, and then take it all reasonably seriously?
They’re clearly questions that have tempted well-loved designer and game creator Mike Bithell. He’s a designer and creator who, more than most others that we can think of, is driven by ‘What If?’ questions, and he likes them to be difficult. He’s done it plenty of times before. What if you stripped a platform game down to the degree that it was just blocks? Could you still emotionally attach yourself to them? Those questions gave rise to Thomas Was Alone. Could you take the balletic action of John Wick and convey it through a turn-based strategy game? That problem gave us John Wick Hex.
Mike Bithell’s up for a challenge, then, and turning Solitaire into a spy thriller with more bells and whistles than a James Bond car is objectively a massive challenge.
The first hurdle he and his team face with The Solitaire Conspiracy is the setup. How can ever-decreasing piles of playing cards represent anything more than ever-decreasing piles of cards? Their answer works, but only just. You are effectively the ‘M’ back in MI5 headquarters, maneuvering spies in the field. The spies are abstracted to become a Jack, Queen and King in a game of Solitaire, and you are moving these operatives until their mission is complete and they can return ‘home’ to the stack. It just about gets over the line, mainly because the art on the face cards is so, so good; they each look characterful enough to front their own spy game. But we were never quite convinced by the theming, particularly when the missions were often described in a way that they are outlandish and fascinating (a snowboarding convention! A masquerade ball!), but you always come back to that same old grid of cards. The contrast is perhaps too stark.
We say ‘same old grid of cards’ but there’s nothing old about The Solitaire Conspiracy’s presentation. By golly, Mike Bithell has a number of high quality concept artists, UI designers and audio designers on payroll. It’s all just so super-slick, which helps to get closer to the spy theming. The spy world is conveyed through transparent Minority Report-like interfaces and luminescent cards. It’s ultra-modern, and that production value runs through the audio too, which – while slightly repetitive – is both ambient and pressuring, ticking away to try to add some tension to what is – let’s be honest – some cards moving on top of each other.
Between the levels, you’re getting those straight-to-camera FMV scenes that we mentioned earlier, mostly featuring Jim Ratio (Greg Miller from Kinda Funny, a little miscast, but giving it plenty of welly). This character is your handler, the only analyst – outside of you – to retain a connection to Protego’s spy network that has recently come under attack. These cutscenes are triggered on level up, with fifteen for you to unlock, and they do a good job of – again – trying to ladle on as much drama and spy-games as they can.
The missions themselves are a riff on Tri-Peaks Solitaire, with eight towers of shuffled cards, and up to four suits to build up from Ace up to King. In many ways it’s familiar to anyone who has played Solitaire. You are looking to expose the Ace, slot it in it’s Foundation, and then work upwards in the same suit.
In other ways, it’s unfamiliar. You can move a card onto any other card, as long as it’s a higher card, regardless of suit. That gives you far more flexibility to redistribute the cards than you have with conventional Solitaire games. There’s also the big change: once an Ace has been revealed and then placed on the Foundation, it activates the Jack, Queen and King of its suit, glowing to show they’re ready to be used. These face cards have different abilities depending on their suit (cunningly reworked from spades, hearts etc to be eight different spy families, like Humanity+ and Alpha Division).
Place an Omega Code face card on a Tower, and they will ‘Obliterate’ it, blasting the cards randomly onto the other Towers. Place a Blood Legacy face card, and they will reorder the Tower from lowest to highest. Each suit has a different ability, and you will often be clearing a path to them, so you can make sense of the tableau.
As a Solitaire fan, snatching a game on mobile or Xbox when I can, it felt like a back-to-front experience. The spy families were one of the major reasons. Bringing in ‘power-ups’ to Solitaire was good in theory, but they are double-edged to the point that the negatives are sharper than the positives. We found ourselves trying to avoid triggering them, as abilities like those of Blood Legacy and Scorpio (‘captures’ a card you need and takes it with them to the bottom of a Tower) would often set you back. They have their uses, but they are so situational that you often avoid them. When you’re mostly avoiding the new additions, you wonder what the point is. Most of the time you revert back to the usual way of playing.
And then there’s the degree of challenge. The Solitaire Conspiracy can never find its sweet spot. You can play a game without a turn counter, but that makes them trivial. Without the need to stack by suit, it almost becomes a game of Wilmot’s Warehouse: it’s more an organisation game than a game of Patience or Solitaire. Playing with a turn counter became the only satisfying way to play, but then you’re butting up against those spy families who are more power-downs than power-ups.
There are other modes, but they are damaged by the game’s core issues. Skirmish Mode lets you create your own matches with your own choice of families, which means you can avoid the families you don’t like, but can’t attach a turn counter to make it interesting. Countdown mode is horrible, as it randomises the families and gets you playing against a real-time clock. It’s a test of your speed at organising cards in number order, rather than your ability to play Solitaire, and you don’t get to choose the families, so you’re expected to remember their abilities and avoid them at speed. It’s all of the game’s glaring flaws pulled dramatically into focus.
It sounds like we had a torrid time with The Solitaire Conspiracy, but that’s not actually true. The basics of Solitaire are still here, the corny spy story is a nice reward for progression, and everything is as slick as Sean Connery’s Bond. We’re more bemused than anything, as Mike Bithell – someone we admire, who provokes thought at the very least with his work – has taken it upon himself to rewrite Solitaire, but ended up creating something less than the original parts. Its drama feels fake, the challenge is sometimes stripped out, and its power-ups will explode in your hands rather than empower you.
So, back to the original question: can Solitaire be moulded into a high-production-value game? The Solitaire Conspiracy doesn’t come up with a conclusive answer. The story and presentation are undoubtedly a winner, but there is some collateral damage: it loses some of the original’s challenge and strategy. It ends up being a high pair rather than a royal flush.
You can buy The Solitaire Conspiracy for £9.99 from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S