by BoardGameGeek reviewer EndersGame
I love solitaire card games. There's some terrific games that have stood the test of time, but it is true that many of them are variations of the same theme. For example, Klondike and Spider are two of the most popular solitaire card games of all time, along with FreeCell. But there's a whole genre of popular building games that are closely related to these, and you'll often see names of games like Baker's Dozen, Beleaguered Castle, Canfield, Forty Thieves, La Belle Lucie, and Yukon pop up on sites about solitaire card games.
Personally I enjoy exploring things that are somewhat out of the ordinary. I'm the kind of guy who heads off the well-marked trail trampled by tourists, and ventures down the narrow path that runs off the main track, just to see what lies around the corner on the road less-travelled. Much the same is true in the world of solitaire card games, because there are some wonderful solitaire games with unusual layouts just waiting for you to discover and enjoy.
In this article I'll introduce you to ten great solitaire card games with unusual layouts. To be fair, these aren't exactly obscure games by any means. If you check out books and sites about solitaire card games (and I've personally done a lot of reading and research in this area) you're bound to come across these. So these aren't exactly uncommon or unproven games, that are an awkward mess to play, or just don't work. In the world of solitaire, most of these are all quite well known, so they are solid and reliable games. But they are somewhat `odd ducks', in that their layout departs from the norm, and that's exactly what makes them interesting.
The best way to learn these games is to use some software to give you a helping hand. That way you'll see how the cards are supposed to be laid out, and the program will enforce the rules as you play, and manage all the book-keeping for you. Of the many programs I have personally tried, I've found the top one to be BVS Solitaire, which has versions for Windows, Mac, and an excellent iPad app that I consider to be the best of the many apps that I've tried. I can highly recommend their programs as an excellent way to play and enjoy these and many other solitaire games. But enough about that, let's get to the games themselves!
== Games With One Deck ==
Four Seasons (Vanishing Cross)Overview: Also called Vanishing Cross and Corner Card, Four Seasons is a single-deck game that gets its name from its layout where you are building onto four foundations in the corners, with a cross-shaped tableau consisting of five cards in the middle. The rank of the foundation bases are determined by the initial card that is placed on the first foundation, and building up is done `turning the corner' from King through Ace. The five cards of the cross build downwards irrespective of suit, but only one card can be moved at a time, with the goal of building up all four foundations in a single deal of the stock.
Thoughts: Four Seasons proves quite hard to win, and the odds of achieving success have been estimated as 1 in 10. Several variations exist (e.g. Corners, Czarina, Little Windmill, and Simplicity), but I particularly enjoy the Florentine variant, which gives you two passes through the stock, making the game much more achievable. Effectively Four Seasons is like a solitaire with a tableau of just 5 cards (the cards below the top card being hidden), so it can be quite difficult; Florentine removes this frustration and makes it far more pleasant.
Grandfather's ClockOverview: The game Grandfather's Clock uses 12 foundations arranged in the circular shape of a clock. At the start of the game the following cards are dealt as foundations in clock-wise order from the 5 o'clock position: 2♥, 3♠, 4♦, 5♣, 6♥, 7♠, 8♦, 9♣, 10♥, J♠, Q♦, K♣. The remaining cards form a tableau of eight columns of five cards each. Cards are placed in ascending value onto the clock, and the tableau must be manipulated by building down one card at a time in matching suits in order to successfully access the cards needed. The goal is to play all the cards to the clock, with the values of all the top cards correctly corresponding to their positions in the clock.
Thoughts: The set-up is reminiscent of the much simpler luck-based games Clock Patience and German Clock, which rely purely on observation, and are more suited for younger children to play. In contrast Grandfather's Clock requires skill in arranging cards within the tableau to get the cards you need. It is nearly always possible to complete with good play, and because you have open information about all the cards, it's a satisfying and straight-forward game.
== Games With Two Decks ==
ArchwayOverview: Archway is a two-deck game by noted games scholar David Parlett that is based on an old French solitaire called La Chatelaine (Lady of the Manor). Four Aces are laid out to represent four foundations that will build up, and four Kings to represent four foundations that will build down. Below these eight foundations is a tableau consisting of four piles of 12 cards each. The remaining 48 cards make up the reserve; these are separated by rank (Ace through King), and placed in an arch shape around the other cards. You can move any card from the top of the tableau or any card in the arch-shaped reserve piles to the foundations.
Thoughts: You'll need good luck-of-the-draw to win Archway, even though you have completely open information. The original version of the game increases your chances of success significantly, because it makes suits irrelevant, so you can build up with any card of the rank you need. In that form of the game the tableau is no longer open, however, and consists just of four piles of cards. This removes some of the skill and makes it more of a casual game, but at least you can try your luck and have a decent chance of winning, even if it's less than half the time.
BackboneOverview: Backbone is somewhat related to the more well-known Pigtail (Braid) covered below, and also has 21 cards down the middle. But instead of being interlaced, they make two separate columns of ten cards each (the "backbone"), with a single card (the "tail-bone" or "coccyx") overlapping both at the bottom. The tableau consists of four "rib" cards on each side of the backbone, and these build down by suit, while the stock is dealt one card at a time.
Thoughts: This game's structure makes it interesting, removing the tail-bone early is key to success. A game that uses a similar structure to Backbone is Herringbone (and the similar Adela). In this case of these games the backbone structure makes up the foundations, with eight Jacks that build downwards in the middle, and the matching Queen and King on either side of each Jack. A six card tableau that builds up by suit assists with this. Confusingly, Herringbone is sometimes also used as an alternate name for Pigtail, even though it is in fact a different game. It could be argued that despite their unusual shapes, in essence many of these games are ultimately variants derived from the popular two-deck game Forty Thieves.
CasketOverview: Casket is an interesting two-deck game where a pile of 13 face-down represents "Jewels". A tableau of eight face-up cards around them represents a "Casket" where building happens downwards, on top of which is a "Lid" of five face-up cards where no building happens. The goal is to build up onto the eight foundations, with the stock turning up cards one at a time into three waste piles but with no redeals.
Thoughts: To succeed you have to prioritize opening the Lid so that you can begin accessing the Jewels, as well as using the waste piles cleverly. With good play you have decent chances of successfully completing the game, making it a fun and rewarding two-deck game to play. This game is implemented in quite a number of digital versions of solitaire, which is an essential way to learn the game given its nuances. It certainly meets the criteria of being thematic, unique, and satisfying.
Crazy QuiltOverview: Crazy Quilt offers a truly unique spin on solitaire. Four foundations start with the Aces and build up, while another four start with the Kings and build down. 64 cards are placed in a 8x8 patchwork quilt layout, with cards alternately placed horizontally and vertically like woven threads in a rug. This checkerboard style `quilt' is the tableau, and only cards with an exposed short edge are considered available for play. The stock is dealt one at a time, and cards from the quilt and the stock are used to build onto the foundations. Available cards may also be moved from the quilt to a waste pile, but only if they match the suit of the top cards and are one higher or lower in value.
Thoughts: The unusual arrangement of the cards means that cards in the middle of the quilt-like tableau are blocked, and you have to find ways to free them. It's more important to open up cards in the tableau than to use cards from the stock. There are three waste piles, and managing them well is important to success. Some variants (e.g. Japanese Rug, Indian Carpet, Parquet) increase the amount of redeals to make the game easier, which really helps your chances of success. Crazy Quilt is a game that is achievable, and its unique setup makes it interesting, fun, and rewarding to play. While unrelated, the single deck game Labyrinth also uses a spatial puzzle to determine availability of cards that can be played; while chances of success in Labyrinth are low, it can be a rewarding challenge to get a win.
Pigtail (Plait, Braid)Overview: The two-deck game of Pigtail takes its name from a "pigtail" of twenty overlapping cards dealt down the middle, the top card being the only one available. The tableau consists of 12 cards, where no building is allowed, and only four of these can have cards played to it from the pigtail. The stock is dealt one card at a time, with up to three re-deals allowed, and the goal is to build up eight foundations from Ace through King.
Thoughts: Pigtail is often found under the name Braid or Plait, but was renamed by David Parlett to avoid confusion with a related but different game called Plait. The variation Fort plays exactly the same way, but starts with a central "garrison" of 21 cards down the middle, and the four of the foundations are built upwards from Ace to King and the other four are built downwards from King through Ace, which greatly increases your chances of winning. A version of Pigtail with 24 instead of 21 cards in the middle and more flexible rules about playing from the center column is called "Long Braid". In the unrelated game called Plait there is a "plait" of only 13 cards down the middle, and the tableau has eight rather twelve cards, and building is allowed (each is dealt four cards to begin with); in that game there are no redeals.
Sultan (Emperor of Germany)Overview: Sultan (also called Sultan of Turkey) is less commonly known as Emperor of Germany. The Middle East theme suits best given than the reserve used in this game is described as a "divan" (couch), and the goal is to have the Sultan (King of Hearts) surrounded by his harem of eight Queens. This two deck game begins with the Sultan surrounded by the other seven Kings and an Ace. These eight surrounding cards are the foundations you'll build up on (turning the corner from Ace) to the Queens. The divan consists of two reserve columns of cards on each side, and the rest of the deck is dealt one card at a time, with two redeals allowed.
Thoughts: This game is quite easy and very fun to play, making it a good choice for beginners. Careful management of the divan is critical to success. Ideally you want spaces in the divan filled with lower cards. This becomes extra tricky in variants of the game where the divan is automatically filled from the top card of the waste pile, so you shouldn't always play a card to the foundations immediately if it means the divan gets filled with a card that won't be played until much later. Careful play will nearly always lead to a win, without it being anything brain-burning.
Windmill (Propeller)Overview: As the name suggests, Windmill (also called Propeller) is a two-deck game with a distinctive layout in the windmill shape of a large cross, around which you build down on four foundations from King through Ace. It bears an obvious relationship with the simpler single deck game Four Seasons, as is clearly evident from the name of the Four Seasons' variant Little Windmill, but the two deck game is more challenging and interesting. The center card starts with an Ace, which is effectively a fifth foundation that you build up to King, turning the corner and repeating this another three times, aiming to collect 52 cards here. The remaining eight cards of the windmill or propeller effectively function like a reserve, to help you get best results from a single deal of the stock.
Thoughts: This game has been around since the late 1800s, and continues to be enjoyable today. The fact that you're building 52 cards in the center foundation means you have to focus especially on getting cards there, using the occasional card already on the other foundations to assist where necessary. The use of the reserve is critical, but it is still difficult to complete the game successfully; to make the game easier, allowing a single redeal should enable you to win many games. Some variants also remove restrictions on moving cards from the four foundations to the central one, also increasing chances of success. One variant I recommend trying Dutch Windmill.
ZodiacOverview: If you want to try something truly different, you must take a look at Zodiac. A row of eight face-up cards forms the "Equator", around which 24 cards are dealt face-up to form the "Zodiac" (two for each astrological sign). Game-play has two distinct phases, the first of which involves dealing the stock one at a time (with as many redeals as desired), and playing these cards to the Equator or Zodiac. The Equator is effectively a reserve that contains eight cells that can hold single cards. Building on the Zodiac happens by suit and cards can be built up or down as you go, but only using cards from the stock/waste or from the Equator. If you can eventually manage to play all the cards from the deck, the second phase begins, where you build up four foundations from Ace to King and four from King to Ace.
Thoughts: Zodiac is a unique game that already appeared in books containing patience games in the 19th century. Numerous rule variations developed until it was standardized about a century ago. The real skill lies in how you play cards to the Zodiac, planning ahead so that you don't block cards during the second phase where you're playing to foundations. The unusual theme and separate phases of the game-play help make it stand out from most ordinary solitaire card games.
Final thoughtsThese are by no means the only solitaire games with interesting layouts. If you enjoy experimenting with unusual layouts, another fun and easy game to try is simply called S (for obvious reasons once you see how the cards are laid out). You'll find others if you browse through the many games implemented by BVS Solitaire.
Many people identify solitaire with the classic Klondike, not realizing that there are plenty of unique and creative solitaire games that have arisen over time, which are fine games that are well worth the effort to learn and play. You can certainly play these with an actual deck of playing cards, which is particularly satisfying with an attractive custom deck. But when it comes to learning the rules of a new solitaire game, the best way to learn is to use a reliable software program, like the ones offered by BVS Solitaire. Their Windows program is one of the best of the many I've tried (see my comparative reviews), and so is their iPad app (see my comparative reviews). They also have an equivalent version for Mac OS. All of these offer a few hundred different solitaire games, and the ability to customize your experience with attractive sets of different custom decks and more.
So what are you waiting for? Get yourself a good program for playing solitaire digitally, and try some of these terrific and unique solitaire games. And then you'll be all set to pull out your favourite deck of playing cards, and can introduce some of these gems to your family and friends!
About the writer: EndersGame is a well-known and respected reviewer of board games and playing cards. He loves card games, card magic, cardistry, and card collecting, and has reviewed several hundred boardgames and hundreds of different decks of playing cards. You can see a complete list of his game reviews here, and his playing card reviews here. He is considered an authority on playing cards and has written extensively about their design, history, and function, and has many contacts within the playing card and board game industries. You can view his previous articles about playing cards here. In his spare time he also volunteers with local youth to teach them the art of cardistry and card magic.