Popular Builder Solitaire Card Games

Posted by EndersGame Reviewer on

by BoardGameGeek reviewer EndersGame

Solitaire is the much beloved choice for killing time in the office or at the home computer. The three most popular solitaire card games are KlondikeSpider, and FreeCell, and these enjoy dizzying heights of popularity as a result of being included as part of Microsoft Windows in the 1990s (for more on this, see my article: The three most played solitaire card games in the world). What these three games have in common is that they all fit the "builder" genre. That means that they follow the basic formula of many solitaire games, where the overall objective is to arrange cards in ascending order from Ace through to King, for each of the four separate suits. Typically this is done by placing and moving cards within a tableau of rows and columns of cards, where the cards are often arranged in descending order, sometimes with an additional requirement of alternating colours.

Klondike, Spider, and FreeCell are by no means unique in this regard, and the genre of "building" games is the most popular archetype within the larger world of solitaire card games. Not all solitaire card games are builder games, but builder games are the most common and arguably the most loved. So which other solitaire games of this type should you know about and should you try first? I've explored the world of solitaire card games extensively myself, and also examined numerous lists about the most popular ones, to help you begin your experience with the best of the best, rather than waste your time with mediocre or obscure games. The six builder games covered in this article are time-tested classics that are most well-known and loved, and represent the best "next step" for anyone wanting to branch out after enjoying Klondike, Spider, or FreeCell.

Each of the builder games discussed here represents a small category of its own, because there are many popular variations and related games for each, which I will cover as well. As with my previous articles on solitaire games games, the accompanying links go to Solitaired.com, which is a website where you can play these games for free. But because these games are so common and well known, you'll find that they are included in most software and websites that offer collections of solitaire card games.

== Games With One Deck ==

Baker's Dozen

OverviewBaker's Dozen also represents a family of games that plays much like Forty Thieves (see below), but with a single deck. While some variations have a stock, in Baker's Dozen and its most closely related games all the cards are face up, so you have complete information to work with.

Game-play: The tableau consists of thirteen columns of four overlapping and face-up cards each, while the four foundations begin empty. To ensure that the tableau doesn't lock up too quickly, Kings are automatically placed to the bottom of each column when they are turned up. Just like in Forty Thieves, only the single top card of each column may be moved, and columns are built downwards, in any colour and suit. Empty spaces in the tableau may not be filled. As you'd expect, the aim is to get the entire deck onto the four foundations, building up each from Ace to King, with each being built upwards by value.

VariationsPortuguese Solitaire makes Baker's Dozen slightly easier by allowing empty spaces in the tableau to be filled with Kings, while Spanish Patience allows building on the foundations regardless of suit. Baker's Two Deck is effectively the same as Baker's Dozen but using two decks, with eight foundations and a tableau consisting of ten columns with 10 or 11 cards each.

My thoughts: Because this only involves a single deck, Baker's Dozen is much quicker to play than Forty Thieves, and the chances of success are also significantly higher, with as many as 2 of 3 games being easily winnable. The fact that Kings begin at the bottom of the tableau ensures that you don't get stuck too quickly, and being able to build down in the tableau independent of suit ensures a great amount of flexibility. At the same time managing the tableau carefully is still important, especially in cases where empty spaces don't get filled. This makes Baker's Dozen a quicker, simpler, and more accessible game than Forty Thieves and its many variants, while still remaining rewarding and satisfying to play.

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Related gamesCastles in Spain requires building down in the tableau to be with alternate colours, and in most versions of this game all but the top card of each column in the tableau begins face-down. Quite similar is Martha and its harder sibling Stewart, where every second card in the tableau begins face-down. Good Measure is a more difficult variation of Baker's Dozen, since it uses ten columns of five cards each, and has more strict rules for building on the foundations; Canister has only eight columns with even more cards on each.

Bisley: Special mention can be made of Bisley, which is a classic but more difficult game in this family. In Bisley you use a tableau of thirteen columns of four cards each to build upwards on the four Aces, and simultaneously build downwards on the Kings whenever they become available.

Canfield

OverviewCanfield is one of the all time greats among solitaire games, and is a genuine classic. Also known under names like Demon, Fascination, or Thirteen, you'll find that it appears in almost every book with solitaire card games. According to legend, the game owes its origin and name to Richard A. Canfield, a 19th century gambler. For an initial outlay of $52, Canfield offered gamblers a reward of $5 for every card successfully played to the foundations, with a $500 pot for successfully playing all 52 cards to the foundations. Anything more than 10 cards played to the foundations would get you out of the red, but in most cases the game favoured the casino, indicating how hard the game can be to play.

Game-play: Game-play is much like Klondike, with the aim of building up all four suits in order. The key difference is the starting set-up, because there is a single face-down reserve of 13 cards (sometimes called the "demon"), with a 14th card turned up as the first foundation card. The foundations begin with the cards corresponding to the rank of this initially turned up card (rather than the usual Ace), and the idea is to build upwards from there, if necessary "turning the corner" from King through to Ace. Also different from Klondike is the starting tableau, which consists of just four face up cards alongside the reserve. The stock is turned up three cards at a time as in standard Klondike, with as many re-deals as necessary. Any space that appears in the tableau is immediately filled by the top card of the reserve pile, which is always kept face-up.

Variations: Given how challenging it can take to win a standard game of Canfield, a number of variants exist that simplify the game slightly, increasing your chances of playing cards to the foundations. Canfield's gambling house is said to have given players the option of going through the stock three times when dealing three cards at a time, or just a single time when dealing one card at a time, and it has been estimated that most games would only see 5 or 6 cards played. The game becomes slightly easier with Canfield Rush, where the cards are first dealt three at a time, then two at a time, and then individually in a final deal of the stock.

My thoughts: Canfield does have a strong connection to Klondike, but has a smaller tableau to work with, while also providing a much smaller number of cards (only 13) that are face-down in the tableau at the start of the game. The real key is finding a way to make these cards available and get these into the game. Given how hard the original game is, I prefer playing with the rule that allows dealing of cards individually, and cycling through the stock as often as necessary. Some of the related games discussed below, such as Rainbow and Storehouse, significantly improve your winning chances, and can be very satisfying to play. Certainly if you enjoy Klondike, this game is a great next step to try.

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Related games: In Rainbow (also called Rainbow Canfield), cards may be built downwards in the tableau regardless of suit (some versions still require alternating colour), making it much easier to manipulate cards and work your way through the stock and the reserve. Additionally, cards from the reserve aren't automatically added to the tableau, giving you more control and adding strategic options. In most versions of Storehouse (also called Thirteen-Up), you get an additional head-start by placing your initial four cards on the foundations at the outset, while cards from the stock are turned up one at a time. The big difference in this game is that you must build down by suit in the tableau, which really changes how the game feels, because playing from the tableau to the foundation usually involves a whole string of cards at once. Eagle Wing (also called Thirteen-Down) is somewhat similar to Storehouse, and has a uniquely shaped tableau. Dutchess (sometimes spelled Duchess), is a Canfield style game that adds a reserve of four fans, while American Toad is an easy-to-win version of Canfield with two decks.

Two Players: Canfield has been adapted for a multi-player game under the common name Pounce, and is also known as Nerts or Racing Demon. A commercial version exists under the name Solitaire Frenzy, and the published game Dutch Blitz is also a close relative. In Pounce, each player uses his own deck and tableau, playing simultaneously and real time onto shared foundations, with the goal is to be the first to get rid of your reserve pile. You can play with as many as half a dozen players or more, and the frenzied action typically proves to be enormous fun!

Fan games (La Belle Lucie)

OverviewLa Belle Lucie, also called in English "Lovely Lucy" or "Beautiful Lutecia", is a classic representative of the family of games typically described as Fan games. It's one of the more difficult games in the genre to win, and thus some of its variants and closely related games have arguably become more popular than Lovely Lucy itself. But this classic game of French origin is a good archetype of the genre, and you'll find it included in most books with patience games, and on most solitaire websites and software. Effectively this game is just a tableau of 17 columns of three cards each (plus a column with a single card), but the fan-style arrangement with horizontally overlapping cards that is traditionally associated with this game is a signature feature.

Game-play: A single deck is dealt face-up into 17 "fans", each consisting of three overlapping cards, plus an 18th column with just one card. Only one card can be transferred within the tableau at a time, so sequences can't be moved, and building happens downwards according to suit. Empty spaces in the tableau may not be filled. The aim is to build up four foundations by suit from Ace to King. Under the most commonly played rules, once you are unable to place or move any more cards, you take all the cards from the tableau and redeal them into fans with three cards each; there are two such re-deals.

VariationsThree Shuffles and a Draw (also called Lovely Lucy With a Draw) adds a merci play, where you can move a single blocked card once during the course of the game. While La Belle Lucie is sometimes called The Fan, this is also the name of a popular variation which allows exposed Kings to be played to empty spaces in the tableau, making the game less frustrating and far more achievable. Trefoil is identical to La Belle Lucie except that the Aces begin on the foundations, resulting in an initial tableau of just 16 fans.

My thoughts: This is a terrific single-deck game, because you have perfect information given that all the cards are face-up, and the large number of columns/fans means that buried cards have at most only a couple of cards blocking them. La Belle Lucie is very difficult to win under the original and strict rules, especially because empty fans may not be refilled, and cards beneath an unplayable exposed card (e.g. a King) are permanently inaccessible. The merci rule that lets you unblock one card is virtually essential, and usually a standard way of playing, but even after two redeals the game can still be hard to finish, depending on the draw. Some of the variants and related games that simplify things slightly are more satisfying. This is one of my favourite solitaire games to play with a single deck, since it is less luck-dependent than many other popular single-deck games like Klondike.

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Related games: One of the more popular games in this family is Super Flower Garden, where building downward is permitted regardless of suit; with good play under these rules the game can be completed almost every single time. Shamrocks takes the essence of La Belle Lucie, but implements several other changes to make the game much easier: Kings are moved to the bottom of the fan during the deal, and you may build up as well as down on the fans (which are limited in size to 3 cards) and can ignore suits; to prevent it being too easy there are no redeals.

Similar games: Games in the Baker's Dozen family (covered previously above) are sometimes classified as Fan games as well, because the game-play is quite similar, with 13 columns/fans of four cards each, but the absence of re-deals gives them a different feel. Bristol is often played with a tableau consisting of fans as well, but there are only eight fans of three cards each, while the rest of the deck functions as a stock that you deal onto three waste or reserve piles. Despite some hidden information, those who appreciate Fan games are likely to appreciate Bristol as well. Intelligence is a two-deck game in the style of La Belle Lucie, while the relatively easy two-deck game Buffalo Bill relies on reserve cells rather than tableau building.

Castle games (Beleaguered Castle)

OverviewBeleaguered Castle is the most famous member of what can be called the "Castle" family of solitaire games, and is a classic game that you'll find in most books of Patience. This game sometimes also goes under the alternative names of Laying Siege and Sham Battle. It is an excellent example of an open solitaire game, because all the cards are dealt face-up at the start, so you begin with perfect information.

Game-play: With the four Aces placed in a vertical column as foundations, the rest of the cards are dealt face-up into four rows of six overlapping cards each on either side, forming a tableau consisting of two "wings". As expected, the goal is to build all four foundations in order from Ace through King. Cards may only be moved within the tableau one at a time, rather than in stacks, so only the end card of each row within the tableau may be moved, either to the foundations, to another row in descending sequence regardless of suit, or to an empty space in the tableau.

Variations: In Streets and Alleys, the Aces don't begin in the starting foundations at all, but are included in the initial tableau of dealt cards, so that the four rows on the left side of the foundations each consist of seven cards each rather than six. Thomas Warfield's Stronghold adds a storage cell to Streets and Alleys, to give more strategic options for movement. Citadel improves Beleaguered Castle's initial position slightly by allowing you to build straight to the foundations during the deal, while Selective Castle lets you choose the rank of the foundation cards after the deal. Some solitaire sites offer a Beleaguered Cities variant (sometimes simply called Castle), which makes the game much easier by allowing you to build in ascending or descending sequence (still regardless of suit), and this ensures that you can nearly always complete the game successfully.

My thoughts: Despite the unusual signature "wing" setup, strictly speaking the mechanics of Beleagured Castle are like most other solitaire games (especially Forty Thieves, see below), but with a single deck, eight columns of six cards each, and no stock. The strict rules for movement and building within the tableau make this a very difficult game to complete successfully. Ideally you want to be able to get one of the rows entirely clear, to give you more options for manipulation within the tableau. Even so, being only able to move the outside card on each row is quite limiting, and as a result you will often be thwarted by the luck of the draw early on, especially if high cards bury some lower cards, and so this classic game can be somewhat frustrating. You'll often find yourself quickly redealing and starting over, hoping for better luck the next time around; one advantage of a digital version is that you can keep redealing until you get a deal that seems like a reasonable starting draw. The simpler variant Castle is a good place to start with this game, since it increases your chances of success drastically.

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Related gamesFortress operates on a similar concept, but there are five rows on each side of the foundations instead of four. In addition, you are restricted to building on the same suit, but you may build in ascending or descending sequence. Aces start within the tableau (thus two rows have six instead of five cards). The variant Chessboard applies the same principle as Selective Castle, by letting you choose the rank of the foundation cards after the deal (building around the corner on the foundations as required), in order to take better advantage of the cards you have been dealt. Zerline is a German game where Queens are high, and helps by adding a four-card storage area.

Sir Tommy games

OverviewSir Tommy (Old Patience, Try Again, Numerica) is also known as Old Patience, which reflects its origin as the oldest known patience game, and possible ancestor of all others. The average person may not have heard of it, but it deserves a place on this list because this is a game from which so many other solitaire games are derived, including many more familiar ones. It is at the head of a family of games where cards in the tableau can't be moved after being placed, and that's a unique quality that also makes it quite challenging to win.

Game-play: Suits are irrelevant in this game, and the aim is to build four foundations from Ace to King. You deal the deck face-up one at a time, and the tableau has four columns (or waste piles); dealt cards can be played on any column but cannot be moved from one to another. So while it's still technically a building game because you are building up the foundations, there is no packing in the tableau to assist you with this.

Variations: Some variants (e.g. Auld Lang SyneTam O'Shanter) turn Sir Tommy into even an simpler luck-based game nearly impossible to win, while others are extremely strategic like the well-known Calculation. Amazons is an interesting version played with a smaller deck that has the goal of building to the Queens (= Amazons), and is best played digitally given the amount of redealing. Other variants make the game easier (and for me, more enjoyable) by increasing the number of tableaus (StrategyLady Betty, and Last Chance) or redeals (Acquaintance), or make it more interesting by requiring building by colours (Puss in the Corner, and ColoursAlternate).

My thoughts: Good players can win as many as 20% of their games, and storing cards in the right order on the four columns is critical, because you want to avoid having low valued cards blocked by higher ones, or having too many cards of the same number in one column. Reserving a pile for Kings and another for high cards is often a good strategy. Even so, it's a hard game to win and can be frustrating. I recommend trying some of the easier variants as a way to enjoy this game; there's a good reason so many variants have evolved from the original over time. It's a large family that includes many solitaire variants, and these are well worth trying and exploring.

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Related games: Several two-deck games are in the Sir Tommy family, including Fanny, Frog (also called Toad), Fly, and Grand Duchess, most of which involve using a reserve. Several two-deck games use similar mechanics but operate with a larger 20 card tableau in the style of the simple game Carpet, but involve building both up and down on the foundations; for me personally these are the most fun of all Sir Tommy variants, and include Twenty (also called Sly Fox), Colorado, Grandmother's Patience (also called Grandmamma's Game), and Grandfather's Patience - all excellent games.

CalculationCalculation deserves special mention, and has become a classic in its own right. What makes it unique is that the foundations are built up by one, two, three, and four respectively, and it requires a lot of skill. The variant Betsy Ross is more luck-dependent but is also easier to complete successfully.

Yukon

OverviewYukon first appeared in a 1949 book on solitaire games, and has since exploded in popularity. This single deck solitaire game was partly inspired by Klondike, which is of course the most popular solitaire card game of all time. But because Yukon has no stock and more flexible rules for movement of stacks within the tableau, it allows a lot more scope for thinking.

Game-play: While inspired and indebted to Klondike, Yukon creates a game with a very different feel by removing the requirement that stacks of cards must be in alternating sequence in order to be moved. In other words, you can move any stack to a legal card within the tableau, regardless of the sequence of the cards in that stack. While this makes the game easier, another significant change makes it harder: there is no stock that you deal. So all the cards are in the tableau at the outset, and you'll have to manipulate the tableau cleverly to uncover face-down cards and build all four suits onto the four foundations from Ace through King.

Variations: To make Yukon slightly easier, a couple of variants alter things slightly to simplify the gameplay, such as removing the requirement that only Kings can be placed in an empty space in the tableau (this variation is sometimes called Great River). Some digital implementations give the option of reducing the number of suits used, such as in Yukon One Suit, which you can nearly always win, while still having to think carefully.

My thoughts: The rules for manipulating the tableau give you more options than Klondike, and thus more to consider and think about. Both Yukon and Russian Solitaire (mentioned under "related games" below) are extremely popular solitaire games, because they are simultaneously more challenging and more rewarding than Klondike style games. Skill plays more of a role, and there are players so dedicated to Yukon that they have played it thousands of times. In regular Yukon you can expect to win as much as 1 in 4 games, but the added level of difficulty in Russian Solitaire reduces that to as little as once in 20 games. The key is to bring the face-down cards into play as soon as possible.

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Related gamesRussian Solitaire makes Yukon harder by only allowing you to build down in the tableau with cards of the same suit, instead of in alternating colours, and it is an extremely popular game in its own right. This requirement is also in place with Alaska, but may build in ascending or descending order in the tableau, which makes it easier to win than Russian Solitaire. Australian Patience is another popular spin-off from Yukon, and adds a stock which is dealt one at a time, while the entire 7x4 tableau starts face up; however this can feel like it's more about careful observation than decision making. Many other Yukon inspired games exist, including games which add things like a reserve, storage cells, or extra decks.

Scorpion: Special mention should be made of popular game Scorpion, which some categorize as part of the Yukon family, and the rules for moving unarranged stacks in Yukon may even originate in Scorpion. However, Scorpion uses Spider's requirement that stacks from Ace to King of the same suit must be assembled within the tableau before being discarded. Scorpion variants include WaspThree Blind MiceChinese Solitaire, and others.

== Games With Two Decks ==

Forty Thieves (Napoleon at St Helena)

OverviewForty Thieves is a popular and classic game played with two decks, and is also included in most books with patience games. It also goes under the alternate name Napoleon at St Helena (not to be confused with a different solitaire game called "Saint Helena" or "Napoleon's Favorite"), and tradition says that this is the solitaire game Napoleon played while in exile on the island of St Helena. The game also goes under other names, including Roosevelt at San Juan. Its simple rules means that many variations exist, many of which are among the more strategic and satisfying versions of solitaire games that you'll find anywhere. Carefully working through the stock pile and manipulating the discard pile are a big element of successful play.

Game-play: A tableau is dealt with ten columns, each with four overlapping and face-up cards. Strict tableau building rules apply, because only the single top card of each column may be moved, and only onto a card that is the next highest rank of the same suit; any card can be placed into a space that becomes available in the tableau. The remaining stock of 64 cards is turned up one card at a time, with no redeals. The goal is to get all the cards onto the eight foundations from Ace through King in each suit.

Variations: In its strict and classic form, even with good play Forty Thieves is difficult to win, so many variants exist that seek to make the game easier. In some of these, the Aces begin as starting foundations ( San Juan Hill). In others, the tableau is not built down by cards of the same suit but by alternating colours (e.g. Streets), or by any suit other than its matching one (Indian). Some variations allow entire sequences of cards to be moved (JosephineForty BanditsAli Baba), or combine this with having tableau building in alternating colours (Number TenRank and FileEmperor) or tableau building in any suit (Little Forty). In other variations, multiple redeals of the stock are permitted.

My thoughts: Game-play is very tight in the strict form of the game. It's not always a good idea to play a card just because you can, because you may block cards within the tableau that you need. You also need to pay close attention to duplicates, since two decks are in play. As a result, careful planning and consideration is needed. Unused stock typically ends up into an increasingly large face-up discard pile, but in the latter parts of the game skilful play often makes it possible to dig back through this and complete the game. This usually proves most satisfying when playing with one of the variants that makes the game slightly easier, to increase your chances of pulling out a win. Even with these variants, you'll have to play skillfully, making the Forty Thieves family of solitaire games one of the more popular choices for those who like a longer experience that is thoughtful, challenging, and yet solvable, and where skill plays even more of a role than luck.

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More variations: Instead of 10 tableau piles, some variations increase this to 12 piles (BlockadeNapoleon's SquareCorona) or 13 piles (LucasWaning Moon); or decrease it to 9 piles (Maria) or 8 piles (Forty and EightCongressParliamentDiplomatRed and Black), each with different combinations of rules for tableau building. Games with just 6 piles (Blind AlleysPas Seul) or 5 piles (Double Rail) begin to feel much like Klondike.

Related games: Many other games take the Forty Thieves style concept and adjust it in more significant ways. In Interchange (more difficult), Breakwater, and Alternations, the initial tableau includes face-down and face-up cards. The very popular Thieves of Egypt begins with a pyramid shaped tableau. Busy Aces is a straight forward game in the style of Forty Thieves that is at the head of its own family, which includes the much simpler Fortune's Favor, a simple game ideal for beginners. For a terrific overview of all the Forty Thieves related games and their different nuances, consult Thomas Warfield's excellent complete guide to Forty Thieves types games.


Conclusion

This is by no means a comprehensive list that includes all builder-style solitaire games. But along with Klondike, Spider, and FreeCell, these seven additional games - Baker's Dozen, Beleaguered Castle,Canfield, Forty Thieves, La Belle Lucie, Sir Tommy, Yukon, and Forty Thieves - and the many related games that belong to their families, are the most common and popular forms of solitaire games that involve building. They have inspired many solitaire games like them, and have stood the test of time well.

If you enjoy Klondike, which is the most popular version of solitaire in the world, then Canfield and Yukon are natural games to explore next. Beleaguered Castle can be a little frustrating due to the strict rules and dependency on the luck of the draw, and even the other games in its family can be quite challenging. I'd recommend it only for more experienced and dedicated players, and would instead suggest next exploring Baker's Dozen and the games in the "Fan" family inspired by La Belle Lucie.

Their style of play is somewhat similar to Forty Thieves and its many siblings, which double the number of cards in the game by adding a second deck, and also adds a stock pile and discard pile you must manage. Forty Thieves type games are among the best you'll find for those who like a more challenging, thoughtful, and longer solitaire experience.

About the writerEndersGame 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.

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Last update date: 12/08/20

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