As I played The Solitaire Conspiracy, I couldn’t help but wonder what other classics of tabletop gaming would benefit from the treatment that the solo card game receives here. Story-driven checkers? Chess with hero characters? Mancala with a leaderboard? The latest project from Bithell Games reimagines solitaire as a means of espionage. And while the FMV story that frames each hand is pretty predictable, the mechanical ramifications of this conceit make for a fantastic take on the traditional card game.
You are an unwitting spy, kidnapped and put to work by Protega, an intel organization working outside the confines of any nation’s government. Protega is represented to you by Kinda Funny’s Greg Miller as Jim Ratio, your handler and constant companion throughout the campaign. Ratio tells you that you need to take down a mysterious figure called Solitaire, who has shut down Protega’s means of communication with their operatives out in the field. It’s your mission to regain control of this spy network.
Your spy work plays out through games of solitaire. According to the credits, the versions of the game that The Solitaire Conspiracy takes inspiration from are Beleaguered Castle and Streets and Alleys. These variants are less popular than Klondike or Spider, to be sure, but they’re intuitive enough and easy to pick up. The board is made up of three columns, each with four rows. In the central column, you place the ace for each suit that’s currently in play, then build on it until you reach the King. You draw these cards from the outer columns, where the cards are dealt in piles. Unlike in some other popular solitaire variants, you can only move one card at a time, rather than picking up the furthest consecutive card in and moving the stack. But, you can move each card to any pile, regardless of suit, as long as the numeric value on the card is lower than the topmost card on the desired pile. These core rules are fairly simple, and will be easy to pick up for anyone who’s played a hand or two of solitaire before. But that simplicity provides a solid framework for Bithell Games to use as it builds out its unique, hero-based take on solitaire.
As you progress through the game, you’ll unlock new suits. But, instead of the traditional hearts, diamonds, clubs or spades, each set of face cards represents a new team of spies at your disposal, each with game-changing abilities. You begin the campaign with just one team, Mantis, who, according to Ratio, “are messy, but they get the job done.” Play the King, Queen or Jack from this suit on any pile of cards and they’ll cause an “explosion,” scattering that pile’s cards across the seven other stacks in play. If you need a card from the bottom of a pile, Mantis may make it easier to access it, but the explosion will have ramifications for the rest of the board.
You unlock new teams with unique skills every few levels, and this hook kept me interested across The Solitaire Conspiracy’s five-hour campaign. Learning each team’s skills is exciting and satisfying. After playing with Blood Legacy, a team that reorganizes a pile so that the highest cards rise to the top and the lowest sink to the bottom, I was stoked to finally unlock Alpha Division, which accomplishes the opposite, making it significantly easier, for example, to access a 2 or 3 buried at the bottom of a stack. Each team has its uses, but it’s up to you to determine when the time is right to use their special skills. For example, Humanity+ will explode any suit that you play them on, scattering sorted cards from the central pile back out onto the flanks. These cards need to be handled with care, especially in Countdown, a timed mode where you gain seconds back for each card played. Replaying exploded cards won’t gain you time back, so misplaying a Humanity+ operative is a surefire way to run out the clock.
As you play, you gain experience and rise through the ranks. After each level gained, Ratio gives you new instructions and/or a pep talk. Often you gain a new team and unlock new missions. Once those are completed, you can come back for more missions. All of this is in pursuit of Solitaire. Ratio tells you that when you reach level 15, you will be ready to take him on and hand control of the stolen network back to Protega.
As Ratio, Miller is a little distracting here. In a rare acting role, the busy host spends most of his time monologuing at the player. Miller’s built a massive audience with his high-energy affability, and that’s on full display for much of The Solitaire Conspiracy. But, when he shifts into very-serious-spy-mode, he’s less believable, speaking with a clipped intensity that doesn’t feel like a natural fit for his easygoing appeal. The small cast is rounded out by UK actor Inel Tomlinson, who plays Diamond, another spy who is often at odds with Ratio. He’s mostly fine, but isn’t given much to do.
That’s the campaign’s primary problem, really. It works well as a five hour long introduction to Bithell Games’ terrific take on solitaire, gradually teaching you each team’s unique mechanics before unleashing you on the timed Countdown mode, and its enticing leaderboard. But, as a bit of FMV storytelling, it’s far too static to work well as a spy thriller. It mostly feels like a dress rehearsal via Zoom call.
Outside the campaign, though, The Solitaire Conspiracy benefits from not having to split its focus between story and gameplay. As a pure solitaire experience, it’s a great, inventive take on the game millions of players know so well. Skirmish allows you to create custom games, picking up to four teams you want on your side. This mode is fine, but it has a weird quirk that will kick you back to the start screen after a completed game, instead of back to the team select. This has the implicit effect of making it feel like you should only play one round of Skirmish at a time.
Countdown, however, is where the game really shines. This fantastically frantic ranked mode is what will keep me coming back to The Solitaire Conspiracy. The rules are simple: the clock is constantly ticking down, and playing cards adds time back. This iteration forces you to not only master the basics, but also to memorize each team’s abilities. In the campaign and Skirmish, your success is measured by how low you manage to keep the turn counter. You’re encouraged to take your time and make the proper move, not the quick one. But, in Countdown, you can only keep playing if you play quickly. It pushes you to approach the game in a fundamentally different way, and I love that The Solitaire Conspiracy includes both options.
In the end, The Solitaire Conspiracy’s most unique aspect--its story-driven approach to the well-known card game--is, ultimately, its biggest weakness. The narrative doesn’t go anywhere particularly interesting, and if you’ve ever engaged with spy fiction to any degree, you’ll see its twists coming from a mile away. Its approach to FMV storytelling is pretty limited, with its cast monologuing at the camera from the same angles throughout. This is likely a limitation of shooting during COVID-19, but it means that the presentation feels oddly staid. We never see any espionage in action, and there’s not much dynamism to what we do see, either.
But, if you’re looking for a solid take on solitaire with an interesting injection of hero-based action, The Solitaire Conspiracy is exciting, well-paced and genuinely unique. You just need to decide if you really need to play another take on solitaire. Especially given the fact that multiple variations of the game likely came pre-installed on your computer, anyway. But, then again, do any of those have hero characters?