Bithell Games’ latest short game is here, and it’s a dramatic reimagining of… solitaire.
Yes, the card game. But it’s delivered in a way that one wouldn’t necessarily expect from a game that’s been the number one procrastination app on our PCs since the 90s. It’s not the type of solitaire you’d expect, for one, and it’s dressed up in an over-the-top narrative delivered through FMV scenes. The Solitaire Conspiracy is certainly an interesting prospect, but its story of espionage is perhaps a bit too big for its boots.
Starring Greg Miller as Jim Ratio, an analyst working for a spy agency, you find yourself embroiled in an extravagant tale of infiltration and undercover missions. You’re given control of various crews, each with special skills, who can be used to assist in various missions. But you don’t get to see anything of those missions, outside of a small block of text. The crews under your control are instead represented by a suit of cards as you play a game of solitaire.
The card game at the heart of The Solitaire Conspiracy is based on Beleaguered Castle, a lesser-known solitaire game. Played with up to four suits, all cards are placed face up, organised in eight rows of six cards. The top card from each row can be moved freely, but only placed on a card of a higher value. Your goal is to free the aces, followed by each card of each suit in order. It’s very simple to play, but hard to master.
But this isn’t just a straight-up card game, remember. The Solitaire Conspiracy is about agents and espionage. As such, there are eight different suits of cards here, each representing a different crew (don’t worry; you’ll only ever have a maximum of four in one game). The jacks, queens and kings of each suit have unique abilities that become activated once you’ve played the ace from that suit. Some of those abilities are really useful – like automatically placing the next required card in the pile – but others can hinder your progress, by shuffling all the cards, for example, or pushing a card you need to the bottom of a row.
Like most versions of solitaire, the more suits you play with, the more tricky the game becomes. Especially when you’ve got to consider the special abilities of each suit. It’s often wise to not activate them if you can help it – but sometimes it can’t be avoided, so your progress may occasionally take a hit.
Playing through the story of The Solitaire Conspiracy will only take you two or three hours; it is designed to be a short game, after all. It adds an interesting spin to what is usually a fairly humdrum experience, but I found myself struggling to get invested into it. To their credit, the cast delivers an entertaining performance, but there’s a big disparity between the story the game is trying to tell and the act of actually playing. I’m not so sure whether a card game needs such dramatisation.
You can skip through the story scenes if you want, however, and once you’ve progressed so far through the main campaign, you unlock two extra modes to play. There’s Countdown, a wave-based time trial that pits you against a global leaderboard; and Skirmish, an infinitely replayable mode that lets you choose what suits to play with.
I applaud Bithell Games’ efforts to make a classic card game something more. There’s no denying its presentation is compelling, even if the story may feel rather unnecessary. But regardless of how you feel about the over-the-top dramatics, there’s an excellent game at the core of The Solitaire Conspiracy. Its Countdown and Skirmish modes are something that players will find themselves going back to time and again – if only for a welcome change from Freecell or Spider Solitaire.