Solitairica, a name I can never type properly, came to us courtesy of Canadian developers Righteous Hammer Games. MobyGames tells me it came out on PC on May 31st, 2016, followed later in the year by mobile and Mac releases. Solitairica barely made the cut for an entry here. It isn’t particularly rogue-like in its randomisation and your actual cards are just numbers, leaving it up to collectible spells to represent your ‘hand’ of actions. Regardless, it gives me a good excuse to talk about what randomness represents for this genre and the delicate tightrope it walks when keeping players invested with luck-based gameplay systems.
Premise and Gameplay
The evil Emperor Stuck has stolen the hearts of all in the land of Myrriod. It is up to you to engage his evil hordes through… solitaire? Well, a heavily-altered, pared-down variant of it, anyway. Your route to the emperor is blocked by 18 rounds of combat. However, the player is the only one matching numbered cards. The enemy, instead, will hit you with RPG-esque attacks and spells that deal direct damage to your hit points, manipulate the field of play, or otherwise interfere with your ability to match your card to one of a number higher or lower than the current card in your hand. You win if you match all the cards, and the enemy wins if they kill you.
You have some magic at your disposal, and here’s where the game actually qualifies for a post here. Instead of suits, most cards are associated with one of four types of magic – attack, defense, agility, and willpower. Matching an attack card will stockpile one attack energy, which can be saved up and spent on attack spells, which do things like match any one card regardless of what number you currently have, remove all cards of a particular number, and so on. However, you can only have six spells at a time, with new ones being a big drain on the coins you win between rounds, and this is where the bulk of strategy lies. Losing a run loses you everything, except for some gems that can be redeemed to unlock new ‘classes’ (really just different spell type focuses), or extra passive abilities and items for classes you already have.
Hmmm. In some regards, this is about as random as these games can get before strategy stops factoring into the outcome at all – that’s inherent to the design of solitaire, though. On the other hand, your runs, or at least the first several battles, will start feeling familiar fast. Surprisingly, the order in which the 17 enemies are presented to you before the final boss doesn’t change. This is presumably done to stop anyone getting too frustrated by getting wiped out before they’ve put a real dent in the run, but after about the fifth encounter or so, you will be at least partly at the mercy of some good luck regardless of your build, and shifting some enemies around would have gone a long way to giving each run its own identity.
Items and spells stocked in the shops are different every time you visit between battles. There aren’t a ton of them in the first place, so you will likely be seeing several of the same ones repeatedly on most runs. On the one hand, this is good because it means you won’t have to play the game too many times before getting a handle on the spells that enable your preferred playstyle. On the other hand, it isn’t much longer after getting that handle you will realise that many spells are just too niche to be consistently useful or worth their energy cost. Your spells’ ability to turn the tide of a losing game back in your favour, much like your enemies and their capacity to turn it against you, ultimately matter little in the face of the number one solitaire concern – ‘can I match my current card with anything?’ Saving spells for the optimal moment when you run out of matchables and being able to get another streak going is a thrill, certainly, but I never felt that it was down to a strategic masterstroke on my part. How much you care about this will be the biggest factor in whether or not Solitairica clicks with you.
This gives me a chance to talk about random number generation. It’s something I haven’t brought up in these posts yet, but given that all of these games are at least partially unified in the luck-based aspect of ‘drawing’ actions, it was only a matter of time. You will often hear ‘RNG’ in derogatory terms online, where it’s often used as a shorthand for ‘luck’. Things like “I got RNG-screwed” or “the game is over-reliant on RNG”. (Looking up the Steam reviews for this very game will get you some examples.) Some randomisation must exist for this genre to work at all, but it’s safe to say that most people don’t like it when the hand of RNG is felt too frequently, or that a run ended prematurely because of factors beyond their control. Solitairica is an interesting case, then, because I don’t think anyone would start a game of real solitaire (or certain variants) or many other card games if they didn’t expect to be fully conscious of the luck involved at all times. That’s what makes these games gambleable, after all; the element of luck keeps them from becoming ‘solved’ games. Whether or not Solitairica works for you, I reckon, depends on how much you mind your games laying bare this simple fact. The cards you needed didn’t come up and you lost, that’s just how it is sometimes, the game seems to say – but here’s some gems that unlock stuff for your time and effort. Whether or not that turns you off or keeps you coming back is up to your tolerance for games of luck where the odds are withheld.
A very clean and crisp looking game. The sides of the screen have a lot of negative space to hold UI elements – presumably this is just a side effect of the game being built for vertical mobile displays alongside PC. Character and enemy design may not blow you away, but should at least get a smile or two here and there. Several spells come with a little bit of animation and flair once triggered. These don’t slow down proceedings, and are just enough to give you some satisfying feedback when a skill you saved up pops off. As for music, there’s not a whole lot of it to go around. Combat itself is silent except for some nice sound effects, so you’ll want to be supplying your own background distraction. All in all, the land of Myrriod is hardly one that’s so compelling that you’ll be thinking about it when you’re not playing, but everything looks and feels functional. Not to damn it with faint praise, but it clears the minimum requirements it needs to, and sometimes that’s fine.
I’m definite that Solitarica is one of the more polarising games I’ll cover here. I’m not interested in reducing the games written up here down to a yay-or-nay. People put a lot of effort into making these with (usually) good intentions, and they are often dirt cheap compared to most modern games, so I fully encourage trying these out for yourself. That said, I wouldn’t blame anyone for totally bouncing off of Solitairica. I can take or leave solitaire myself, so for all I know this may not even be your bag even if you are into the genre. Like Guild of Dungeoneering and Hand of Fate before it, the game seems to steer you toward beating its campaign rather than engaging with it for the intrinsic satisfaction of the gameplay. Novelty value alone certainly carried me for a good several hours with it, but I dropped off long before I got around to unlocking the majority of alternate decks. I wonder what a sequel could actually do to refine it further. There isn’t much that it does wrong that isn’t simply a side-effect of the intended gameplay, and giving the player better spells and greater agency could quickly make the game too easy. Food for thought…
–Almost irrelevant aside that doesn’t fit elsewhere–
There was a 3DS game called Pocket Card Jockey (released in the west a month before Solitairica, funnily enough, with a mobile sequel out… literally eight days ago), developed by Pokémon dev Game Freak. In brief, you race horses, and to make them go faster, you have to solve solitaire hands as fast as possible. I bring it up because the solitaire gameplay was simply an engine for the greater goal of placing higher in the horse race. You could be bad at the solitaire and still finish the race, although probably not very well. It makes me curious if a version of Solitairica where the solitaire supplements combat based on the spells could work. Good solitaire luck/skill could get more spells out quicker, and perhaps your health wouldn’t replenish between fights, and that’s your incentive to play smarter and faster. Of course, this loses the original’s sedate turn-based nature, which isn’t for everyone, but I’m just thinking aloud at this point.
Well… this is an odd one. The game uses a +1/-1 solitaire playing card system, albeit without suits. What am I going to do, tell you that the 6 is OP or that they need to nerf the queen and jack synergies? Rather than the actual cards, I think I’ll use this space to talk about a few good purchasable spells I found handy, since they more closely resemble the functions of cards in other roguelike deck-builders.