by BoardGameGeek reviewer EndersGame
Despite the fact that the world of solitaire card games features a rich diversity of different types of games, most people are only familiar with the classic Klondike, and similar games of its kind like Spider, and FreeCell. Consider yourself more experienced with solitaire than most if you’ve ever played games like Baker’s Dozen, Beleaguered Castle, Canfield, Fan Games, Yukon, or Forty Thieves. But all of these games – and the many related ones that belong to their families – have one thing in common: they share the same basic formula for game-play, since they are all examples of builder games.
Builder games represent the largest slice of the solitaire pie, and are typically what the average person imagines a game of solitaire to be. With builder games, the aim typically is to arrange all the cards by suit in ascending order from Ace through to King. The way this usually works is by allowing players to manipulate cards within a tableau consisting of columns of cards. While rules can vary, the usual pattern sees players permitted to arrange cards within this tableau in descending order, often in alternating colours. Anyone who has ever played the classic Klondike will immediately recognize the style of game-play, and the above mentioned games are all excellent representatives of this genre.
But while builder games are the most popular archetype within the larger world of solitaire card games, there are many terrific solitaire games that don’t operate at all according to this formula. The good news for those who like variety is that there are several non-builder solitaire card games that work entirely differently from the typical builder games you’ve probably played. In this article I’ll cover some of the best and more well-known ones. I’ve used and recommend the excellent software from BVS Solitaire to play most of these.
Overview: Accordion is a classic solitaire game that you will find mentioned in most books that contain one-player card games. The name is very appropriate, since the gameplay has the sense of ironing out accordion pleats, and you’ll be moving cards together much like an accordion is played, with the goal of compressing the entire deck into a single pile.
Cards are dealt one at a time in a row, as many as space allows. If you wish, you can even deal the entire deck at the outset of the game. If a card has the same suit or value as the card immediately to its left, or the same suit or value as the card three to its left, it can be placed on that card. The aim of Accordion is to end up with the entire deck of cards in a single pile.
Thoughts: Accordion has a very different feel from the traditional building type of solitaire game, so it’s a good game if you are looking to try something different from builder games. While at first you’ll make good progress, you’ll quickly discover that it’s extremely difficult to win, with success estimated to be around 1 in 50 at best. But if you can get the entire deck down to just five cards or less, you can consider yourself to have accomplished a minor victory. The trick to winning is to find four cards of the same value that are grouped together near the end of the layout, and slowly move these four “sweepers” towards the start, eventually placing them on each other to get to a single pile.
If you enjoy this kind of game, also try Royal Marriage, which is also an eliminator solitaire game in the style of Accordion. There are slightly different rules for moving piles in this game, but a key element of game-play is that a King and Queen of the same suit are placed at the start and the end of the layout at the beginning of the game. Your goal is to get them to meet up and be the only two cards left. Push-Pin is similar to Royal Marriage, but comes with the additional challenge of using two decks. Other variants inspired by Accordion include Decade (Ten-Twenty-Thirty), where you remove adjacent cards that total 10, 20, or 30; similarly in Seven Up cards totalling multiples of seven (7, 14, 21 etc) are removed.
Overview: Gaps is the name this game is listed as in older books, but it’s also commonly described as Montana. Sometimes the name Montana instead refers to a variant way of playing Gaps, as do alternate names like Spaces and Addiction.
The basic concept involves a set-up where a single deck is dealt into four rows of thirteen cards, after which the Aces are removed to create four gaps (hence the alternate name). You can move into the gap a card that is one rank higher and the same suit as the card on its immediate left. Twos can be placed in spaces at the start of each row, while cards cannot be placed to the right of a King. The goal is to arrange each row with cards in the same suit from Two through King. Whenever you get stuck, you can collect the cards that are not in a suited sequence and deal these out again; usually only two such redeals are allowed.
Thoughts: There’s more skill to this wonderful solitaire game than first meets the eye, because the order in which cards are moved can make all the difference. Rather than just move any possible card, it is better to identify a card that you want to become a space, and then figure out backwards the sequence of cards that need to be played in order to achieve that.
Variant options are numerous, and include adjustments to the rules such as: allowing more redeals; shuffling or leaving unshuffled the cards before redealing; leaving a space immediately following the remaining sequences when redealing or determining such spaces randomly using Aces; allowing a space to be filled in sequence with the card on its immediate right and not just on its immediate left (Free Parking); or using a stripped deck of just 36 cards (Four Ways). Double Montana and Paganini are two-deck versions, while Maze Solitaire is a closely related single-deck game also well worth playing.
Overview: Bowling was created by Warren Schwader, and has been popularized by its inclusion in the Hoyle Solitaire Collection software package from Sierra Online in 1988. It has subsequently been implemented digitally on several websites and other software programs. Cards are dealt one at a time onto a layout with ten pin spaces (numbered 1 to 10). They can be placed onto any empty space, as long as the cards are in order of increasing value within these spaces. Any card that can’t be placed according to these rules is set aside onto a ball pile.
Successfully playing cards onto all ten pin spaces before needing to discard three cards onto the first ball pile counts as a strike. Achieving this before discarding another three cards onto a second ball pile counts as a spare. Otherwise at the moment when a third card is discarded to the second ball pile you score points for however many pins you’ve knocked over (i.e. cards placed). Scoring works the same as regular bowling, and a score of more than 150 points over ten such frames is considered a win.
Thoughts: This is an enormously fun game, and is really all about judging the probabilities as cards are turned up and placed one at a time. Your placement options become more limited as cards are placed, but you also have an increasing sense of which cards are more likely to turn up. It is addictive and enjoyable due to the strong push-your-luck element, and the opportunity to use a basic sense of probability to play the odds. The use of standard bowling scoring helps add a real sense of thematic flavour. Getting strikes or spares is very achievable, which leads to realistic scores.
This isn’t the only solitaire game with an excellent bowling theme. If you’re a fan of real life bowling, you’ll also enjoy Sid Sackson’s Bowling Solitaire, which is described next.
Overview: Despite the similar name, Bowling Solitaire is a very different game from the previous one. It was created by famous American game designer Sid Sackson, and published in his 1969 book A Gamut of Games. Only 20 cards are used, with the Ace through 10 in two suits. Ten cards are randomly placed face-up in the configuration familiar from ten pin bowling. The goal is to remove as many pins as possible in each of ten frames, with scoring working the same as actual bowling. Three piles of face-down cards (five, three, and two cards each) represent your bowling balls. There are a few special restrictions involved in the game-play that I won’t explain in detail, but what follows describes the general gist of the flow of play.
You roll a ball by turning over the top cards in these three piles, which you then use one at a time to “bowl” at the pins. Each card played can remove one, two, or three pin cards adding up to its value. Only the last digit of their total is used, and suits are irrelevant in this game. You keep using cards from the ball piles in this way until you get stuck, at which point you move onto your second ball by discarding the top card in each of the three piles and continuing to play. Getting rid of all ten pins with your first ball counts as a strike, while using a second ball to do so counts as a spare; otherwise you score however many pins you have knocked over.
Thoughts: Sid Sackson developed Bowling Solitaire in part as a result of his distaste for traditional builder solitaire games. He certainly succeeded in coming up with a very interesting and original that feels worlds apart from Klondike, and the result is a very clever solitaire game with a lot of thematic flavour. Each frame will play out differently due to the random draw, and the fact that some ball cards are unknown ensures good replayability and adds an element of suspense.
Yet you can make informed decisions, and the luck-of-the-draw is more than mitigated by strategic choices. There’s a lot of decisions within the 20 minutes or so that Bowling Solitaire takes to play, and there’s scope for real skill and calculated play, to the point that this is very much a game you can actually become good at. To play well it is especially important to keep track of what cards have been used, and to combine this with some basic probability and risk management. A score of anything over 150 can be considered a very good effort, while the rare achievement of reaching 200 is a real success.
Overview: I’m a huge fan of the card game Cribbage, which originates in the 19th century but remains a popular two-player game today. So it won’t come as a surprise that Cribbage Squares had an instant appeal for me. I’m not about to explain the intricacies of regular Cribbage here, aside from saying that this is a classic game well worth learning in its own right. But you’ll have to be familiar with Cribbage scoring to play this solitaire game, which does mean that Cribbage Squares won’t be accessible to everyone.
Scoring in this game is borrowed directly from standard Cribbage, but the actual mechanics and flow of play are quite different and much simpler. Basically it just involves you dealing cards one at a time and placing them into a 4×4 grid. The seventeenth card functions as the “starter” card, and you score points according to the standard conventions of Cribbage (e.g. for combinations that make up fifteens, pairs, runs, and flushes) for each of the four rows and for each of the four columns in the grid. A score of 61 or higher is usually considered a win.
Thoughts: Fans of Cribbage will find much to like about this clever solitaire game. The fact that the “starter” card is turned up last means that your final score depends a lot on what card is revealed at the end. This can make your final score feel somewhat dependent on a lucky draw, although to be fair the same can be said about the starter card in a regular game of Cribbage.
There are variations that give some options for more skill and choice. To increase the level of strategy, one variation allows you to discard up to ten cards into two reserve piles, giving you more choice of which cards to use. An “open” variant lets you see all the cards before playing any of them.
Overview: Closely related to Cribbage Squares is the game Cribbage Solitaire. This plays much more like standard Cribbage, although neither Cribbage Squares or Cribbage Solitaire incorporates any of the pegging from the original two-player game.
In Cribbage Solitaire you are given a hand of six cards, and discard two to the crib, after which you are given a second hand of six cards, again discarding two to the crib. The next card becomes the starter and usual Cribbage scoring is applied to both hands and to the crib. Players keep a running total of four such deals, and a cumulative score of 101 or higher is considered a win.
Thoughts: There are a number of different ways of playing Cribbage Solitaire that vary things slightly. The most common variation is that besides the two cards that you discard to the crib from your hand of six cards, the crib also receives two random cards. Scoring happens for the hand and the crib after dealing a starter, which is then placed at the bottom of the deck. Six such hands are played, plus a final hand without a crib and starter. When playing this way, an average cumulative total tends to be around 85.
Regardless of which of the above variants you are playing with, there’s no doubt that Cribbage Solitaire has a very different feel from Cribbage Squares. Cribbage Squares has more of a positional and spatial aspect to the game-play, where arrangement of the cards is all-important – something not present in traditional Cribbage. Cribbage Solitaire is more about creating the best scoring combinations, and the fact that the crib is given two random cards adds an element of luck and suspense that matches some of the excitement of actual Cribbage scoring.
Overview: If you enjoy playing the odds to try to produce good scoring Poker hands, you’ll love Poker Solitaire. Since the game-play is quite similar to Cribbage Squares, it is also commonly called Poker Squares. You play 25 cards from a shuffled deck one at a time into a 5×5 grid. Points are then scored for each of the five hands in the rows, and the five hands in the columns. There are two different scoring systems in common use: American and English. The American system awards points as follows: Royal flush 100, Straight flush 75, Four-of-a-kind 50, Full house 25, Flush 20, Straight 15, Three-of-a-kind 10, Two pairs 5, One pair 2.
Unlike the American scoring system, the ranking of the hands in the English system is different, and reflects the relative difficulty of achieving the hands in this solitaire game rather than in a regular game of Poker. The English system awards points as follows: Royal flush 30, Straight flush 30, Four-of-a-kind 16, Straight 12, Full house 10, Flush 5, Three-of-a-kind 6, Two pairs 3, One pair 1.
Thoughts: Flushes are quite easy to make in this game, which immediately gives it a somewhat different feel than regular Poker. A typical strategy involves using the columns to get flushes, and using the rows to get multiples of the same valued card (e.g. pairs, full house, four-of-a-kind). Achieving a specific minimum score of 200 with American scoring and 70 with English scoring is considered a win.
A common variant is to deal all 25 cards face-up and allowing players to move the cards as desired after placing them, in an effort to find the ten best scoring poker hands. Due to the need to calculate scores for every game, Poker Squares lends itself especially well to digital versions, which automate the scoring.
Tower of Pisa
Overview: Tower of Pisa often goes by the name Tower of Hanoi, since it is inspired by the classic solo puzzle of that name. The original Tower of Hanoi puzzle consists of three pegs, and a number of different sized round discs that fit onto the pegs. The goal is to transfer discs of increasing size one at a time from one peg to another, and end up with all the discs on a different peg, once again in order of increasing size. A key restriction on movement is that you can never place a larger disc on top of a smaller disc. With just three discs, it’s possible to solve the puzzle in just seven moves. More moves are required when there are more discs, but through pure logic a solution is always possible.
The solitaire card game based on this traditional puzzle uses the same principles, but starts out differently. You use nine cards (Ace through 9) from one suit, and begin with a starting arrangement of three columns of three cards each, in random order. The goal is to get all nine cards into a single column, arranged upwards in order 9 through Ace. When moving cards from one column to another, you may only move the top card of a column, and you can never place a higher valued card on top of a lower valued one.
Thoughts: The gameplay is effectively the same as a nine disc version of the traditional Towers of Hanoi puzzle. Since the starting set-up of that puzzle is fixed, solving it is a matter of pure recursive logic, and using optimal moves a nine disc puzzle can be solved in exactly 511 moves. In theory the Tower of Pisa solitaire puzzle takes less moves to solve than the classic logical puzzle, since you don’t begin with a starting arrangement that takes the largest number of moves to solve. But because you begin with a random arrangement, the path forward is rarely obvious. I find that this actually makes it more interesting and challenging than the classic puzzle, because no game begins the same, and you can’t simply use the same pre-set sequence of moves to solve it.
Somewhat surprisingly, this solitaire game seems to be most often found with the unusual spelling Tower of Hanoy (with a Y at the end, rather than with an I at the end like the classic puzzle). The origin of this unexpected spelling seems to be somewhat of a mystery. But you will sometimes find it spelled with an I at the end as well, or with alternate names like Tower of Pisa.
Adding and pairing games are a common archetype for solitaire games in the non-builder genre, and I have covered more than a dozen of these in a separate article about popular adding and pairing games. They rightly form a subclass of their own, and are easily the most common type of non-builder solitaire card game that you will come across. Many of them are quite luck dependent, making them well-suited for casual play. The simpler ones in this genre are especially good for children.
Overview: Pairing games require you to remove pairs of cards that have a matching value. I’ll use Nestor as the representative for this genre, but there are many games of this sort. The majority of them are very simple to learn and play, and pairing games like Simple Pairs and The Wish rely entirely or almost entirely on luck. Others like Concentration (Memory) require you to use your memory skills, while Nestor at least offers some decision making.
With Nestor you deal all the cards into a tableau consisting of eight columns of five cards each, along with a reserve of four cards. The aim of the game is simple: clear the entire tableau, by removing available pairs of cards that have a matching value. Nestor is an open information game, and while luck of the draw can sometimes thwart you, the layout does give room for some planning. There are also several good variations of Nestor worth trying, like Vertical and Doublets.
Related: For a fun pairing game with an interesting spatial element, I recommend Monte Carlo, which involves a moving layout consisting of 25 cards. Beehive and Pile Up (Fifteen Puzzle) are also pairing games that deserve a look, and can be very satisfying to play.
Although it is not a pairing game in the strict sense, Golf is a very popular non-builder game. The basic mechanic is similar to pairing games, but rather than removing matching cards of the same value, you remove pairs that are one higher or lower in value. Golf is an excellent and straight-forward game that I highly recommend for casual gamers wanting to try a simple solitaire game that is very different from the usual builder genre. There are many variants, with the Tri-Peaks variation being especially well-known because it’s part of the Microsoft Windows Solitaire Collection. Other excellent solitaire games that use the Golf mechanic of removing cards one higher or lower in value are Black Hole and Eliminator.
Overview: Adding games require you to remove cards with a combined value of a particular total such as 13. Pyramid is the most common game of this sort, and is widely known as a result of its inclusion in the Microsoft Solitaire Collection. It’s a good representative of the adding genre, and is easy to learn.
To play Pyramid, you deal 28 cards in the shape of a pyramid. The idea is to remove cards that make up a pair adding to 13, with Jacks, Queens, and Kings counting as 11, 12, and 13. Kings don’t need to be paired with another card. Any card that is uncovered can be used, and you also deal through the deck one at a time, and can pair the face-up card to remove an available card from the pyramid if those two cards add to 13. You win the game if you clear the entire pyramid. Pyramid has a lot of common variations to increase the chances of winning.
Related: While Pyramid is the natural poster-child for the genre of adding games, there are many other excellent games of this sort. Thirteens (also called Simple Addition) uses the same concept of removing cards that add up to 13 but has an entirely different layout. Other basic adding games involve pairs of cards that add to different totals, such as ten, eleven, fourteen, fifteen, and even as much as eighteen. Some of these are open information games, which allow you more planning.
Adding games with some more interesting aspects to the game-play include Ninety One, which as the name suggests requires you to make an arrangement of cards adding to 91. Arguably the best in the genre is David Parlett’s terrific Exit (alternative name Gay Gordons), which gives a lot of room for planning ahead and decision making.
There is a good reason why builder games are so popular, one being that a deck of cards naturally lends itself to collecting sets according to suit in order from Ace through King. But one disadvantage of the genre of builder games is that they can feel somewhat alike, and despite all the many variations in game play, ultimately you are trying to achieve the same kind of thing.
In contrast, non-builder solitaire card games offer something completely fresh and different. With games like the ones featured in this article, you are guaranteed to find yourself with a solitaire challenge that will require you to think quite differently than with the traditional Klondike. These are great games that will have you thinking outside of the box, and exploring completely new and interesting ways of game-play.
Since these non-builder solitaire games typically take you somewhat outside of the realm of the familiar, I recommend finding a good digital implementation of them, because it will make it much easier to learn the rules correctly. The excellent solitaire software and apps created by BVS Solitaire make an excellent choice. In the case of the non-builder games based on existing games like Cribbage or Poker, you’ll likely already be familiar with the basic mechanics, and many of these lend themselves well to be played with an actual deck in hand.
If ever you’ve wondered if there’s more to solitaire than the version found on most desktop computers, then you really owe it to yourself to try some of these fantastic non-builder games, to see how different and rewarding solitaire really can be!
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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.