Most people are familiar with solitaire, and identify it with Klondike. Klondike is the classic game that everyone is familiar with from Microsoft Windows, where you’re building cards down in value in alternating red and black colours, while simultaneously trying to play the entire deck from Ace through King by suit onto four foundations. It is the archetype of the classic builder solitaire game.
Many two-deck builder games offer a longer and more thoughtful playing experience, but builder games like Klondike that use just a single deck are ideal time fillers. Perhaps you have explored some solitaire games outside of classic Klondike, so you may already be familiar with some of the other popular “families” of builder games, like FreeCell, Spider, Canfield, and Yukon. Each of these solitaire games represents a genre of its own, and interestingly the named game isn’t necessarily the best of its kind. In fact, within each of these families there are some excellent games that arguably even surpass the game that stands at its head, and are at least as rewarding and fun to play.
In this article, I’ll introduce you to a lesser known game from each of a dozen main families of solitaire games. Each of these is a builder game, and uses just a single deck. And in many cases, the game I’m suggesting you try is at least as good or even better than the more well-known game of the family. Certainly if you like the original, you owe it to yourself to try these close cousins. NB: To play these, I’ve used and recommend the excellent software from BVS Solitaire.
If you like Baker’s Dozen, you should try Martha
Thoughts: Like Baker’s Dozen and its close relatives (Bisley being the most well known), this game is quite easy to win. The fact that you don’t have perfect information is exactly the feature that makes it fun, because there are surprises in store which you’re trying to uncover. If you could see all the cards at the outset, the game actually becomes less interesting and too easy. The rule about not allowing sequences to be moved to empty piles without a single card being placed there first is also a good one, because this also prevents the game being overly simple. Even so, it’s quite straight forward to win the vast majority of games, and there is enough scope for decision making to make it rewarding, while still having a casual and relaxed feel. You may also want to try a variation called Stewart, which makes the game harder.
If you like Beleaguered Castle, you should try Canister
Thoughts: This is an excellent game that gives real room for skill. While Beleaguered Castles is very difficult to win, and depends largely on a very favourable draw, the slightly more friendly rules make Canister far more satisfying. You are still dependent somewhat on how the cards are dealt in the early stages of the game, and sometimes a bad draw may make further progress impossible. But if you manage to navigate through the first part of the game, and especially if you manage to free up a column, more often than not you can successfully win. Good and careful play is rewarded, which is what makes this game so enjoyable, and you should be able to complete over half of your games. Variations like American Canister and British Canister make the game slightly harder by giving stricter rules for tableau building. For a similar feeling game that adds use of a stock and has less columns, take a look at Thirty Six at the end of this list.
If you like Canfield, you should try Eagle Wing (Thirteen Down)
Thoughts: An interesting feature of Eagle Wing is that spaces in the tableau are automatically filled by the reserve, and only later in the game can other cards from the tableau or stock be placed here. This makes the first part of the game primarily about observation, but later in the game your choices will be important. Chances of success are greater than even, and Eagle Wing can be enjoyed as a casual building game with some decisions, while still giving the ability to win quite easily. It is especially satisfying to watch stacks of cards disappear quickly from the tableau to the foundations in the final stages. In some variations building in the tableau is disallowed, but this makes wins extremely rare and isn’t recommended. Closely related variations include Wings and Bald Eagle.
If you like Forty Thieves, you should try Ali Baba
Thoughts: Ali Baba plays very quickly and is much lighter and easier than Forty Thieves, in part because it only uses a single deck, but also because sequences can be moved in the tableau. Your initial layout can frustrate you at times, but in many cases you can win fairly easily, especially since most apps allow unlimited redeals of the stock. The variant Big Forty is identical but doesn’t begin with the Aces on the foundations, and as a result it locks up much more frequently due to the draw. Both games rely more on close observation and a good draw than skill, but still prove satisfying to complete successfully.
If you like FreeCell, you should try Penguin
Thoughts: Like FreeCell, this is a game of complete skill, and using the reserve cells wisely is key to success. Opening up a column can help, but empty columns can only be filled with a card one rank lower than the “beak”. This factor, as well as that you can only build down by suit rather than alternate colours, makes it more challenging than FreeCell, although Penguin does have more reserve cells (the “flipper”) to compensate. Freeing the “beak” to get all suits into play is extremely important. It’s a very rewarding game that anyone who likes FreeCell and similar solitaire games of skill is certain to enjoy.
If you like Klondike, you should try Agnes
Thoughts: There is no redeal, but this is amply compensated for by the use of the reserve. Effectively the game feels much like Klondike, but with all the cards of the tableau face-up to start with, and having a seven card reserve instead of dealing one card at a time. So there is a lot of open information, plus you have more cards than normal to work with. This gives more room for planning, and you should be able to win about half of your games with clever play. Agnes Sorel is considerably harder to win than Agnes Bernaeuer, because instead of a reserve, seven cards are dealt directly to the tableau each time you draw from the deck in the style of Spider. Some variations give more flexibility for building on the tableau or foundations, but wins are still less frequent with Agnes Sorel than they are in Agnes Bernauer.
If you like La Belle Lucie, you should try Shamrocks
Thoughts: What makes this game the most different from other games in the Fan family like La Belle Lucie, is the fact that you can build up or down regardless of suit within the tableau, and the limit of three cards per fan with no redeals. For best chances of winning, you should build up foundations as evenly as possible, and not play the last card of a fan unless necessary, since empty columns aren’t refilled, thus reducing the amount of possible manipulation within the tableau. The game feels very tight, but is very satisfying to win, and with good play you should be able to win over a third of your games. For a game closer to most Fan games, I especially enjoy Super Flower Garden, which is less constrained because it allows unsuited building in the tableau.
If you like Miss Milligan, you should try Tabby Cat
Thoughts: Many of these mechanics work the same as in Miss Milligan, but Tabby Cat is a more manageable game because it uses just a single deck. The concept of a reserve pile (the “tail”) is especially genius, because it gives real room for skilful play. Using it wisely should enable you to win the majority of games. It’s essential not to leave cards blocking the tail, since almost always the optimal way to play is to keep it free for use. The variant Manx makes the game harder by only allowing single cards rather than sequences to be placed in the tail.
If you like Scorpion you should try Three Blind Mice
Thoughts: Game-play is virtually identical to Scorpion, but you need to focus on uncovering the nine face-down cards as soon as possible. You can often make significant progress, but typically some of the cards you need will be trapped face-down, and the result is that you can only expect to win about 1 in 5 games, which is even less than Scorpion. This can be a little frustrating, but on the other hand it is enormously satisfying to complete the game successfully. For much better winning chances, Wasp is a Scorpion variant that allows empty columns to be filled with any card or sequence, and as a result you can win most games with good play.
If you like Sir Tommy, you should try Strategy
Thoughts: Effectively all the decisions in Strategy happen when you are playing the cards onto the tableau. This means you must ensure that low cards aren’t blocked by higher valued ones from the same suit, otherwise you can’t win. With clever play, nearly all games can be won, so it’s a game of genuine skill, much more so than its ancestor Sir Tommy, which increases the luck of the draw element significantly by only having four columns in the tableau. Some apps require you to deal the cards onto piles instead of columns; this adds an unnecessary memory element, and Strategy works best when you can see all the played cards.
If you like Spider, you should try Curds and Whey
Thoughts: I’m not usually fond of Spider games, especially because they typically involve more than one deck, and dealing cards on all the columns tends to bring unpleasant surprises and can quickly cause the game to lock up. Curds and Whey is refreshingly different because all the cards are face-up from the outset, so you’re working with perfect information. With four different suits in play, the game would quickly prove impossible if it weren’t for the fact that you can pack cards of the same value together. A good amount of games are achievable, and it allows for real skill, making it extremely satisfying to get a win.
Thoughts: Australian Patience has become a very popular game since it was first implemented on Thomas Warfield’s Pretty Good Solitaire, and it is now found on most solitaire websites and apps. Effectively it takes the basic mechanisms of Yukon variants that build down by suit, and blends this with the Klondike mechanism of having a stock pile to deal through. It is fun to play, but you do quickly run stuck and are dependent on the right cards being drawn. The game often becomes impossible when low valued cards are buried in the waste pile, so count yourself lucky to win about 1 in 5 games. There are some small rule variations that improve your winning chances, like Canberra (one redeal), Tasmanian Solitaire (unlimited redeals), Raw Prawn (empty columns can be filled by any card), and Brisbane (a Yukon type tableau); you will prefer these variations if you want to win more often.
If you like Forty Thieves, you should try Thirty Six
Thoughts: This is a splendid single deck solitaire game that is easy to learn, and is solvable more often than not. Yet it requires skilful play to win regularly, because success depends more on your decisions than it does on luck of the draw. Thirty Six is effectively a variant of Six by Six, which operates similarly but deals cards to the first column rather than a waste pile, making the game much more difficult. The variation Lanes is also more frustrating to complete. In contrast, Thirty Six gets everything right. For a game which offers a similar challenge, but with eight columns and no stock, take a look at Canister, which appears earlier on this list.
The above games all go to show how diverse the range of solitaire builder games is. Within each family of builder games there is typically a rich number of variations worth exploring. Just because you don’t enjoy the main game, doesn’t mean that there is no variation within its family that you will like. Often these variants change things up, by making the game harder or easier, or by introducing other twists to the game-play. These small changes can often make all the difference between a game you like and a game you don’t like.
The above games are all relatives of the twelve most popular builder solitaire games, but the good news is that there’s also many excellent non-builder solitaire games. In my next article I’ll take some of the most well known of these (e.g. Golf, Pyramid, and others), and suggest less familiar games that are related to each and that you are likely to enjoy if you appreciate the originals.
Final note: You can certainly play these with an actual deck of playing cards, which is particularly satisfying with an attractive custom deck. But when it comes to learning the rules of a new solitaire game, the best way to play is with the help of a reliable software program, like the ones offered by BVS Solitaire. Their program for Windows is one of the best I’ve tried, and they also have excellent versions for Mac and for mobile devices.
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.