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Single-Deck Builder Solitaire Games That You Should Try

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Single-Deck Builder Solitaire Games That You Should Try

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

Overview: Martha is in the Baker's Dozen family, a single-deck game somewhat similar to the very difficult to complete Beleaguered Castle. The goal is to play all the cards in order of suit to the foundations, which begin with all four Aces. The rest of the deck is dealt into 12 tableau piles of four cards each, the second and fourth card of each pile being face down. You can build down on the tableau in alternating colours, with sequences being able to be freely moved within the tableau, except onto an empty pile, which must first have a single card placed there.

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.

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If you like Beleaguered Castle, you should try Canister

Overview: While Canister also has elements reminiscent of FreeCell (minus the reserve cells) and Klondike (minus the draw pile), it is arguably closest to the Beleaguered Castle family since it is an open game where all the cards are dealt face up. The starting tableau consists of eight columns, four with 7 cards and four with 6 cards. The goal is to play all the cards to the four foundations by suit from Ace through King. Building within the tableau happens downwards regardless of suit, and sequences can be moved.

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.

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If you like Canfield, you should try Eagle Wing (Thirteen Down)

Overview: Eagle Wing is in the Canfield family, and is much like the Canfield variant Storehouse (Thirteen Up). It gets its name from the bird-like shape of the tableau, with spread wings. Two "wings" of four face-up cards each are dealt on each side of a 13 card pile (often described as the "trunk" of the eagle), which acts as a reserve in the center. A single card from the stock starts the first foundation and determines their starting rank, with building happening `around-the-corner' from King through Ace. The stock is dealt one card at a time (with two re-deals), and cards can be played from here or from the tableau to the foundations, which are built upwards by suit. Cards on the tableau build down by suit, but each space can hold a maximum of three cards.

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.

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If you like Forty Thieves, you should try Ali Baba

Overview: The name Ali Baba is an obvious giveaway that this is a member of the Forty Thieves family of games, which are challenging two-deck games of real skill. This has the same basic set-up and rules, but is a single deck game with a tableau of ten columns with four cards in each. The goal is to build four foundations by suit from Ace through King, while the tableau is built down by suit. One important rule change from Forty Thieves is that sequences within the tableau can be moved, which gives you many more options for play. The stock pile of remaining cards is dealt one at a time.

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.

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If you like FreeCell, you should try Penguin

Overview: Penguin is a close relative of FreeCell. FreeCell is an open information solitaire game included with Windows, and has enjoyed enormous popularity since it is nearly always solvable with skilful play. Penguin was created by card scholar David Parlett, and has a set-up of seven columns with seven cards each. The card at the bottom of the first column is called the "beak", and the three cards that match its value become three of the four starting foundations. Seven reserve piles are called the "flipper". With tableaus building down by suit, the goal is to release the "beak" to start the fourth foundation, and play all the cards to the foundations, `turning the corner' from King to Ace as needed.

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.

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If you like Klondike, you should try Agnes

Overview: Klondike is the most familiar solitaire game there is, and Agnes is an excellent member of this family. Two versions of Agnes are commonly played, and to distinguish them David Parlett named them both after royal mistresses. Agnes Sorel is the original, whereas the later variant described here is called Agnes Bernauer, and is closer to Klondike. The game starts with the familiar Klondike layout, but all the cards are face-up. A single card is dealt to determine the base value of the foundations, which are built up by suit and by `turning the corner' from King through Ace. The tableau builds downwards by alternating colours, legal sequences can be moved, and empty columns must begin with a card one less than the starting cards of the foundations. But the most important difference from Klondike is the use of a reserve instead of a discard pile; each time you want new cards from the stock, which you go through only once, you deal a card to each of seven reserve piles.

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.

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If you like La Belle Lucie, you should try Shamrocks

Overview: Shamrocks is a member of the Fan family, the most well-known of which is La Belle Lucie (Lovely Lucy). A single deck is completely dealt out into 17 face-up fans of three cards each, plus a single face-up card. The goal is to build foundations from Ace through King by suit, and cards may be moved within the tableau one card at a time. Cards can be placed on a card in the tableau that is one higher or lower in value, ignoring suit, but with a maximum of three cards per fan. This accounts for the game's name, since shamrocks have three leaves. In most forms of the game Kings are moved to the bottom of their fan at the start of the game, to minimize the chances of the game locking up.

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.

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If you like Miss Milligan, you should try Tabby Cat

Overview: Tabby Cat was created by Rick Holzgrafe, and was inspired by the classic two deck game Miss Milligan, but uses just a single deck. You begin with a tableau of four single cards, and each time you deal from the stock, a new card is placed on each pile in the style of Spider. You can build down by value in the tableau (including Kings on Aces), moving sequences if desired. The goal is to discard cards by assembling a full sequence from Ace through King, ignoring suits just like in the tableau. To assist with this you can make use of the "tail", which is an additional reserve into which you can move a single card or sequence while manipulating the tableau.

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.

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If you like Scorpion you should try Three Blind Mice

Overview: Three Blind Mice fits within the Scorpion family, and uses the same rules but with a different set-up, resulting in a game with a different feel. There are 10 columns: seven columns with five face-up cards each, and three columns with two face-up cards on top of three face-down cards. The final two cards form a reserve. Three Blind Mice is one of several solitaire games named after nursery rhymes, and in this instance the "blind" cards in final three columns have inspired the name. You build down by suit in the tableau and can move groups of cards regardless of sequences. The goal is to get columns of all four suits in order from King through Ace.

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.

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If you like Sir Tommy, you should try Strategy

Overview: Just as the name suggests, Strategy is a game of skill, and makes a welcome departure from the largely luck-driven games that tend to make up the Sir Tommy family. Like Sir Tommy, the goal is to build four foundations from Ace through King, with no redeal, and with no moving of cards within the tableau. There are eight tableau piles, and the challenge is that all the cards must be played here one at a time from the stock, with cards only being played to the foundations once the entire deck is dealt out.

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.

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If you like Spider, you should try Curds and Whey

Overview: Curds and Whey is another ingenious game by card game whiz David Parlett. It belongs in the Spider family, which explains the title as a "Miss Muffet" reference. An entire deck is dealt in thirteen columns of four cards each. The goal, just as in Spider, is to arrange an entire suit in order down from King through Ace, at which point it can be discarded. Building in the tableau happens downwards by suit, but you can also put cards of the same value on each other. Legal sequences can also be moved within the tableau.

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.

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If you like Yukon, you should try Australian Patience

Overview: Australian Patience is in the Yukon family of games, which makes manipulating the tableau easier than in Klondike because you can move any groups of cards as a unit, even if they don't form a sequence. The game starts with seven columns of four face-up cards each, and like other Yukon descendants such as the more difficult Russian Solitaire and its close relative Scorpion, tableau building must happen downward by suit, rather than alternatively by colour. The goal is to build on the four foundations by suit from Ace through King, while going through a stock pile a single time one card at a time.

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.

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If you like Forty Thieves, you should try Thirty Six

Overview: Did I say a dozen games? Let's make it a baker's dozen and bring it up to thirteen altogether, because categorizing Thirty Six is a little tricky. It fits loosely within the Forty Thieves family of games, but an argument can also be made that it should be classified elsewhere. An initial tableau of six columns of six cards each is dealt, with Aces immediately placed on the foundations, which must be built up to King for each suit. Suits are ignored when building down in the tableau, and sequences may be moved as a group. The remaining stock is dealt one card at a time, and there are no redeals.

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.

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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.

Author's note: I first published this article at PlayingCardDecks.
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