Single-Deck Non-Builder Solitaire Games That You Should Try
When most people think of solitaire card games, they think of the classic game Klondike, which has become synonymous with solitaire itself. Klondike Solitaire is the quintessential example of a builder solitaire game, where you're trying to play all the cards from the deck from Ace through King on four foundations corresponding to suit, with the help of a tableau which is built with cards in descending order and in alternating colours.
Some of the finest solitaire games in the world are builder games like this, and take this concept in various different directions. But what about non-builder games, which employ playing cards in a totally different way? That's what this article is about. In previous articles I've already introduced you to some of the most well-known non-builder games like Golf and Pyramid, which represent pairing (or matching) games and adding games respectively. Alongside them are other non-builder solitaire games that work entirely differently again.
The goal of this article is to introduce you to some of the lesser known members of these families, and whet your appetite to explore and enjoy some of the many other non-builder solitaire card games that exist. There are games that use multiple decks, but they typically take longer to play and are more involved, so I've restricted this list to games played with a single deck. NB: To play these, I've used and recommend the excellent software from BVS Solitaire.
== Pairing Games ==
If you like Golf, you should try Black Hole
Overview: Black Hole is an adding and pairing game in the style of Golf, which is one of the most familiar solitaire games in the world, popularized especially by its variant Tri-Peaks, which was included in most personal computers with Windows. Black Hole was created by David Parlett, who acknowledges it was derived from Golf. The Ace of Spades starts in the center as the Black Hole, around which are placed 17 fans of 3 cards each. Ignoring suit, and only using the top card in each fan, the goal is to play all the cards into the Black Hole, with the next card always being one higher or lower in value than the previous one.
Thoughts: This is a brilliant game, and the majority of deals are solvable. Ideally you shouldn't change directions up and down within one game, or you'll quickly get stuck. Instead it's best to just build from Ace through King and then wrapping around back to Ace and repeating this process. Because all the cards are face up, with careful planning you can succeed more often than not. A related variant is Four Leaf Clovers, which makes the game harder by having a set-up of 13 fans of 4 cards each, but compensates for this by allowing you to build up or down one card at a time (ignoring suit) on the fans.
If you like Golf, you should try Eliminator
Overview: If you enjoy the Golf mechanic of playing cards up and down in value, you simply must try Eliminator, which is sometimes also known under the name Strip. The entire deck is dealt face-up into four columns with thirteen cards in each. There are six foundations, which can start with any card of your choice, but then build up or down in value, ignoring suit, in the style of Golf. The goal is to play the entire deck to the foundations. To make the game harder there are also variations which have only five foundations, or four.
Thoughts: The beauty of this game is that you have open information from the beginning because you can see all the cards. By carefully planning ahead you should be able to win most games. Eliminator appears to be a simplified version of Striptease from card game guru David Parlett, which has only four foundations, and adds an extra twist by having four face-down cards that cover face-up queens at the top of each column. With only four foundations in Striptease, you're almost always at the mercy of the draw, making the chances of success extremely rare, which is why Eliminator is more satisfying. Ants is a related variant with four foundations, but instead of open information it deals out four cards at a time.
If you like Pairing Games, you should try Aces Square
Overview: Aces Square also goes under the name Miner Solitaire. It is a matching game that has some similarities to Monte Carlo, although strictly speaking it's not part of the same family, and it also shares some similarities with Aces Up. You deal 16 cards in a square consisting of four rows of four cards each. You can discard any two cards of the same suit if they are in the same row or column, and the spaces are then immediately refilled by the stock. Aces can't be removed, and the aim is to discard all the cards, leaving the four Aces.
Thoughts: This isn't an easy game to win, and the odds of success have been estimated as about 1 in 8. To have the best chance of winning, you shouldn't just select whatever pairs are available to discard, but try to keep track of how many of the six pairs in each suit remain. Then when you're down to the final one or two pairs, try to discard cards where a card from the stock will end up in a space that will enable you to pair with it.
If you like Pairing Games, you should try Doublets
Overview: Doublets is a pairing game like Monte Carlo, where you are matching cards of the same value in order to remove them. The starting tableau begins with 12 piles of four cards each, with only the top card face-up. Four extra cards function as a reserve that will enter the game later, and will be used one at a time to replenish a pile that is emptied. The goal is to discard the entire deck by removing matching cards of the same value.
Thoughts: Strictly speaking this is a variant of Nestor and its slightly more strategic sibling Vertical. But while those are open information games with all the cards face-up, the hidden information of Doublets is part of its charm. It's usually wise to try to work your way through all the tableau piles as evenly as possible, to prevent cards you need being trapped. By keeping track of the size of each pile, and the values that have and have not yet been paired, you can play the odds to increase your chances of winning, which is very achievable in most games.
== Adding Games ==
If you like Pyramid, you should try Giza
Overview: One of the very first solitaire games I ever played besides Klondike was Pyramid. Giza is an Egyptian city well-known for being the location of several of the pyramids, which makes Giza the perfect name for a very close relative and arguably a variation of Pyramid. Like Pyramid, the goal is to remove pairs of cards that add up to 13, with Jacks worth 11 and pairing with 2s, Queens worth 12 and pairing with Aces, and Kings worth 13 and being removed on their own. The layout is much the same, with the main tableau consisting of a pyramid of 28 cards. But instead of the remaining cards being dealt one at a time as the stock, they are face-up and accessible throughout the entire game as eight columns of three cards each. The goal is to remove all the cards in the deck.
Thoughts: It's not hard to see why Pyramid is one of the most well-known solitaire games of all time, because it is easy to learn and play. For a long time Microsoft even included it in their solitaire suites on all Windows operating systems, alongside Klondike, Spider, FreeCell, and TriPeaks (a Golf variant). In Pyramid, however, you can frequently be thwarted by a poor deal. That's why Michael Keller came up with Giza, as a variant of the original that gives more opportunity for strategic play, since you have completely open information from the outset, and can plan more carefully.
If you like Adding Games, you should try Exit
Overview: Pyramid is the quintessential and most well-known adding game, but there are plenty of other great adding games, and Exit is one of the best of the lot. It is also known as Gay Gordons, and was created by card game expert David Parlett. It's a marvellous game that is one of the best adding games you'll find. You deal the entire deck face-up into a ten columns of five cards each, with an additional column of just two cards. You may remove any two available cards that add up to exactly eleven. Special rules apply for removing court cards: Jacks are paired with Jacks, while a King must be paired with a Queen of a different suit.
Thoughts: In this game you have completely open information from the outset, so there is lots of scope for planning ahead carefully. A key element to keep in mind is to avoid any key cards becoming blocked. If you make good decisions about which cards to remove, you have a good chance of winning successfully. With Exit, David Parlett has created a wonderful game that is easy to learn and play, and yet requires a good amount of skill to complete.
If you like Adding games, you should try Fourteen Out
Overview: There are lots of solitaire games that involve pairing cards that add to a certain number like in Pyramid, but Fourteen Out (also known as Take Fourteen) is one of the better ones. As the name suggests, the goal is to remove cards by matching pairs that add up to 14, with Kings worth 13, Queens 12, and Jacks 11. The layout consists of 12 fans of four or five cards each, reminiscent of the set-up of games in the Lovely Lucy family of Fan games.
Thoughts: Some adding games come down largely to luck of the draw. But with Fourteen Out you have completely open information from the outset, and with 12 fans to work with, you can do a lot of planning as you play. You can see exactly which pairs still need to be combined in order to succeed, so it is especially important to free up critical pairs, and to prevent vital cards from being blocked. This is a game that involves more skill than luck, and you should be able to win over half of your games with good decision making.
If you like Adding Games, you should try Ninety One
Overview: What Ninety One has in common with Pyramid is that it is an adding game, but it has a very different feel. All that matters is the value of each card, with Jacks worth 11, Queens 12, and Kings 13. Your working tableau consists of 13 piles with four cards each, and you can only see the top card of each pile. You can move cards from the top of any pile to the top of any other pile, and by doing so you have to try to achieve the aim of a cumulative total of exactly 91. At that point you remove all those cards from the game and repeat the exercise. Four successes in a row removes all the cards, and constitutes a complete win.
Thoughts: This game is best enjoyed with the help of some software, so that you don't have to keep track of the running total yourself. One way to win is to have one card from Ace through King face-up, but this won't necessarily be the easiest way to achieve a total of 91, depending on the draw. It's surprisingly fun to play and easier than it first appears, especially if you're playing a digital version that takes care of the bookkeeping, and keeps updating the cumulative total for you.
== Other Games ==
If you like Accordion, you should try Royal Marriage
Overview: Royal Marriage is a close relative of Accordion, one of the most well-known non-builder solitaire games of all time. As in that classic game, you deal out the entire deck face up into a single long line (usually in several rows for practical reasons). What's unique here is that you place the King of Hearts on one end and the Queen of Hearts on the other. If a single card or a pair of cards is in between two cards of matching rank or suit they can be removed. The objective is to get the King and Queen of Hearts to meet by eliminating all the cards in the middle, hence the game's name, which is also known as Royal Wedding and Matrimony.
Thoughts: The feel of Royal Marriage is quite similar to Accordion, but the method of removing cards is slightly different, and you have much better chances of winning the game successfully. Instead of moving a card onto a card of matching value or suit, it's the cards in between them that are removed, so the matching cards remain in the line-up. I've found that a good strategy is to try to focus on using the Hearts to eliminate all the other cards, and where necessary using other cards that match to bring cards that are Hearts closer together. Whenever two Heart cards are only one or two apart, you can eliminate the cards in between, and once you have a line-up that consists only of Hearts, the game is basically won.
If you like Montana, you should try Maze
Overview: If you've tried some of the games in the Gaps (Montana) family, perhaps you've found it a little frustrating at how difficult it can be to win. Well, then Maze is a game for you, because it is a similar concept but is easier to play and to complete successfully. The entire deck is dealt face-up into a tableau consisting of six rows of nine cards each (eight in the first two rows). You then remove all the Kings to create four spaces. The aim is to create four consecutive sequences with runs of Ace through Queen in each suit (some remove the Aces, in which case the runs are Two through King). Any gap can be filled with a same-suited card one less in value than the card on the right, or a same-suited card one more in value than the card on the left. Aces can be moved alongside Queens, but you cannot move Queens in front of Aces.
Thoughts: With Gaps and Montana the goal is considerably harder to achieve, because you only have four spaces instead of six, and the rules for movement are much more strict. With Maze you have lots of options for which cards to move and where, and with good decision-making you can win the game more often than not. The game is easy to learn and play, and yet it remains a game of skill where your decisions matter, without being so challenging that it is the kind of brain-burner like some of the other games in the Gaps family.
Hopefully this article will encourage you to check out some of the wonderful non-builder solitaire games that are just waiting for you to enjoy. Most people are already very familiar with builder games. While these have their appeal, it's with non-builder solitaire games that we get to step further off the path well-travelled, and explore other ways that playing cards can be used in new and interesting ways. The games covered here are among my favourites, but if you enjoy solitaire card games, then you should acquaint yourself with the classics of the genre that these are closely related to, and also check out the many other great non-builder solitaire games that exist.
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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