Solitaire

I come by my love of Solitaire honestly.

It is fair to say that I am one of the leading experts in the type of card game known as Solitaire (in the US), or Patience (in the UK and elsewhere).  I have been working with Thomas Warfield at Goodsol Development for more than a dozen years, and in that capacity I have implemented literally hundreds of different Solitaire games on various platforms, including Windows, Mac OS X, and iPad.

However, one would be very mistaken to assume that I had to learn about Solitaire back then, or even that these were my first Solitaire software products.  In fact, I have been a Solitaire enthusiast for more than 40 years (easily predating my first access to a computer), and I have been writing programs for playing Solitaire for 30 years.  That is why it was such a good match when Thomas and I started working together; he is also a renown expert, with a very successful Solitaire game, Pretty Good Solitaire, and there is not another company on the planet with more Solitaire expertise from which to draw.

I first learned to play Solitaire from my father when I was about 5 years old.  He taught me a traditional form of Klondike (which many people just call, “Solitaire”), and I clearly remember the first time he watched me deal out the tableau on the stone hearth in front of our fireplace.  I played that a lot over the years, as well as a few other games I picked up.  My neighbor taught me Pyramid, which I really liked, and “Clock” (PGS: Travellers Clock), which had an appeal due to the elegance of play and the physicality of the the cards, but got boring quickly because of the lack of choice.  My mother taught me “Idiot’s Delight” (a name used to describe many different Solitaire games), which in this case was a purely mechanical version of Aces Up.  When I was sick, rather than comic books, I just wanted a couple decks of playing cards and, perhaps, some word search puzzles. :)

In the early years of elementary school, I had a couple of friends with whom I had discussions (and disagreements) about the rules of Klondike.  We spent time debating whether one should be able to build Aces to the tableau and, if so, whether Kings could be built on Aces, whether one was allowed to pull cards from the foundations (which I now know is called “winnowing back”), how many cards were dealt from stock to waste, and if there was a limit to redeals.  These are the same kind of game design discussions I still have now as we implement more games.

I also spent a great deal of time working on designing my own solitaire games, the rules of which, alas, were never written down and have been lost forever.  I recall that much of my focus was on small tableau games, those which could be played, ideally, with just one or two piles, making them easier to play in a car.  I also recall at least one with a unique mechanic, based on Go Fish, where the player would declare a selected card, and the play proceeded based on whether (or where?) the nominated rank appeared.  Of course, it is fair to assume that none of my inventions were as compelling as the traditional Solitaire games; otherwise, I probably would still be playing them.

During middle school, an acquaintance (friend of a parent) taught me an unnamed Solitaire game, which had two mechanics I had never seen before: movement of card groups regardless of order (as seen in Yukon) and a “hand” of up to 4 arbitrary cards (like the 4 cells in FreeCell).  This game had a greater degree of calculation and planning, and was less reliant on the luck of the deal, so it was very appealing to me.  Around the same time, I also learned how to do a “bridge” shuffle, so I tried to wear out my hands practicing the two together.  A variant of this game is implemented in PGS as Scorpion Head.

By this time, I was already programming computer games, and the idea of playing Solitaire on a computer was never far away.  My first proper (read: finished :) ) implementation was a text version of Aces Up on my Commodore VIC-20.  The program would shuffle and deal the cards, and one would play with simple keypresses for activating a column (i.e., discarding the top card or moving it into an empty space).  As I recall, my friend and I were the only two who ever actually played this game, but we started wondering about the chances of victory with the implemented rules, so I wrote a computer player that would play a hand using a specific heuristic (n.b., not a comprehensive solution search).  Once debugged, I ran the program overnight and the consistent result was that victory was achieved in just about 5% of the games.  (Clearly, a search would have done better… and taken much longer.)

Many other computer implementations followed.  Our friends showed us a game they called “Canasta Solitaire” (similar to Thirteen Packs, which has nothing in common with Canasta), and at their request, I wrote a version of that for the IBM PC (which, incidentally, became the scene of my biggest computer crash disaster :( ).  I wrote very nice DOS (EGA) versions of Pyramid and other games around 1990, and I was working on the Windows/DirectX versions of the these near the end of that decade, when I also worked (in a non-Solitaire capacity) with MVP Software on some other card game packages.

In 2001 (one suit of years ago), the Goodsol Development years began.  My first project was implementing a comprehensive display library, allowing the original Pretty Good Solitaire [for Windows] more options, including more than 2 decks per game.  The second project was Pretty Good MahJongg, which includes 55 original Solitaire games played with MahJongg tiles, followed by Action Solitaire, including (now) 75 Solitaire games played against the clock, and Most Popular Solitaire, my interpretation on the most popular games in PGS, as well as one (Crazy Quilt) that was the first Goodsol version of that game.  Add Mac and iPad versions of Pretty Good Solitaire and Most Popular Solitaire and a Mac version of Pretty Good MahJongg, as well as other products: Goodsol Solitaire 101 (Windows/Mac/iPad), FreeCell Plus (Windows/Mac/iPad), and A Little Solitaire (iPad).

Counting only Goodsol products (not different SKUs) on each platform (including bonus games), it appears that I have implemented 2639 Solitaire games!  More is definitely yet to come, as Thomas is already up to 840 and counting (with PGS), so I am still trailing by 290 games (on Mac and iPad, as well as an internal Windows project).

Of course, with the implementation of so many games, there is a focus on rules.  Due to my love of Solitaire (and games in general), I began collecting books of Solitaire rules.  The first game I learned from a book and really loved was La Belle Lucie, which I played with the merci (draw) rule, implemented in PGS as Three Shuffles and a Draw.  Since high school, I have amassed around two hundred books of traditional game rules, dozens of which have Solitaire games.  An informal survey of my current bookshelves shows 20 books dedicated solely to Solitaire, dating back as far as 1883 (because my copy of Lady Cadogan’s Illustrated Games of Patience is a reprint of the original 1875 book).

So, while Solitaire may be a simple pastime to most, keep in mind that a few of us really know (and appreciate) these games inside and out.  When you want to buy a computer Solitaire program lovingly crafted by the leading experts in the field…

Lightning Strikes

Inexpensive computer versus Mother Nature

Being discouraged from access to my computers for a while by an intense electrical storm, I thought back to this interesting experience I had back in the distant past, in the earlier part of my career.

For a couple of years, ending in 1987, I was the Service and Support Coordinator for a local computer store, Midwestern Technical Products, now long deceased.  In addition to programming, which was (initially) not enough work to fill a full-time position, I also served as the Service Manager, overseeing 4 technicians, as well as administering the (nominal) internal network and handling various other technical duties.

One day, a customer came into the store with a non-working Texas Instruments TI-99/4A, which had been the victim of a lightning strike.  Apparently, his house had been struck directly, destroying most of the electronics, and while the insurance company had replaced his television and stereo, he still wanted to recover this inexpensive computer.  Keep in mind that the TI-99/4A was already obsolete by this time, and when it was last available for purchase the retail price was down to only $99.

While “checking in” the computer (filling out the work order, etc.), I explained to the customer that, at a service charge of $65/hour, with (usually) a 30 minute minimum, it was highly unlikely that we would be able to fix the computer for less than it was worth.  Nevertheless, the customer insisted that we take a look.

Later that day, when the technician assigned to the initial assessment got to that work order, I was summoned back to the service room so that he could take pains to explain to me exactly what I had already told the customer.  Of course, being the manager, I also got a question along the lines of “What exactly do you expect me to do with this?”

So, just combining troubleshooting with a little brainstorming, I asked how much had been done so far, and was able to ascertain that that the problem has been verified, i.e., the computer has been plugged in and did absolutely nothing.  The technician was guessing, based on the lightning story, that the power supply was fried.  I then asked whether we were able to confirm that electricity was even getting to the power supply.  He had been so anxious to tell me how unlikely an economical solution would be that he had not even gotten that far, so while I watched, he learned that no voltage was getting through the power cord.  Of course, it was possible that the whole computer was toast, but until we could actually apply power to it, there was no way to know.

At this point, the technician (who appeared to just want my permission to dismiss this job and move on) said, “Now what?”  I looked at the power cord and noticed that, unlike many cords that had (and still do) a “wall wart” at the plug end, this cord had a wart in the middle of the cable.  Since we knew power was not getting all of the way through the cable, I thought that we could, literally, divide and conquer.  Looking closer at the bulge in the cord, I saw that there was a seam, and if we could split it, we could determine which half was at fault, or maybe get lucky and find something repairable in the middle.  I took the risk of destroying the (already failing) power cord and pried the wart apart.

What I discovered was surprising, but also surprisingly logical.  To move the wart electronics away from the wall, rather than design and manufacture a new cord, some brilliant engineer decided to simply plug the wart into a short extension cord (designed to match the size) and just glue the two together into one cord.  (Actually, I cannot say with absolute confidence whether it was glued, deliberately melted, or fused by lightning.)  In any event, pulling apart the cord gave us a shorter TI-99/4A power cord, and a short extension cord, with no exposed electronics at all.

I must admit here to skipping a couple of steps in our excitement.  Instead of testing each half of the power cord, I simply had the technician plug in the power cord, without the little extension, and, lo and behold, the computer sprung to life.  The cheap little extension, provided (apparently) just to make the cord easier to fit into a wall plug, ended up serving as an unconventional fuse, protecting the computer by self-destructing when lightning hit.

Availing myself of my (questionable) authority, I went ahead and reduced the minimum charge, in this instance, to only 15 minutes, and for $16.25, we had a happy customer with a working TI-99/4A, and also a story I remember 27 years later.

“I can’t stop, I can’t stop myself…”

Pretty Good Solitaire Touch Edition 1.20

The BEST iPad Solitaire game has been improved even more.

Pretty Good Solitaire Touch Edition 1.20Pretty Good Solitaire for iPad has been updated to version 1.20, which is now available from the App Store for the incredibly low price of only $9.99 US!

Pretty Good Solitaire Touch Edition now contains 550 games, hundreds more than any other iPad product available.  These are the games you have come to know and love on Windows and/or the Mac, playable from the comfort of your recliner.  Act now and you will receive an extra 75 bonus games, a total of 625 games, as well as free future upgrades.

In addition to the 50 new solitaire games since the initial release, this upgrade also includes easily selectable favorites, position snapshots, a third card set (Tropical Card Set), and a number of bug fixes to make this app as robust as possible.

Too much honesty…

Just for the readers of my blog, let me lay a little bit of truth on you.  The fact is that developing an extensive app like this for the iPad is very time consuming.  Additionally, the price on the iPad ($9.99 US) is quite low for such a large collection of solitaire games, and Apple does absolutely nothing to promote updates, even ones like this which add major new features and games.  All of these factors are working in combination to jeopardize future work on this project.  As much as we LOVE solitaire, we cannot afford to indefinitely invest time and money into a product that does not provide some positive return.

What can you do?  In order make sure that PGSTE remains viable, you can help us by spreading the word, linking to this post, following Goodsol on Facebook and sharing posts with your friends, and most of all rating and reviewing the app on the App Store.  We have a very loyal core of iPad customers, but if we cannot reach critical mass soon, then we may have no choice but to disappoint them and discontinue the project. :(

My favorite game in the latest batch is Lower 48, similar to Forty Thieves, which is almost always winnable, but usually quite challenging.  I have won all of the first 100 deals (so far).

Happy Birthday, Demolish!

Demolish! Pairs celebrates one year since its launch on iOS.

One year ago today, Digital Gamecraft launched the original iOS version of Demolish! PairsDemolish! Pairs 1.11 is a challenging puzzle/arcade game for iPad and iPhone.

Demolish! Pairs 1.11 for iOSDownload and play Demolish! Pairs now!

Here are the top 5 reasons that you should get Demolish! Pairs:

  1. It is fun to play for gamers of all ages.
  2. It exercises your brain to help keep you mentally sharp.
  3. It provides relaxation during less interesting activities (such as watching Nigeria versus Iran in the World Cup).
  4. The programmer just got hit in the forehead by a fallen tree and could use any sympathy and support that he can get. [*]
  5. It is FREE (for one day only)!

As promised, to celebrate this anniversary, Demolish! Pairs 1.11 is completely free for TODAY ONLY.  There are no strings attached, though when you do take advantage of this special offer, it would be nice if you would rate and review it on the App Store.

Also, for those who already have the free-to-play version, Demolish! Pairs FTP 1.0.1, all in-app purchases are free for today only as well.

For more information on the game, please visit DemolishPairs.com.

[*] Medical Update: The injury was not at all serious, causing no extra brain damage. :)

 

Please… Download and Enjoy!Demolish! Pairs on the iOS App Store

Summer Slump

Mobile games may not play by the same rules.

We have now entered summer (in the Northern Hemisphere, anyway), which is traditionally a slow time for sales in the game industry.  The explanation over the years has generally been that this is a time during which people take vacations and spend more time outside, so they spend less time at the computer or game system and play fewer games.  This certainly makes sense for desktop and console games, but in this day of increased use of mobile devices and handhelds, the traditional explanation may not hold (as much) water.  When one of your game systems (i.e., phone) travels with you everywhere, it makes sense that it would get used as much as usual; in fact, it is likely used more in places like airports, the back seat of a car during a long drive, and the hotel room after the swimming pool has closed for the evening.

Of course, if summer shifts play to mobile games, where the (dubious) profits are marginal, at best, this is still likely to result in an overall slump for companies who support more than one type of platform.  Nevertheless, I expect that consumer behavior changes differently in the summer with respect to mobile games.  I would hope for extra game purchases in preparation for a vacation or while waiting during travel.

Interestingly, our limited data (with a little squinting :) ) can fit that scenario.  Since the holiday weekend at the end of May (Memorial Day in the United States, Late Spring Bank Holiday in the UK), downloads have changed.  At the start of that weekend, we saw a spike in downloads which mostly persisted through the (holiday) Monday, after which they essentially flatlined for a few days.  Then, last weekend, we had another (smaller) spike on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, then (now) back to zip.  Alas, our total download counts are too small to draw definitive conclusions (or even be statistically significant :( ), and it has only been a couple of weekends.  (Our sales do not definitively correlate with downloads.)  Also, many schools around here are still in session, so we are not really into the heart of summer vacation season either, though the weather is definitely much improved.

Demolish! Pairs 1.11Operating more on the assumption that mobile sales may persist through the summer, and the knowledge that sales really need to improve, than on the need for experimental data, we have decided to put Demolish! Pairs on sale for 50% off throughout the month of June, and we have likewise discounted all IAP products in Demolish! Pairs FTP similarly.  Sure, it may skew the data, but in a good way. :)

As a reward for reading this blog post (assuming that you have done so in a timely manner), I will tell you that we are approaching the 1 year anniversary of the Demolish! Pairs release, and to celebrate, we plan to make the game absolutely free for one day only, on June 18, 2014.  You can download the game on that day (two weeks from today) and keep it forever.

“There’s a hole in the cat bag!”