Most mobile games are shame-plays. Angry Birds and Clash of Clans might be your favorite time wasters, but only when no one’s watching. They’re not “fit for life,” says iOS developer Zachary Gage, developer of successful iOS games like Spelltower and the ballistic fishing sim Ridiculous Fishing.
Gage’s latest game, Sage Solitaire, aims to be a game you’re not afraid to be seen playing: the kind of game you pull out to play with the same cultural ease as checking your email or your Facebook. But this isn’t granny’s Klondike. It’s a version of solitaire that owes as much to Atlantic City as it does to the mobile smash hit Threes!: a fast, beautiful game that bulldozes through the inherent design problems–the pace, the predictability–of poker-based solitaire games while perfecting the genre for the mobile age.
The problem with translating any of the myriad flavors of solitaire to mobile is that it’s an inherently landscape game, the kind of thing you need a whole table (or computer desktop to enjoy). But that’s not how we like using our phones, says Gage. “A big part of the design of Sage Solitaire is about trying to build something for phones, not tables,” says Gage. To do so, he needed to create a new flavor of solitaire: something designed from the get-go to fit in the palm of a player’s hand.
In the simplest mode of Sage Solitaire, the player is dealt nine piles of cards in a 3×3 grid: from top to bottom, in each respective pile, there are 8, 8, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, and 2 cards per pile. The top card in each pile is turned over by default. The idea is to make traditional poker hands–think pairs, full houses, straights, and flushes–out of the upturned cards, but unlike Texas Hold’Em, these ‘hands’ can be anywhere from 2 to 5 cards, as long as they span two rows. Creating these hands come with allotted point values, and bonus points are given for eliminating a pile of cards: +50 points per pile for the first row of cards, then +100 and +150 points per pile, respectively. You “win” by clearing all the cards, or by beating your previous high score.
According to Gage, the whole approach was inspired by Three Card Poker, an “insanely deeply random” variation of poker he encountered in Atlantic City. It helped him solve something Gage calls the ‘future memory’ design problem of poker-based solitaire games: essentially, they’re not as random as they seem. If you get a five-card straight in the first 10-card hand of a poker-based solitaire, for example, and if the next five cards are redrawn from the same deck, you’re likely to get a straight in the next hand too. And the next. And the next. That’s why Sage Solitaire lets players move through the deck at variable speeds. It helps smash through the “future memory” problem.
“The hope is that I’ve made something that’s both highly functional, and deeply comfortable,” Gage says. “Like the game design itself, it feels like something you know, but secretly, it’s better.”
Even if nothing about its outward presentation screams Design! in all caps, it still helps Sage Solitaire fall into the sweet spot between ‘addictive to learn’ and ‘addictive to master.’ Cognitively, it also just feels good: everything clicks. The art has a clipart aesthetic; the sounds are a mix of soothing tones, cards fluttering, and the 8-bit symphonic cascade of a video poker arcade.
“Ultimately, games fit for life are a lot like good apps,” he says. “I want to especially make more games that fit in players lives the same way Instagram or Facebook fits into users lives . . . the important part about Instagram isn’t that it created digital connections, it’s that it created a real community. Instagram is a thing people do in life, not just a thing people do on their phones. I want games to be more like that.”
Sage Solitaire is free on the iOS App Store. You can get it here.