Let me clear about something up front. I do not play solitaire variants. I think I’ve played Windows Solitaire, the most popular video game ever made, all of one time when I first got a Windows PC sometime in the early 1990s. I just don’t particularly care for the mechanics of traditional solitaire games, and playing it electronically seems like something that you would do only if you were stuck monitoring some gauges or something in a remote Arctic substation and had absolutely nothing else to do whatsoever.
Thus, I can not explain why Big Fish Games’ Fairway Solitaire, recently released in iPhone and iPad flavors, holds such a sway over me outside of devilry. I mean, I don’t even like golf. What the hell am I doing playing this game?Probably because outside of whatever Satanic pact the folks that made this game have entered into to make it so addictive, it’s really damn good. It has that mysterious X-factor thing that the best casual games have that make them very compelling and effortless to play. It rewards you, constantly patting you on the back and giving you positive feedback. But then it’ll put the boot in and completely screw your perfect round on the last hole. The gopher shows up and laughs in your face, but it’s never not charming.
The golf theme works surprisingly well even though it doesn’t really have anything to do with the gameplay. It’s a simple solitaire deal. You flip a card, and then pull a face-up card off the display of either the next higher or lower number to it. Cards block other face-up cards so there’s some strategy involved, and some cards are face down so there’s a risk factor involved in picking them. Then there are cards locked up by sandtraps, requiring you to find a hidden sand wedge (is that what it’s called?) in the display. There’s also water hazards, and the layouts can get pretty tricky to negotiate.
So what makes this game work is that it hits an awful lot of elemental gameplay buttons. Strategy, planning, tactics, luck, risk, reward, surprise, frustration, and those all-important “eureka” moments. It does all of this in a very casual, very accessible package with a high degree of polish and care. And literally one rule. The design is immaculate, its execution at the very highest levels of IOS quality.
But like any solitaire game, it can come down to the cards. On the advanced courses, the margin for error is extremely slim and you’ve only got one mulligan by default, which lets you undo a play. I’ve found that I miss a lot of “shots” when I get cocky and start rushing it. And that leads to holes that are seven over par. All because of one missed card.
So it creates a sense of skill, reliant on observation and anticipation. But then you’ll hit these long runs where you’re just nailing it, cards melting away from the display with impunity. The game tells you you’re doing great, and gives you money (“Golfbucks” or some nonsense). You use this money to buy special bonuses that impart special abilities like looking at the top card of the draw pile or an extra mulligan. You can also buy clubs for your bag that let you change the card in play to a different value. After the first few courses, you simply have to have these, especially when you get to courses where there’s nothing but fives to start out with and you don’t want to cycle through ten cards to get to a three or four.
It’s a free app store download. I know, this usually means that the game actually costs about a thousand dollars if you don’t want to wait three weeks between turns. Or if you don’t want to grind out hundreds and hundreds of games to earn some kind of scrip currency to buy a cheat that you can otherwise charge to a credit card for a dollar. But there’s only one big unlock and it’s .99 cents on the phone, $2.99 on the pad and it gives you access to almost everything including some 60 courses that are all star-ranked so there is more than enough replayability for the completionist. Even the business with buying the clubs isn’t particularly insidious or borderline criminal as in most “freemium” titles. From what I’ve seen, everything in the game is actually obtainable through gameplay, patience, and playing well.
Fairway Solitaire is a game I never thought I’d like so much. Since I’m dealing with a nasty case of Ascension burnout it’s filled a card-shaped hole in my IOS heart. Just don’t tell anybody I’m playing a solitaire variant. About golf.