I DO SO enjoy playing card games on computers. Apart from being an engaging way to pass the time, they are a great example of how convenience can improve the overall experience of play.
The playing card toys are familiar (and typically the gist or the rules of play are too). You don’t need table or floor space. You don’t need to shuffle or deal or maintain card arrangements. You don’t even need real people to play with. You just need a computer, which is hardly a hardship because computers are like spiders these days – you are never more than a few feet away from one.
My favourite computer card game experience is SolSuite. This collection of variations of Solitaire (Patience) has been around for a few years now, steadily bolstering its repertoire of different card games to the point of bloat and too much choice: 500 variations of Solitaire are overwhelming even though they are grouped for convenience.
SolSuite has all the features you’d expect (customizable everything, for example) and plenty I don’t care about (customizable everything, for example). Tactilely it could be better (moving cards doesn’t feel quite right to me; it’s a little too soggy for my liking). But it excels in feel and convenience in other areas, primarily twists in the form of its shortcuts, most of which I have seen used elsewhere, some of which I haven’t – and those are the ones that make all the difference for me.
SolSuite gives you hints if you do nothing, suggesting where cards might go in case you weren’t paying enough attention. The aces and other cards from the stock or the tableau are automatically moved into the foundation. There’s no need to grab and drag every single card into position; a click of the right-hand mouse button intelligently sends cards to where they need to go.
It’s easy to think that all this automation makes play less involving. The reality is, the act of playing is made easier (because any remaining work is removed to focus play) but the game isn’t too easy to win – there are still enough meaningful choices to make.
I have to say, I’d like to see convenience (and potential drama) taken even further with Solitaire card games. I’d like play controlled so that I get more of those memorable moments where I get to shift piles of cards around to free up different suits. I’d even go so far as to want to know that every game I play can be won (but preferably not via a single linear route). I’m not saying I want every game handed to me on a plate but while completely random and impossible to win card arrangements befit the real thing, the virtual version should be better.
Another example of how convenience can enrich play is found in Word Crunch, an extremely successful word game that Denki did for Sky many years back. Word Crunch was similar to other word games at the time but there were many little twists in the treatment that made it more fun by far.
The basic game is your typical ‘anagram’ fare: you make words out of collections of letters. Like most versions of this game, those letters aren’t random: they form at least one word, which not only provides a great focus – using all the letters to make a word makes for an incredibly satisfying moment. Unlike many newspaper variations of this game that use nine letters, Word Crunch uses only six letters, which tends to make it easier to use them all.
The basic game structure comprises levels and time limits, but rather than have you make every possible word, you only need to hit a percentage target; anything more counts as a bonus. Plurals are allowed so you can reuse words already found by just adding an ‘s’ and that’s a good feeling.
There aren’t too many choices – not too many words to find. The words used as a resource are pre-filtered to ensure there’s a healthy number of words to make: not too many, not too few. Moreover, the word list used focuses on more commonplace words (sequels used more comprehensive word lists but not knowing half of the words makes play much less fun).
For convenient reference, the words to find are arranged into obvious groups of three-, four-, five- and six-letter words. (Completing groups provides satisfying minor objectives for bonus points.) Moreover, the words are arranged in alphabetical order, which might appear to make it too easy to guess which words are missing when in fact that convenience actually adds to the fun.
In the cases of SolSuite and Word Crunch, the increased convenience improves both feel and the necessary drama. Sure, you can take convenience too far, reducing player involvement to that of onlooker – to a state of rest – but that’s down to the skill of the fun fashioner in question.
Once again I’m reminded of the old Indian craftsman who carved elephants from blocks of wood. When asked how he did it, he replied, “I just cut away the wood that doesn’t look like an elephant.” The same approach applies to making play as much fun as possible: cut away what isn’t fun (what’s work and what’s rest) to maximise what is fun.