The Solitaire Conspiracy Review
The Solitaire Conspiracy did two things I thought were impossible: first, it made me play a game of Solitaire; and second, it made me enjoy it. The third Bithell Games short (after Subsurface Circular and Subsurface Quarantine) is a sci-fi thriller where players must take over a spy agency called Protego and wield it against a global threat—and they do this by playing rounds of Solitaire, of course.
The premise is simple enough and a quick tutorial will bring those unfamiliar with Solitaire up to speed. You’re given a spread of shuffled cards and need to sort them in a central pile from Ace to King; on the rest of the board, you can place cards on top of other cards if they’re of a smaller value. That’s it. Well, it would be, but The Solitaire Conspiracy adds its own twist to the classic: each card suit represents a different group of agents with a unique set of abilities that you use by playing their picture cards (Jack, Queen, and King). Drive Team Six will fast-track the next card of the suit you place them on, the Mantis Group will explode a pile of cards, scattering them randomly among the other piles on the board, and so on.
As you play through the campaign and level up, you’ll unlock these agencies (8 in total), each with their own backgrounds, visuals, and characters. The abilities they bring to the table add a layer of complexity absent from regular Solitaire, as depending on how you play an agent you might either ruin your strategy or consolidate it—with the exception of a couple of agencies, most abilities are double-edged swords that can hurt you just as much as they can help you. Even those that seem completely negative, such as shuffling a pile from highest rank to lowest, can be used in positive ways if you give it some thought.
They’re also the main source of variety in the game, as the missions themselves are always the same; in fact, if there’s one thing I wish the game had done, it’s more mission variety. Timers, conditions, handicaps would all make perfect sense in the setting, but are sadly left untouched (with the exception of the Countdown mode, where you race against the clock to complete as many rounds as possible).
All of this is conveyed through fantastic visuals and UI. In a way it reminded me of Zachtronics puzzle games, where mostly static gameplay is serviced by a ridiculously polished interface and beautifully rendered backgrounds/character portraits. If you asked me to make a sci-fi spy game about playing Solitaire, this is what I’d aim for as an ideal. The story itself is told by a series of short FMV cutscenes centered mostly on Protego’s analyst and your handler, Jim Ratio (Greg Miller of Kinda Funny). FMV scenes always feel like a blast from the past, but in The Solitaire Conspiracy’s case they fit in with the game’s mood and humor well enough.
The campaign will take you around three hours to complete, if not less: it mostly involves playing enough of the game’s missions to get you to level fifteen. Other than the FMV cutscenes, you can get glimpses of Solitaire’s sordid affairs, your agents, and the world in general through the short mission descriptions. Once beaten, there’s little reason to do so again—there are no choices to make, and if you just want to play the game’s version of Solitaire, you can do so in the Skirmish and Countdown modes.
The Solitaire Conspiracy delivers exactly what it promises: a short game centered on playing Solitaire. It does this with plenty of flair and aplomb, from its stylish visuals, inspired soundtrack (from Jon Everist, of Battletech and Shadowrun fame) and high-stakes story, this isn’t exactly the Solitaire you recall your mum playing in the 90s.