August 12, 2005

It takes patience to find the best solitaire

Author: Robin 'Roblimo' Miller

One of the original Windows selling points was that it included a version of solitaire, the centuries-old, time-filling card game. Later, in the mid-1990s, several critics told me Linux would never catch on unless it, too, included solitaire. Now, of course, solitaire has been part of the KDE and GNOME desktops for so long that most users can't remember not having it. So okay, everyone has solitaire, which leads us to the burning question of the day: "Which has the best built-in version of solitaire: Windows XP, GNOME, or KDE?"

Study parameters

Such an important software study cannot be undertaken lightly or without proper preparation. First, I decided exactly which type of solitaire to test. I settled on Klondike. This study may have been more rigorous if other solitaire games were considered, but in today's rush-rush world it is hard enough to find time to test one version of a computer game without your boss catching you. Trying to sneak in a statistically significant sampling of multiple versions could easily lead to adverse employment ramifications (in layman's language, "getting fired"), which is why I narrowed the focus of this study enough that I could complete it in a single week while still giving the appearance of "being productive."

First up: Windows Solitaire

I'll start here because Microsoft Windows, an operating system primarily designed for gamers rather than for professional use, was the first widely distributed one to include a solitaire-style card game as part of its base installation. Here's an interview with Matt Cherry, the original developer of Windows Solitaire.

What's surprising is that the version of Solitaire in Windows XP has advanced little beyond Cherry's original. You still need to manually turn over every card. Card flips have no animation to them, so if you blink or glance away from the screen momentarily (for instance, while trying to look as if you're working, not playing) they're easy to miss or forget, especially if you're actually doing some work while you play.

Windows solitaire has few play-style options. It has a passable, if uninspired, set of card appearance choices. The background is the color of green felt, which is a fine color for a card game, but there is no way to change it.

There is no "hint" feature you can turn to if you're stuck. Some might consider "hints" a bit of a cheat (and we all know Microsoft hates any kind of cheating or other underhandedness), but what about when you're snatching playing time in between work tasks and forget where you were in your game? Is it cheating to have a little reminder handy under those circumstances? I think not!

All in all, Windows solitaire is an "oldie but goodie," the computer game equivalent of a 1964 Ford Falcon you take down to Mel's Diner for a classic car show, but don't want to drive every day because it lacks modern automotive amenities.

GNOME Klondike

Klondike is one of about 25 different kinds of solitaire found in AisleRiot, which is part of the gnome-games package. The AisleRiot site hasn't been updated (as of this writing) since 2001.

AisleRiot gives you many game choices, but only two card design selections. Like Windows solitaire, card flips are unanimated.

AisleRiot offers one major improvement over Windows Solitaire, especially in the "play while you're supposed to be working" context: When you remove a card from one of the stacks other than the main card pile, the one under it is exposed automatically. This is a time-saver. There is also a "Hint" utility, conveniently located in the menu bar, which is good. But that's about it. AisleRiot solitaire needs someone to take over the project and update it.


KPatience is computer solitaire the way God intended it to be. You get dozens of background options instead of the "any color you like as long as it's green" non-selection offered by AisleRiot or Windows Solitaire. There are many card design choices too, and not just the card backs but, unlike the competition, card fronts as well. There's even an option to have penguins on your face cards, a feature Windows Solitaire will probably -- and sadly -- always lack.

Once you've decided what kind of card design and background suit your fancy, there's a "demo" you can use to watch the computer play solitaire all by itself. If this isn't computerized labor-saving, I don't know what is!

Even when you play for yourself, the computer automatically flips over cards you uncover -- and does it with pleasant, lifelike animation. (And if you're a Luddite who doesn't appreciate this fine feature, you can easily disable it.)

Need a hint? Click on the magic wand in the menu bar, and cards that need attention turn slightly grey. Lovely!

Tired of the same old game? There are 17 game choices in KPatience.

Lastly and not leastly, when it's obvious that you're going to win a game, with all moves preordained, the cards will automatically tack themselves on top of the aces in correct order before you get a big, beautiful, "Congratulations! You won!" message and a nice little audio ego-booster.


After that kind of feedback, I am sure to play again, over and over, all day long and into the night. I will stop only if my boss suddenly needs my attention. And maybe not even then.


KPatience is head and shoulders above AisleRiot when it comes to appearance, playability, and automation, but doesn't have quite as many game choices. Compared to Windows Solitaire ... well ... call it "head, shoulders, and chest above" and you have it about right.

If you prefer GNOME as your desktop but like to play solitaire, you need to install KPatience (and associated dependencies; easy to do with Debian and Debian-derivative distros).

If you run Windows, there is a project working to bring the KDE desktop to Windows through Cygwin. You might want to check it out.

Or, better yet, install Linux (and KDE) and dump Windows. This is unquestionably the best way to enhance your operating system's "built-in" solitaire capability.


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