Zach Gage’s Sage Solitaire (Free) is a fantastic example of how to make a mobile card game that’s unique, fast, and strategic. This is a solitaire card game where you play by default with a deck of cards laid out into 9 stacks on a 3×3 grid, with more cards in the top stacks than the middle than in the lower stacks. You make matches based on some poker hands – two pair is not included – and get points for each match. The rub is that matches have to be made between cards that are on at least two different rows, so you can’t play two horizontally adjacent cards. There are 51 cards in total to get through, with one card discarded at the beginning of the game and used to determine the bonus suit, which doubles the point value of any hand made with it. You can trash a card at any time, with each hand you play giving you a new trash. Because of the two-rows requirement, it’s possible for any game to end with one ill-fated play, so using your big matches and trashes wisely is important.
Sage Solitaire quickly becomes second nature, as the combination of poker hands with solitaire is a familiar enough combination, albeit one that forces you to learn how the systems of solitaire and poker work in tandem. Each match affects the rest of the game, as they take cards that you can play in future matches off of the board. The double suits affect how many points you’re going to get, and spreading them out among as many hands as possible seems ideal. Winning by clearing the board is important, sure, but so is getting as many points as possible, though the ideal is obviously to clear the board and get as many points from hands as possible, though getting to the bottom of each stack is worth a bonus. It all quickly becomes second-nature, and the game is great at getting you to acclimate to its concepts and just play it without any interruption.
Sage Solitaire monetizes in a way that’s extremely friendly to the player. You get to play the normal mode as much as you want, with only the occasional ad being shown. But for $2.99, you unlock the other two game modes, along with leaderboards, and various card customization options. The other two modes, Double Deck and Fifteens play differently, but not to an extreme degree. While I hesitate to say that $3 is a fair price for a developer’s hard work since the value of games has become so deflated, it does feel like it hits a sweet spot here. I don’t know if the game’s necessarily making any money at that price point, but hey – for the people who do shell out, it’s not hard to see where you’re getting value for this.
Fifteens mode, while a slight variation on the normal mode, is probably my favorite mode of the three in the game, if only because the ability to make a play by using cards that add up to 15 gives you more options on what you want to do while playing. It does mean that you can get the thrill of winning a round more often, but it also means that you need to be on the lookout for high-scoring plays. After all, the fifteen play is a low-scoring one, and you could be using valuable cards to get yourself out of trouble, limiting your possible maximum. The only problem is that it can be easy to forget when jumping between modes that the fifteen is an option. Fifteens mode is the one I come back to the most, if only because the increased winning odds feel like they don’t come with much of a drawback in terms of making the game easier. The challenges still persist, you just have one more tool at your disposal to try and win with. Double Deck mode provides a bit of a lengthier experience, but it’s a lot harder since you have two decks to track.
What’s interesting is that card-counting feels like it would be a huge part of the game, but the developer said on a Mobcrush stream that it wasn’t the case. While I imagine it would help in the late game to eliminate some possibilities of what’s still on the table, it won’t help in the more unpredictable middle portion, where there’s a wide variety of cards that you might get. Also, the game tracks time along with points and wins, so you are being deficient in one area by playing it super-slow and trying to count cards. Also, this is a game meant to be played quickly on the go for a couple of minutes at a time, trying to count cards feels like it’s anathema to the experience.
And really, where Sage Solitaire succeeds is that it does feel so great as a game that you can just pick up and play. You can easily and quickly jump into another game after you complete your previous one. It’s accessible, and doesn’t punish you for needing a hint, and makes it clear that you can make a move somewhere when you fail. The randomness can be harsh, but that’s an inherent aspect of card games, you just have to be smart and aware of your situation. Definitely take this one for a spin as a free download, if you enjoy the main mode, the $2.99 is well worth it for the extras you get. There’s apparently at least one new mode in the works for the game, which makes me excited, as I would love to see more from this game.