Last summer I was bored one day and searched the app store for solitaire apps. I admit, this is like telling the universe you give up, you're so bored that you'd like to play the most boring game known to man, the game most synonomous with isolation and going it alone.
I started playing the free version of MobilityWare's Solitaire and realized quickly that the love affair I ended in 1999 with Windows 95's included Solitaire had been rekindled and I quickly paid the 99 cents for the "gold" version to remove ads. It was a fun way to pass time when I was bored but I also found it quieted my mind and was a great way to get to sleep, by playing 5-10 hands until I was so tired I was about to drop my phone.
Enter Game Center
A few months later, the game was updated to add features with Apple's Game Center, and they presented a list of 20 acheivements as part of the game. Funny enough, I had already done about half of them in my months of casual play but it was enough of a motivator to complete the rest that I started playing solitaire not just to cap off a day and get ready to sleep, but increasingly I found time during the day to chase goals. Three of them were quite difficult. One was scoring above 10,000 points on a hand and it requires not just a near-perfect randomly dealt hand but you have to learn how to do a speed run since points are increased for shorter times. As I was sitting there speed running solitaire games for hours a day waiting for the elusive easy hand so I could finish an entire game in about 60 seconds, I knew this was ridiculous, but a couple days later I surpassed the goal. The other two acheivements were playing 5,000 hands and 10,000 hands. I was somewhere around 3,800 hands when the app was updated so a couple weeks of playing it grinded me over the 5,000 mark and though the 10k mark seems far off (as I've gone back to casual play) I'm somewhere in the neighborhood of 7,800 games played and I'm sure I'll hit ten thousand by the end of the summer.
They also added some social scoring via Game Center and at one point I was in the top 100 of all players for some metric and I was on the leader board, though the people near the top were a magnitude away from me in terms of games played and points scored, so this aspect never appealed to me.
Then it went all social
This week, the creators released a new version with something they call "Winning Hands" which will tell you when you're playing a new hand that it is indeed solvable and if you get stuck, you can replay someone else's method for solving that puzzle. At first, this sounded a bit goofy but I could see it coming handy when you get stuck with a seemingly impossible puzzle. I played a few games with the settings tweaked to give me more Winning Hands plays to check my skills against random previous players. I found I could solve them easily about 9/10 hands, but once in a while something would get me stuck and it was fun to watch someone else replay a hand, though it often included them making some crazy move when presented with a few options (where I took a more sensible path).
Another innovative thing is that you can click the "winning hands" indicator and be told what the fastest time, most points, and fewest moves was for that hand in the past. This has become a new motivator to keep playing as the feature is new and I can easily take a minute off the best time, score thousands of points more, and often save a dozen moves.
I never thought I'd say Solitaire makes for a fun social game, but the latest version is pretty impressive and knowing that I'm competing against others has changed the motivation to play completely. Knowing my process and moves can be viewed by others is also pretty cool.
With enough players and hands dealt, it seems like the creators of this app can very well exhaust every possible hand in solitaire, tell you which plays are solvable (I'm curious what the global statictics are on overall winning percentages), and show you the exact moves someone, somewhere used to finish it.
For a solitary pursuit, it's pretty amazing that the game developers came up with a way to record everyone's games, and let advanced players gain recognition for a job well done as well as use that play to teach less experienced players the tips and tricks for solving the seemingly impossible. I know it's just solitaire, but I could envision an app operating in much the same way allowing real-world impossible-seeming problems be solved by tapping social aspects of a large userbase trying their best, sharing the successes and showing the exact process of their solution, letting others build upon that quickly and easily.