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Like many of you, I imagine, I’ve been spending the bulk of my gaming time sneaking across the hostile Afghanistan deserts of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. But when I’m not in Big Boss’ boots, my iPhone has been getting more gaming attention than it has in ages thanks to Sage Solitaire.
It comes from Zach Gage, a designer whose past work includes the great SpellTower and Ridiculous Fishing. It plays like a combination of poker and Bejeweled. A deck of cards is split into unequal stacks, solitaire-style, with the top card of each left face-up. You look through what’s showing for poker-like hand combinations—pair, three-card straight, full house, etc.—to cash in and whittle away at the piles until, if all goes well, you’ve eliminated all the cards. You’re allowed to trash up to two cards at any given time, and each of those discards recharges after you’ve cashed a hand. If you run out of matches and trashes, the game’s over.
There’s a high-score chase that’s front and center, with every hand configuration assigned different point values and each depleted stack netting you a bonus. The real prize, though, is the satisfaction of a fully cleared board—a clean solitaire victory. At first, I was content to tap away, cashing in any valuable on-screen combinations I spotted, but it becomes clear that you’re never going to win that way unless you get supremely lucky.
From there, the game’s nuances and potential for strategy start to open up. Eliminating a pile and securing its bonus is nice, but fewer piles means fewer ways to find matches. You could cash-in that three-card straight for a measly 20 points, or you could push your luck and trash one of those cards for the chance of putting together a flush, which is far more valuable and efficient. If you stop to think before selecting each hand, the decisions Sage Solitaire throws your way become far more meaningful, tough, and gripping.
If you’ve got an iOS device, you can download the game for free and get access to its simplest mode, though you’ll have to tap on the little X at the top of an ad between games. For $3, you can unlock the full ad-free version and two variants. One adds a second deck to the mix and is pretty much blissful hand-making heaven. The other adds a new hand, any combination of cards that adds up to 15, yet another wrinkle of strategy.