SHENZHEN Solitaire (2016, Steam)

Most of the time, solitaire is just solitaire. Outside of it occasionally being used in the context of a story, or as the impetus of a cross-country tournament, the cards generally just remain cards, and there’s no real acknowledgement of the game within the framing device. It is so rare as to be almost nonexistent that a solitaire game is part of a narrative world – but thanks to SHENZHEN Solitaire, this is now a thing that exists.

Developer Zachtronics are by no means strangers to the creation of deviously-simple puzzle games; their back catalog includes educational games like match-three game HabiTactics and Minecraft-progenitor Infiniminer, after all. But where they really got noticed as of late was in making “engineering” games like SpaceChem and TIS-100. Their latest offering is an electronics engineering simulation called SHENZHEN I/O, which simulates not just electronic circuit designs, but also the experience of working for a Chinese design firm, twenty minutes into the future.

There is just the barest little peek at the cyberpunk-dystopian semi-future as you boot up the program – while you are designing electronics, you’re doing so through a fictional computer running on a fictional proprietary OS, complete with its own startup sound and on-screen weather report (usually 29 degrees, Poor air quality, and High drone activity, though it varies). And what do OSes tend to come with? Solitaire games, of course. Windows had one, plenty of Linux distributions came with one pre-installed, a handful of Mac OS releases included a demo for one, PC/GEOS had one, IBM OS/2 Warp had one…so why not SHENZHEN’s Concept Operating System?

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Halfway into a game of SHENZHEN Solitaire. Two cells are locked down, the flower card has been uncovered, and I need only make two moves to uncover the last White Dragon cards.

SHENZHEN I/O’s Solitaire is actually a curious new take on FreeCell-like rules, albeit with a unique new deck of Mahjong-inspired cards. There are three suits (Bamboo, Dots, and Characters), each with its own color, and with cards ranked 1 through 9. In addition, there are four of each type of Dragon card (red, white, and green), and one flower card. The main suits have Solitaire-style foundation piles, the flower card has one of its own, and there are three free cells to which you can temporarily place any card. You don’t actually need the cells to move stacks; you’re free to move a complete stack of sequential cards regardless of whether any cells are open. But the cells have another purpose, and that’s clearing away the dragon cards. Normally, you can’t move the dragon cards anywhere but the cells (or any empty column), as they can’t stack on each other, and you can’t stack anything on top of them. If all four of a specific dragon is at the top of its respective stack, though, the press of a button moves all four into one open cell, permanently.

Permanency is probably the strongest element of SHENZHEN Solitaire. On the game’s window (within the Concept OS framing device), there are only two buttons: Instructions, and New Game. There is no Undo button, and cards cannot be withdrawn from foundation piles after they’ve been played. Most moves cannot be reversed once made, just by the nature of how the cards are dealt. One must think very carefully, often several moves in advance, in order to not get stuck. And not only is there no Undo button, there is also no way to retry the same deal. Once you’ve clicked New Game, you will never see the same deal again.

But this doesn’t mean that SHENZHEN Solitaire is without mercy in its strictness. The game does track your statistics, but only the absolute most vital one: the number of games won. SHENZHEN does not track how many times you’ve lost, your ratio of wins to losses, or how long a game has taken. This, arguably, plays towards a philosophy that I can only assume has its roots in China: failures are unimportant, victory is all that matters. This is even reflected in SHENZHEN Solitaire’s standalone release, by the only three Steam Achievements it offers: CLIMB THE MOUNTAIN, MEET THE DRAGON, and BECOME IMMORTAL, for having won 1 game, 10 games, and 100 games, respectively.

Curiously, SHENZHEN Solitaire’s standalone release is not mentioned on Zachtronics’ website at all, but it is available on Steam for a mere $2.99 USD, a mere one-fifth the price of the entire SHENZHEN I/O game. There is no need to buy both; if all you’re interested in is the solitaire game, then you needn’t buy a fifteen-dollar engineering sim to get at it.

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