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Finished!: Complex Solitaire is Fun

by Stuart Urback

Finished!, designed by Friedemann Friese in 2017 is a twist on solitaire that removes suits and adds resources and restrictions to the popular archetype. You shuffle a deck of cards labeled 1 to 48 and have to sort them into ascending order but can only work with them in groups of three. You play as a data entry specialist, trying to sort the units so the computer can run. The result is a surprisingly complex but fun game that repackages a lot of the concepts of solitaire into a new theme and format.

An example of the Finished! board game state. 20, 28, 34 are in the discard pile, 05, 17, 32 are in the tableau and 01 is in the Ace Pile. Resources are to the right.

Heavy Weight

The game took me a while to understand, and I had to spend a few games being comfortable losing without knowing why in order to get a sense for what each of the cards did and how I could use them. Then I spent even more time trying to understand how I could tell if the moves I made were helpful or hurtful towards my goals. This caught me by surprise because I didn't expect a solitaire game to have so many different components to understand. When I think about Solitaire I tend to imagine a simple deck of cards, maybe some special powers, and a way of manipulating those cards for my own success.

Most games of solitaire (like Food Chain Island ) involve a deck of cards and a layout that defines the way that you'll shift and organize the cards around. Finished! does away with most of the layout and instead replaces it with resource systems (candy and coffee) which dictate how you can organize the cards. You will use candy to activate the abilities of cards which let you draw, sort, and shift the cards. Your access to candy limits and shapes what you're capable of doing.

There is also a subsystem in the game, a mini-reward on your way to greater success. If at the end of a turn, when you discard the cards from your tableau, if there are three or more in immediate order 5-6-7, you will receive candy for each number after the first. These runs create mid-game goals to reach and represent a lot of the playfulness of the game. I spent a lot of time using card abilities to create runs so that I could replenish my candy supply.

There are many different card abilities, but they revolve around either draw cards or sorting cards. Some cards will give you a single candy when they're played into the tableau. They don't have special abilities but they replenish your supply while you build up the runs in your engine. The other basic ability is drawing a card. These let you spend a candy to take a card from the top of the deck and add it to your tableau. Other cards are plays on these. Some force you to discard cards in order to draw more, others let you pull cards back from the discard pile into your current tableau. Finally, there are some cards that let you push other cards "To the Future", a special column that comes into play anytime you discard a card, you will try to take any cards from the future first before you draw a new set of cards from the top of the deck.

If trying to understand that list felt overwhelming, it absolutely can be. I kept coming back to the game because after my 10th play-through, the structures of the game fell away and I understood and could manipulate the resources without feeling like I was constrained by them. I have much more confidence in my ability to use the cards than I do in my ability to explain them. The basic actions of the game are fun to operate.

Needless Confusion

The game took me a surprising amount of time to understand, and it wasn't only because of the complexity of the rules. There were also pieces of vocabulary that made it harder for me to understand how to play, and I want to call it out as something that any new player will have to work their way through. If it weren't for the digital version, I suspect I would've given up on the number of different subtle rules. Finished! also renamed common solitaire concepts like the deck, the discard, the ace pile, into different more "theme-appropriate" names. The "Deck" becomes the "Draw Stack", the "Tableau" becomes "Present Area", special columns become "Future Area" and the discard becomes "Past Area". This type of UI masquerading as the theme is unhelpful and unnecessary to further player immersion. It does more to hurt player learning than any benefit that might come from the unique system it builds. Once I'm fluent in the game, I no longer think in terms of the words that define each component, but until that point, if I have to reconsider what's going on, it takes it longer for me to get to the point where I can be fluent.

Let's take "Past Area" as an example here. It seems like the designer wanted to communicate the concept that this isn't the "discard" because it's possible to pull cards back from it into the area of play. Here's how Finished! describes "Past Area": After sorting cards in the Present Area, you move cards to the Past Area. You may not change the order of these cards nor use their actions". It's a lot of words to describe a discard pile with a couple of extra rules. Compare this to Magic the Gathering's definition for their graveyard: "The Graveyard is one of the game zones in Magic: The Gathering. 404. Graveyard 404.1. A player’s graveyard is his or her discard pile."

Reusing existing concepts strengthens games and their rules by giving hooks for players to understand what to do, rather than forcing them to confabulate mental models whole cloth. This type of usability complexity doesn't add to the texture of the game, it just makes it harder for players to wrap their head around. Finished! is worth trying out, but it would be much more approachable if the rules used common terminology that was well established.

Sorting Algorithms

While the story of the game is doing "data entry", the ethos of the game feels more like become a computer (with ridiculous constraints) trying to shift and streamline data into the right place before you run out of time. The theme of the game fits the playfulness of player actions, and the rewards for creating new runs give just enough of a boost to keep you chugging along as you try to create the combo that will close out the game for you.

Sorting Algorithms in software engineering are basically different ways of taking a pile of sticks and ordering them to varying degrees of efficiency: visualized here. In software terms we would assume we have a shuffled deck of cards from 1→48 and then they would be laid out in order for us to see. The goal of the "game" in software engineering is to find the optimal algorithm to sort the different cards in order in the fewest number of moves. If we assume shifting the card one place takes 1 unit of work, the fewer number of shifts we need to make, the more efficient that algorithm would be. This is a useful sort of metaphor for how a bunch of different operations in software engineering work.

But a game about sorting 48 cards wouldn't be fun because there's not a lot of structure (or resistance) guiding us towards a goal. That game wouldn't be all that different or more exciting than 52-card pickup. Finished! is an example of how game design creates challenges that help players figure out the smart decision to make. By only allowing the player to see three cards at a time, and only allowing them a certain number of trips through the deck, the rules force players to think about how they structure cards together at a higher level, rather than take the obvious route.

Chunking, Shifting, Moving Stuff Around

Finished! is a kinetic game. Most solitaire games do a lot of moving, shifting, and stacking. But they act more like a blob, that absorbs cards as they go along, only breaking off after a better split comes along. Every turn in Finished! has movement. You spend time reordering cards, shifting them into new zones, and pulling them back from the discard pile to sort and get them into how you just want. It works well on the iPhone with the haptic feedback every time you pull cards into the discard pile and deal them from the top of the deck. Getting to the end of the game and watching the cards go by (each with a little haptic tap) as you've just managed to order them before you run out of time is a burst of excitement.

Finished! sneaks in the themes of other card games, like Magic or Dominion where you try to create combos by drawing, ordering, and putting cards into specific orders so you can "go off" or create loops where you take actions that give you more candy so that you can take actions that order more cards so you can get more candy, and so on and so on. But it does so in a straightforward way so people who aren't immersed in card game vocabulary will still find themselves playing along.

It's a perfect example of how reducing games to a core set of evaluations can miss a lot of the beauty and depth of the medium. This game doesn't have perfect feedback, it's hard to enter a flow state, and even when you're skilled at it it's easy to find yourself at the whims of the random shuffle of the deck, or maybe that's just me. But each turn brings new excitement and sorting the cards into the correct order. And when it fits it brings that same sense of satisfaction that making everything fit just right looks like.

Counterintuitive Conclusions

What's most exciting about the game is how it's gotten me to reconsider my approach with each new play. When I first approached the game, I started with the naïve goal of sorting every card as it comes up into low to high order. But this didn't end up working out, because "perfect" sorting left me with a bunch of individual piles that were well sorted, but no way to get long runs that give more candy and can be stacked efficiently. This is something similar to a "local maximum" in math. I'd optimized the narrow band of these cards (the ones in play) but that doesn't do anything to help us when it comes to winning the game.

So the next thing I realized is that what I really wanted to do is make sure that the small number cards got closer to the "Front" the part of the pile immediately after the 48, and the big number cards closer to the "Back", the part of the pile just in front of the 48. This got me further along, but I often found myself getting stuck in the middle of the deck when the game ended, usually on a card in the teens, but without a path forward.

This was until I realized a couple of different things. Firstly, that the goal of the game isn't to order the cards from 1-48, it's to pull out all of the cards from the pile as quickly as possible. This happens when the cards are organized appropriately, but the appropriate organization does not necessarily mean perfect ascending order. If I presume that I will have to make a couple of trips through the deck one way or another, it means that clumping like numbers (not necessarily in order) is super helpful. Because of the way that you get rewarded for runs of cards, and because of the way that the "algorithm" will pull subsequent cards out of the pile, putting cards in runs is highly valuable. This led me to the realization that occasionally it's better to push lower numbers towards the end of the line if it made them more likely to find the appropriate "clump" of cards where they'd be most useful.

There haven't been many games that have gotten me to take a step back and reconsider how I approach the game in order to play better but Finished! offers the right balance of uncertainty with a small enough mental footprint that it feels possible for me to think through in my head.

Where I'm At Right Now

I'm still not sure if the strategy I'm using is correct. There's something infuriating about this, and it would be easy to label this as a game that doesn't have core feedback mechanisms. But it also builds an air of mystery about the game and keeps me coming back even though I have what I think is a general sense of its systems.

I think there are a couple of areas of design on this app that could benefit from a bit more cleanup. The sense I have is that certain deals are easier to handle than others. It would be nice if the game had menus to group games into these sets so that I could pick and choose the challenges I wanted, rather than being dealt hands based on random chance. I'm also not entirely sure that the game needs to be in landscape view. The decision to work with that constraint means it's hard to pull out the game unless I can give it all of my concentration (maybe this is a good thing though?).

There are so many parts of my life where putting things in the right place, both in engineering and interacting with other people in my job, that feels like just getting things in the right place is a challenge and also a satisfying outcome for a day's work. Finished! taps into this feeling and distills it into a fun, replayable solitaire game. While it's unfortunate that this game is only available for iOS and not Android, I recommend picking it up if you can.

The opinions in this post are expressly the views of the author and do not reflect the views of their employer(s) or any entities that they might otherwise be affiliated.

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