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One Good Thing: 32 years after its debut, Microsoft Solitaire is still a blissful time-waster

It’s time to celebrate the calming vibes of computer solitaire in this messed-up world we live in.

A game of Klondike solitaire in progress, played in Microsoft Solitaire Collection.
“Oh, hey, you can put that black four under that red five,” says a helpful person looking over your shoulder.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

A couple of months ago, I bought a new computer for personal use for the first time in ages. For many boring reasons, I decided to get a Dell PC, rather than a Macbook, and when I first booted it up, I was greeted with a familiar old friend I hadn’t thought about in ages: Microsoft Solitaire Collection.

Historian Jimmy Maher has estimated that Windows Solitaire — first released with Windows 3.0 in 1990 — is likely the most-played computer game ever made. Throughout the ’90s, the one-player card game offered a quick and easy break for bored office workers, procrastinating students, and insomniacs staring at the computer until all hours of the night. Dragging a black six to rest under a red seven, working inexorably toward clearing the board, served as many people’s introduction to computer gaming, Maher argues.

The games of Windows became a vital part of ... an expansion of the demographics that were playing games, accomplished not by making parents and office workers suddenly fall in love with the massive, time-consuming science-fiction or fantasy epics upon which most of the traditional computer-game industry remained fixated, but rather by meeting them where they lived. Instead of five-course meals, Microsoft provided ludic snacks suited to busy lives and limited attention spans.

The game that most of us who grew up with Windows Solitaire think of as “solitaire” is technically a solitaire variant called “Klondike.” (Some quick terminology: Any one-player card game is called “solitaire.”) But after the success of the original solitaire program, Microsoft quickly added other solitaire variants alongside it, beginning with the puzzle-like Free Cell and continuing with the tricky untangling web of Spider.

The Solitaire Collection that comes bundled with Windows now includes Pyramid, in which you clear cards in the shape of a pyramid, and Tri Peaks, in which you clear cards in the shape of, well, three peaks. (Imaginatively named, these games.) This modern version ensures that any hand you are dealt is solvable, even if figuring out how to solve it can be fiendishly difficult.

More regrettably, the modern version also features occasional ads, unless you want to pay a monthly subscription to go ad-free. I get that we all have to make a buck, but considering that Microsoft took the original design for its solitaire program from an intern who has never made a cent off the game, the ad-supported version strikes me as particularly galling.

Yet if you don’t use a computer that has Windows installed, or you don’t use a computer at all, would you believe there are so many other ways to play solitaire? Google has its own spin on the game, and this site claims to have over 500 variations on solitaire. My favorite online solitaire site is probably World of Solitaire, and I haven’t even dug into solitaire apps. But honestly, it’s really hard to screw up solitaire. Almost any site or app is going to offer you an enjoyable, quick hand of cards.

You also could just find a deck of cards and play a game yourself. A program makes setting a hand of solitaire up much easier, but you can dig out a deck of cards and play pretty much anywhere you’d like, even in corners of the world with bad wifi. (Another bonus of playing with physical cards: It’s so much easier to cheat when you get stuck.)

Why is solitaire — especially the Klondike version — so ubiquitous? That’s harder to answer. Certainly, most versions of solitaire are quickly understandable to anybody who has seen a deck of cards before, and most games are just long enough to offer an involving challenge but also just short enough to provide a quick diversion. For many people, a game that can be played in five to 10 minutes feels easier to justify to oneself than an epic one must sink many hours into, even if all those five to 10 minute games start to add up in aggregate.

For me, though, I’ve found myself returning to solitaire not just because of the challenge but because of the game’s contemplative nature. Any given hand of solitaire is a singular puzzle for me to solve, and staring at the cards to figure out how they’re supposed to fit together is a good way to focus on something that will stretch my mind but also not stress me out too much.

There’s a pleasant, throwback quality to solitaire in this age of doomscrolling. For a few minutes at a time, I can look away from the rest of the world and just look for a way to get to the six of clubs that I know I need to finish this game. You can put a bunch of bells and whistles on solitaire, and you can toss it into a fancy package that’s supported by ads, but it’s still just the same game as it always was. It’s a connection to a time when these glowing screens were important, sure, but also not so heavily dominant in our lives. It might be the closest one can come to going offline while staying glued to a screen.

Solitaire is available in literally thousands of places, and physical decks of cards are available in even more. Microsoft Solitaire Collection is available from the company’s online store. For more recommendations from the world of culture, check out the One Good Thing archives.

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