The Four Virtues of FreeCell

Forty-year-old FreeCell had been on my computer since I first got Windows 95, but I didn’t discover it until I entered office life. To be sure, I knew it was there, tucked away under my Start menu, but like any serious gamer I scoffed at the thought of playing solitaire rather than Soul Reaver, FreeCell rather than FreeSpace. Not until I was without a choice did I turn to Microsoft’s built-in games.


I already had many years of game design under my belt before I fired up FreeCell. Otherwise, I could’ve titled this article, “Everything I Needed to Know about Game Design, I Learned from FreeCell.” That’s because despite its superficial inadequacies, FreeCell epitomizes four key virtues of good game design: Goals; Immediacy; Pacing; and Fairness.

What’s FreeCell?
FreeCell is a solitaire card game. But that’s misleading because card games tend to be about luck, and solitaire games (particularly the most famous Klondike variety) are usually unthinking and tedious. But FreeCell is not a mechanical game of chance. It’s a puzzle game defined by skill, one that is “provably hard,” meaning it’s so complex a computer can only win by brute force.

Nevertheless, the rules are straightforward.

The game board is divided into three regions. In the upper left are four “freecells.” In the upper right are four “homecells.” All eight of these are empty at the start of the game. Below is the “tableau” – eight columns of cards dealt randomly. Because there are 52 cards total, the columns are uneven. The first four, counting left to right, have seven cards. The last four have six. FreeCell is an “open” solitaire game, meaning the cards in the tableau are dealt face up for the player to see.

The objective of the game is to fill the four homecells. Each homecell corresponds to a suit, and each must be filled starting with the ace (which counts as a 1) and ending with the king (13).

Cards can be moved only when they are in a freecell or at the bottom of a column. They may be moved to an empty freecell, to an appropriate homecell, or to an empty column. They may also be “packed” onto the card at the bottom of a column. For example, a black queen may be packed onto a red king; a red 7 may be packed onto a black 8. But a red 9 cannot be packed onto a red 10 or a black 8.

The Four Virtues
FreeCell‘s goals are nested and clear. From the moment a player deals a hand, he knows what he has to do: fill the four homecells. That means he immediately has four short-term goals, specifically to place the ace of each suit in its homecell. To do that, the player scans the field and locates the aces. He then has to find a way to dig the aces out of their columns; this usually entails packing the cards that are on top of the ace onto different columns. If he wants to move a black jack, the player must find a red queen. This, in turn, may require moving other cards.

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At any given time, the player will have a number of cards he can affect (at the very least, cards at the bottom of the columns and whatever cards he has in the freecells) and a host of sub-goals to pursue in order to achieve one of the four major goals (filling each homecell), or the single ultimate goal (filling all homecells). A player may find himself focusing on a particular goal – digging out the red queen, for instance – which may draw his attention to a narrow area of the board. But at any time he can stop, take a wider view of the tableau and decide a new goal for himself. This is the critical point: The player sees goals and pursues them. He doesn’t flail around and stumble into success.

Moreover, pursuit of these many goals can be achieved immediately. That means both that there is no medium through which he must work (other than a very clean interface) and that there is little delay in doing what he wants. Achieving goals is as simple as moving cards, and moving cards is as simple as clicking the mouse. When the player knows what he wants to do, he simply does it; the game facilitates, rather than obstructs, the player’s action.

An added benefit of the game’s immediacy and clear goals is the pacing in the player’s control. When an area of the tableau is arranged in a favorable fashion, and the moves are obvious, the game can go very quickly. But when the player realizes he’s running out of freecells and possibly cornering himself, the action slows down as he plays out the available strategies in his head. Many games last less than two minutes, but those with difficult patches (or “knots”) can slow down considerably.

All of this pacing, however, remains in the player’s control. There are no artificial delays. The player is never waiting. FreeCell is an “action” game in the sense that the player is always active, either moving cards or studying the board to figure out the best move.


Finally, FreeCell is fair. Some games are hard, some games are easy. But with a few rare exceptions, all of them can be won. And the key to winning them lies not in the random seed that generates the tableau but in the player’s strategy. Moreover, every action has a predictable consequence. Loss is the player’s responsibility, not the game’s. In addition, FreeCell‘s rules are simple and few in number, meaning a player can understand why he loses when he loses.

Beyond FreeCell
Making games that are fun as games is largely a matter of adhering to the same four qualities that make FreeCell so enjoyable.

The presence of multiple clear and nested goals in adventure games, for example, makes the difference between good and bad design. The best adventure gameplay – found, for example, in Day of the Tentacle – presents the player with a number of obstacles and then lets him loose to find the tools to break through them. Often, getting those tools presents new puzzles, which then lead to even more puzzles, and so on. But no matter what, the player is always pursuing goals. The worst adventure games, by contrast, simply scatter tools and obstacles about, leading the player to act as a passive garbage man who vacuums and stumbles his way through the game. He has no goals other than the abstract purpose of reaching the end, but he knows from genre conventions that to win he needs to take anything not nailed down and use it somewhere else.

Immediacy is also the mark of a good game, one that thankfully has become more common. Designers now, for the most part, understand that frustrating interfaces aren’t a good way to make games harder. Still, far too often, players encounter obstructionist design. In the “action-adventure” genre, for example, one finds block-pushing puzzles where pushing the blocks is tedious and time-consuming but the puzzles themselves are painfully obvious. In theory, the challenge is meant to be figuring out how to arrange the blocks. But the game’s interface is an adversary in this goal, not a partner, so the challenge usually becomes finding the patience to work through the clear solution. The game slows down and obstructs the player’s action (solving the puzzle) in a fashion contrary to how FreeCell assists the player.

Pacing has been the bane of strategy and RPG games for decades. Turn-based games are often excruciatingly slow as the player waits (and waits) for his turn to move. Conversely, real-time games often deny the player breathing space to meaningfully engage with the action, leaving him a reactive clicker, not a proactive player. In both cases, there have been efforts to improve, usually by streamlining the interface, but nevertheless, it seems the designers think of pacing in terms of the passive experience (is the player getting bored?) rather than in terms of active engagement (is he able to play, and to do so the way he wants?).

Fairness, by which I mean predictable consequences and the diminished role of luck, is at its apex in games that are overtly skill-based – like FPSes – and at its nadir in D&D-based RPGs. When a player’s fate in battle turns more on the random numbers than on the strategy he adopts, there is something fundamentally unfair about the game. The player is apt to feel cheated, no matter how scrupulously the game adheres to its rules. The challenge must reside in the player’s ability to process information and assess consequences, not in bait-and-switch gameplay or black-box random numbers.

Casual Games As Teaching Tools
If these four virtues are identifiable in all games, why talk about FreeCell? It’s not the best game ever! Why not talk about a real game?


The trouble is most “real” computer games are dolled-up doxies that deflect attention from their real attributes (by which I mean gameplay) through alluring distractions: graphics, music and sound, story, artificial reward structures, etc. FreeCell, like many casual and independent games, is au naturel and unadorned. It rises or falls on its design, not on its packaging.

More importantly, in my experience, a hardcore gamer stuck with FreeCell can fall in love. Casual games thrive because they rest on solid, approachable gameplay in a way million-dollar blockbusters don’t. There’s no reason why the lessons of casual games like FreeCell can’t be applied to the games hardcore gamers play; there’s no reason why casual gamers shouldn’t be able to play “real” games, provided their developers take a closer look at what makes games fun. And all designers need is a coffee break and a Windows box.

Marty O’Hale has written stories for a number of computer and videogames, primarily roleplaying and strategy games. He has also published a number of works of fiction. Currently, Marty’s career is in the law.

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