I’ve been a fan of Solitaire card games ever since I was a kid. Klondike is my old favorite, of course, but FreeCell quickly became my game of choice after I learned to play it about five years ago.

I’ve had on my Treo for some time now a collection of 50 Solitaire games called Smallware Solebon, but only recently stumbled across two of them, Eight Off and Beleaguered Castle, that have really struck my fancy. Both games are variants of FreeCell (or perhaps FreeCell is a variant of one of them?1), but each has its own twist that makes it fun to play.

Eight Off

Eight Off, as the name implies, has eight reserve spaces instead of four as in FreeCell. However, instead of stacking the cards in the tableau columns red on black, you must stack them according to their suit. Additionally, instead of four columns of 7 and four columns of 6, all the tableau columns are dealt to equal lengths (six cards apiece) and the four leftover cards are dealt directly into four of the eight reserve spaces.

These two rule variations (i.e., stack by suit and deal four cards to the reserve) together serve to make the game slightly harder, but having twice the usual amount of reserve spaces more than makes up for it. I consider Eight Off a fair amount easier than FreeCell (though perhaps it’s meaningless to compare their difficulty levels since it’s possible to beat either game from any starting position2).

Beleaguered Castle

Beleaguered Castle is another story, however. Of the three, it’s most decidedly the hardest. Like Klondike, a good percentage of starting positions are simply impossible to beat (I tend to win 60% of them). In Beleaguered Castle, you have zero reserve spaces (!). To help you out a slight bit, the Aces are dealt directly to the Foundations instead of being mixed into the tableau columns, which leaves the columns even at six cards apiece, like Eight Off. To help you further, you’re allowed to stack the cards in tableau columns without any regard for suit or color.3

But how the heck do you play FreeCell without any free cells? Well, you start by moving around single cards trying to clear out a whole column. Once you’ve got a column cleared, it’s like you’ve earned yourself a reserve space, and from there you can start moving around stacks of two cards. In order to win, you really need to clear out three or four columns, and then you’re essentially playing FreeCell. This game is easily the most addicting card game I’ve ever played, and winning brings so much more satisfaction that winning FreeCell. I heartily recommend Beleaguered Castle to any longtime or budding Solitaire buff.  

  1. I just learned from Wikipedia that Eight Off may be the earliest form of the game, from which variants like Baker’s Game and FreeCell are descended. 
  2. Actually, I just learned from Wikipedia that this isn’t true. I don’t know about Eight Off, but there are at least eight starting positions in FreeCell that are believed (but not proven) to be unsolvable. 
  3. Perhaps it’s worth mentioning that Smallware Solebon arranges the cards in Beleaguered Castle in a non-traditional way. The traditional way to arrange them, as shown on the Wikipedia article (I really should stop reading Wikipedia and just publish this dang entry!), is to have the Aces in a vertical line down the center, with the eight tableau columns arranged horizontally out to either side of the Aces. Solebon deals the tableau columns vertically and places the foundations at the top, so the playing area more closely resembles FreeCell and Eight Off. This is the style I prefer, and if you’ve played a lot of FreeCell it may make more sense to you.