The Solitaire Conspiracy makes you feel like you're using your obsessive nerd powers for good in a time when it's hard to feel useful.
A lot of what I do every day is read the news and feel bad. As an individual it's overwhelming to take in the sheer tonnage of information about our country, economy, and world that is reported on a daily basis. It was hard before the pandemic, but COVID-19 has isolated people in their homes with a constant stream of bad news coming into their brains. It makes a lot of your day-to-day activities feel useless. Why put on pants when there's a deadly virus?
I've found some ways to use my limited powers for good. With the internet, I can try to inform other people, raise money for charity, and boost fundraisers for people who need help. I've also marched in protests, though the whole pandemic thing has really limited the amount of real life actions I can take. The weight of the world often makes me just want to go back to sleep. But there's something in The Solitaire Conspiracy, a spy-themed solitaire game with a twist, that helps me understand how putting my pants on every day is still meaningful.
The Solitaire Conspiracy, developed by Mike Bithell's Bithell Games, is essentially modified solitaire, except every suit has a special power. In this version of the game, you play with cards face up, you don't have to draw from a deck, and you can place any card on top of another as long as it's of a higher value. You're not playing with Hearts or Spades, though; you control different spy agencies like the transhumanist Humanity+ or the elite drivers DT6. When you place the Ace of each suit, the face cards—agents of that particular agency—have their powers activated. Using some of the strategies of normal solitaire as well as the powers afforded to you by your agents, you have to order each suit from Ace to King to complete your missions. There are more than four suits as well, meaning that you have to learn how to use these disparate skills with each other in order to play well.
All of this sounds pretty complicated if you're used to playing the Windows 95 version of solitaire. It took me a little while to understand not only how to use each suit's powers, but to make sense of the slight differences in rules from solitaire-the-card-game. That said, it scratches the same fundamental itch that regular ass solitaire does. I have a deep need to see things that are messy become orderly, to find patterns in a system that doesn't make sense. In each mission, by the time I place eights, nines, and tens, I feel that I have found that sense, have conquered what looked like a mess of data and made it my domain.
Using these powers with each other can be tricky. Some of them seem counterintuitive at first. The ancient, nepotistic Blood Legacy, for example, rearranges a stack of cards with the highest in the suit on top. Placing an activated agent from that suit on the wrong stack can trap low numbered cards beneath higher value ones that can't be placed anywhere on the board. But if you're not sure where the highest value cards in a suit are and need to use the powers of those agents, Blood Legacy can get you access to them. My personal favorite team is DT6, whose agents can summon the card you need in a particular suit when placed atop any card of that suit. Also this is my wife:
Each time you gain a level, you're treated to some delightful banter from Kinda Funny's Greg Miller, who acts as your mission control. Like any good spy movie, there are plot twists and secret reveals, as well as a lovely little moment where Miller takes off his glasses. You know that's when shit gets real.
All this is fun and compelling, but what makes the game more than a time waster is the lovely, sparse writing. Each mission has a description you're totally welcome to ignore, but reading them reveals a well of empathy. One mission had me disrupting evil spies at a public demonstration in New York City. Upon my success, the game noted that the protesters present joined in with our agency's efforts to drive out the cops and spies, saying that they fought for their city. After that mission I noticed that even though I had my favorite suits and powers, there was no one team that was obviously stronger or more useful than another. My most successful strategies always involve using one suit's power to trigger another power, a chain of collaborative action.
Playing The SolitaireConspiracy reminds me that this is true in the real world, too. In order to fight all of the bad things I read about every day, we don't need just one kind of person with one kind of skill. We need activists and organizers from all walks of life, using all our resources and knowledge together, protecting each other and keeping each other safe. It's a good lesson in the power of putting on your pants, even when things feel hopeless. You do have something to contribute, a way to fight in an incredibly terrifying world. So take a shower and have at it.