Designer’s Diary: Matrix Solitaire

This post is all about our kick-ass solitaire game Matrix Solitaire. The rules are available for free here.

This is one of those rare games that sprung fully birthed from the designer’s head like Athena, and worked pretty much right away. The total opposite of Baseball, Matrix Solitaire started with mechanical goals, then mechanics, and finally a game that supported those mechanics and goals.

Design Goals and Inspiration
Even a casual observer of the game’s rules can easily spot the influences: Computer puzzlers like Tetris and traditional solitaire. It’s no coincidence that as Matrix Solitaire was being designed, Sam‘s now-wife-then-girlfriend Janine was filling every spare moment with these activities.

People love playing solitaire. It’s included as a freebie on most computers and phones, and folks get a lot of mileage out of the these simple apps. You don’t need an opponent, you probably already know the rules, and it doesn’t require much thought. We’ll mark two of those three factors as positive — as semi-professional game designers, a game that requires no thought and offers no choices will not ever meet our design goals. In traditional solitaire, you’re not rewarded for clever play, but simply for noticing stuff (red eight on black nine, black seven on red eight…). We took it upon ourselves to make an interesting, engaging solitaire game, and Matrix Solitaire was the result.

The culprit.

The very first thing we did was turn the deck upside-down, so the player draws from a face-up pile. This was directly inspired by Tetris, which shows you the next piece in the queue, allowing you to plan ahead.

The second thing we did was outline the idea of a limited play-zone (the Matrix) which can be filled, causing the player to lose the game. This was also inspired by, you guessed it, Tetris. It also served an important game function. In a game with two or more players, your opponents provide the conflict, the opposing force that could cause you to lose the game, and the threat of that loss generates suspense. In a one-player game, you need something else. We thought the threat of filling the board would do the trick, much like filling the screen does in computer puzzle games.

Since we’re dealing with real, physical space, and we wanted people to be able to play the game anywhere, we settled on a manageable 3X3 grid. Matching suits seemed a natural direction, and we settled on the suit-chain mechanic very quickly.

Despite the shortcomings of traditional solitaire, Janine was playing it on her laptop again, and again, and again. When she was losing a game, she would quit and start over, not playing it to the end. Why was she doing this? “To get the high score.” This was, we felt, a useful game design insight. Players tended to shoot for goals, even if those goals were beating their own personal best. This was definitely something we wanted to leverage in our solitaire game, so we devised the scoring system you see now. It is important that the reward for scoring a big chain is worth the risk necessary for attempting them in the first place, so we chose an exponential increase (1, 2, 4, 8, and 16 points per card) to really give players something to shoot for.

If I can only get one of those long pieces...

Suit Abilities
Matrix Solitaire
is the first free game that features “suit abilities,” but nowhere near the first game we designed that explores this idea. Over and over again in making these games we found that suits were one of the most powerful tools at our disposal when using a playing card deck as a component. There came a point in our design process where we would automatically say “OK, so what do spades do?” It became a natural part of designing playing card games (or PCGs) for geeks: we like having cards with powers. We like having choices and different ways of using a card. Suits allowed us to marry abilities to a strong visual cue. Matrix Solitaire had a solid engine without the abilities, but it needed something to spice it up, so we went back to the well.

Hearts came first, as this mechanic gave you much more flexibility in terms of how you filled the matrix, and allowed for chains larger than 5. Spades came next. Whether because of the dead man’s hand, or the ace of spades, the suit was always synonymous in our minds with death and destruction, so a common theme in our PCGs is that spades destroy. This is true of Matrix Solitaire as well.

Of the remaining suits, we knew that one should give you control over the cards you draw, but that left one ability that needed to be created out of whole-cloth. The limited scope of the game practically dictated to us that it needed to move cards that were already in play — the only question was how. Since the mechanics of the game force cards to “fall” to the bottom of the grid, we were restricted in the way that a card could move in the first place. Eventually we settled on the diamonds jacking other cards upward. Playtesting revealed this to be an excellent decision, as it enables unique, high-scoring plays.

Chain Upgrades
The chain upgrade was a late addition to the tapestry. At the time, Kevin was playing a lot of Super Puzzle Fighter, a fighting / puzzle game that, since it involved matching colors, bore some similarities to Matrix Solitaire. He observed that his favorite part of the game, and of other puzzle games like it, was setting up and pulling the trigger on chain reaction combos for extra points. Such mechanics are common in puzzlers for good reason. While combos will occasionally fall into your lap, more often players will attempt to intentionally engineer them by putting off completing something easy, in exchange for setting up a more impressive play later.

Matching colored squares: apparently a hurricane kick of fun! The combos from Super Puzzle Fighter inspired Matrix Solitaire's system of chain upgrades.

This is spectacular from a design perspective, because it does so many things you want to do. It creates suspense, allowing players to raise the stakes at the risk of failing spectacularly. We often liken games to stories, and as any fiction writer will tell you, raising the stakes and inducing suspense are critical tools for writers. As game designers, we can sometimes raise the stakes or create suspense for players, but it’s much better when players naturally do it themselves; then it’s not our story, it’s theirs. Games are about player choices, and the more often players feel their experience is crafted by their own hand, the better. When the combo does come together, players feel a sense of relief and triumph. One of the reason players play games is for the thrill of accomplishing something difficult, and the chain mechanic gives you a fist-pump-worthy play. In story terms, players set an objective for themselves (creating the chain), must overcome an obstacle (the random vagaries of the deck), and finally get a satisfying climax (a boatload of points). Last, but not least, combo systems give players a sense that they are in control of the game. Instead of merely trying to deal with what the game throws at you, you are shaping it into something, developing a master plan. Of course, the reward for different length chains does this too, but this gave players more complex, robust things to shoot for. This sense of mastery over a system, what designers sometimes refer to as “flow,” is another reason players play games.

Matrix Solitaire was blessedly easy to playtest, because it could be played solo. We didn’t have to scrape together a playtest group, or ghost-play for absent players. We played the game repeatedly, and were able to send it out to friends to play on their own. The game worked perfectly almost right out the gate, but Sam was surprised that at first nobody actually understood the rules he’d written.

The concept of the cards falling downward, like the blocks in Tetris, seemed obvious to him as a designer, but even hardened gamers balked at the concept (or perhaps the awkward wording). This was an important lesson in rules writing. Be as specific as possible, using direct language, not metaphor, to describe game actions. The player is not in your head. (It also clued us in that we’d need a whole bunch of diagrams for this one, as you can see from the post.)

Lessons Learned

  1. People love to compete, even with themselves. Whenever possible, design in methods of tracking specific metrics, such as a scoring system. Players immediately seize on this aspect, more so than trying to complete an abstract goal, such as collecting X items. That’s why even pieces in Chess have been assigned point values.
  2. When a game resonates with people, ask why. You might hate a game, the way we hate traditional solitaire, but people have fun playing it. The insights gleaned from studying why can be extremely useful.
  3. Give players the right goals, and enough restrictions, and you can create a tense, exciting game full of narrative conflict, even without direct conflict with an opposing player.
  4. When writing a rules book, be as specific and direct as humanly possible. Even if you think you’ve clearly spelled it all out, you probably haven’t. Have others read the rules and then explain the game back to you.


 Read the rules to Matrix Solitaire and play it now!

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