The overarching objective of the game is very simple: reach level 15. You reach level 15 by completing games of solitaire. You can reach level 15 even faster by completing games of solitaire under a turn limit.
Card suits are replaced by spy crews. Each crew has its own ability, activated when you use one of that suit’s face cards during a turn. Abilities include sorting stacks by rank descending, shuffling stacks, or “exploding” some or all of a stack - sending those cards randomly to other stacks.
The crews and their abilities are what separate The Solitaire Conspiracy from classic card solitaire, and Bithell Games gets a lot of mileage out of this alteration. Each crew’s motif is informed by its ability - you can imagine that the ‘dangerous’ and ‘volatile’ crews are the ones responsible for all those explosions. More interestingly, there are more crews than the traditional four suits of cards, and as the campaign progresses you begin playing games with new combinations of crews. There’s even a ‘skirmish’ mode where you’re given the opportunity to choose the four crews for that game. The crews, their unique abilities, and the interplay between them are essential to both the game and its narrative.
The premise that you are commanding teams of covert operatives using C.A.R.D.S. in games of solitaire, however, is very flimsy. But this is not a self-serious game. The Solitaire Conspiracy is clearly a case where interesting game design was given a black comedy near-future neon veneer to keep folks interested. I would be lying if I said it doesn’t work. The world and story to the extent that there are any is revealed in Skype call cutscenes with various characters and also in the “Mission” descriptors (if you take time between games to read them).
The Solitaire Conspiracy adds new suits with fresh mechanics to classic card solitaire, and from that spins a science fiction spy thriller that is mostly playful, sometimes terrifying.
You will definitely like it if you’re already a fan of classic card games. You’ll get the most out of it if you’re an aging fan of a dying science fiction sub-genre.