Sunday, January 26, 2014

Gridiron Solitaire

Version Reviewed: 1.0
What I like: The Big Play mechanic, captures spirit of football
Not So Much: Simplistic matching
Other Stuff You May Like: Games can be played quickly
The Verdict: Lots of fun for a game with simple mechanics.
About my reviews

Official site: Gridiron Solitaire

Disclaimer: This review is based on a free review copy provided by Bill and Eli Productions.


Sometimes a guy wants to settle in for a marathon session of Civilization, Unity of Command, or <insert your game of choice>. We want to balance the needs of our nation vs. waging war to conquer new lands. Other times we want something fun, short and not too taxing on our over-worked brains. Gridiron Solitaire fits the bill. It's a card matching game wrapped up nicely in a football uniform. It doesn't try to do a lot of things, but it does manage to capture the spirit of football. Bill Harris, the game developer, compares the game to Fairway Solitaire (which I only briefly looked at). Gridiron Solitaire is purely a single player game.

Getting Started

The game is explained via some annotated screen shots activated via the help menu, and some tutorial messages at the start of your first season. It's very simple to understand, but I did need to ask Mr. Harris a couple questions to get some of the details.

Luckily we don't need to wait for a phone call from an NFL owner. We can select a team and jump right in. The chosen team essentially defines how tough we want to make it for ourselves (along with the difficulty level chosen in the options menu). Each team is rated in 5 areas. I'll get into the effects later. The teams can be renamed and colors tweaked if you're into that.

Game Play

A brief pre game announcement discusses the strengths and weaknesses of your team compared to your opponent. Then we're set for the action.

If you're observant you might have noticed in the screenshot above that it's first down and 40 yards to go. No, the Freeze weren't hit with 6 false start penalties to begin their drive. Speed of gameplay was of a primary concern for Mr. Harris, so first downs are 40 yards instead of 10 and the offense makes larger gains than usual. If you're speedy about making your card matches, a game can be completed in 15-20 minutes. I'm a little anal about making the best match, so my games tend to clock in at about 30 minutes.

Playing some D

When on defense, the first task is to defend against the run or the pass. The AI bases its calls on the down, yards to go for a 1st down, the field position, score and the time remaining. The AI will also consider its team ratings. If the player chooses correctly, the AI will make a smaller gain. The AI play calling does a pretty good job keeping the player guessing and making intelligent choices. I certainly didn't agree with every call, but did you watch any Dallas Cowboy games this season? Strange plays get called in the NFL.

The difficulty level determines how many yards the AI gets while playing offense. On veteran (medium), the AI gets 15 yards on plays where the human guesses correctly and 30 yards when there is an incorrect guess. Hmmm, doing some quick math that means the AI will gain 45 yards on 3 plays even when the player guesses correctly? Is this madness? How can they be stopped? This is where the card matching mechanic comes into play.

Cards of a different color (red or black) can be matched if they differ by 1 number. Make a match and those cards are removed with 2 new cards taking their place on the field. Red 4 and black 5, match! Black 8 and red 1, no match. For each match made, subtract 2 yards from the AI's gain. If a player averages 1 match per play, that 45 yard gain becomes 39 and may force the AI to punt or go for a field goal. If the player doesn't guess right on 1 or more plays though, there are a lot more yards to negate to prevent the AI from getting a first down. For me, the card-matching mechanic is too simple to be satisfying. There really isn't much in the way of skill or planning. Sometimes there are multiple choices for matches and some may be better strategic choices, but that is the extent of the skill needed. Mr. Harris chose to keep the matching simple to keep the pace of the game fast, but I think that aspect of the game can use more meat on it.

Sometimes the cards we're dealt just aren't enough. One could accept their fate and chose End Play, or they can use the defense's best friend - the Big Play. Usually, the Big Play will give the player an additional card to use to try and build a match. Occasionally it will reveal a text event which may offer up something big, like a turn over. If your team's defense rating is better than the AI's team offense rating for the called play (run or pass), your chance of getting a text event go up. If your rating is worse, chances for an event go down.

Now, Big Plays are limited per half so you need to ration them. Several factors determine the number of Big Plays a player receives per half - home field, weather, and your team's defensive ratings compared to the opponent's offensive ratings. Use the Big Plays up too quickly and you may be defenseless against an AI drive late in the half. This is one of the best features in the game. The Big Play adds some risk and resource management to the game and there were times I really agonized over my choice. There is no guarantee the extra card will be useful and sometimes multiple Big Plays are required to make an important stop.

Playing Offense

Like on defense, the first choice on offense is deciding whether to run or pass. If the AI chooses its defense correctly, the player has 1 less card to build a match with. For a running play, each match the player builds nets the player 4 yards. For a passing play, each match after the 2nd yields the player 8 yards. So if the player makes less than 4 matches, the running play will yield more yards. More than 4 matches and the passing play yields more yards. Of course, picking the play that the AI didn't expect makes matching easier with the extra card so it is beneficial to mix up your plays somewhat, even if you favor one type of play over the other.

Big Plays on offense work a little differently than on defense. First, they are unlimited. Second, each time you press Big Play for the current play, your chances of receiving a text event go up. Since the events are almost always neutral or negative for the player, they are better avoided. If the player's offensive rating for the play is better than the AI's defense, the chance of receiving one of those events is reduced.

The player has a bit more control over their destiny on offense. The player can take better advantage of the team rating matchup since they control the type of play. Again, balancing the advantage of getting an extra card from using a Big Play with the chance of getting a negative event provides much of the excitement.

The Intangibles

As I already explained, the card matching mechanics are one of the low points of the game for me, and I'm not usually into games with a lot of luck involved. Still, I found myself agonizing over Big Play choices, getting anxious about what cards I would get, and swearing and cheering during my game. Despite the simple mechanics and card matching I was drawn in. I haven't mentioned many of the ways Mr. Harris has added lots of little touches that add the thrill of football into the game because I don't want to ruin the sense of surprise when they happen. Just be assured there are some more of these intangibles.

The Big Show

Win enough games and your team will make it to the playoffs. In my first season, I had selected the easiest difficulty and picked the best team. This resulted in an 11-4 record and a championship victory. In the offseason, teams get the chance to improve their teams through a draft of sorts. If you sign a player, your team ratings may go up in a category. To simulate unproven players, some are more likely to go bust. If you don't sign any player in a team rating category, your team rating will degrade in that area. Poor teams get more money to spend on these players, so it is very difficult for a playoff caliber team to improve. It's a nice little touch to let the player try and take a bottom team and improve them over the years, or take a good team and try to stay  'good enough' to win back to back championships. For those who want to get through seasons quickly, the player can simulate any of their games instead of playing them out. So if you get tired of losing with a subpar team, you can quickly get to the offseason to try and sign some players to improve it.

I did continue with my team part way through the 2nd season after increasing the difficulty to medium (veteran). Between the increased difficulty setting and not getting a lot of money to improve my team, it was harder to win with the same frequency. I also started a game leading the worst team in the league on veteran difficulty and I only won 5 games.

Some Suggestions

There are a couple of things that I think would improve the game. I wish that the maximum yards the AI can get on offense had some variability to it, based on the team ratings. Knowing that the AI will get 15 or 30 yards, less due to any card matches made did take away from the excitement at times. Also, it is very hard to stop the AI from scoring a touchdown if they get 1st down within the 20 yard line or so. It should be difficult, but in my experience it was pretty hopeless since they are going to gain 15 or 30 yards per play, less any card matches. In real football it is harder to move the ball in the red zone; it would be nice if the Gridiron Solitaire reflected that. Forget making a goal line stand unless you use a lot of Big Plays.

Graphics and Sound

Gridiron Solitaire has some simple, but clean graphics that are fitting to the game. Personality is injected here and there. It works, but this isn't really a game about eye candy. The 'personality pieces' never really take up a lot of time, but it would be nice if we could click through them after seeing them a time or two.

Technical Performance

The game performed flawlessly without any crashes or hiccups.
My specs: Windows 7 64-bit. Intel Core i& 860 @ 2.80 GHz. 8 Gig RAM. ATI Radeon HD 7870.

In The End...

I didn't really have any expectations going into Gridiron Solitaire. I knew a little about it, but none of the details. For such an abstract representation of football, it does a great job at capturing the flavor. This is one of the more enjoyable games I've played for a game with such simple mechanics. While I thought the matching mechanics were too simplistic, managing the Big Plays was great fun. I was getting excited both when things did and didn't work out for me. Bill Harris included so many little touches that just tickled my shoulder pads - not the hideous 1980s women's shoulder pads, but the cool football ones.

Mr. Harris does have plans to continue to improve the game, but I don't have any details about what may be included in the updates.

If you sometimes like to relax with a more casual game and don't mind games with a good chunk of luck, consider purchasing Gridiron Football. 

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