Solitaire is a game I have always associated with, and will continue to associate with, grandpas. My grandfather, a practical man, kept decks of frayed cards in a drawer by the kitchen table. I have memories of him setting up solitaire games, thumbing at the deck with wrinkled hands and lining up stacks of cards. I don't recall him playing other games.
Donald Rumsfeld's new app, Churchill Solitaire, is a game made by a grandpa for grandpas. It's methodical and subtly stimulating, and it works best on an iPad.
The former secretary of defense announced the launch of his app on Sunday evening, the anniversary of Winston Churchill's death, in a post on the website Medium. The app is a digitization of the "incredibly devilish version of solitaire" played by the former British prime minister, which Rumsfeld learned from André de Staercke, a former Belgian diplomat. Rumsfeld called it "the hardest game of solitaire—and probably the most challenging and strategic game of logic of puzzle—I've ever played."
Playing the card game through the decades has kept his mind sharp, Rumsfeld claimed, although not sharp enough to learn to code. Rumsfeld, 83 and a grandfather of six, worked with developers at Snapdragon Studios to create the app. He used a Dictaphone to record memos for the programmers, according to the Wall Street Journal.
The game is a twist on the variant of solitaire many of us played on Microsoft Windows before apps and smartphones expanded our distraction options. It requires two decks of cards instead of one, and players have to contend with an extra row of cards called the Devil's Six. The general goal is the same: Players pile up cards in ascending order, beginning with an ace and ending with a king. To "liberate" cards, players have to stack rows of alternating colors from king all the way down. To anyone who has played computer solitaire, the rules and motions will feel familiar. After a game or two, a player's sense of strategy will come back. I don't recommend playing on a phone; when held horizontally, the screen quickly gets cramped with cards. Vertical viewing fixes the problem, but it makes the cards very small, difficult to read and move.
The app is charming. Its icon is a cigar-smoking cartoon of Churchill on an ace of spades, and the opening montage uses historic wartime footage. There's nothing flashy about the design. Game play happens on a wooden table. Players work through campaigns. Each game is a battle and winning leads to a higher rank. The ultimate goal is to become prime minister.
Despite Rumsfeld's intimidating characterization of Churchill's Solitaire, it's not hard to win a game or two. I won the first two I played, in under an hour. Winning felt like what, I imagine, winning World War II felt like for Churchill: awesome.
The most devilish thing about Churchill Solitaire may be the game's economics. Like any good free-to-play mobile game—think Candy Crush Saga—the app hooks users with easy levels and offers in-app purchases. Advancing doesn't require spending money, but you can pay for enticing hints and redos. All profits from the app go to charities for wounded veterans or support causes that further Churchill's legacy.
As Rumsfeld wrote, "Churchill Solitaire is not a game for everyone."