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Ancient Enemy reimagines Solitaire and it works wonderfully

Old hand.

I've tried a bunch of deck-building card games but Ancient Enemy feels fresh and new. It's another game where you have one life to see how far you can get, and where you battle with cards and gain new cards as you go. But at the same time, Ancient Enemy is fundamentally different.

In Ancient Enemy, the majority of the cards being played aren't yours. It's not my hand against your hand. Instead, Ancient Enemy is a game built around Solitaire - TriPeaks Solitaire. You clear a board of scattered cards by selecting those of either the same number, or one higher or lower, than the card by the draw pile below.

As you do this, your abilities power up, and you build combo multipliers to magnify their strength the longer your run goes on. Your turn ends when you use one of those abilities on your opponent, or when you decide to refresh the board or End Turn because you can't go.

Attacks depend on the cards you've equipped. You have a melee slot, magic slot and a defense slot, and three gear slots. Magic can be all kinds of things, from fire attacks to ice attacks and earthquakes, and gear can be potions and bombs and even toxic mushrooms.

Me battling a bandit. Note the array of accrued abilities at the bottom of the screen.

You also have active and passive ability slots to fill. Active abilities are things you use in battle, like a runestone which changes a card's number to one you can use, or a hammer which clears a card from the board as well as those next to it. Passive abilities, meanwhile, hum away in the background, doing things like helping you build combos quicker.

There's also a skill tree to progress along as you level up.

There's plenty of scope for customisation, then, and you'll soon encounter enemies with resistances you'll need to tailor your loadouts for. No point using fire if the enemy is resistant to it; no point defending against physical attacks when your enemy uses only magic.

But it's not all battles. There are puzzles in which you have no opponent. Here the goal is simply to clear the board, recovering whichever items are buried underneath the cards. As with battles, the further you get the more elaborate the puzzles become. Different kinds of cards are introduced to mix things up, such as hidden cards which need an eye card to reveal them, or locked cards which need you to find a key.

Those gates require you to play cards of their colour before they unlock.

Like I said, all of this is new to me, even as a card game player. Building around a Solitaire core is a wonderful idea I'm surprised I haven't encountered before. But I haven't encountered Solitaire since I used to sit idly at a Windows PC playing it, which wasn't as boring as it sounds. But Ancient Enemy is a far flashier proposition.

Here, everything is dressed up in Celtic styling - the cards, the abilities, the boards, the backgrounds - and combos ping as you trigger them and cards fly away as you remove them. It's a pinball-table of a Solitaire board, if that makes sense. It's energetic and responsive. It's very well made. But there's a reason for this: it's not the developer's first time.

Developer Grey Alien Games has been making Solitaire games like this for years now. Oli reviewed one of theirs called Shadowhand a few years ago and he really liked it. He called Shadowhand a "delight" and "a true British eccentric", which could easily be said of Ancient Enemy, and it was he who told me the two games were very alike. So I tried Shadowhand and he was right - in fact I was struck by the similarities. Ancient Enemy and Shadowhand are nearly one-for-one copies.

The biggest difference is Shadowhand has a more memorable setting. It's about a highwaywoman who was once a shuffling member of the aristocracy in England a few hundred years ago, but her coach was attacked and so she struck out on a different path. It's silly and camp. We don't see enough of this kind of thing if you ask me.

Grey Alien's 2017 game Shadowhand.

Ancient Enemy on the other hand, is po-faced and moody, and may as well just be another medieval setting for all it celebrates Celtic legend, and that's a shame because in theory it's quite an original idea. There's no voiceover as there is in Shadowhand, there are no other characters to talk to as there are in Shadowhand. All you do is read melodramatic speeches by the hero before each battle with a mute monster. It's completely forgettable.

The other major difference in Shadowhand is you both play from the same pile of cards. You take a turn to see how many cards you can remove and then your opponent does, which makes the battle quite tense. But in Ancient Enemy, the board is entirely yours. Your enemy charges their abilities somewhere else (not shown).

I suppose Ancient Enemy's approach helps mitigate the inherent problem of luck, whereby you might not be able to play a card but your opponent - who has a new card drawn for their turn - might, and this might kick off a golden run for them. To be on the losing side of a twist of luck like this really stings.

Ancient Enemy also seems to have evolved to offer more strategic potential in the many spells and defences you unlock as you go, though I've only had one battle which felt truly tense. Mostly it's straightforward and repetitive, sometimes even boring. But never unpleasant, much in the same way Solitaire is never unpleasant - there's always that compulsion to clear the board.

Ancient Enemy isn't different enough from Shadowhand to warrant a proper review, then, but that needn't be a blot on Ancient Enemy's name. Grey Alien has a winning formula here and it's well worth your time to try. The question is, which of the two games to play? Shadowhand has more charm and is more tense, if you ask me, but Ancient Enemy is newer and potentially deeper. I'll leave the decision up to you.

Cover image for YouTube videoAncient Enemy Trailer