Close your eyes - not if you're driving! - and picture a Facebook game. What do you see? A farm, most likely, or perhaps a city block or even the inside of a fifties diner. (If you see Triple Town, of course, you get a free biscuit and a chummy punch on the shoulder.)
There's definitely an increasing number of good games on Facebook, but many of the things you'll encounter offer little but charmless toil: plant this, scrub that, build this, tell your friends. Could I have some money now? Could you tell your friends I'd like some money, too? It's like having a tapeworm that lives in your gut and eats five-pound notes. Occasionally, it will poke its head out and have a quick round of Ludo with you. Like!
PopCap's approach has always been a little different. PopCap's games all have monetisation, of course, and, yes, they do work a touch better if you enjoy them alongside your friends, but they're not about clicking and waiting, planting and tilling.
They're fast-paced and energetic and they're inherently rewarding to play. They're considerably more arcadey, in fact, than a lot of the company's downloadable offerings. Solitaire Blitz is the team's latest Facebook project and - thanks to that Blitz bit in the title - it's another lovely piece of design that quietly subverts your notions of what a casual game can be.
When PopCap first brought Bejeweled to Facebook, it changed the rules a little, throwing in a time pressure element by making each game last exactly one minute. It was a perfect match for a website whose users tend to browse in quick bursts in between doing other things, and it meant that gentle old Bejeweled got a sudden shot of nitrous-oxide, too.
Suddenly, you had to match gems quickly to get a place on the leaderboards. Suddenly, it was all brilliantly tense and thrilling. Zuma Blitz followed with the same simple twist front and centre, and now? Now PopCap's taken one of the world's slowest and most introspective single-player games, thrown in that time limit, and made it blisteringly pacy, and effortlessly social.
The idea is to clear seven stacks of cards before the clock runs down, and you do this by transferring them, in classic Solitaire style, to master stacks at the top of the screen. Cards can be moved across if they're either one point higher or one point lower than the card currently on display in the master stack, and getting rid of cards that have a little key icon on them allows you to open up to two new master stacks as you play, each one steadily increasing your chances.
You'll earn time bonuses throughout the game by getting your starting cards beneath certain heights, and Solitaire Blitz is filled with dozens of glittering little complexities, pelting you with treasures and rewarding you for certain runs. It adds up to a game that gives you plenty of different things to keep in your mind as you play, and, as ever, it's hard to tell just how much PopCap's doing behind the scenes to control the flow of the deck and make each round as nail-biting and surprising as possible.
On top of all this, the developer's layered on its typical frothy muddle of micro-rewards, boost load-outs and energy systems, along with art nouveau stylings that rank amongst its best visual work yet. With rich colours delivered in thin washes of ink and curling threads of brass that direct your eye, it really helps to invoke the papery and antique feel of card games, while a lavish orchestral score and some gorgeous unlockable decks reinforce the sumptuous nature of the design.
At heart, though, Solitaire Blitz doesn't leave you pondering how pretty everything is: it leaves you wired-up and exhausted, hunched over your laptop like it's a Robotron cabinet. One more go, that's all I need. Just one more go to get to the top of the leaderboard.
Is that what you see when you picture a Facebook game? After this, perhaps it should be.
Solitaire Blitz is out in March
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