What is the best card game of 2015? The RPS Advent Calendar highlights our favourite games from throughout the year, and behind today's door is...
Adam: I don't hate puzzle games but puzzle games are indifferent to me, at best. They don't cater to my needs. When I hear John and Pip talking about the latest brilliant mash-up of Sudoku, Picross and Nine Men's Morris that's keeping them glued to their monitors or hand-held SmartScreens, I zone out. It's not that I don't care, it's that I don't understand.
It may be true that all games are about numbers and calculations in the end, and some of my favourites certainly are. Every action in every game of Civ either makes one set of numbers rise or another fall. Usually you're trying to make bigger numbers – population sizes, income, research output – and there are different systems in play that give some figures influence over others. Crusader Kings II is doing something similar but its complexity, and the way in which many calculations are hidden behind flavour and theme, makes its human characters and their behaviour convincing.
Strip away the context for those numbers and I'd probably be as allergic to Civ and CK II as I am to advanced mathematics. It's been this way since I was a kid. When my parents bought puzzle books to keep me occupied on long journeys, they knew that I'd be happiest with grid-based logic puzzles; what they may not have realised is that it was the stories around the deductive process that held my interest rather than the process itself.
And what does all of this have to do with 2015's best card game, Regency Solitaire? Everything.
I first encountered the particular brand of Solitaire-based puzzles that Regency is built around when I played Fairway Solitaire on an iPad. It was, like the logic puzzles of old, a method to occupy myself on a long trip. I loved it, even though golf and gophers aren't my favourite thematic flourishes. The power-ups and special card types made just enough of a challenge, and if the whole thing hadn't fallen into a free-to-play sandtrap, it might have become a permanent fixture in my travel kit.
Regency Solitaire uses many of the same ideas but it's setting is far more appealing. Part of that appeal relates to my love for the literature of the period and part of it relates to a desire for New Things in my Steam library. How often do we see Regency romance in games? Regency Solitaire leans heavily on the familiar aspects of the genre but nothing about it seems familiar in this context. In my library of installed games it's sitting between a first-person haunted house apocalypse adventure and a mystery about a particle physicist's super-tech.
Take away the Regency and leave me with the Solitaire and I'd be bored out of my mind. It's not that the puzzles themselves aren't appealing – I wouldn't have completed the game twice if it were just a few snippets of text and some handsome backgrounds – it's that I need something more. I need a theme and a reason to care other than a steadily elevating challenge or numbers that increase every time I click the right part of the screen. Regency Solitaire is a perfect marriage of puzzle and theme.
And, yes, it is a truth universally acknowledged, that a puzzle game in possession of a good conceptual challenge, must be in want of a theme.
Pip: I am the opposite of Adam when it comes to the stories around puzzle games. It took me an embarrassingly long time to work out there was some kind of story – skeletons or a road trip or some kind of skeleton road trip? WHO EVEN KNOWS – framing Puzzle Quest when I played that on Xbox years ago. I just thought it was a match 3 game where the puzzle boards were inexplicably plonked in cities and there was a lot of dialogue for me to skip.
Zoo Keeper had just the right amount of plot for a match 3 game, by the way. God, I loved Zoo Keeper. I had to hide it so I stopped playing it. Same with Yoshi Touch And Go.
Where was I?
Oh yes. Usually I'm ambivalent about the settings for puzzle games. If they're done well it's nice to have them there as framing devices but generally it's going to become background noise as I sink into a puzzle and start dealing in abstractions. Regency Solitaire was different.
Regency Solitaire has a lovely Jane Austen-adjacent plot and combines it with various configurations of a card solitaire board. The actual mechanics have a touch of Because Videogames – some of the cards are heaped on top of objects you must uncover, and somehow the revenue you make from playing cards alone when you are supposed to be on a family picnic is enough to kit out an entire fancy ballroom.
None of that matters, though. What matters is this is a genteel game (the world needs more for the genteel category, by the way) about finding true love and saving your brother. While playing rounds of lovely cards on your own for hours.
Go here for more of our picks for the best PC games of 2015.