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Best single-player card games to play with a standard deck

This list will banish boredom forevermore!

This list will banish boredom forevermore!

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Most people likely think of card games as a social activity to be done with friends. While that might be the prevailing image, there are plenty of games you can play if you're short on company. When I was growing up, I didn't always have an opponent handy and I whiled away many an hour playing cards by myself.

The most famous of these games is, of course, solitaire (or patience), which you can play on your phone or computer nowadays. It's popular for a reason, tried and tested over the centuries, but if you're looking for new games for one person with a 52-card deck, this list is for you. It includes fun layouts, challenging games, solo versions of multi-player games and the best games for kids. 

Games with fun layouts

I like card games that feel like stories or games that at least have an evocative setup. I originally decided to learn these two because I liked the way they looked on my table, which is reason enough if you're playing alone.

Clock solitaire

This was my favourite solo game as a kid. Its simplicity and quick play time makes it a good choice if you only have a few moments to yourself. The format makes it feel like a race against time, even though time really doesn't figure into the game beyond the layout. The objective is to turn all the cards on the table face up.

To start the game, deal yourself 13 piles of four cards. Twelve of those piles go in a circular pattern that lines up with the hour markers on a clock face, and the 13th pile goes in the middle of the circle.

Start the game by turning over the top card in the centre pile and put it under the hour pile that corresponds to its rank. (Aces represent one o'clock, jacks are 11 o'clock, queens are 12 o'clock, and kings go in a second pile in the centre, face up.) After you've moved the first card, turn over the top card of the stack you moved it to. Then move that card to its corresponding pile and keep going until you can't make any more moves.

It sounds simple enough, but the twist is if you turn up four kings in your centre pile before you've revealed the other cards on the table, you lose because there won't be any more cards to turn up. Admittedly, this game is more chance than skill, but it's still fun. If you want to keep playing, there's a variant where you can switch your fourth king for any other card that is still face down on the table.

How to play clock solitaire

Pyramid

I love a good pyramid. There's something pleasing about its arrangement, not to mention it's far easier to make a 2D pyramid flat on the table than it is to make a 3D one. Set up your pyramid by dealing one card face up, then two cards overlapping that one card, and so on until you have seven rows. The rest of the deck is your stockpile and you keep that off to the side face down.

The objective of the game is to take apart the pyramid, which you do by removing exposed cards in pairs, starting with the bottom row of the pyramid. The total value of each pair must be 13. (As in clock solitaire, aces are one, jacks are 11, queens are 12, and kings are 13, meaning you can remove a king without the need for another card.) To be accessible for removal, a card must be completely uncovered with no cards overlapping it.

You can draw a card from the stockpile one at a time and use it to form a pair with an uncovered card. If you can't use it to form a pair, discard it. The game ends when you've taken apart the pyramid or when you've run out of cards in your stockpile.

How to play pyramid

Challenging games

Here's what I'd recommend for those among us who aren't satisfied with run-of-the-mill patience games and want something devilishly hard. If you're a brilliant strategist or a masochist, or if you like games where your starting odds are terrible, these should be right up your alley.

Beleaguered castle (aka laying siege and sham battle)

This game also has a fun layout, but its fiendishness earns it a place in this section. It's aptly named, since it's as difficult as saving a medieval castle under siege. As the contributors of Wikipedia so bluntly phrase it, "most games are doomed to fail in just a few moves." I've won only one game of beleaguered castle in my life and even then, I credit the luck of the draw.

The goal is to order your cards in sequences of the same suit from ace to king. Place the four aces in a vertical column and then deal the rest of the cards on either side of each ace in rows of six overlapping cards. The card furthest away from the ace should be on the top. The aces form the foundations; you build on them by adding cards of the same suit in ascending rank.

You can move the top card from any row onto another card that is one rank higher. The suit doesn't matter; it's the rank that counts when moving between rows. By doing this, you can free up cards you need to move onto the centre foundations.

When you've used all the cards in a row, you can move any card into it. (It's a good idea to move a king to an empty row as soon as possible.) You can't move a card from the foundations back to the rows. You also can't move more than one card at once.

If you want to make this already challenging game ever harder, you can play the "streets and alleys" version. Instead of laying out the aces to begin with, include them in the initial deal. With this variant, each of the rows on the left has seven cards instead of six.

How to play beleaguered castle

Napoleon at St. Helena (aka Forty Thieves)

Hopefully you aren't reading this article because you're in exile and looking for things to do. If you are, Napoleon himself knew your pain and is said to have played this solo game during his banishment on the island of St. Helena.

A difficult game worthy of the French tactical genius, two decks are required, for a total of 104 cards. Shuffle both decks together. (It doesn't matter if the deck designs are different.) Deal 10 columns of four cards each with all cards face up. The spaces above the first eight columns become the foundations, and the remaining 64 cards in the deck serve as the stockpile.

As you discover the aces, move them to the foundation piles, which are then built on with cards of the same suit, ascending in rank up to the king. You can only move the top card from each column (the card that has no other cards overlapping it), but you can move it either to another column, on top of another card of the same suit one rank higher, or to the foundations. You can't move multiple cards at a time but you can fill empty spaces in the columns with any card. (As in beleaguered castle, kings are a good choice.)

You can do the same with a card drawn from the stockpile. But if you can't use the card you draw, discard it. When you run out of cards, you can turn the discard pile over to refresh the stock. You win if you can move all 104 cards to the foundations. If no more moves are possible, you meet your Waterloo.

How to play Napoleon at St. Helena

Solo versions of multi-player games

If you want to practice your skills for the next time you can play cards with friends, or if you want to play a familiar game by yourself, here are a couple of ways to do that.

Poker squares (aka poker patience)

If you miss your regular poker table or if you just want to sharpen your skills in a solo game, poker squares is good fun. It's a straightforward game that can be as compelling as playing with a group of people. The objective is to form the best poker hands possible in a five-by-five grid. If you choose to assign points to each hand, you can play to either 200 points or 70 points, depending on which scoring system you choose.

You draw a card one at a time and choose where to place it on the grid. Once you play a card on the grid, you can't move it. Once you've laid out all 25, read the cards in rows and columns to determine how you did. You have to balance guesswork with your probability calculations, much like multi-player poker.

There are two scoring systems, U.K. and American. The U.K. version assigns points based on how hard it is in this solo game to achieve the different poker hands, and the American system reflects the level of difficulty in multi-player poker.

How to play poker squares

Cribbage squares

If you read my piece about the best card games for two or more people, you know I love cribbage. If I find myself wanting for an opponent, I play cribbage squares. It's markedly similar to poker squares, using the same mechanics but with cribbage scoring.

Cribbage squares uses 17 cards. First, place cards one by one in a four-by-four grid, which is the number of cards you'd have to form your cribbage hand in multi-player cribbage. After you've laid your 16 cards in the grid, a 17th one is turned up from the deck to represent the card cut from the deck in the regular game.

Each row, column of cards, and starter is scored as a cribbage hand using the same scoring system as regular cribbage. After you're done, add up your points from all hands formed. The goal is to reach the highest score possible, but if you need a concrete goal, you can consider yourself victorious if you score 61 points or more.

How to play cribbage squares

Best games for kids

Entertaining oneself is a valuable skill that every child should have. Teach your kids these games and they'll be able to have hours of fun of their own making.

Memory (aka concentration)

This is a great game for very young players, not least because if played solo, they will always win eventually. The objective is to remove all the cards from play by matching them in pairs. Deal out the cards, face down, in four rows of 13 cards each.

Start the game by choosing two cards to turn face up. If they're the same rank, they count as a pair and can be removed from play. If not, both cards are turned face down again, and the player chooses another two cards to turn up. The game ends when the last pair has been picked up. The challenge here is to remember where cards of a particular rank are located.

For a more challenging game, you can decide that the cards need to be both the same rank and colour to be counted as a pair.

How to play memory

Wish

Wish is a short and sweet game that's suitable for kids. It's a matching game that uses 32 cards from the sevens upward, plus the aces. Shuffle these cards together and lay them out, face down, in eight piles of four cards each, then turn over the top card on each pile.

Take any cards that are pairs of the same rank and remove them from the piles, turning over new cards from the piles you just took from. Keep going until you have cleared away all the cards.

You might be wondering why the game is called wish. It's because superstition dictates that if you beat the game, you can make a wish. Consider giving a victorious child a treat if they win this game.

How to play wish


Sebastian Yūe is a Toronto-based writer, model, voice actor and player of many games. They are the author of Lake of Secrets, an adventure for Dungeons & Dragons (5th Edition), and CORPUS, an unofficial supplement for Heart: The City Beneath. Sebastian has been playing card games since they were six. Follow them on Twitter here.

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