Opinion: Why there is only one FreeCell

KPatience (or kpat, as the command line knows it) is a suit of patience games. The only one of the games it offers that I’ve ever bothered with (and for some quirky reason seem to bother with a lot when I’m not working*) is FreeCell.

*Or feel I should be working. Among writing professionals, this is known as “pencil sharpening”—any activity you engage in to fend off your confrontation with the blank page.
Investigate Microsoft’s Store and you’ll find a very large number of FreeCell implementations, most of them free of charge but ad-riddled. I stopped counting at 100.

I’ve tried out a few, on which basis I’m going to take a bet that they’re all pretty much rubbish (I’m open to correction, please) because none of them includes the key feature that makes the kpat version a proper puzzler.

Play any version of FreeCell and the opening moves will almost certainly just be knee-jerk card shifting according to the rules: red only goes on black and vice versa and the cards must stack in descending numerical order. Freed up aces start a sequential suit pile off the table, and so on.

The end game too becomes very mechanical—so much so that after you’ve done some very obvious tidying up, some implementations (including kpat) will automate the final clearance of the table (and you’ll find those that don’t are just wasting your time).

The Meat’s in the Middle

The interesting part is the middle game, although not always. But in a good game you’ll hit what looks like a brick wall with no useful move to be made. This is where the fun starts. Or not.

The fun depends on your knowing whether the puzzle you’re looking at is solvable. With all those junk FreeCell apps it could be a dead end and you’re completely wasting your time. Your tug-of-war with FreeCell is meaningful only if there’s a vital contestant at the other end of the rope. If it’s tied to an iron ring cemented into the wall and you just go on pulling, the joke’s on you.

A moderately puzzling winnable position. The solution is to move the Black King up into the Reserve.

This is the crucial point with kpat’s FreeCell. In the bottom left hand corner of the window its AI Solver  sustains a running commentary on whether the game is winnable.

It’s in unobtrusive small print and you tend not to keep an eye on it move by move. But when you come to a halt you glance down to see whether the position is still viable.

If you’ve hit a brick wall, it will tell you. There’s no point in puzzling further but you can still learn from the lost game by using kpat’s Undo feature to take you back to the previous winnable position to inspect during replay the move or sequence of moves you made in error.

The real fun is a winnable position that looks impossible and FreeCell throws up any number of these in the middle game. kpat makes it possible to identify them and enjoy them.

I’ve never been able to find an implementation of kpat outside the Linux domain. If you’re looking for a solid, bankable reason for switching to Linux, that’s it, right there!

Chris Bidmead 21-Jun-22

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