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Tabletop Game: Freecell
"At first Freecell appears to be just another solitaire game, a time waster, something to do during coffee breaks. But sadly for many it eventually becomes something more.... The player will often sit at the computer for hours, intensely focused on the game, at the expense of all else in their lives."

Have you played Freecell lately? No? You've been reading TV tropes? Well then, I'll tell you about Freecell.

It's one of those solitaire card games. You can play it by hand with real cards, but most folks know it as a computer game. Paul Alfille programmed the original Free Cell in 1978 for the PLATO system. Later, Jim Horne of Microsoft wrote a version for DOS, and then Windows. This got bundled with Windows 95, and soon almost everyone was wasting hours in Microsoft FreeCell (when not playing Minesweeper).

The game deals all 52 cards to 8 columns. You can see all the cards. You have to move them into stacks for each suit, in order from Ace to King. There are 4 "free cells" where you may temporarily store up to four cards. You can move cards to other columns, but you must play down in alternating colors, like black 9, red 8, black 7. The puzzle is to use the free cells to reach the Aces, 2s, 3s and so on. If you stick cards in all 4 free cells and can't move them out, you have lost the game.

Why is this so interesting? With these rules, almost every game can be won. The convenient and helpful FreeCell FAQ puts the win rate at "almost 99.999%" with perfect play. Yet some deals are super easy, while some are almost impossible.

You can play Freecell right now. Every system from Windows 95 to Windows 7 already has it, unless your admin disabled the game. There are versions for other systems. You don't even need to install anything. Take your web browser to http://www.freecell.net and you can play online.


Freecell provides examples of:

  • Artifact Title: Windows FreeCell, starting with Vista, has an artifact icon originally, a chest-up shot of the King of Hearts was situated between the two sets of card slots at the top, and would face whichever set a card had most recently been added to (or moused over). He was nixed when Vista overhauled the look of all its games, but the icon remains. The king is dead; long live the king?
  • Difficulty Levels: Freecell.net has levels from 1 to 12, where 10 is a uniformly random deal. The lower levels bury high cards (like kings) near the tops of columns, and expose low cards (like aces) near the bottoms of columns. The default settings start each player at level 5, and raises the difficulty after every 10 wins, until it reaches level 10. It takes a streak of 50 wins to reach level 10, but a single loss sends the player back to level 5.
  • Easter Egg: In Windows FreeCell, entering game number -1 or -2 results in an Unwinnable Joke Game, while (in Vista) entering -3 or -4 yields a deal that can be instantly won.
  • Gameplay Automation:
    • Many computer versions autoplay cards to the homecells when it is safe. Microsoft autoplays aces and twos, but does not autoplay a red three when a black two is still out, because one might want to move the black two onto the red three. Freecell.net is smarter but still safe; it can autoplay the red three if the black two is out but the black ace of the same suit is already home. This is safe because it can autoplay the black two later.
    • The rule is to move one card at a time. As a shortcut, Windows FreeCell can move sequences of cards if there are enough open freecells to do the same, one card at a time. In Vista, one can move longer sequences if there are empty columns.
  • House Rules:
    • One can change the number of columns and freecells, by hand, or with an option in freecell.net. "Standard" or 8x4 has 8 columns, 4 freecells. The easier "Nine to Five" or 9x5 has 9 columns, 5 freecells.
    • The FreeCell FAQ discusses the "ephemeral freecell". It can hold a card, but it disappears when the card leaves it. One might mix ephemeral and regular freecells in the same game.
    • A common mistake is to play "relaxed FreeCell" by moving long sequences of cards between columns. The correct rule is to move only one card at a time. In standard FreeCell, one can only move sequences if there are enough free cells and empty columns to do the same thing by moving one card at a time.
    • Another mistake is to allow only kings in empty columns. That rule is for Klondike or Seahaven Towers, not FreeCell.
    • xpat2 allows one to cheat by moving cards from home back to the columns or freecells.
  • Self-Imposed Challenge: The most obvious one is reducing the number of free cells, sometimes even to zero (69 out of the original Microsoft 32000 can be solved with no freecells). Some software implementations will have this as an option. Another is to make the biggest "flourish" when cards automatically go to the home row at the end of the game. There are a few games where it is possible to set up a 52-card flourish, taking the home row from empty to full in one move flat.
  • Tag Line: freecell.net — "...draining workplace productivity since 1996"
  • The Key Is Behind the Lock: In an unwinnable game, the cards you need are locked underneath cards you can't move anywhere.
  • Unwinnable by Design: Almost 99.999% of the possible Freecell deals are solvable. Of the 32,000 standard games from Windows FreeCell, exactly one (#11982) is impossible to solve. XP and onward have 1,000,000 deals. Out of those million, 8 are unsolvable.
  • Unwinnable Joke Game: Windows FreeCell has two Easter Egg selectable games, #-1 and #-2, where it's clearly impossible to move enough cards to move any cards to the home cells. (On the other hand, Vista introduced games #-3 and #-4, where making any move will instantly win the game.)

The "12 Step Program for Freecell-aholics" provides examples of:

  • Fun with Acronyms: The document mentions "One More Game", and yes, the letters OMG are bold in the document.
  • God: Described as "The Big Guy".
    Note: even if you don't believe there's a Big Guy, you have to admit that even a non-existent Big Guy couldn't make more of a mess of your life than you have already.
  • Just One More Level: The "12 Step Program" is all about addiction to Freecell.
  • Tropaholics Anonymous: A recovering Freecell addict shall help other addicts. Where do addicts meet? At the freecell.net website, where you may play just One More Game.

SolitairePuzzle GameMinesweeper
Fire and IceIBM Personal ComputerGenocide
Fantastic ContraptionWeb GamesGuardian Rock

alternative title(s): Free Cell
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