Fairway Solitaire by Big Fish Games -- falling short of a masterpiece

A review by Michael Keller

Most of the attempts to convert solitaire into a campaign or adventure have been dreadful, basically playing the same game over and over again with a weak storyline added for color and some kind of scoring system, map, or series of ranks to show progress toward a goal.    A survey of some of these games will be left for another article.   The first really successful attempt to add a coherent theme and storyline to a card solitaire game is Big Fish Games' recent game, Fairway Solitaire, which has been a big commercial and critical success in the casual/arcade game field.    It was nominated in the category of Best Card, Board & Mahjong Game of 2007 (ugh, what a horrible catchall) for the 2008 Zeeby Awards. I voted for it, and was disappointed not to see it get a nomination for Best Casual Game of the Year; I have played most of those nominees and the only one even close is Build-A-Lot.   Unfortunately, it also lost out to the dismal Monopoly: Here and Now for Best Card, Board & Mahjong Game.

Fairway's success is certainly a good thing for solitaire enthusiasts, as it may encourage other designers to try out other ideas in the same vein.   I wish I could give it an unqualified rave review; I like it a lot and have played the download version all the way through seven times (over 200 hours of play in all) and the online version all the way through once.  Fairway certainly makes every other version of Golf or TriPeaks solitaire seem bland by comparison.   The replay value of the game is probably better than any casual game around, and almost everything about it is first rate: it is colorful and entertaining, with pleasing graphics and sound, lots of variety as you go from course to course and hole to hole, and there is plenty of strategy.  But it has, in my opinion, two major design flaws and some other lesser flaws which keep it from being the truly great game it could have been.   I like the game so much, in fact, that I am going to point out every single flaw I have come across; the most important of these I have marked with orange arrows.   But some history first:

Glen DeBiasa, a programmer at Big Fish Games, had an idea for a version of Golf solitaire with enhancements to make the game more interesting and to make it fit better into the theme of the real game of golf.    John Cutter of Big Fish Games expanded and developed the idea, calling it Fairway Solitaire, and Cutter and DeBiasa began developing a Java version.  In December of 2006, the game was made available for online play on Big Fish Games' website, which is now called Big Sea Games.  [As of 2011 the online version is no longer available.] It included a number of different 9- and 18-hole courses with varying layouts, and introduced several interesting features:

(1) Sand traps -- certain groups of cards are inaccessible, even if exposed (they appear face down with special Sand Trap card backs), until a special Sand Wedge card is reached; this card can be played as soon as it is exposed, and turns all exposed Sand Trap cards face up.
(2) Water hazards -- certain cards are inaccessible (they are not marked in any way) until all of the Water Hazard cards (face up with light blue shading) are removed.    Sand traps and Water Hazards are both excellent features, adding strategy and variety to the courses, if used within reason.
(3) Irons -- Special cards numbered from 2 through 9 appear randomly (rarely more than one or two per hole), some in the stock and others in the hole layout (these are usually visible at the start of the hole).  These can be picked up at any time and put in the player's "golf bag" (if they appear in the stock they go into the bag automatically).    An iron can be played from the bag onto the waste at any time, and acts as a normal card of that rank (so a three-iron would be played when you want to make a play or series of plays from the course starting with a two or four).  Since there are only eight irons, they make certain cards (JQK especially) harder to incorporate into long runs.
(4) Long Drive Runs -- when a player plays 6 or more consecutive cards without turning up a new card from the stock, a bonus multiplier is increased by 0.1 for each card beyond 5 (and 0.2 for each card beyond 15), so that an LDR of 15 cards increases (from the initial value of 1.0) to 2.0.    An LDR of 20 cards increases it to 3.0, which is automatically increased to 5.0.   Irons make long runs much easier, as they can be played to extend a run by allowing a new sequence of cards to be played.    The bonus is multiplied by the basic hole score (usually $3 per card played and $5 per column eliminated, with additional bonuses ranging from $100 for a birdie to $500 for a perfect score of zero) to determine the amount of money won on that hole.   On the four timed Mercury courses, there is an additional multiplier based on how quickly you finish each hole, so it is possible to make large amounts of money on these.
(5) Wild Shots -- Random events turn up occasionally in the stock; a few are good (giving the player a monetary bonus or increasing the multiplier bonus), but more often bad (the worst is supposedly the Gopher, which takes away money and the multiplier bonus, and adds cards back onto the course -- but I would sometimes rather take that than the Broken Club, which loses one of your irons).  

The designers wisely stuck to a pretty conventional single deck, avoiding the tedious marathon layouts found in some other solitaire games.  The deck for each hole consists of four of each of the thirteen ranks (the cards have suit markings, though suits are irrelevant), plus a variable number of irons and Wild Shot cards (up to two of each, I think), plus optionally one (rarely more) Wedge card.  So each hole is dealt from a deck of anywhere from 52 to 56 cards; anywhere from 22 to 40 are dealt onto the course in some kind of arrangment, and the rest form a stock.  If you are completely unfamiliar with how the standard Golf solitaire works, there is an article on our other site.   

In 2007, Jake Birkett of Grey Alien Games in England took on the task of creating a downloadable version of Fairway Solitaire for Big Fish.   Collaborating with an artist in New Jersey, Matt Laverty, he added a large number of new courses, increasing the game to 70 courses, introduced a dozen power-ups (special advantages which players can purchase as the game progresses), expanded the Wild Shots (including two one-click arcade-style minigames) and smoothed the edges of the worst ones, and improved the graphics and sound, adding announcers who comment on the play.    The game appeared for download in early December of 2007; I started playing on December 5th, bought the registered version after an hour of demo play, and finished the game on December 15th, after 31 hours and 16 minutes of play.   It's a big program, over 50 MB, and loads a little slowly, but runs pretty smoothly except when I have a lot of other programs running in the background.  It runs quite nicely with excellent graphics in a normal window on my 1024x780 display; too many casual games require a higher resolution or will not run properly except in fullscreen mode.  The game plays with a nice single-click system: there is no drop-and-drag needed.

Many of the features of the game are common to the online and download versions; we will point out the major differences as they come up. A new player starts at The Golf Academy, a tutorial course which introduces the main elements of the game, and then progresses from each course to the next.  Each course has a goal which must be reached before being allowed to play the next course.    Goals are of four types:

(1) Winnings (19 courses) -- to play the second course, Solitaire Municipal, a player must win $1000 at The Golf Academy (scoring par of 37 or under wins a purse of $500; money is also won on each hole based on the number of cards played).   On early courses, the amount needed may be won well before the end of the course, and the purse is larger than the amount needed.   Starting with Shepherd's Ridge (at the halfway point in the game), the amount needed jumps from $5000 to $16000, substantially more than the purse; you must break par and win the purse to have any chance of making the total needed.   If the bonus multiplier reaches 3.0, it is automatically increased to 5.0 (7.0 when you add the Super Grip Glove powerup after Feather Dunes, about 3/4 of the way through the game); this is tremendously helpful in these courses.
(2) Long Drive Runs (12 courses) -- to play the third course, Moose Mountain, a player must play 10 consecutive cards.     The length of LDR needed is much longer on some later courses, reaching as high as 24 on The Spike.
(3) Score (21 courses) -- to play the fifth course, Slippery Slopes, a player must score no more than 12 over par on The Highlands.   Starting with The Dunes, the score needed is always -1 or better, with the curious exception of Clementine.  [In the online game, the score needed is sometimes well under par.]
(4) Perfect Scores (13 courses) -- to play the sixth course, Ocean Shores, a player must clear all of the cards (for a zero score) on at least one hole of Slippery Slopes.   Later you will need as many as three perfect scores.

arrow.gif (905 bytes)The online game suffers from the serious flaw of not giving enough information during a round -- the goal of the current course is not shown once the round is under way, so you either need to remember or write it down.    The current score for the round is also not shown except when the scorecard appears at the end of each hole.   Both of these flaws are fixed in the download version, but the download version leaves out a nice feature of the online version: during an LDR, a shadow of a ball moves along the multiplier scale to show exactly what the current multiplier will be.   The example below shows an LDR of 11, and the ball indicates that the multiplier is about to increase from 1.6 to 2.2.   This is particularly useful in situations where you need to know if you have a long enough LDR to reach 5.0.

ldr11.jpg (122793 bytes)

The designers had a QA team testing the game, checking for problems and seeing if the courses were playable enough.   During testing, a log of the best scores was apparently kept.  When you start the game for the first time, the program makes a random selection from the best scores for each course, putting five of them up on a leaderboard.   This is not the decision I would have made (I would have liked to have seen the real best five), but they obviously did so to cater to the average rather than expert player.  When your score for a course is in the top five, it is put up in red and the previous fifth-best score disappears.  If you beat (not tie) the top score, you get a $500 bonus (nice in the early stages, rather paltry when your winnings are in the millions -- the bonus should increase for later courses as the awards for unlocking courses, entry fees, and purses all do).    When I won The Baron at 16 under par my first time through the game, it was my 23rd course record.

The early courses are very easy, and it is usually easy to meet the goal of each one.  As the courses get harder, the goals generally get harder too.   I got through the first nine courses on the first try, failing for the first time on Forgotten Forest (twice getting an LDR of 13 cards when I needed 14).   When I started a new session on my second day of play, I discovered the sound on the game was no longer working.   Big Fish's customer service was unable to help, and I finished the rest of the game with no sound.   Only after I finished the final course, The Baron, did I get in touch with Jake Birkett, who gave me a very easy way to fix the sound.

Trophies

In addition to winning tournaments and unlocking new courses, a player may earn any of 13 trophies.  Some of these can only be won at certain points in the game: the Top Rookie Trophy is won when you have collected three purses for breaking par; the Top Earner Trophy is won when you have won a million dollars (perhaps as early as Peppertree); The Prolific Golfer when you have played 100 courses (perhaps by The Spike, though I have once reached Mystery Madness before playing 100 courses); The Grand Champion Trophy is won when you finish the game by winning The Baron.    Other trophies are given for particular achievements, such as breaking par without using any irons (No Irons Award), or making  a LDR of 6 or more on every hole of a course (Big Hitter Prize) -- these are two of the easiest trophies to collect; along with Top Rookie Trophy and Speed Champion Trophy (finishing a timed hole in under 30 seconds).    The two hardest trophies to collect are the Scoring Trophy for getting a total score of 9 or under (total shots for a round, not shots under par), and the Eagle Cup for scoring -2 or better on every hole.   I was unable to get these the first time I played the game until months after I had finished The Baron.   I finally got the Eagle Trophy with a 10 (26 under par) on Palmer Park in March of 2008, and the Scoring Trophy with a 7 (29 under par) on The Willows in April (with six perfects, but missing an eagle on the 8th).   On both of those courses I started with a full set of irons. When I played the full game a second time, I got three trophies (Birdie, Eagle, and Scoring) on Sandy Beach, despite starting with only three irons (6,8,9), scoring 8 (28 under par).   The Perfection Prize (for getting six perfect scores on one course) is also fairly difficult, even on an 18-hole course.   The Long Drive Champ (for having a LDR over 27) is not terribly hard: build up a full supply of irons and wait until you have run up a reasonably long natural LDR,  then try and extend it with as many irons as needed.

arrow.gif (905 bytes) But why is there a trophy for a negative result?   It makes a nice picture to see the trophy case full, but it's not a trophy you want.  On my first time through the game, I got the Duffer Cup for scoring +31 on Joe's Gas 'N Golf on my third try (later I got +33, my worst score ever).   When I played a second time, I was careful to try and avoid the only bad trophy, even using up irons at the end of several bad outings, and was able to finish with only the twelve good trophies.  It would make more sense to have a trophy for finishing the game without any scores of +30 or worse.

What is the purpose of the timed courses?

Money doesn't mean very much after the first dozen or so courses.   On my first time through the game, I was never once short of money to enter an available tournament or buy an unlocked powerup.   On my second time through, I was short of money temporarily: after winning Slippery Slopes, I did not have enough money to afford the $20,000 Flip Flop golf shoes.  I scored even par on Ocean Shores, winning enough money to buy the shoes, but this left me with too little money to enter Mercury West.  I played Ponderosa Pines instead, not winning, but making enough to enter Mercury West.  After that I had plenty of money.

arrow.gif (905 bytes) Given the relative lack of importance of money, I'm not sure what purpose the timed courses serve, especially since they are optional and are not needed to unlock any other courses.   There is a Speed Champion Trophy for finishing a hole in under 30 seconds, but this is not much of a challenge to get. The timed courses somewhat spoil an interesting challenge, trying to get the highest possible money total on a single hole (possibly two minigames, a perfect score bonus, and a 7.0 multiplier).   One the third hole of Zebra Run, I had a minigame Long Drive worth $344, a Lucky Bounce Wild Shot for $250, and separate LDRs of 13 and 12, reaching a multiplier of 2.8 and a perfect five under par.   Had my LDRs been longer by two cards, I would have reached the 7.0 multiplier and won $9261; instead I settled for $3704.  My best total on a non-timed hole is $9275 with an LDR of 40 on the ninth hole of Eagle Ridge.  But the timed courses apply two separate multipliers, and it is pretty easy to get a score much higher than you could ever hope to get on a non-timed hole.   I had an LDR of 26 and a perfect four under par on the fourth hole of Mercury East in 68 seconds, getting multipliers of 7.0 and 7.8 to reach $21,679.    I suspect that many players have beaten this by playing a bit faster than I do and perhaps picking up a Wild Shot bonus (though the minigames don't seem to occur very often during the Mercury timed courses).   I don't imagine I'm an exceptionally fast player, but I have never exceeded the time limit for any hole in a timed course (except intentionally, to see what happens), and only a few times hit the warning time (when a hole is blocked badly and I cannot clear any piles), when an alarm starts to sound and the timer turns red.   It turns out that the only penalty for running out of time is that your second multiplier is automatically 1.0.   Because of the time bonuses for clearing piles, it is actually possible to finish in negative time (my best is -44 seconds on the 4th hole at Mercury East).

Power Ups

There are twelve powerups in the game, each made available when a particular course is unlocked.   This often happens in the middle of a round; you can save your current hole (even midhole!) and go to the Golf Shop immediately and buy the unlocked item.  You should always buy these as soon as you can (though I always wait until the end of the course to avoid slowing down play); eventually you will have enough money so that even the most expensive ones are cheap, so to speak. In descriptions of goals and situations on various courses I am assuming that you always have all available powerups (there is a Wild Shot, Missed Ball Completely, which causes you to lose one powerup temporarily, but you can simply buy it again when you finish the course).   Each powerup gives the golfer a permanent advantage of some sort; unlike some games, they are not expended when the player uses them.

arrow.gif (905 bytes) Some courses/holes let you see a lot of face down cards which are covered; this can actually be distracting on courses where the piles are haphazardly arranged or irregularly overlapped.

arrow.gif (905 bytes) The X-Ray Sunglasses powerup, which lets you peek at the next facedown stock card, is sometime useful, especially when deciding whether to play an iron, or in choosing which of two ranks to remove (e.g. when the current faceup card is a seven and you have an exposed six and eight; if the next stock card is a five or nine, it makes the decision easy).    But I don't know why it was designed to work so slowly (about three seconds before you can see the card's rank) with an annoying buzzing noise (I know it's supposed to represent an X-ray machine, but why not a quick buzz and the rank visible at once)?

A more useful peek, in my view, would be to be able to see the next covered card in a pile (or maybe even all of the piles at once).   It is possible to choose one of two possible cards, see what's under it, then undo the play with a Mulligan and choose the other path, but that feels a little too much like cheating to me; peeking would be cleaner and allow Mulligans to be saved for mistakes caused by clicking through the stock too fast (a common mistake with me).  [This is another thing I dislike about the online version: you cannot Mulligan a turn of the stock, so I have to slow down my play to avoid missing stock plays.   You can Mulligan in the download game unless you hit a Wild Shot.]

Another powerup I would like to see is a freecell: giving the golfer the opportunity, even if perhaps only once per hole, to save one stock card he plans to use later; this would resemble the use of iron cards, but could be any card (including a face card) selected by the player.    Another powerup might be to allow a few extra cards to be dealt from the stock once exhausted -- perhaps limited to once per course.  Still another would be a headstart: allowing the player to play a free card or sequence of cards before the first stock card is dealt -- also probably limited to once per course.

bigarrow.gif (1009 bytes) The Biggest Flaw

One of the fundamental principles of solitaire is that cards are dealt randomly.   This is in keeping with its origins as a game played with real cards, dealt from a thoroughly shuffled deck.    There's also a kind of underlying concept of bringing order out of chaos.  That is the main reason why the various forms of Mah Jongg solitaire are not true solitaires: mah jongg layouts are not dealt randomly, but constructed in reverse order by a computer algorithm so that there is at least one way to discard all of the tiles (an urban legend sprang up that the same was true in Microsoft FreeCell, but that is not the case -- FreeCell is a true solitaire with random deals).

I am quite sure that in Fairway Solitaire, the cards are not dealt randomly: either they are laid out in some way to increase the chances of long runs of cards, or there is a serious bug in the program's random number generation.  Whatever is going on doesn't work very well; it tends to make cards clump badly.    Frequently, especially on narrow courses where only a few cards are exposed, you see repeats of the same rank or of two different ranks.   Not only do ranks tend to repeat at critical points (where they cover deep piles, wedges, water, or split piles), but they tend to repeat back-to-back in the same pile and in the stock.   For a while I was saving screenshots of particular examples of this, but it happened so often I had hundreds of them, and deleted all but a select few.   Here is one particularly bad example (below left), from hole 5 of Joe's Gas 'N Golf, showing all four queens blocking the rest of the layout:

fourqs.jpg (109535 bytes)       worstscore.jpg (140676 bytes)

At other times, you see all of the exposed cards being either odd or even, making it very hard to construct long runs.   I believe the designers intended their dealing system to make the game easier, but it often has the opposite effect.    Even when there are three or four exposed cards which form a sequence, you may wait a long time for the right card to come up from the stock, so sometimes even when the system works, it doesn't work.   My worst single hole score ever was on the ninth hole of Forgotten Forest (above right): after playing half a dozen cards, all of the exposed cards were set up for a nice long run, but I used up the whole stock without being able to trigger that run. I didn't want to waste any irons, as I was already well over par and trying to save them for the next course, so I wound up with a nifty 28 over par. Often you might not have any irons anyway; no system of dealing and course construction can work properly if based on the assumption that you always have a lot of irons; you should have some reasonable chance of attacking any course even if you go in with no irons.   It is so common for cards of the same rank to occur consecutively in the same pile, that if I was going to make any change to purely random dealing, I would have used the rule from Nestor solitaire, and prevented any pile of cards from having two of the same rank (at least overlapping).   I am convinced that the courses would play better if they were more carefully designed and the cards dealt randomly (or close to it).

arrow.gif (905 bytes) This brings us to the second major flaw, which is connected to the first.  While most of the courses are reasonably and even cleverly designed, giving the player an interesting variety of problems to solve, there are three very badly conceived courses and a few poorly designed holes scattered among some of the other courses.  The first really bad course is fairly early on (course 15): Salty Tears is mostly water hazards and it is the hardest course to break par on (it took me sixty tries in all my first time through, most of them long after finishing the main game).   Fortunately the goal for unlocking the next course is a pretty easy one, getting one perfect score (I did that on the first try, getting a zero on the sixth hole with the help of two irons).   Salty Tears is a contender for the worst course in the whole game; possibly that is the reason that it did not appear in the online game until recently when Big Fish released a fourth online tour.

arrow.gif (905 bytes) What you want to avoid in course design is having, when the stock is almost depleted, a single deep pile of cards left on the course.  There is no skill left (except for not missing playable cards) when you have only one pile of cards to play from; you are entirely dependent on the luck of the draw from the stock.  This often happens in courses/holes where the water hazards are too large, like Salty Tears, where the sand wedges are too deeply buried, or there are both large water hazards and sand traps.  On several courses the designers made a sand trap or water hazard in the form of a full or partial pyramid (e.g. the second hole at Five Lakes). Many of the most interesting holes are those with both sand traps and water hazards, but these must be combined carefully to avoid the flaw mentioned above.   A few scattered holes are bad because one of the piles is simply too deep: the first of these is the 15-deep pile on the fifth hole at Autumn Hills.   There is another pile of 15 in the arch in the middle of the 15th hole of The Baron; these are almost guaranteed to end with the single pile flaw.    Almost as bad is having two deep piles left over; this often happens on holes where there is a mix of too-long and too-short piles

arrow.gif (905 bytes) The other example of gimmicked holes that I despise is having piles of hidden cards; what appears to be a single card is actually a stack of cards, and you cannot tell (unless you have played the hole before and taken notes) how many cards are there.  The first of these occur on the 4th hole at Peppertree, where there are two water hazards which look like single cards, but are actually piles of seven and five cards place directly on top of one another; the same design is used again on the 8th hole at Rose Country Club.  The 9th hole at Clementine has four cards has four cards covered by a pile of eight hidden cards; so does the first hole at Paradise Island.  Another general principle of solitaire is that it should not be a memory test: the last hole of The Baron consists of five hidden piles with different numbers of cards, as many as nine in the rightmost hole.  It is hard to remember when playing exactly how many times you have discarded from each pile, even if you do know how many cards are in each hole.   I actually have taken very detailed notes while playing, but I think it is unreasonable to expect players to do so.  I think, for example, that all sand wedges should be shown face up at the start of the hole, so that players can plan their strategy intelligently without relying on guesswork, memory, or reference guides.

The first course on which I needed more than two tries to reach the goal was Ico Bay, one of several that took three tries.    Things start getting harder down the home stretch (and that is how it should be, within reason): Harris Hills took five tries, and I only got the needed third perfect score due to the rare Perfect! Wild Shot that gives you an automatic perfect score.   [Though my second time through the game, I got Harris Hills on the first try with five perfect scores: this suggests there is a fair amount of skill in the game which improves with experience.]   Two of the courses, however, are so poorly constructed that it is very hard to get past them.   I suppose the designers felt that their dealing method would eventually allow the player to get through even the hardest courses, and this is true, but getting through them depends on very good luck, much more so than skill.    This is because the course layouts reduce the two most important skill factors in the game: the use of irons and the careful planning of runs.   Both of these skill factors depend on courses being wide enough, with larger numbers of shallower piles, rather than narrow courses with a few deep piles.     While other solitaire adventures like Aloha Solitaire often have very deep piles, they are usually multideck games -- it is extremely difficult to get all the way through a pile of eight or ten cards in a single deck game.

arrow.gif (905 bytes) arrow.gif (905 bytes) Finally the game breaks down at Joe's Gas 'N Golf....

The storyline of Fairway Solitaire, loosely speaking, is supposed to follow a rookie pro golfer on his or her first year on the professional tour. Imagine if you were a real golfer on the PGA or LPGA tour, having played dozens of tournaments on beautiful, historic courses all over the world.  Suddenly, with half a dozen events left on the calendar, in order to qualify for the next event, you are forced to play a tournament on a broken down golf course out in the boondocks, with ugly, tricked-up holes.   This is Joe's Gas 'N Golf, the hardest course on which to reach the goal (in this case, simply breaking par with a score of -1 or better).  Until I reached this course for the first time, I had an extremely high opinion of the game as a whole.  This course alone lowered my opinion significantly: unlike Salty Tears, you can't get by it easily by getting a zero.   It took me 30 tries (on two I gave up early), during which I won the Duffer Cup, and lost the Extra Long Pants powerup due to the Missed Ball Entirely Wild Shot (which may be programmed to occur at least once per game: my female golfer lost the Mulligan Blouse on the same Wild Shot on Morgan's Brook my second time through).   I also played a number of other courses again to try and collect irons.   

The holes in JGAG are a mishmash of ugly, unshapen clumps of cards (hole 5 is a single tangled clump of 26 cards, and is possibly the worst hole of the 729 included in the game), with six cards concealed under other cards.  Only one hole (number 6) has as many as five separate piles, and one of those is a hidden pile of nine cards which can only be reached after you clear the water hazard.   This has the effect of almost eliminating the effective use of irons.   JGAG looks not so much designed as scattered randomly.   Many of the cards are covered by, or are covering, more than one card.   There are some holes on other courses where bifurcated piles are used to good effect (they can provide focus for the strategic approach to a hole), but here the effect is simply haphazard.   I finally staggered through by starting with a zero and having only one disaster hole, getting the Sympathetic Marshal Wild Shot on the ninth to let me remove an extra card for a -3, and finishing with -1 exactly.   Once through, there are two somewhat more reasonable courses, Paradise Island and Ritz Country Club, before the second disaster.    In my first eight campaigns, I took a total of 82 tries to get through JGAG.   The new version of Fairway, version 1.04, changed the goal from -1 to +10.  This helps somewhat: in six subsequent campaigns I have taken 16 tries in all, scoring over par but getting +10 or better in four of those (twice I got through on the first try with a small plus score).

arrow.gif (905 bytes)Appalling Design

Mystery Madness is not quite the hardest course in Fairway; I got it on my sixth try with good luck and a string of zeroes (four in a row early and two more to close, helped along by the Perfect Wild Shot).  Apart from the design (which we'll get to in a second), the goal is to win $25,000 on the course, including the purse of $18,475.   So in addition to breaking par (difficult, but not nearly as bad as Salty Tears or JGAG), you have to make $6525, which is a fairly large amount -- you need a lot of perfects, or a very high score on one hole (this usually involves a 7.0 multiplier and a perfect score, which should bring in at least $5000).  The problem is that the holes, effectively narrow and deep, are designed to make LDRs and perfect scores very difficult.   On my second time through, it took six tries; I finally resorted to the strategy of bludgeoning a hole with as many irons as I had to get enough LDRs to make 7.0 and a perfect score.    [The online version requires a score of ten under par to unlock; this took 18 tries].    Though I would only call it the third-worst course, this is not because of its difficulty, but because of an inexplicably bad design decision.  At first I thought the game had a bug, because every hole had cards (we'll call these blocked) which were uncovered, but face down (then I looked at the course name, and realized it must be intentional).  It turns out that in every hole, some piles of cards are blocked by a card in another pile.  Making it worse, some cards block more than one pile, or (I think) are blocked by two different cards in different piles.  Sometimes the blocked cards are several cards deep in a pile, and you can play a card to discover that the card below it is still blocked.  In order to beat the online version, I eventually resorted to printing a screenshot of every hole and carefully noting which cards, when played, caused blocked piles to be opened up.  The connections on hole 5 are so contorted that I still don't have a complete map, and it took a long time to map the structure of 8, which might be the only hole in the entire game I've never cleared.   Some of the holes are not too bad, and quite playable if you have a map (or can remember), but that's an awful lot of work for a casual game.   Hole 6 combines these twisted connections with our old friend, hidden piles of cards.   I can't imagine what the designer of this course was thinking.

Once you get past Mystery Madness, you have two courses left.    Interestingly, Barnyard Bunkers is an example of how a course can be designed imaginatively but not be excruciatingly hard to win; it actually might be the most fun course to play in the whole game.  Many of the holes on Barnyard Bunkers involve multiple sand traps with separate sand wedges (four on number 5).   These provide interesting, but fair, problems for the player to solve.    The online version of Barnyard Bunkers, which is the last hole of the third online tour, presents an amusing tutorial themed to the barnyard.

barnyardbug.jpg (107001 bytes)   mystmadbug.jpg (129409 bytes)

arrow.gif (905 bytes)On the ninth hole of Barnyard Bunkers I did encounter an actual bug, in the form of a group of cards, the last four cards of the rightmost cluster, that cannot be played; there is a card which is faceup and uncovered, but cannot be played even when it is in proper sequence.  An example is shown (above left); despite a jack available I cannot play either ten, apparently blocking all four cards.  This happened the first two times I reached that group of cards, but later I was able to clear the entire hole, so it looked like an intermittent bug.  Eventually I discovered, by accident, that the bottom card of the pile (a nine in the example) is actually not blocked, and can be played at any time.  This is a definite indexing problem where a card is drawn below a card it actually covers.   Another problem occurs on the fourth hole of Mystery Madness (above right): the rightmost group is blocked by an unplayable ace, despite a two on the stock pile.   This seems to be an intermittent bug; the first card in the last column seems to be intermittently blocked by one of the cards in another column, but sometimes it can be played right away:  I really am not at all sure what is happening here.  On the fourth hole of Barnyard Bunkers (below left), the last sand trap card actually covers the entire pile of three cards starting with the three iron -- because the cards are arranged oddly, it is not obvious that the sand trap card prevents the three iron from being collected until the queen of diamonds and the sand trap card are played.  The third hole at Barnyard Bunkers exhibits more odd behavior: an apparently playable card (queen of diamonds, below right) is actually a covered card (and only face up because of the Flip Flop Golf Shoes); it is blocked until you clear the first sand trap card.  This is an example of the Flip Flop Golf Shoes (which randomly turn up a quarter of the face down cards) colliding violently with the Mystery Madness idea of trick holes; the spot where the queen of diamonds is located is not always face up.

inaccessible.jpg (105523 bytes)      barnyardquirk.jpg (113717 bytes)

The final course, on which you must break par to win the game and the Grand Champion Trophy, is The Baron (also the last hole of the second online tour of 25 courses, before Big Fish decided to add a third tour).  The first half of the Baron is a pretty fair course, but the back nine breaks down somewhat towards the end with more gimmicked holes (with hidden piles, as described above).   But it's a reasonable enough course if you can negotiate its pitfalls, and the game finishes on a somewhat less sour note than the ones sounded by JGAG and Mystery Madness.

arrow.gif (905 bytes)More bugs

One unusual bug (which I have now seen twice) is that the Found A Club Wild Shot randomly awarded a 5 iron when the same club was showing in the layout.  I eventually reached the second 5 iron, and it merely placed it over the one already there (it did not give me two 5 irons; once I used it, it was gone).  My friend Bill Maciejewski pointed out I should have just played the first 5 iron before reaching the second one.

A minor mistake is the text explanation for the Perfection Prize: "Outstanding! You have won the coveted Perfection Prize for earning more than 6 perfect scores on a single course."  The popup explanation says "Awarded the first time you earn than 6 perfect scores on a single course."   Both of these are wrong: you are awarded the prize for at least six perfect scores (I have only had seven or more twice, both on 18-hole courses -- Feather Dunes and Mohave, where I started off with six straight zeroes and eventually finished with nine).    The description for the Long Drive Champ is actually correct ("Awarded for the first Long Drive over 27 cards"), but it would be more consistent to say "for the first Long Drive of 28 cards or more", since that is how all of the LDR goals for courses are stated -- why do it differently here?

Another small bug is that the total cash shown on the brown popup screen when you win a purse is incorrect; it is short by the course cash of the last hole.

arrow.gif (905 bytes) More flaws


fanwrong.jpg (279845 bytes)

The cards used are cartoon drawings of golfers (a different golfer for each rank).    These are pleasant enough and easy to read (with indices in the upper left), as long as the cards are fanned properly (downwards and to the right).   But since they don't have double indices, they are hard to read in some of the later courses where the cards are laid out in the wrong direction (above).    The cards in the fourth column can only be identified by comparing them with other visible cards (e.g. the card under the 8 is a 3), or by memorizing the thirteen pictures so you can recognize a card from a fragment of the right side or bottom. 

fanwrong2.jpg (242723 bytes)

In the picture above, there is a 9 under the king, followed by (though it is hard to tell) three straight 2's.   I have not put any effort into memorizing the pictures, and I am not likely to do so.  There is no reason to do this, even to make pictures out of the layout.   Arrange the cards properly, please.

New features desired (Fairway 2?)

There has been speculation in the player community about the possibility that Big Fish Games may decide to produce a sequel (just as common in the casual game industry as in the movie industry).  This would likely be a souped-up Fairway 2 with new courses, trophies, and powerups, but perhaps a new game, based on another sport, is a possibility (baseball, with its popularity and richness of strategy, seems an obvious choice).

arrow.gif (905 bytes) One of the scoring features commonly used in Golf and TriPeaks is to give a bonus for cards left over in the stock when a hole is cleared (a perfect score of zero). To my knowledge there is no benefit in Fairway Solitaire to having cards left over (you may even lose out on irons left in the stock).  In fact, the game does not even show you how many cards are left until there are 10 or less left: the graphics of the stock show a tightly fanned pile of 11 at the start of a deal when there are, on average, around 17. It would also be nice to know this during the play of a hole, to help plan strategy -- you can usually only tell that there are a lot or a few left).  I would certainly like to see a trophy awarded for having a certain number of cards left over during a single hole, or perhaps a course.  

Some possibilities for bonuses for having cards left over would be to award an extra strokes off of par or an extra iron, for every, say, five cards left in the stock.   The ability to go six, seven, or eight under par would give the player extra chances to come back from a big over-par score in the last holes of a round.

arrow.gif (905 bytes) Why can't I compete against other players?   The designers of the download version took away the chance even to fully compete against the QA team.  It would be nice if there were a way to post your best scores online (as other games, like Big Fish Games' own Top Ten Solitaire).   The online version automatically tracks the best scores (from hundreds of players) on each course on a daily basis (you can see yesterday's best scores for any course at any time), but as far as I know does not keep overall course records.   I'd be interested to see where my best scores of -37 on The Spike, and -29 each on Palmer Park and Briar Lake, rank.

Another idea for hole design would be to increase the number of cards on the course and decrease the number of cards in the stock, even going as far as a layout similar to David Parlett's game of Black Hole (one stock card, seventeen piles of three on the course).

Real professionals practice

arrow.gif (905 bytes) One obvious feature which ought to have been added to Fairway Solitaire is a practice range, consisting of a putting green and a driving range, so that players could practice the two important minigames (there is of course no way to "practice" finding lost balls).  Since actual professional golfers practice quite a lot, adding this would both add some verisimilitude to the game and help players sharpen their skills, since picking up an extra three hundred dollars or more (especially when multiplied) can be crucial in those courses where the goal is money-based.   I am still a lousy putter even after hundreds of rounds; I made barely half of my putts the second time through the game (and why doesn't the statistics page keep track of that?).    And putting is even more important than driving, because it is so lucrative on courses where the goal is winning money; making a putt is worth as much as $750.

arrow.gif (905 bytes) I am not sure how the Long Drive minigame works: I find it much easier than putting and I have consistently hit drives well over 300 yards (my record is 357.83) by aiming to get the trajectory at 45 degrees, but it doesn't seem very sensitive to the exact angle, and only extremely high or flat angles seem to produce bad drives.   I thought there was a random component (Jake Birkett says there is not), as the screen resolution is not sufficent to produce the small differences in drive lengths.   I suspect that instead it must be based on time between extremes: you are actually trying to click halfway between the time between 0 and 90 degrees, and this can be done to much higher resolution (on one occasion I broke my old record by a hundredth of a yard -- less than a centimeter).  Apparently 45 degrees is not even close to the optimal angle for a drive (off the tee) in real golf; the face of a driver is angled anywhere from 7.5 degrees (Tiger Woods) to 13 degrees, and the upswing, for a professional at least, should add almost nothing to that.

Wild Shots

I had not played the online version for several months, when I found out that BFG had released a fourth tour of 25 online courses.   This was done with very little fanfare: I found out on a discussion forum.  It took around 24 hours to finish the 25 new courses -- I have finished the entire download game of 70 courses in less time than that (on one online hole I lost an achieved goal due to the BFG website crashing entirely).    The new courses range from nondescript to pretty bad: Moorland, which requires an LDR of 22 to unlock Salty Tears, ranks among the worst of the courses, with every hole narrow and mostly closed -- I finally got through on the last hole of my third try by bludgeoning with six irons to make an LDR of 28: very inelegant and unsatisfying.    Second, I had forgotten how bad one particular feature of the online game was: the frequency of Wild Shots and the high proportion of bad ones, particularly those which actually add cards onto the course from the stock.  There are four such cards: Lost Ball (adds 3 cards), Gopher (adds two as well as stealing money and reducing the multiplier back to 1.0), Out of Bounds (adds two), and Bad Bounce (adds one).  In 42 rounds, I counted up 101 Wild Shots, including 12 Broken Clubs, 12 Gophers, and 7 Lost Balls.   Of the 101, I would classify 39 as very bad, 34 as mildly bad, 26 as mildly good, and only 2 (both Heat Waves) as very good.  The Gopher occurs more rarely in the download version; I didn't get it once in my second or third time through the 70-course game.  The effects were also modified so that cards are not placed back on the layout, but instead the player loses two stock cards (the same is true of the Out of Bounds Wild Shot, and the Lost Ball Wild Shot when the ball is not found).   The jackpot spin common to many Big Fish online games, which takes a tedious seven seconds, was also removed for the download version; though this helped get me through Phoenix Desert when I got an extra 2500 tokens (multiplied by an 11 LDR).

Checking through the program data files, it appears there are about 30 Wild Shots in the download version.   Some of them are quite rare; I have only a few times   encountered Sky Ball, which only occurs on timed courses (where it seems Wild Shots are less common anyway).   Unfortunately many of the wild shots are pretty pointless: as mentioned above, money doesn't mean much, and wild shots which cost the player money come out of total cash, not the cash on the current hole/course; after the first couple of courses, losing $175 is insignificant, and merely slows down play.

Some of the Wild Shots are perhaps too powerful: Perfect gives you a zero regardless of the current state of the hole, Whirlwind removes all of the Sand Trap cards, Heat Wave dries up all of the Water Hazard cards.     I got past the online version of Salty Tears with an early Heat Wave which left only three cards; I feel more satisfaction getting through a course with skill than due to a random piece of luck.

The one Wild Shot change where the download game is actually worse than the online game is Slice which loses two clubs (losing one club with Broken Club is bad enough!).

Turning off the animations

The animations of each card played (spinning for normal cards, splashing for water hazards) tend to be distracting after a while, and obscure the cards still in play,   which slows down play when you are playing quickly.   The same is true of the large messages which flash up when a sand wedge is found, a water hazard is cleared, or a 5.0/7.0 multiplier is reached. 

Some trivial details on the courses

There are 70 courses in the download version.   Eleven of them are 18 holes; the rest are nine holes.   Nine holes is an excellent length, as the short courses can be played in about ten or twelve minutes each, on average, with some practice.  The online version started out as a single tour of 15 courses, and after the download version came out, most of its courses were added to the online version in the form of three additional tours of 25 courses each.  Five of the download courses had not appeared yet in the online version as of the third tour: Slippery Slopes, Mercury West, Salty Tears (appears in the fourth tour), Akira Country Club, and Mercury East.   Nine courses have different names: Moose Mountain (originally Whistling Pines online), Ponderosa Pines (Blackridge Club), Forgotten Forest (Western Hills), Heritage Hills (OC Country Club), Birkett Laverty (Glen Mitchell), Jungle Rain (Tiger's Claw), Anaconda (Snake Spine), Jungle Falls (Angel Falls), Kipling Club (Fire and Ice).  On the whole I think the download names are better, though the fourth tour has good names.   

arrow.gif (905 bytes)Paradise Island, which the cartoon map shows in the Pacific Ocean, is actually in the Bahamas, in the Caribbean (Atlantic Ocean).  It does have a golf couse, the Ocean Club.

I have compiled a complete list of the location and size of every hidden pile.  I have attempted to do the same for the locations of every hidden wedge, but this is complicated by the Flip Flop Golf Shoes powerup, which randomly turns up 25% of the face down cards in each course.  This means, I think, that some wedges will be hidden most of the time but occasionally not (so far I have the 16th hole of Royal Saint Henry's in this category).   I feel this is another example of sloppy design.

Lots of Strong Points

It sounds like I am complaining a lot about everything that's wrong with Fairway (and I did promise to do so at the start of this article), and there are quite a few orange arrows above, but in most regards it is an excellent game and there are many good things to say about it.   One thing I like a lot about Fairway is that the music (by a company called Somatone) is restricted to small pieces at appropriate times: at the beginning and end of the game, between courses, at the end of holes when something exceptional has been achieved, etc.   There is not a constant music soundtrack as in most casual games (I generally have to turn the music all the way down in other games).  Not only would continuous music be inappropriate in a game about pro golf, it would be hard for any music, no matter how pleasant, to avoid being monotonous in a game which generally takes twenty or thirty hours to complete.

Instead of music, there is a light background of sound effects (e.g. sheep or bagpipes may be heard on occasion on courses in Scotland), particular sounds for different shots and events, and commentary from several announcers.   There are something like 175 different pieces of commentary, enough to give some variety, but eventually you will hear just about every one (in particular it would be nice to have a unique clip to introduce each course; there can't be that many "swankiest" courses).  Some of the comments are pretty funny; my favorite is one of the Idle sound clips which occur when the player takes more than a few seconds to play a card:

Ben: I think there's a little confusion about this next shot, Tommy.
Tommy: Yeah, they're trying to... You know, I don't know what they're thinking about here.

The online game is already pretty good, but the download version fixes some of its shortcomings.   These range from minor changes like adding a proper scroll bar to the list of courses, to modifying the effects of the worst Wild Shots, as described above. 

Another strong point is that there is a lot of replay value: once a golfer has unlocked The Baron, he or she is free to play any of the 70 courses at will, and even after winning the last course there are other goals which can be sought: I spent a lot of time trying to break par on every course, finally getting Salty Tears after an agonizing sixty tries.   I have managed to get at least ten under par on every course but Salty Tears.    If you play a second time through, you can use a new golfer with a different name, and you can compete against your own best scores; all of the top five scores are kept on the same leaderboard; this may eventually be a mixture of scores from all of the golfers you've played plus any leftover scores from when the program was first run.   Unfortunately, the same is not true of the newspaper headlines which announce the "record" achievements of your current golfer -- the game does not read the statistics files of your other golfers to see if the current golfer's record (for perfect scores, for example) is the best overall record.

arrow.gif (905 bytes)A flaw that doesn't show up until you have played many times is that you are only allowed six golfers with different names.    If you want to add a seventh golfer, you have to delete one of the other golfers (though their best scores will still show up in the top five for each hole).   Probably the designers didn't think anyone would play that many times (though surely families on shared computers may have more than six different people playing).  Back in the old days of limited memory and programming restrictions (such as 8+3 file names), it was common for programs to have severe limits on things such as player names, but there is little need for that nowadays (but you quite often still see poorly programmed games where a player name can only be eight or ten characters, for example).  The flaw here appears to be sheer laziness in not putting a scroll bar in the Choose Player Dialog.   It would have been nice to have a lot more avatars, too.

A player named Hyser, posting on the Gamezebo forum (unfortunately this forum seems to have disappeared), suggested trying for an LDR of 40, starting with a full set of clubs and clearing an entire hole without turning over any additional stock cards.  He managed it on the ninth hole of Eagle Ridge, an ideal target because of the wide course layout of nine shallow piles, with almost all of the cards face up (most holes, in fact, don't even have 40 cards).  This is an interesting challenge, because you have to work out how to pick up all of the face cards, but I managed it on my third try (after finishing the main game).  My closest attempt during a regular campaign was a 35 (out of 37) on the fourth hole at Morgan's Brook.

Another challenge: can you obtain the Grand Champion Trophy (by beating The Baron) before getting the Prolific Golfer Trophy (for playing 100 courses)?  I managed this on my fifth campaign, where my golfer Stacy completed The Baron on her second try and her 87th course overall, finishing in 16 hours and 29 minutes of game time.   She completed 54 out of 65 goaled courses on the first try (including the first 16), and 67 within two tries, taking six tries on Cove Town, and three each on Ico Bay and Joe's Gas 'N Golf.  This beat my previous record of 105 courses, and provides more evidence, by the way, that playing skill increases with experience.    Stacy also had so few misses that she actually lost a fair amount of money on the Necklace, saving only $21,990 in course fees.

In most regards, this is the best card solitaire game ever in the casual/arcade field; it is close to being my favorite casual game ever (at the moment, vying with the wonderful Chocolatier 2 -- Secret Ingredients (and its sequel Decadence by Design) from PlayFirst, and the hit PopCap game Plants vs. Zombies).  I enjoy most of the play much more than any other similar "campaign" solitaire.   But its weaknesses are disappointing, and cause it to fall just short of being the truly great game it could have been.  

My Top Scores

The Golf Academy     -18    Autumn Hills         -18    Palmer Park        -26
Solitaire Municipal  -18    Bull Town Club       -21    Valemont           -20
Moose Mountain       -29    Mercury North        -31    Sea Spray          -25
The Highlands        -30    Hawaii Country Club  -25    Mercury South      -20
Slippery Slopes      -16    Briar Lake           -26    Feather Dunes      -29
Ocean Shores         -16    Jungle Rain          -25    Pine Top           -22
Mercury West         -32    Zebra Run            -22    Jungle Falls       -20
Ponderosa Pines      -26    The Dunes            -28    Rose Country Club  -18
Mountain Springs     -30    Cherry Lakes         -23    Five Lakes         -26
Sandy Beach          -28    Anaconda Club        -13    The Spike          -22
Forgotten Forest     -24    Shepherd's Ridge     -22    Applewood          -20
August Jones         -38    Edgewater            -22    Shady Meadows      -21
Cactus Nine Hole     -23    Royal Saint Henry's  -52    Harris Hills       -30
Mercury Golf Club    -22    Spice of Life        -24    Kipling Club       -18
Salty Tears          - 9    Ico Bay              -15    Morgan's Brook     -16
Akira Country Club   -21    Abbot's Lodge        -18    Clementine         -28
Oak Valley           -32    Mercury East         -20    Joe's Gas 'N Golf  -12
Waverly City         -20    The Willows          -31    Paradise Island    -19
Mohave Golf Club     -29    Branagan Links       -17    Ritz Country Club  -31
Heritage Hills       -41    Penbrooke            -22    Mystery Madness    -29
Eagle Ridge          -19    Ace Golf Club        -36    Barnyard Bunkers   -26
Birkett Laverty      -20    Lonely Hearts Club   -22    The Baron          -32
Cove Town            -19    Peppertree           -17            
West Lake            -25    Buffington Nine      -20  

All of these are course records (against the random scores when the program initialized) except Salty Tears (record -15: twice) and Joe's Gas 'N Golf (-14).   Average for the 70 courses is better than 20 under par.     The full stats at the moment for my primary golfer:

fullstats.jpg (269957 bytes)

Here is my best round ever: this produced four trophies (Perfection Prize, Birdie Champ, Eagle Champ, and Scoring Cup) on one course for one of my golfers.  Stacy started the round with 3, 4, 6, 7, and 9 irons.  The last card on number 6 was a queen; number 9 finished up with a 10, J, Q on the course and the last two stock cards were both tens, just missing a mythical Double Eagle trophy (later in the same campaign, I/she shot a 20, 52 under par, on the 18-hole Royal Saint Henry's, with 10 perfect scores):

oakvalley.jpg (227993 bytes)

 I later topped this feat with another golfer: Robin won five trophies (including the Big Hitter Prize) on the third course of the game, Moose Mountain, with a 29-under 7.

This page was revised on July 4, 2014.   All contents copyright 2008-2014 by Michael Keller.  All rights reserved.