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Ultimate Guide to Freecell

Like classic Solitaire, many Windows users will be familiar with the game of Freecell. Due to it’s adoption by Windows as one of its standard games, it has become one of the most popular versions of the solitaire card game.

The game is named for the cells at the top of the tableau into which cards can be temporarily moved one at a time. The more of these cells that are empty, or “free”, the larger number of cards that can be moved at once on the tableau.

The Rules of Freecell

Freecell uses a standard fifty-two card deck. The layout consists of two sets of four empty spaces at the top of the tableau. The four spaces on the right will be the foundation piles, each waiting for an Ace to begin the pile. The four spaces on the left are the open cells, into which cards can be temporarily placed in order to move them off of the tableau. Only one card can be placed in each cell at a time.

The cards are dealt into four columns of seven followed by four columns of six cards, making a total of eight columns including all fifty-two cards. The open card in the column (the bottom card when looking at the tableau, but the top card with how the cards are stacked) is the card that can be played or built upon in each column. These columns can also be called “cascades” due to the way they are dealt, with the first card of each column being below the other cards, but near the top of the tableau, making the cards “cascade” downward.

The goal is to move all the cards into the foundation piles, beginning with the Aces. After the Aces, the piles will be built in the standard ascending card sequence.

During play, cards can be moved in three ways. First, they can be moved into the foundation piles in sequential order, beginning with the Aces. Second, a card can be placed in a cell in the top left. Third, cards can be placed on top of the next sequentially highest card of the opposite color. For example, the Three of Hearts could be placed on the Four of Spades or the Four of Clubs.

Sequences of alternating colors can be moved between columns with the number of cards in a sequence to be moved being limited to the number of empty cells at the top plus one. If a column is empty, this number doubles. If the move involves moving a sequence to an empty column, the column is not considered empty in the calculation of how many cards can be moved.

The game is won when all cards are in the foundation piles.

How to Play Freecell

Once the game is dealt, you may begin moving cards. As stated above, you can move cards into the foundation piles, into a cell, or by creating sequences of alternating colors in descending numerical order on the tableau.

Only one card can be placed in each cell. There is no limit to the number of cards in each column.

Alternating colors refers to alternating black and red cards. Black cards are Spades and Clubs; red cards are Hearts and Diamonds. You must place a card on top of the next highest card numerically, but in the opposite color. For example, you may develop a sequence reading from the top of the column down to the bottom open card as follows: King of Spades - Queen of Hearts - Jack of Clubs - Ten of Hearts – Nine of Clubs – Eight of Diamonds – Seven of Spades – Six of Hearts. In this sequence, the Six of Hearts is the bottom card which could be moved.

Multiple cards can only be moved at once as part of a sequence, and the number of cards moved at one time is dependent upon how many columns and cells are empty at the time.

If all the cells and columns have cards in them, you can only move one card at a time. If there is one cell empty and no columns, you can move two cards (one cell plus one). If there is one cell and one column open, you can move four cards (one cell plus one, together times two). If you have two cells open and one column open, you can move six cards (two plus one, together times two).

Technically, this is because you are only really allowed to move the number of cells plus one cards but use the empty column as a “layover”. However, players usually move the entire number of allowed cards in a sequence in one move. Many online or computer versions of the game may show you the cards being moved into an empty column as a step before the destination column, but it will do this for you, so that as a player you are simply choosing the destination of the cards.

As you move the cards around the tableau, the goal is to free cards in order to place them into the foundation piles sequentially by their suit. By the end of the game, all the foundation piles will end with Kings. If you are playing an online or computerized version of the game, often the game will automatically end as having been “won” once all the cards on the tableau only have cards lower than their numerical value below them in a column. When every column has the cards in descending numerical order (even if some numbers are skipped), it is just a matter of putting the cards into the foundation piles, which is why a computerized or online version will expedite matters by doing this for you.

Common Strategies for Freecell

Because the game begins with all the cards being face up in columns on the tableau, it is important to first examine the board before making any moves. Take note of where all the different cards are, especially the lower cards (Ace, Two, Three, etc). You will need to gain access to these cards early in the game in order to begin building your foundation piles.

If there are any Aces available as the open cards in a column, move these up to the foundation piles immediately.

Try to keep as many of the cells at the top empty, as this affects how many cards you can move at a time on the tableau. In the same manner, try to empty a column as quickly as possible, as this will double the number of cards in an alternating sequence that you are able to move at once.

It is often a player’s instinct to move cards up to the foundation piles as soon as they become available. This is not always the best strategy, especially if the version you are playing does not allow cards to be removed from the foundation piles once they have been placed there.

Remember: in order to move more than one card at a time, you need the cards to be in descending numerical sequences alternating colors. Thus, if you are having a difficult time getting to a low card of one suit, it may be a good idea to keep the cards of a suit of the opposite color out of the foundation pile in order to build movable sequences. If you do not, you may find that many of the higher cards in the suit of the card that is stuck have nowhere to move, as there are no cards of the opposite color to use to move them.

As you build sequences, be careful that you do not have long sequences blocking cards higher in the column. In fact, many players will try to empty columns and then place kings in these empty columns, so that long sequences can then be built without worry of having to move them later. Kings will always be the last cards to go into the foundation pile, so don’t leave them on top of lower cards if you have the option to move them.

Don’t move cards into the cells at the top if there will be no way to get them out later. You need these cells open in order to move longer sequences at a time. Before you move cards into the cells, weigh whether the lack of movement is worth it.

Often, at the beginning of the game, it is worth it to move one or two cards into the cells in order to get to Aces or Twos which can immediately go into the foundation piles. Once you have cards in the cells, however, part of your strategy will inevitably involve getting them back onto the tableau.

Thus, if a move does not put any cards into the foundation piles, but can get cards out of the cells, it may be worth it. For example, let’s say you have three cards in the cells at the top: the Seven of Diamonds, the Queen of Clubs, and the Six of Spades. In one of your columns, the bottom open card is the Jack of Hearts, but above that card is the Eight of Clubs. It may be worth it to put the Jack of Hearts into the last remaining cell, because then you can immediately move the Seven of Diamonds onto the Eight of Clubs, and then the Six of Spades onto the Seven of Diamonds.

Freecell Terms

The terms used in alternations are the same as the terms used in classic solitaire. These include:

  • Cells: These are spots where one card can be placed at a time. It is a type of “holding cell”, and cards can be removed or placed in these cells at the will of the player.

  • Foundation Cards: These are the ace cards in Freecell.

  • Foundation Piles: Piles are made by building up suits on top of the aces. These must be made in sequential order: Ace, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, Jack, Queen, King

  • Tableau: This is the area where the game is played, otherwise referred to as the playing “board”.

Origins of Freecell

Freecell is descended from other versions of the Solitaire card game, including Eight Off. In 1968, Martin Gardner described a game very similar to FreeCell, now called Baker’s Game. This version was then altered by Paul Alfille, making the sequences built by alternating colors during play on the tableau rather than by suit. He was able to make a computerized version in 1978. This version is the version that would eventually be converted by Microsoft to Window’s standard Freecell game.

Variations on Freecell

There are some variations of freecell which use a different number of cells at the top of the tableau. Different versions include anywhere between one and ten cells. There are also other variations with different numbers of columns into which the cards can be dealt at the beginning of the game, allowing between four and ten columns, or “cascades”.

In Paul Alfille’s computerized version of Freecell, the computer allowed for the choice of anywhere between four to ten columns and one to ten cells. The program included a ranked list of players with the longest winning streaks for each version of the game.

Freecell FAQ

Here are some of the most asked questions about this game:

Q: Are jokers used at all in Freecell?

A: No, the jokers are not used.

Q: Are there unsolvable games?

A: Yes, but the chances of a game being unsolvable are much lower than other versions of Solitaire. In fact, in the original Microsoft version of the game for Windows, only one of the deals out of 32,000 was unsolvable.

Q: Whoops! I made a mistake! Can I undo?

A: If you are playing with a real deck at home, then that is entirely up to you. Many online versions do not allow you to undo moves such as placing a card in the foundation pile, so think before you leap!

Q: Where can I play Freecell online?

A: You can find Freecell and many other versions of Solitaire at www.playsolitaire-online.com

Final Thoughts on Freecell

Freecell was made popular by Microsoft and Windows, but now there are many different versions of the game. You can play online, on your computer, or at home with your own deck. It is a great way to pass the time on a rainy day.