About two weeks ago I raved about Fairway Solitaire, a casual game I had just discovered (via Penny Arcade, I think). Just now, I have stopped playing it. In disgust.
A simple and naive way to provide... variety, for want of a better word, is to simply keep cranking up the difficulty. It's a time-honored technique: people have been doing this for decades. It has also caused many players to stop playing a given game with a bitter taste in their mouths.
Player behavior being what it is, not that many people get far enough into games to notice that the ending sucks. There is no evolutionary pressure to improve games beyond a certain point, just as in human biology there is no evolutionary pressure to avoid degradation and breakdown beyond a certain age (guess who turned 37 not long ago).
This is of course not the case with games designed for high replayability, such as games with a strong multi-player component. And you can list AAA games with great endings - say, Half-Life 2. But in games with a consistently high quality, I claim that few people will single out the ending as the factor that makes them buy the next game. How many games have really been designed for a great ending? It is a major blind spot.
(I am fully aware that all those games I ranted about earlier might all have had great endings. That is what made me rant.)
The problem with Fairway Solitaire is that it remains, at its core, a luck-based game. You cannot use any strategies, only short-term heuristics based on the current face-up cards and the next one in your deck (which you can see). The only longer-term decision that you can make is when to use your 'joker' clubs. Money-making is not tuned well, as I said before, and so there are no interesting decisions to be made there. There is a special event that takes away one of the items you bought (a pretty bad idea in my opinion), but I was always able to buy it back without even looking at how much money I had.
As you progress through the courses, the difficulty is slowly ratcheted up. The goals for each course become slightly more difficult, the courses become slightly more complex, the shuffling becomes slightly less advantageous (or so I infer from the fact that it is easier to make long runs in the early courses). Inevitably, at some point the luck factor starts to play a big role, and I had to redo courses several times, or even go back to early courses to farm joker clubs. I think that was about the point where the game stopped being fun, but I kept playing out of stubbornness.
The second to last course, Mystery Madness, uses a very non-intuitive card layout, where you cannot tell which card will be revealed when you remove a face-up card. Or, rather, you cannot tell which card you have to remove to reveal more cards. So you can easily find yourself riffling through half a deck, trying to get rid of one face-up card while twenty or more cards stay stubbornly unrevealed. I gave that a couple of tries with a full set of joker clubs, and finally gave up in disgust.
In my opinion, Fairway Solitaire would have been a much better game with about 10 fewer courses. It could have been positively awesome if it had allowed for interesting longer-term decisions. Still, I played it over 36 hours. I can't complain about the value for money compared to full-price games.
But I don't know if I would buy a sequel.