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Four hours with Card Shark looks like it's playing aces high all the way

Palm a diamond

I am extremely bad at card games, despite the fact that meeting up and playing poker at a friend's house was one of the main entertainments on offer when I was a teenager (because one guy had a full chip set, for some reason). I cannot remember any of the rules of poker, but I do really like the feel of cards, the shick schick shick of shuffling them and all the business of moving them around in your hand as if that'll change things very much. Card Shark, the latest game from the Reigns devs Nerial, is an ideal card game for me, as it does all the noises of shuffling and dealing and collecting cards extremely well, without requiring any knowledge or memory of the games its punters are actually playing.

Instead, Card Shark is all about the palming and stacking and counting of cards, rather than an actual card game like your classic deckbuilders and such like. It will be out in full on June 2nd, but last week I got to play a larger version of the current Steam demo - about four hours worth of it, in fact - and I discovered that while I'm very bad at card games, I am pretty good at (pretend) cheating at them.

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You probably will be, too, at first, especially if you can do the ol' rubbing-head-patting-tummy brand of multi-tasking. You, a mute peasant in 18th century France, fall in with a professional fake aristocrat and general rapscallion fraudster called the Comte de Saint-German. He teaches you to write (so your journal, in a nice touch, gets more literate over time) but, more importantly, to help him cheat at cards in increasingly complex ways.

The player character approaches a table of men playing cards in a large mansion in Card Shark
Shout out not only to the sound design, which is universally great, but laso the beautiful and atmospheric art.

You start off fairly simply, pouring wine while peaking at an opponent's hand, and telling the Comte what their most numerous suit is by wiping the table a certain way. The screen splits so you're pouring the wine on one side, and scoping the cards on the other. The trick is to pour the wine at the right speed that you get a good look at the cards without spilling it over the rim of the cup. Easy enough to start with.

Pretty quickly, though, you learn how to put cards in a certain order and shuffle the deck so you deal the best card to the Comte. This involves a series of flicks in different directions with the thumbstick (Card Shark is designed to be played with a gamepad). You'll also need to factor in counting how you collect and re-deal cards, picking up a glass or dealing your own card with a coded gesture to indicate the value of a card. A particularly evil technique also sees you load the top five cards of a switched deck one round, then switch the decks back on the next round - all while having first remembered and removed the exact five cards you loaded so there aren't any duplicates.

Flicking through a deck to choose cards and stack it in Card Shark

It sounds complicated (and trust me, it is), but the one upshot is that you only have to perform a single scam at a time. Sometimes, you get to choose which one you do, too. You and the Comte travel to different stately homes and hostelries to scam different people, keeping an eye on the mark's suspicion meter at the bottom of the screen. If you take too long or fluff a particular cheat then you'll be found out, which can have dire consequences. Indeed, playing Card Shark feels like you're constantly balancing being an expert at something with the tension of knowing you have to get it right. You've got to hold a lot of different thoughts in your head at once, sliding them deftly over one another like sheets of different coloured tissue paper.

As I played through the first hour and a half, I thought, "Well, this is very nice, but there surely has to be more?" Fooling rubes for slight increases of money all the time lacks a sense of purpose - even if one of the rubes is yer actual man Voltaire, who then gets you to cheat some other rich people as a kind of weird social experiment. But Card Shark soon reveals its grand play: a larger story involving royal intrigue and scandal and so on, and deepening your pockets is your means of buying into higher stake games. Some hands are story levels you have to win, and it is very possible to die if you make a fool of yourself. Luckily Death finds your whole vibe amusing enough to send you back to a check point (after a hand of cards, obvs).

A top down view of a table in Card Shark where the player must choose which order to pick up discarded cards, to give their accomplice a favourable hand on re-dealing them

I still think there must be a ceiling on how many ways of cheating at cards can be introduced before I start thinking, "Bugger all this," and long for a cheese sandwich and a cup of tea. It's also one of those games that, if you leave off playing it for a couple of days, you'll forget all the complex rules it taught you and will immediately fail when you boot it up again. On the whole, though, Nerial's latest looks very, very intriguing. It might not play to your strengths if you dislike memory games or panic when a timer starts moving, but if you like weird, puzzle-adjacent story games, then it will likely be an absolute steal. You should not, as it were, take your eye off Card Shark, because it'll probably do something clever when you're not looking. We'll have our full review closer to launch.

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