Have you tried… being a dandy con artist in Card Shark?

Card Shark will be a hard pitch to most people, but honestly, I consider that a feature, not a bug. In an era of with play-it-your-way, middle-road, mild-salsa, Disney-Plus-original experiences, something as refined as this hit me like a bolt of artisanal lightning, and I want to share it with everyone I can.

Card Shark is a sort-of card game from Devolver Digital and developer Nerial dealt to audiences in early June, and right away I was pretty hooked by it. The premise is simple, albeit engaging: you play as a mute tavern boy in 18th Century France who is framed for murder, and now forced to go on the run, he throws his lot in with the (real-life) fallen nobleman raconteur, the Comte de Saint-Germain. But the Comte has his own agenda, scamming his way through both high and low society in pursuit of a complex conspiracy that goes all the way from seedy hovel backrooms to the Court of Versailles itself and… Well, I guess it’s not that simple after all.

(Ch)eat the rich 

Card Shark

(Image credit: Devolver Digital)

First off, there’s a lot to recommend about Card Shark before you even get to the gameplay. Nicolai Troshinsky’s color-streaked visuals deserve a special shoutout, because they are gorgeous (especially on my Switch OLED); the music is a light touch that nonetheless adds a glittery feel to proceedings, and characterization is strong across the board. The actual conspiracy plot is engaging enough, if a little stuffed with extraneous characters at times, as Card Shark takes a fierce delight in including figures from history whenever it can fit them in, and occasionally where it can’t.

Seriously, Assassin’s Creed has nothing on this royal flush. Julie D’Aubiny, Voltaire, d’Alembert, Casanova, Clement Belle, Cagliostro, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, the aforementioned Comte, just to name a few – figures from French history both grand and small are crammed into the narrative wherever they can be forced. Most of them don’t need to be here by any means, and a lot of these names will probably go over people’s heads, but if you’re going to be fleecing somebody, it might as well be somebody who matters, right? And I don’t even care about the contrived nature in which every conversation, deathbed confession and scheduled execution has to suddenly pivot into a game of poker, because that’s where the game really comes alive.

Scan, Scam, and Scram

Card Shark

(Image credit: Devolver Digital)

Speaking of which, the gameplay will force you to cheat – that’s the whole point. The Comte educates you on various scams, and the goal is to apply them carefully and cautiously while you’re sitting around the tabletop, making sure that the haughty courtiers sitting opposite don’t catch you rigging things in your favor. There’s always genuine tension, fumbling with the deck as you desperately juggle tactics and equations in your head, not wanting to stop in case your hesitation gives you away, but not wanting to rush yourself into screwing up.

And what scams they are! The game boasts over two dozen different ways to hustle, usually based around surreptitiously manipulating the deck in such a way that you distribute the right cards to the right people, but that hardly does it justice. The deck is a fully-realized thing in many examples, and the way you shuffle, adjust, and injog cards can put them in your hand or your opponent’s.

Admittedly things started a little wobbly, because at first when it’s guiding you through these complex ideas I was worried it was going to be quick-time events all the way down, but I needn’t have fretted. Before long you’re running complex formulas in your heads as you smile innocently at your opponents, marking cards in secret or slyly relaying information to your accomplice without anyone realizing. You can even take the risk of throwing a few games intentionally to cool any suspicions, before using their lowered guard to really take them to school. 

What intrigues me about Card Shark is that I suspect you could actually learn quite a lot of scams from it. Sure, it can’t teach you the actual motor skills for sleight of hand, but the principles of con artistry feel very honest and well-realized, with trickery, misdirection, and manipulations of all stripes presented in engagingly convincing ways. It might not be a good role model… but we all know that the greatest friends never are. 

Card Shark is out now on PC and Nintendo Switch. 

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