There’s a sumptuous, lived-in feel to Card Shark, a witty and pleasantly stressful game that casts you as a gambler and a cheat, cutting a swath through 18th-century French society. The writing is rich with humor and period detail, and the woodcut-style artwork has a rough, expressive texture and a candlelit glow. You can almost taste the wine and smell the straw.
Set to be released on Steam and Nintendo Switch on June 2, Card Shark is a collaboration between Nerial — the Devolver Digital-owned developer of Reigns, a medieval-monarch simulator — and the artist Nicolai Troshinsky. It pairs Nerial’s sharp, colorful writing and simple gesture mechanics with Troshinsky’s luminous artwork, where the characters are animated like shadow puppets.
This artistry is used in the service of a wonderfully specific and flavorful storyline, inspired by Troshinsky’s interest in card manipulation and his love of the 1975 Stanley Kubrick film Barry Lyndon. The player assumes the role of a mute serving boy in a lowly tavern in the southern French town of Pau. One day, an apparently well-to-do patron, the Comte de Saint-Germain, catches the young man’s eye and draws him into helping with running a scam on a game of cards. When the game ends in violence, the boy flees with this enigmatic gentleman and joins his life on the road, conning gamblers in one parlor after another as he pursues the truth behind a rumored royal conspiracy with a ridiculous name: The Twelve Bottles of Milk.
(The Comte de Saint-Germain is a historical figure — although he went by many names, his origins remain mysterious, and his accomplishments, adventures, and the claims made by and about him are so outlandish as to strain credulity. This imagined version of him is basically Ricky Jay in a powdered wig, and he’s great to spend time with.)
As the game progresses, the Comte will teach you a wide variety of real-world card cheating techniques, including sleight-of-hand, shuffle manipulation, card counting and secret signals. There are 28 strategies in all, of mounting challenge and complexity, with such evocative names as The Disheveled Gatherer and The Indiscreet Fingers. Some would be easy enough to execute in the real world, while others would require extreme dexterity and training. In the game, these feats of manipulation are reduced to simple gestures: a quick flick or circle of the stick, a well-timed button press here and there.
That’s because Card Shark is less about skill than about nerve. What matters here is smooth operation under pressure. The deceptions often require you to perform swift calculations, commit cards or gestures to memory, or concentrate on two things at once. Which cards are duplicated in this switched deck? How do I make sure the player seated third around the table gets the best cards in the deal? There’s time pressure: As you execute each con, your opponent’s suspicion meter builds, and the longer you take, the more at risk you will be. Overconfident betting can also draw suspicion.
It’s tense stuff. Even the simplest technique can make you sweat — for example, pouring wine while surreptitiously reading cards over an opponent’s shoulder. You need to execute a smooth pour with a gentle push on the stick, not too little wine, not too much; you need to keep one eye on the glass and one on the cards; pour too hesitantly and you won’t get a good view, too fast and you won’t have time to memorize the cards. It’s a beautifully simple, effective, and balanced challenge.
It’s worth pointing out that Card Shark isn’t actually about playing cards. The details of the games and the hands played aren’t specified, and they aren’t important. All that matters is the execution of the cheat. In any case, you are the Comte’s side-man, and you’re not playing to win, but to help him win.
Based on a couple of hours’ play, it’s fair to wonder whether Card Shark will build and combine its cheating strategies into more complex set pieces, or if each scenario amounts to a one-shot education in a bit of con-man esoterica before you move on to the next technique. But I am not sure I mind either way. This is a unique, refined, and funny game that both teaches you the honest-to-god secrets of the card shark and transports you to another place and time. It’s a place where you can cheat Voltaire out of his coin while enjoying a spot of Enlightenment-era philosophical banter. It’s a time of gossip, scandal, humor, and devilry, where deception is a way of life and the only thing you can trust is that everyone is on the make.