Dog-eared marked cards, injogging and stacked decks, and secret decks aren’t the kind of chicanery you want to be caught engaging in at a card table where there’s money on the line. But that hasn’t kept the art of the cheat and the sleight-of-hand associated with it from being developed inside and outside gambling parlors over the course of centuries. Card Shark is one of the first games I’ve ever seen that dives into the depths of that history and the boldness behind development of a good card cheat. I had a chance to play an early build recently and it left me feeling increasingly dastardly and sly as I fleeced nobles out of their riches in 18th Century France.
A chance meeting
During my time with Card Shark, I got to enjoy the opening of the game. Players take on the role of a mute servant in the employ of a rather rough tavern keeper. That is, until they serve drink to one Comte de Saint-Germain who invites them to the chance to make money if only they’ll aid in a swindle during a card game. One thing leads to another and the player and Saint-Germain find themselves having to flee the scene and the law with arguably ill-gotten gains. It’s all presented in a charming hand-drawn art style with fun animation and a lighthearted classical music soundtrack to match.
Taking the mute boy under his wing, the Comte introduces him to a band of Romani that offer sanctuary through Saint-Germain’s various cons. The band’s leader, known as the Magician, and other Romani even teach the player a few card tricks of their own. From there, Comte de Saint-Germain takes players on a journey to various gambling parlors to trick various rich aristocrats and suckers into giving up crumbs of their good fortune. With each trip to a new parlor and each new mark, the Comte teaches a new card trick to be used in the upcoming game.
Card Shark is a mostly narrative adventure, but the tricks fall actively to the player to learn and utilize in the heat of a real card game. This manifests in the form of what is mostly rhythm and memorization minigames. Need to signal a strong suit in your opponent’s hand to the Comte? Pour your opponent the correct amount of wine by tilting a thumbstick sideways (don’t under- or overpour) and observe their hand, and then press a button to lower a towel on the table and do a certain wipe with the other thumbstick, whether right/left, up/down, clockwise, or counter-clockwise to signal the suit. Need to stack a deck in yours or the Comte’s favor? Shuffle the deck once with a flick down on the thumbstick, injog a card by flicking the stick left to mark a valuable cut point, and then shuffle the rest of the deck.
With the trip to each location, the Comte teaches our protagonist a new card trick or con and we learn the increasingly complicated controls to accomplish that trick successfully. I really enjoyed the thorough training that came with each card trick. Some of the tricks I’d heard of, and others blew my mind. All of them feel based in reality. After learning came the fun part: utilizing these tricks in actual card games. The extra factor to consider here is the suspicions of your marks. Go too fast and you might make a mistake. Go slow and the trick will raise suspicion until they discover you are a cheat.
More than that, accomplishing a card trick properly and with reasonable haste in Card Shark brought in more than money. This is a game of secrets, sabotage, and aristocracy. As Comte and the protagonist continue to work their way to the tables of individuals of even higher repute, the money on the line increases, but so does the quality of information being thrown about. I didn’t get to dig deep into the narrative, but what I did learn during my time was that we’d eventually have chances to play for secrets just as much as riches, and the path to more of these deadly secrets is bound to grow ever more intense and dangerous as the con continues.
The classiest of cons
My time with Card Shark was short, but delightful. I have been watching this game like a hawk since the folks behind the Reigns franchise announced it and it is continuing to get me giddy. The art and animation is quite fun, the music is calming, and the narrative and card tricks that I got to see so far were cheeky and charming as all get-out. The schemes of Comte de Saint-Germain and you, his faithful servant and accomplice, make Card Shark feel like it’s set to be one of the most engaging narrative games of the year. And who knows, you just might pick up a dastardly card trick along the way.
This preview is based on an early PC build supplied by the publisher. Card Shark is set to release on Nintendo Switch and PC via Steam in 2022.