Cheating in video games is usually frowned upon. If you enable aim bots or wall hacks in a game like Call of Duty: Warzone, you’re probably going to find yourself banned – or worse, thoroughly embarrassed. Winning a few games simply isn’t worth the mark of dishonor. In Card Shark, however, cheating isn’t just encouraged: It’s the entire game.
Developed by Nerial, the team behind the popular Reigns series, Card Shark is unlike anything I’ve ever played. It’s a narrative adventure game set in 18th-century France about a peasant who gets sucked into the world of petty criminals and cheats. It’s technically a card game, but not in the traditional sense. With its one-of-a-kind premise, Card Shark is a must-play curiosity that completely rethinks what gameplay can look like.
In Card Shark, players control a young mute peasant in pre-Revolution France. His life takes a left turn when he meets Comte de Saint-Germain and is roped into a simple card cheat. In a plot that’s almost a little reminiscent of Nightmare Alley, players slowly rise through the ranks of society, swindling rich French aristocrats with a variety of tricks. That rags to riches story intersects with a wider political mystery that revolves around a conspiracy dubbed the “Twelve Bottles of Milk.”
The story itself is full of historical intrigue, but Card Shark is especially notable for its unique gameplay. As the story progresses, players sit down at poker tables around France. Before each card game, Saint-Germain introduces a different cheating technique that the duo will use to trick their opponents. The clever part is that players are never actually playing a round of poker, so much as they’re properly executing signals to Saint-Germain in a series of minigames.
Cheats start simple. In the opening tables, I simply pose as a waiter and peek over players’ shoulders while pouring a glass of wine to see their cards (all while being careful not to over or under pour). Using a tablecloth, I signal to Saint-Germain what their best card is by wiping down the table in a certain direction. A counter-clockwise wipe signals that his best card is a heart, while scrubbing side to side indicates it’s a diamond.
The cheating techniques quickly become more involved. At one table, I lay a reflective surface down on a table and deal cards over it to secretly see my opponent’s cards. Signals become complex, as I can tell Saint-Germain exactly what cards my opponent has by holding my hand in a specific way to indicate suit and dropping a card on the table a certain way to hint at the value (holding a card up and dropping it down signals that someone at the table has an ace, for instance).
By the end of the game, I started wondering if Card Shark was going to get some players in serious trouble. Some of its cheating techniques are ingenious and feel realistically executable with a quick enough hand. While pocketing cards or performing deceitful shuffles is much harder than pressing a few buttons at the right time, Card Shark sincerely feels like a cheater’s almanac at times.
Take the lessons it teaches to Las Vegas at your own risk.
Card Shark is one of the most inventive video games I’ve played this year, completely spinning the concept of genre on its head. Despite having cards, I can’t really call it a “card game.” It’s an unclassifiable title that’s more about finding a compelling way to turn real-world sleight of hand into engaging gameplay. Whenever I could successfully pull off a trick without arousing too much suspicion, I felt like an overconfident mastermind.
The results can admittedly be a little mixed, as the game can sometimes feel more like a long series of tutorials with not enough chances to test the tricks. The emphasis on story creates some conflicts with its general structure too. Failure results in a trip to jail (or sometimes death), which usually just means that you’ll have to sit through the same narrative sequence again when you return to the table.
Perhaps accounting for how tiring that experience can be (especially as cheats become harder to execute in the late game), Card Shark features three difficulty modes that change the experience. The easiest mode is the most preferable of the three, as its added flexibility helps prevent those momentum stalls. If you feel so inclined, there’s a roguelike-style permadeath difficulty too, though the narrative nature of the game doesn’t feel like a fit for that approach.
Even with some structural shortcomings, Card Shark is a delight from start to finish. Its cheating minigames are both satisfying to execute and surprisingly educational. I’m not sure that any developer will ever try to copy its notes, which makes it all the more appealing — a true Joker in video game canon.
Card Shark is out now on PC and Nintendo Switch.