I’m on a ship, the waves rocking the boat as I deal cards to a former pirate and my friend (who is also my accomplice). We are trying to cheat this ex-pirate out of information and travel costs via a card game. To help us win, I use a small shiny object on the table to slyly peek at each card that is dealt and signal my accomplice with that info. However, each second I linger looking at a card, the former-pirate turned commander grows more suspicious. And then suddenly the waves rock the boat too much and the small mirror-like object moves before I can see the card’s suit. But the commander is too suspicious and I can’t move the card again to double-check, so I have to risk what little gold we have and hope it was a queen of hearts. I’m pretty sure it was… Oh god, what if it was diamonds…oh no…
Moments like this are why I love Card Shark, a new adventure game out on Switch and PC, developed by Nerial and published by Devolver Digital. Set in 18th century France, you play a voiceless young lad who quickly meets up with a charming but shady con artist named Comte de Saint-Germain — a real historical figure who rubbed shoulders with folks like Voltaire. Comte teaches you how to use cards, signals, and other small tricks to cheat at card games, letting you win money, move up in society, and eventually solve a mystery involving royalty and twelve bottles of milk.
But while the setting and narrative of Card Shark are both exquisite and intriguing, the real reason to play the game is for the exhilaration you get from learning, practicing, and then pulling off — or failing — various tricks and cheats.
Things start simple enough; an early tactic has you look over someone’s shoulder at their cards while pouring them some wine, making sure to not overpour and make a mess or underpour and anger the character. But as you continue to learn more about Comte’s motives and journey across France, meeting real historical figures and cheating them out of their coin, you learn more advanced techniques. These swindle tactics include having to learn how to false shuffle, mark a card, palm high cards, delay riffle shuffles, plant rigged decks and more.
If that sounds like a lot, it is. But Card Shark brilliantly takes its time building up your skills, teaching you small bits of more complex techniques over time. Even with its well-paced tutorials and story, you’ll still need to practice these various moves and tricks. These techniques don’t use fake dice rolls or QTEs. Instead, nearly every move relies on tactile, skill-based controls. For example, to bend a card, you pick it up using the mouse, pinch, and bend it forward or back (depending on the type of card) by shoving it into the table. Another example is shuffling, which uses mouse flicks and clicks to recreate the nervous energy of trying to rig a deck with the eyes of suspicious opponents on you.
Outside of practice, there is no redo button. Every mistake or long pause increases a suspicion metre that appears at all times at the bottom of the screen. Early on, your marks aren’t too hard to cheat. But as more money becomes involved and more experienced players show up at your table, every little mistake could be a death sentence.
That mix of watchful eyes always…well, watching, and satisfying but slightly clumsy controls constantly leads to memorable moments, though not all of them are positive. Sometimes you’ll nail that tricky shuffle and deck swap perfectly and the feeling is incredible because you pulled it off using skill and practice. However, it’s just as memorable when you fail. When you screw up a card signal or mark and reveal yourself and your accomplice to be con artists, there’s no one to blame but yourself.
You can die in Card Shark, but I won’t spoil what happens then. While the game does support permadeath, it also has a clever and fun way to handle death for those not brave enough for Ironman mode. Just know you’ll have to do some more cheating to save your soul.
I’ve played a lot of card games, but few look as stunning as Card Shark, which uses a lovely painted aesthetic with snappy animations and lovely, hand-painted textures. And no card game I’ve played before let me cheat like this.
I’ll be honest, I’ve cheated in small board games in the past. I’m only human. And part of the fun of cheating is that thrill of pulling something off that nobody noticed. That’s a feeling that, until Card Shark, no game had really replicated, especially not a single-player game that doesn’t benefit from real human interactions. But Card Shark’s use of suspicion, high stakes, and tactical, skill-based controls helps recreate that wonderful feeling of cheating, without the risk of pissing off your friends or getting your arse kicked out of a casino.
So if you’ve ever wanted to know what it feels like to swindle some old pirate out of his gold and use some cheats to score a free trip on his ship, you should give Card Shark a go.