Pick a card, any card, now look at it quickly and memorise what it is, show it to the audience if you like, and then put it back into the deck, and watch me shuffle it slowly and carefully, and now cut the deck for me, and…. was this your card? Well, of course it was, because I wasn’t playing fair.
Card Shark is a game all about cheating, trickery and sleight of hand as you swindle your way across Enlightenment Era 18th century France. Starting off as a mute hand in a small tavern, you’re quickly whisked away on this adventure by the Comte de Saint-Germain – a real person with a clouded history – learning all of the tricks of the trade to con the rich and influential of this world.
It feels breathless as it constantly teaches you new ways to fool people. It could be rigging a deck shuffle so that your compatriot and guide into this world can deal and come out with the ideal hand in a game of cards, it could be sleight of hand to switch decks, or getting a glance at cards being dealt and signalling your fellow con artist through the subtleties of your hand flourish when laying down a card. You’re never actually playing cards, but are rather enabling the Comte to win hands. Add to that quick street hustles to dupe the general public, and you’ve got a wide array of cons to lean on to make a bit of cash.
All of this is taught to you on the fly. There’s over two dozen tricks that you’ll learn through the game, many of them building upon principles and controls figured out in previous cons, but each one introduced to you mere moments before having to put it into action. In that way Card Shark really keeps you on edge. You have to memorise, practice, and put into action all of these tricks, whether it’s a prescribed con as you follow the main narrative, or a more open scenario where you get to take the initiative and choose which trick to pull.
The challenge is in managing to keep your sneaky antics on the down low. When you’re practicing you can take as long as you like, going through the steps, and I’d recommend doing so until you really feel like you’ve mastered a con. When in the thick of a card game, you’re in a light race against time, needing to rig cards, steal glances while pouring a full glass of wine, and more while the suspicions and anger at losing gradually rises. You need a degree of dexterity, memory and skill to pull it all off.
Get too high and, between hands, you’ll be given the chance to step away. Get out while you’re ahead, as they say. Push your luck too far, think you can get one last hand in more than you actually can, and you’ll be visiting limbo for a little game of cards with Death.
Through it all there’s some delightful stories that are told. In one setting you meet some aristocrats who immediately know you’re cheating, but want to be taken for a ride to appreciate the artistry, elsewhere there’s dames, colonels, and plenty more, all with a little bit of incidental banter as you play. There’s an overarching plot as well that might surprise you, revealing mystery and intrigue within the rarified air of French high society. Air that, much like the Palace of Versailles of around that time, actually smells really, really bad.
The art style is really something to behold. The various settings are deeply colourful, slathered with a rich texture thanks to the use of monoprinting to layer shapes on top of one another. The characters are animated a little like paper puppets amidst these scenes, but get involved in a game of card rigging and there’s also a wonderful sense of detail as you get close ups of character hands and see decks being shuffled, stacked in your favour and dealt.