The video-games industry teems with virtual card games, from tournament standbys such as Hearthstone to cultish backroom affairs like Inscryption. One thing they all share is that you can’t cheat – or not in ways familiar to, say, the con artists of 18th-century France. Card Shark casts you as one of these, a mute youth recruited by the Comte de Saint-Germain to be his foil in a series of two-person grifts. It’s not necessary to know what game you’re apparently playing – all you need to do is follow the comte’s instructions, stacking the deck and marking or stealing cards in a wonderful affirmation of the sociability and skulduggery of old-school tabletop gaming. At least, that is, until you’re caught palming an ace and gunned down in your chair.
Developed by the people behind the delectable swipe-right storyteller Reigns, Card Shark is essentially a mini-game collection comprising 28 tricks, taught to you over the course of a cheerfully anti-establishment adventure that moves from a caravan in the woods to the king’s own banqueting hall. A simple one to begin: scoop up discarded hands in the right order so that your partner ends up with the trumps. Later, you’ll discreetly bend cards so they rise to the top of the deck, and indicate values to the comte by the way you hold your glass. The fiddliest scams are feats of memory – first loading the deck with duplicates, then sneaking those cards out before you deal again. The secret is to do all this without maxing out your opponent’s suspicion bar, which fills up when you fumble or delay and empties when you lose.
As the story continues you play a more active role in the choice and execution of tricks. Things seldom go exactly as planned: you might have to improvise by, for example, slipping a stolen queen into a gendarme’s pocket to frame them as the cheater. There are period celebrities to reckon with and even a spot of fencing. All the while, you’re kept guessing about the comte’s overall objectives. He’s a bluff and benevolent soul, teaching you to write and cheekily improving the grammar of the game’s backstory journal, but he’s always playing a game, whether at the table or not.
All this is beautifully brought to life with scribbly, expressive character portraits, wine-coloured backdrops and a cosy, mock-serious score that suggests a chamber-music troupe lurking just across the salon. Card Shark isn’t always this charming, however. Building the story around perfecting tricks makes for plenty of repetition, whether practising in the coach or restarting a scenario with little more than the shirt on your back. Nerial does its best to avoid a traditional game-over – you can actually cheat death – but it’s easy to imagine a better-resourced version of the game in which every loss sends you along a wholly different story branch. Still, mastering a new con is always worth the trial and error – as is the thrill of taking a duke to the cleaners.