Any of my friends will tell you that I’m a terrible liar — it makes me an uninspired poker player. But in Card Shark, a new game about cheating at cards, I feel like I can actually pull the wool over people’s eyes.
In Card Shark, which takes place in 18th-century France, you play as a young man who, for story reasons, falls under the wing of Comte de Saint-Germain, a figure inspired by a real-life count. He teaches you various card tricks and cheats so the two of you can swindle people out of money. The cheats start small, like wiping the table in a certain direction to tip off what your opponent’s strongest suit is, but, by the end of the game, you’re stringing together multiple techniques in a row in complex schemes to win a round. If your trick takes too long, your opponent will become suspicious of you (which is represented by a bar that fills up over time), so you have to think and act quickly.
The “steps” of each trick have different mechanics that remind me of WarioWare challenges. To wipe the table, for example, you move the control stick in specific directions. Others ask you to shuffle the deck in certain ways. A few tricks require timing a button press in a small part of a bar, like in many golf games.
Some tricks are easier than others, and I struggled with a few. I failed the trick to wipe the table repeatedly until I came up with a mnemonic device to remember which direction corresponded to which suit. And doing multiple tricks one after the other can be a tough memory challenge.
But even when Card Shark was challenging, I had a lot of fun mastering the techniques. The game lets you practice tricks before trying them out on your next mark, and I’d sometimes repeat them multiple times to make sure I had them down pat. The process reminded me of mastering a difficult passage of music before having to play it in front of an audience. I would even get legitimately nervous before “performing” tricks at some big moments. The game offers a hint system and an option to lower the difficulty, but I didn’t turn those on.
Card Shark is also incredibly charming. The graphics are stylized like a painting that’s come to life. I love the baroque soundtrack, and I’ve been humming the catchy theme that plays when you’re learning a trick for days. The game plays with the historical French setting in some fun ways; I was positively grinning when I fleeced Voltaire (yes, the famous writer) in an early mission. The story, as you might anticipate from a game about cheating at cards, takes some exciting twists.
Card Shark is easy to play in small chunks, and the relatively short levels make it a great fit for the Steam Deck (which is where I played most of the game) and the Switch. Though I did find I would have to be in the right mood to play it. Sometimes, after a long day at work, I would play something else because I was worried Card Shark would be too complex of a mental challenge.
Despite that, I still found Card Shark to be a delightful experience. It hasn’t made me any better at cheating in real life, but at least I can now say I once outsmarted Voltaire in a game of cards.