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Friday, December 8, 2023

I became a highly skilled cheater in Card Shark, and only got stabbed to death once

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I’m traveling by stagecoach across the French countryside from card game to card game as my mentor teaches me how to cheat. Posing as his valet, I peek at his opponent’s cards while refilling their wine glasses, then signal the suit of their best card to him by wiping the table with a cloth using a certain motion. It’s a crude, basic cheat, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg in con-artist adventure game Card Shark.

Before each game I learn a new trick or a complication on an old one. Soon I’m capable of passing more information to my mentor: I can tell him his opponent’s high card by the manner in which I lift a glass off the table, or how many cards of the same suit they’re holding based on how many times I move the cloth. Eventually I’m sitting at a table alongside him, keeping track of an ace even as I repeatedly shuffle the deck and he cuts the cards. Moments later that ace winds up in his hand.

I don’t even know what card game we’re playing. And it doesn’t matter! Our pot of swindled money is growing as we slowly grift our way into 18th century high society. As long as my mentor wins, I win, and he only wins when I help him cheat.

Card Shark’s elaborate cheating is handled through minigames and memorization, and often both at the same time. And it’s really tricky. Hell, I’ve even goofed on the simple wine-pouring trick by overflowing the mark’s glass while staring at their cards. Some of the minigames are familiar: palming an ace, for instance, is the old dot moving quickly back and forth across a bar, with a click at the right moment meaning a successful palm. But there’s plenty of new tricks to learn, too, using different mouse movements to shuffle, to mark the location of a card in the deck, and to pick up cards from the table in a certain order after a hand so they’re dealt favorably to my boss in the next one. 

And the cheating grows more and more complex as you enter more high-stakes games. Sneaking cards out of a second deck to create a winning hand sounds simple, but then you have to remember what those cards were so you can sneak them back out again before anyone notices. I have a little dry erase cube on my deck and I’ve covered it with notes, mouse motions, and reminders of what duplicate cards I’ve dealt to who so I can remove them before anyone notices.

Thankfully there’s always a chance to practice tricks with my mentor repeatedly before using them in a live game. And during live games, you can’t take your sweet time. The longer you take to cheat, the more your opponent’s suspicion meter fills, so not only do you have to be precise with your cheating, you have to be quick. It’s plenty nerve racking when you’re trying to casually calculate how to deal your boss three high cards and everyone else junk while the suspicious seconds tick by. We’ve been found out a few times and thrown in jail once. But we’re always invited back to the table for more.

When I’ve screwed up and lost everything—and it’s happened more than once—it’s back to conning locals with a game of Three-card Monte next to a barn. It’s not glamorous, but it’s a quick way to win a small stake so we can buy back into a high-society game. It’s also where I got stabbed in the gut after trying to con the wrong guy one too many times. Live and learn. Or, don’t—there’s a permadeath mode in Card Shark if you really want to gamble with your life.

Card Shark really makes me feel like a skilled card cheat, especially when I have a great run at a table, pulling off my moves flawlessly, raising the bet to win a big pot, and finishing the game without the other players becoming completely suspicious. I’ve learned about 8 different ways to cheat, but there are nearly 30 in the full game, and since certain methods wind up getting combined with others I imagine no two card games will ever really feel the same.

And Cark Shark doesn’t pull its punches. Conning fabulously wealthy folk out of a handful of coins isn’t a moral problem for me, but not everyone we cheat seems to really deserve it. My mentor has no limits: He wants to take every last coin from everyone he cheats, no matter who they are. There are sometimes extremely ugly consequences as a result of this con game (a disclaimer at the beginning warns that Card Shark includes depictions of suicide, death, and violence, and I’ve already seen all three). At least twice in the demo I was left feeling like a terrible person for participating.

But there’s always another game happening somewhere in France, so we’re racing off in the stagecoach again, my regrets fading quickly as my mentor teaches me another cool new way to cheat at cards. If you want to find out how good a cheat you are, a demo of Card Shark will be available during Steam Next Fest this week. 

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