Changing the familiar to create something new is a tantalizing, but potentially perilous endeavor. It risks alienating purists and intimidating newcomers (some “real time” chess games come to mind), building a significant audience with neither in the process. Happily, Poker Pop, from PlayFirst and Say Design, is a unique hybrid that should appeal to poker enthusiasts who want (or need) to step away from the tables for a bit, as well as puzzle game fans who don’t mind learning a few poker hands.

The basic idea is to pick out poker hands – pairs, straights, flushes – from card-like tiles laid out on a board. Click on two matching adjacent tiles and you’ve got a pair. Select five adjacent tiles in the same suit and you’re playing a flush. To complete each level, you must find a specified number of varied poker hands. For example, two three-of-a-kinds, five pairs and one flush.

Game play is set against a “Voyage of a Lifetime” theme, covering five countries and 50 cities. As you travel, you’ll need to find higher-scoring hands (straights, full houses and straight flushes) to progress to the next level or, in this case, city. Once a city is completed, in addition to a summary of your scoring, a postcard appears which includes a photo representing that town and some fun facts about it.

Power-ups, of which there are many, help greatly in your travels, especially as more-inspiring hands are required. You’ll find power-ups that organize tiles by suit (making flushes easier to find), sort them by rank (so straights are simpler to pick out) and help you avoid Perils.

Ah, the Perils! World travel is not without its dangers, and neither is Poker Pop. Certain tiles on the board have negative consequences, Perils, associated with them. In the early rounds, these are pretty benign – timers that hold you up for a bit and smoking tiles that end your round if they drop to the bottom. As you advance, Perils start to get more ubiquitous and nasty. My first stop in Australia brought a Level Re-setter. When its timer expired, the progress I made on that level was wiped out completely. Most perilous!

You’ll also have to collect Souvenirs in each city by playing very high-scoring hands. A straight flush in Naples, for instance, got me a miniature Leaning Tower of Pisa. These mementos are stored in your Travel Case along with pins and postcards from the places you’ve been.

As if that’s not enough, there are three unique game modes to play. Tour Mode, my favorite, takes you on a journey around the world. This mode is un-timed, but becomes very demanding as you advance. Challenge Mode involves a similar journey, but adds a timer so finding requisite hands quickly is important. Arcade Mode is open ended, yet only allows you to play in countries you have already completed in Tour Mode.

The overall feel and rhythm of the game, particularly in the un-timed modes, is somewhat akin to mahjongg or solitaire. Though, Challenge Mode is a very different experience; much more frenetic and difficult. Furthermore, while it isn’t at all necessary to be an ace poker player to enjoy Poker Pop, it does make things a little easier if you understand the basic poker hands, as you’ll be a bit clearer on what you’re looking for.

Graphics have a very tactile feel, with lots of clever touches to enhance both the “local flavor” of each level, as well as the sense that you really are on a journey. While the music gets a bit repetitive, it’s nicely consistent with whatever country you’re visiting, which is fun and adds to the immersion factor.

My complaints about Poker Pop are few. Some of the face tiles (which look different in each county) are a little hard to read, and a hint feature would be nice. Also, the game seems to default to the highest-scoring hand with the tiles you select, rather than the one you need to finish the level. But, these are minor grievances.

Poker Pop is indisputably well done with great tutorial features, excellent level design and progression, and an incredible amount of depth and replayability. The production values are outstanding, and the game is quite fun and highly addictive. Bon Voyage!