Poker games and fantasy role-playing games tend to exist on opposite ends of the gaming spectrum. The former is rooted in the real world of casinos and cards, while the latter is about as far from the real world as you can get. You’d expect any game that combined the two to be a confused and confusing mess, but Sword & Poker brings these two very different genres together to crete an utterly addictive hybrid.
The story, such as it is, is pure fantasy cliche: The “Lord of Chaos” has stolen the “magical Stone of Creation from the bottom of the Earth,” and a young warrior must go and retrieve it. But this short story-heavy introduction quickly gives way to a series of turn-based card battles against a variety of fantasy monsters.
In each battle, the central 3 x 3 section of a 5 x 5 square grid is filled with randomly dealt playing cards from a standard deck. Each player in turn places two of the four cards in their hand around the border of the playing field, to make a five card hand in a horizontal, vertical or diagonal line (these borders themselves eventually make five card hands of their own, adding some strategy to the positioning). Better poker hands translate to stronger attacks on the enemy, depleting money from their “bag of coins” until they are bankrupt and defeated (or you are). Then it’s on to the next enemy on the branching map, and eventually to the next floor of the dungeon, where more powerful enemies await.
If this were the entire game, Sword & Poker would already be a mildly diverting, if slightly shallow, tactical card game. But the developers have added an entire RPG-style system of character advancement that takes the game from interesting diversion to “just one more level” addictive masterpiece.
Coins, earned from felled foes and treasure chests scattered throughout the dungeons, can be used between floors to purchase bigger and better coin bags, weaponry and protective shields, letting you take on ever-more-powerful foes with ease. This gear can also cause (or, in the case of shields, protect against) debilitating status effects such as turn-skipping paralysis, card theft, health regeneration and more. This means the most powerful weapon is not always simply the one that does the most damage, and players may want to build up a full armory of swappable weapons and shields to tailor to different battles.
Then there are the powerful magical effects, which let players shift the status of the game decisively at key points in the battle. These slowly unlocked magic spells can do everything from restore your health, increase your damage-dealing potential, rearrange the communal cards in the center, exchange shields with the enemy and more. When combined strategically with specific gear, this magic can help create some very powerful strategies. For instance, you can combine the ability to sort the board by suit with a weapon that does a lot of damage when you play a Flush, creating a strong one-two punch. Or you can take off your shield before a battle, then use your shield-exchanging magic to hurt the enemy’s defense and increase your own at the same time.
The luck of the draw and the relative power on each side of the battle still matter quite a bit, but these magical abilities let you feel like you have some larger control over the outcome of each match. What’s more, being able to personalize your character with gear and magic makes lets you play the game your own way. Do you want to be a defensive turtle, absorbing damage while slowly whittling your opponents down? Or would you rather focus on offense and try to take out enemies quickly, before they can hurt you. The choice is yours, and it helps make the game feel much more personal.
The high quality presentation — which includes varied, well-drawn enemies and insanely catchy battle music — is some icing on the cake. But it’s the deep, personalized gameplay that will hook you in to Sword & Poker and refuse to let go until, and possibly even after, you beat that final boss monster.