Highest hand wins the booty!

Nothing’s quite as much fun as when a developer surprises you with something totally outside of its normal comfort zone. Like, how much fun would it be if Rockstar made a casual party game? Okay, maybe that’s not the best example, but Stardock did something almost as intriguing by taking some time off from 4X strategy games to create Dead Man’s Draw. If pirates had iOS devices in the golden age of seafaring, it’s easy to imagine them playing this card game that tests your wits and nerve in equal amounts.

The object of Dead Man’s Draw is deceptively simple: have more points than your opponent once you finish drawing cards and the deck is gone. But this is no ordinary deck. It’s got 10 suits, all of which are suitably piratey (if that’s a word) things like treasure chests, hooks, cannons, and mermaids. Each suit contains only the numbers two through seven, and only the highest card that you hold in each suit at the end of the game counts toward your total score.

Dead Man's Draw

On your turn, you can draw as many cards as you want, provided no two are from the same suit. Doing that immediately ends your turn and sends everything you’ve drawn to that point to the discard pile. Stop in time and you add all of the cards you’ve drawn to your collection, with your score changing to reflect any high cards in each suit.

It only gets more intense from there. As you win matches, you slowly unlock unique powers for each suit. Cannons can blast one of your opponent’s cards from his or her collection to the discard pile. Anchors protect any cards you’ve drawn prior from being discarded if you bust. Hooks allow you to play a card from your hand and take advantage of its ability, and so on.

Once all of the suits’ powers get unlocked, things can get pretty crazy with combos – especially since the AI is smart about using those powers against you in the same way. Momentum can swing wildly in both directions during any given match, and it’s not uncommon for the win to come down to the very last draw. Every game is unpredictable, and the action rarely drags or gets boring.

Dead Man's Draw

After leveling up a bit, gold won from victories can be spent on special traits that extend the suit powers even further. The Master Gunner trait can be chosen to have cannons blast an entire suit away from your opponent instead of a single card, while the Navigator trait lets you access the entire discard pile with maps, to name two examples. These add yet another layer of strategy to the gameplay, and yes, the computer-controlled avatars eventually learn them too.

The final twists are created by the conditions governing each tournament, which can also affect things dramatically. When all the cards go to your opponent instead of the discard pile if you bust, for instance, it definitely changes your decision-making process. Stardock says there are over 40 different tournaments with more on the way, and I didn’t come close to getting through all of them during my review time. Achieving a high enough score in a tournament gives you free charges for one of your traits, so there’s a reason to replay the ones you’ve beaten to earn all three stars.

Dead Man's Draw

Though fancy graphics aren’t really the hook for a game like this, they certainly help reinforce the feel of a game that could have existed hundreds of years ago. The artwork plays off the pirate motif well, and having different colors for each suit is a nice touch that helps you instantly identify cards when they hit the table or are in your hand.

The Dead Man’s Draw package is rounded out by a head-to-head, play and pass mode, but honestly it had me at the solo offerings. This is the kind of game that reminds you that good design and fun mechanics can make even relatively simple concepts shine, and it certainly falls into the “easy to learn, hard to master” category that was the developer’s intended goal. If this is what happens when Stardock branches out a bit, it makes you wonder what else its newly established mobile arm has in store.