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Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Best Design 2022: Card Shark

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Card Shark wins our Best Design award—given to the game we think had the most well implemented, enjoyable mechanics this year. For more awards, head to our GOTY 2022 hub.

Jody Macgregor, AU/Weekend Editor: Most digital card games teach you things like mana curve or deckbuilding. Card Shark teaches you authentic ways to cheat, simulated with precise tweaks of the controller. Flicking the stick lets you arrange a deck how you want and “injog” cards to mark your stacks, directional wipes let you communicate suits to your accomplice. Other moves let you steal glimpses at your opponents’ hands, deal face cards in a way that tells your partner what they are, and so on. 

It’s a system as complicated as any CCG meta, only you’ll feel like you learned something valuable at the end of it. As opposed to mastering a mid-range black deck only to have Wizards of the Coast ban Meathook Massacre right out from under you, not that I’m bitter.

Fraser Brown, Online Editor: The way Card Shark simulates the mechanics of cheating is undoubtedly impressive, but I was just as taken in by its confident and eye-catching style. The hand-drawn characters and lavish backdrops are distractingly fetching and take full advantage of France just before the Revolution, a setting that’s just a bit more compelling than a Vegas poker lounge.

In motion, it impresses even more, with a novel cutout animation style that makes all the characters move a bit like puppets, and a penchant for switching perspectives so you’re always close to the action, watching the tricks from the best seat in the house. 

Robin Valentine, Print Editor: I was particularly impressed with how versatile those visuals are. It’s one thing making that look work from a zoomed out, 2D perspective, but thanks to the nature of its various card tricks, Card Shark also has to make it look sharp when zoomed in, or from a first-person 3D perspective, or when you’re abstractly viewing the motions of the deck. All that while maintaining the visual clarity you need to follow all the moving parts of the tricks. Seriously clever.

Chris Livingston, Features Producer: You know that Leonardo DiCaprio pointing at the TV meme? I had that. After a lifetime of procrastination, I finally and very recently sat down to watch Stanley Kubrick’s much-debated (it’s either completely underappreciated or terribly overrated, depending on who you ask) three-hour-plus 1975 period drama Barry Lyndon. And there it was, smack in the middle of the movie. Card Shark, the game. I had no idea this lovely game about cheating at cards was so heavily inspired by Kubrik’s film (his finest work, or not, again depending on who you ask).

Like Barry Lyndon, Card Shark also does an excellent job at making you consider the moral values of its protagonist. Sure, the idea of swindling the richest fops of Europe out of their barely-earned coins feels heroic, almost noble—it’s what they deserve, right? Occasionally, though, it edges into icky territory, as your mentor pushes you to con every last ounce of gold from your marks, no matter who they are or how it might ultimately affect them.

There are several moments where I’d barely had time to congratulate myself on smoothly and successfully pulling off a number of cheats in a game before the brutal consequences became apparent. One moment I’m deftly false shuffling or marking a card or planting a rigged deck, and the next there’s violence, murder, and even suicide. At times, Card Shark really turns ugly, and I appreciate that developer Nerial designed it that way, to give you moments of horror and revulsion that temper the delight and satisfaction of ripping someone off. You’re no hero. You’re a thief. And even stealing money from awful people who did nothing to earn it doesn’t necessarily make you any better than them.

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