“There’s many a slip ’twixt the cup and the lip,” goes the old proverb. In other words, just because you’re close to achieving something doesn’t mean you will necessarily achieve it. This is certainly relevant to card cheating, where even the slightest mistake can give you away.
In Card Shark, a new game by UK-based developer Nerial, players try to outwit their opponents through careful observation, memory, and manipulation of a standard card deck. The goal is to help your partner and mentor, the Count of Saint Germaine, win by rigging the game in his favor.
Players start out in the role of a deaf-mute wine server who peeks at card players’ hands and throws out hints by wiping the table in specific angles. Through this persona you must learn the code, execute it under pressure, and signal correctly to the Count without getting caught. The game introduces new techniques gradually, allowing you to recover from mistakes by intentionally losing hands or sacrificing games. The reward for all this cheating and sleight of hand? Raising your rank in 18th century France, a place of strict social hierarchy. (Think Dangerous Liaisons or the poetry of Voltaire.) Each encounter features a new skill or sleight to learn (such as shuffle tracking or spotting marked cards) or a variation of a previously learned technique with slightly different rules or goals.
Nicolai Troshinsky, Nerial’s lead artist and concept designer, sought to develop a visual style resembling late baroque oil painting by using a printmaking technique known as monotype. “Elements have carried over from what I learned in book illustration,” he says. “I wanted the game to look a bit like a painting from the time period, but I didn't want to make a straight-up oil painting. So I wanted to find a balance that is more modern, that feels more like contemporary illustration inspired by classical painting.”
Admittedly “fascinated with cheats and impostors,” Troshinsky’s initial ideas were sparked from Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, a 1975 film based on the 18th century novel by William Thackeray. Other inspiration came from more recent sources like the hacker game Uplink and award-winning Papers Please.
“But our game is not as mean in the end,” he admits. Development on Card Shark challenged team Nerial in all the best ways, he says. “It starts being a bit frustrating and then becomes stimulating because you have to be creative and find ways to go around limitations.”
The game is a cocktail of fine art, music, history, pop culture, and magic, with scenes seemingly taken out of a picture book at a museum.
“I think all painters, classical painters, and filmmakers probably dreamed of having a world inside a frame from their point of view and their vision,” Troshinsky says. “The classical painters were really fighting for this, you know, trying to capture intricacies of the light and the texture. And so in a game you can actually make it alive—you can inhabit that world inside a frame of your screen.” The overall ambiance grew from Troshinsky’s drive to develop with a wide reference and avoid the hyperspecialization that’s become prevalent in game art. “Sometimes it works,” he says. “But it’s also a missed opportunity.”
The candlelit mood of Card Shark immerses players into a place of history and intrigue, inviting us to absorb details and master techniques of deception. Some of the central figures in the game, such as the Count, really existed, and others are based on charlatans and artists from various points in history (even Voltaire makes an appearance). As you move through the French countryside and enter various dwellings, the cheating sequences grow more elaborate, testing your ability to manipulate the strongest hand.
Learn some deceptions of your own with Art of Play’s wide selection of playing cards and try to swindle the best in Card Shark when the game launches on June 2 on Steam and Nintendo Switch.
Words by Anne-Marie Yerks