Casinos may be big business, but it’s often pretty hard to differentiate your suite of games from the competition. After all, it’s not easy to create brilliant new variations on the basic rules that end up being more than mere gimmicks. Much easier, then, simply to combine cardplay with a completely different genre of game. That’s the smart thinking behind the new wave of titles that weave aspects of RPGs with strands of casino games.
Suits and Swords
Perhaps the easiest introduction to this fascinating genre is Sony Pictures Television’s ‘Suits and Swords’ game. Available to play both as an Apple iOS or Android app, Suits and Swords sets you loose in a medieval world divided into different lands – Heart Union, Club Kingdom, Diamond Empire, and Spade Nation. You must aim to free each land from domination by the evil Joker. As you move through the landscape, you face combat against a raft of different foe. This is where the ‘gambling aspect’ comes in. Rather than merely hitting a button to stab or slash your opponent, you fight by playing hands of cards. The rules roughly mirror those of blackjack, so the closest each player gets to a blackjack, and the better their hand is compared to their opponent’s, the more damage they’ll inflict. Score a low hand or go bust, and you may be left relying on the healing wand of a fairy.
In the wrong hands, a game such as Suits and Swords could end up feeling rather contrived. Where Sony Pictures (or rather, the developers n-Space) have got it right, though, is in the superb integration of card themes within the period setting. The land names are all related to suits, and the monsters are themselves visually styled around their respective card suit. In the tradition of all fine RPGs, you can obtain better armour and weapons, and, of course, no swords and sorcery game would be complete without the promise of magic.
Gaining extra spells means you can summon up helpers, or increase the severity of your attacks. The latter often amounts to being able to make the score of a hand go up or down. This isn’t the obvious winning move you might think, though, since you must employ magic cards against the enemy even though you have only seen your opponent’s first card. So while you can certainly calculate your increased chances of winning, it’s very much in the lap of the gods whether the magic will make any difference or not. But then, such is the randomness of blackjack. What isn’t quite so random is the superiority of the opponents’ hands. Most of the time you have to score at least 20 on a hand in order to have any chance of victory, which seems rather ridiculous for blackjack, and does spoil gameplay somewhat.
Perhaps where the game really falls down, though, is in its lack of variety. An awful lot of Suits and Swords amounts to little more than playing an unrealistic version of blackjack against a series of seemingly similar (in feel if not in looks or name) creatures. Many of the best RPGs have a cleverly-written plot that pulls you into the game and that allows the atmosphere to change and grow as you get further. With Suits and Swords, though, the plot is fairly basic and unrewarding. You do have a continuing opponent in the ‘Joker’ character, who presides over proceedings, but the main narrative lacks depth.
The game also misses a trick in terms of its quests. Giving the player complex and differing sets of objectives to complete would give you more to play for. There isn’t enough variety to the fights themselves. Go to any good online casino, and you’ll see a vast array of blackjack variations. Suits and Swords, though, makes little use of these ideas. Where are the equivalents of Double Attack or Perfect Blackjack, for instance. Where are the progressive bonuses that build as you take on more and more foes? And why is it so hard to beat many of the opponents? Suits and Swords needed to have far more angles to it, as well as superior plotting. We would also have liked multi-user play.
The final problem with Suits and Swords is that the graphics are, ironically, a little ancient. Today’s app games are frequently slick and fluid, but Suits and Swords’ visuals are a little static and primitive. Had this game come out a few years ago, we might have applauded it, but app game players are a demanding bunch nowadays. Compared to the fireworks of typical slots, for instance, this game looks very dull in comparison.
Suits and Swords is a nice concept, and parts have been done very well indeed. However, more varied blackjack play, more realistic deals to the opponent, and better plotting and visuals will all be needed to make this more than an occasional-play.
Sword & Poker 2
Very much a forerunner of Suits and Swords is this relative oldie, Sword & Poker 2. Released back in 2010 as a sequel to the even older Sword & Poker, this game combines an RPG background with elements of poker.
The action takes place over a series of dungeons, and you move through fighting monsters. Battles consist of the participants trying to make poker hands on a grid. You place pairs of cards in turn, trying to find the best lines. The better the hands you play, the more damage you inflict. Both the player and the monster has a set amount of coins allocated, and the fights rage on until one of the participants has lost everything.
As is probably obvious, you’re not playing poker in its purest sense. Instead, it brings in an element of strategy, forcing you to think very carefully about which squares to fill up. At least part of the skill is in preventing the opponent from playing their best hands.
In the traditions of the best RPGs, the further you get, the better the items you’ll be able to buy. However, it’s not as simple as saying the best weapons will dish out greater amounts of damage. Some will wreak havoc upon top hands, such as straights and flushes. Others are better suited to damaging lesser hands, such as pairs. Weapons may have special skills. Some, for instance, allow the player to secure the last two hands of the round.
All of these elements force you to think, plan ahead, and use the various items and plays very carefully. It requires a great deal more thought than the relatively simple gameplay of Suits and Swords, for instance.
Considering the age of the game, the graphics aren’t too bad. The monsters tend to be quite humorous, and the interface is bold and colourful. The animations can drag, though, while the music gets repetitive very quickly. Overall, though, Sword & Poker 2 is an excellent little game. Liking poker isn’t really a prerequisite, although the enjoyment of strategy almost certainly is.
What both of the above titles really lack is multi-user play. Sword & Poker is more enclosed, but Suits and Swords would have had far more edge had you been able to interact with other players. Doubly so if players could attach themselves to different factions, World of Warcraft-style. To be honest, we couldn’t find any good MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online) games that use gambling in place of fight systems. There are a number of experimental MMOs that are partly based around gambling. Dragon’s Tale, for example, lets you walk around a vast world, chancing your arm on almost everything, from the growth of seeds, to kicking benches, and guessing which jackpot square a freed monkey will run to. CasinoRPG is very much in its early stages (it’s still in the Beta stage), but lets you build up a casino empire. You can even play in-game versions of the various casino titles.
These games aren’t visual extravaganzas like WoW – they run in the browser, for a start, so compatibility is high, but graphics capabilities are relatively modest. More like intriguing experiments than full games in their own right, Dragon’s Tale and CasinoRPG still have something to offer the patient user. CasinoRPG, in particular, is very much in its infancy, and is likely to grow and improve as it gets older.
The sheer number of Kickstarter projects based around the concept of RPG/gambling suggests we should have some interesting titles to play before long. In the meantime, you can while away a happy afternoon with Sword & Poker, or Suits and Swords. Nobody’s yet hit on exactly the right combination of RPG plot, absorbing card-game combat, and multi-user competition. This genre, though, is one to watch in the near future.