Review: Dead Man's Draw

By Kelsey Rinella 07 Oct 2013 0
Because Skylanders already made it. Cards and pirates? Are they setting up a "poop deck" joke?

Stardock are probably best known to Pocket Tactics readers as the developers of the Galactic Civilizations games, originally made for the uber-niche OS/2 -- so the arrival of a casual pirate-themed game may seem a bit like seeing Buzz Aldrin on Sesame Street. Perhaps that goes too far--more like a flashy, undemanding, and unsatisfying Michael Bay flick; that's more in tune with many of our expectations of causal games.

But, even for those of us for whom "casual" is a bad sign, there are some games in the category which are worthy of attention, just as there are some flashy blockbusters which pose interesting questions. Is the foreknowledge of the oracle of the Matrix compatible with freedom? In this case, the question is whether a nice coat of paint and a few embellishments to a simple probability calculation can elevate Dead Man's Draw enough to be worth playing. To foreshadow the rest of the review, I've now played through almost all of the single-player content and have killed my brand-new 5S's battery twice, yet haven't made a single in-app purchase.

Tournaments with special rules Seems like everything's measured in stars these days.

Dead Man's Draw features a simple push-your-luck mechanic with excellent presentation and a fair few in-app purchase opportunities. The basic structure of the game is very simple: there's a deck of cards numbered 2-7 in each of ten suits. On your turn, draw a card, then continue drawing cards until either you stop and add all of the drawn cards to your hand, or you draw a card of the same suit as a card you've already drawn this turn and discard them all. Your score at the end of the game is the total of the highest-numbered cards of each suit. This would be a dreary exercise in probability and card counting, but for three things: each suit has a special ability which executes when one of its cards is drawn (like stealing from the opponent or peeking at the top card of the deck), most of the games take place under special conditions, and you may choose to deploy "traits" which grant you additional powers.

All of that said, optimal play still requires attention to probability and counting cards. But these various alterations to the formula introduce enough variability that the rewards of optimal play are not much greater than those of merely competent play, and the particular probabilities under consideration change so much from game to game that it's not worth the investment of very careful analsysis. Instead, you end up looking for some broad insights and playing according to your tolerance for risk. Not unlike PT darling Ascension, you can't play at all well mindlessly, but there are not infrequently turns on which you don't make meaningful decisions, and the order of the cards in the deck contributes greatly to the flow of the game.

Fabio! Bonus points for the Fabio reference. Ultra mega bonus points for not having a Captain Jack Sparrow look-alike.

The app is very impressively produced, with myriad minor visual and auditory cues conspiring to keep your attention on the relevant aspects of the game. They're both effective and unintrusive--this and Bastion are the only games for which I prefer to have the sound on. There are avatars, challenges, and traits to unlock with gold, which can be purchased for real money but is earned at a rate adequate to open the single-player challenges. I had to try several of the challenges a few times before I could progress, and briefly considered feeling annoyed that my desire to avoid paying for consumable charges for my traits left me at a disadvantage, but the game is random enough that they didn't seem powerful enough to make winning much more likely, anyway. As the players have no hidden information, it's well-suited to pass-and-play, but there's no online multiplayer yet (though an update adding it later would be unsurprising).

The slightly silly theme and attractive presentation helped me stay in a frame of mind to really enjoy Dead Man's Draw: it's not a game I take very seriously, so I never felt so invested in a particular strategy that the randomness of a result bothered me. The challenges aren't especially balanced, but are varied enough to remain interesting. Despite a moderate amount of offers of in-app purchases, I didn't give a second thought to simply skipping them. If you're looking for a low-commitment game that's easy to get along with, this is a piratey alternative to Candy Crush or whatever else is on, and maybe it'll have some valuable side-effects.

Review: Dead Man's Draw

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