Much of the appeal of poker lies in role-playing.
It doesn't matter if you're sat in a fetid common room playing for matches or round your buddy’s kitchen table for plastic chips. In your mind you’re the debonair playboy (or girl) playing for high stakes at a classy Monaco casino.
Developer Gaia took this role-playing link to an illogical but fun conclusion in the first iPhone Sword & Poker. That game’s unusual mix of royal flushes and turn-based battles proved to be an unexpected delight.
Now Gaia’s making it a pair of aces with Sword & Poker 2, although it feels as if we’ve been on this particular quest before.
Royal flush rumble
Playing the part of an intrepid adventurer, Sword & Poker 2 takes you through a series of dungeons in a typical fantasy universe, picking a fight with every monster that stands between you and the exit.
These fights play out on a 5x5 grid, the middle 3x3 section of which is filled up with a random selection of playing cards. You take turns placing two cards from your hand onto the grid in order to form familiar poker hands.
The better the hand, the more damage dealt to your opponent. The cards keep on refreshing until one player drops.
That’s the core of the game neatly summarised, but there are plenty of additional systems in play that really make things interesting.
Suit of armour
In keeping with the role-playing angle, there’s character development whereby you use funds secured in defeating certain enemies to acquire new weapons, armour, and magic.
Then there’s the Wild Card system, which builds up continuously across each fight. When it fills, you can opt to turn one of your cards into a Joker – a card that can be used to stand in for any regular card.
There are plenty more factors we could consider if space permitted, such as status effects and the finely balanced risk-reward structure of the health recharge system.
There's even a mildly diverting single-handset multiplayer mode, although this lacks the depth that comes through the character customisation element.
Suffice to say, while an initial play will probably leave you slightly underwhelmed, Sword & Poker 2 gradually introduces its finely tuned system until you’re hopelessly ensnared.
Criticisms of Sword & Poker 2 are few, though one in particular is sufficient to knock a point off the score.
While you could launch the old "if it ain’t broke don’t fix it" defence, the similarity between Sword & Poker 2 and its predecessor is just too glaring to ignore. I’ve played updates of games that change the experience more than this.
Which isn't to say there aren’t any enhancements, but they’re subtle. There are now three save slots for the game rather than the original’s two, for example, which is fantastic news if you have a partner or sibling who’s as keen on the game as you.
The graphics have also received an overhaul, with the game now having a more polished appearance (including an attractive world map) and boasting greater variety of dungeons and enemies.
Also, the overall difficulty has been raised, which is perfect if you’re coming to the game from the original. Still, it’s not so tough as to put off newcomers.
These are hardly earth-shattering advances and once the game returns to its default price it will probably be 50 percent more expensive than the original. While you can’t argue with the value of the package, you also can’t argue that this is 50 percent better.
On its own terms then, Sword & Poker 2 is an excellent card-based RPG. Each element works well at drawing you further into the game’s universe, and presents you with an array of tactical considerations that belies its cute veneer.
Still, as a poker player, Sword & Poker 2 is eminently readable and even a little predictable.