The Sword and Poker series is Puzzle Quest using Poker instead of Bejeweled as a combat mechanic. If that doesn’t give you a certain tingle up your leg, then you probably missed Puzzle Quest for the same reason I almost missed it: because it sounds like a dumb idea.
The notion of a narrative fantasy adventure that drops to a thrilling game of match-three whenever it’s time to throw down with a monster just sounded all kinds of wrong when I first read about it. In practice, however, the Puzzle Quests games work like a dream, using a brilliant hybrid of RPG conventions and puzzle gameplay to create an insanely addictive gaming experience. It became a surprise hit and has spawned add-ons, sequels, and copycats.
Sword and Poker doesn’t quite reach that level of brilliance. It’s a simpler game, with a less complex puzzle combat system and a milder RPG element. The premise is simple: you work your way through various levels, meeting deadly (albeit cute) creatures, and playing poker in order to blast them back to the hell from whence they came (cutely).
Combat is turn-based, and takes place on a 5×5 grid. In the center of that grid is a 3×3 layout of cards. Each player is dealt 4 cards, and must place them at either end of a line in order to form some kind of 5-card hand. This can be as simple as low as a Pair, or as high as a Royal Flush. Each kind of hand is worth a certain amount of combat damage, with better hands worth more.
Players come to the battlefield/table with a fixed number of hit points. When those points are depleted, the round is over, and the survivor wins treasure, points, and any booty lying around.
These basic elements are modified by different weapons and spells, which allow certainly hands to do more damage or let you modify the game in some way. The layout itself becomes more than merely a place to lay cards: there is a significant element of strategy involved in where, what, how, and when you place your cards or activate your spells. There is a lot more below the surface than you might think.
There are now two games in this series: Sword and Poker and Sword and Poker II, and both come in full ($1) and Lite (free) versions. The sequel simply extends the original with more levels and stuff: it doesn’t appear to change the formula.
This one took me completely by surprised, and I really recommend you at least play through the Lite versions to see what they have to offer.