Review: Dead Man’s Draw (PC)

deadmansdrawcoverDead Man’s Draw
Publisher: Stardock Entertainment
Developer: Stardock Entertainment
Genre: Casual/Strategy
Release Date: 02/06/2014

Luck is a common factor in many casual games. Part of what makes them addicting is never really knowing how things will turn out. You just don’t know what gems will take the place of the ones you’ve cleared, or which lane of your lawn that zombie will invade. While the mechanics and premise might be simple, there’s enough mystery to keep you engaged far longer than you’d otherwise be. While strategy might be important, the luck of the draw is just a tad bit more so.

Dead Man’s Draw is a game that fits that premise to a tee. You can play a perfect hand for so long, but it will all be for naught if the wrong card comes up. It also has pirates.

deadmansdraw1Dead Man’s Draw has but one play mode. However, that one play mode is pretty substantial. There’s no story to weigh things down either. You simply pick your pirate avatar, and get to work. Play progresses by completing tournaments. Completing one tournament unlocks the next and so on. Each tourney has a different set of rules that affect how you play. It can be as simple as “your opponent uses traits” to something more crazy like “cards bust on same numbers instead of suits”. I promise that will make sense later on. As you play games, you’ll earn experience that unlocks new card abilities, traits, and avatars. There’s also a decent difficulty curve to make sure it feels like things are progressing forward.

Visually, the game looks good, but its visuals are incredibly simple. Characters are simply represented by portraits that don’t animate one bit. Battlegrounds are static images, and there are only a couple of visual effects to be found. You’ll basically be watching cards get turned over. However, the art has a nice look to it, and the colors are rich. It’s pretty in its own way.

deadmansdraw2The effects and music you’ll find in the game are also straightforward and simple. The music feels like the typical riff that has been popular in pirate movies and games for years now. It’s enjoyable and fitting, but won’t leave a lasting impression. When you play a card, it will make the appropriate sound that goes with that suit. You’ll hear a cannon blast when you play a cannon, and you’ll hear the sound of water splashing when you play the anchor. Beyond that, there’s nothing to talk about. The presentation is simple, but solid. It’s acceptably unremarkable.

At its heart, Dead Man’s Draw is a “press your luck” game. The idea is that you can keep drawing cards as long as you want. Each card scores you points and/or lets you perform helpful actions. However, if you draw a card that is the same suit as one you’ve already drawn, you “bust” and lose all of the cards. You play against an AI opponent, and whoever has the most points when the deck runs out is the winner.

There are ten suits in the deck, each representative of a pirate-themed item. There are cannons, hooks, mermaids, swords, treasure maps, and more. Each suit has seven different cards, numbered two through seven. The number represents the number of points you’ll score if you manage to get that card. However, only the highest number of each suit counts toward your score. If you’ve got a six and a three of swords, you’ll get six points. If you bust out during your turn, all the cards you drew will go to the discard pile.

deadmansdraw3Where things get interesting is the different abilities of each card. A cannon, for example, allows you to go through your opponent’s pile and discard any card of your choice. The treasure map lets you play a card from the discard pile, the mermaid lets you replay a card on the field, and a kraken forces you to draw two more cards before you’re allowed to end your turn. As you can imagine, you can combine these card powers to create combos. For example, you could use a map card to play a mermaid card, and then replay the map card to go digging again. You could play a sword card to steal your opponent’s cannon card in order to discard yet another one of their cards. These combos allow for crazy turns where you manage to turn the game completely on its head.

Further complicating things are traits. Traits are special powers you can assign to your character before each game. Each trait changes up what happens when you play the associated suit. For example, the scavenger trait allows you to keep a card discarded by a cannon. Eventually, you’ll be able to equip two traits at once, allowing for a variety of combinations. My favorite is using that scavenger trait, and combining it with another cannon trait that allows me to take out every card in a suit, instead of just the top one. This allows me to steal several cards at once, and leaves me with plenty of backup in case my opponent manages to get rid the top one.

The game does a good job of gradually introducing you to the various mechanics and abilities. The first dozen or so levels you gain unlock the different card abilities, allowing you to get used to each one before moving on. The various rules for each tournament keep things fresh throughout. You may have a sound strategy for normal play, but if hands bust on numbers instead of suits, your whole game has to change.

deadmansdraw4One thing to take away from this game is that it still mostly comes down to the luck of the draw. You can have a winning strategy, but if you are busting while your opponent cleans up, it won’t matter one bit. The best thing you can say is that a winning strategy might get you the win, but a downright poor strategy will likely cause you to lose. That balance is likely just enough to keep you coming back for more.

Priced at ten dollars, this game might be a tad too expensive. It’s free for iOS users, and the PC version doesn’t offer much in the ways of improvements. There are Steam achievements to consider I guess, but that will only matter to some people.

It’s also a shame that there’s no multiplayer component. The developers did try to get a physical version of the game made that allowed for up to four players to compete, so it’s depressing that they didn’t also try to include that in the video game. There are more than enough AI challengers to take up your time, but battling another human would be much more satisfying.

Short Attention Span Summary

The risk/reward gameplay combined with just the right amount of strategy makes Dead Man’s Draw a fun casual game. While it might not be heavy on the features, the gameplay gets mixed up enough to keep things fresh, even when playing for hours on end. It might be a bit too steep at ten bucks, but fans of casual/strategy games will likely have a lot of fun with this one.



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