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Poker Mechanics in Video Games

I’m not a big poker fan. In fact, I don’t know my Flush from my Straight most of the times. But this doesn’t mean I don’t recognize a robust game mechanic when I see one. And after all, before there were video games, there were board games and before there were board games there was the almighty poker. I think all game designers have something to learn from the good ol’ Texas Hold’em. Moreover, poker can make a video game experience feel round, or completely different. Let us see some ways in which poker mechanics are used throughout games.

Poker for Story

Here’s one of my favourites: Runespell: Overture. In Runespell, poker is used to create a robust turn-based combat mechanic. Of course, not Poker per se, but the actual hands from poker are introduced in the game as different damage tiers. The two opposing players each have a deck on which they can group their cards and they can steal cards from the other player’s deck. The aim is of course to bring your enemy’s health to zero and win the battle. But what surprised me here was the potential Poker has in this game to actually support and TELL a story. It’s not something you’d usually expect from a deck of cards, but then again, D&D is based on dice, so…

Runespell screenshot

Poker in Runespell, with all the bells and whistles

Poker for Immersion

Poker doesn’t only have the potential of telling stories in video games, but it also has the potential of making digital universes look  and feel more real. It gives a sense of persistence and coherence and moreover, it gives the player more to do. In Red Dead Redemption, which, by the way, is given away for free to European PSN subscribers this month, poker is both a complement and a distraction. I certainly wouldn’t say I’m playing Red Dead for its poker scenes, which are actually a pretty good break from all the galloping and shooting. The presence of several poker related achievements and even a multiplayer mode related to the card game clearly shows that Rockstar sees the potential of introducing the simple, rough card game mechanics into a complex video game framework.

Red Dead Redemption Concept Art

Red Dead Redemption features several single and multiplayer Poker achievements.

Poker for its own sake

In the end though, poker remains a powerful and fun game in itself and most poker video games are just a cyber-actualization of the core concept. That is, the medium is digital, yet the game mechanics remain the same. What can be seen though is a pronounced shift from the card game at a professional level to poker as a means of light entertainment, with Zynga, EA Games, Microsoft and myriads of “small players” joining the funky casino club. Is the resulting poker-on-the-go satisfying? I will let more experienced people answer that question for me…


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