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Runespell: Overture

Hocus poker.

If you were ever unfortunate enough to get yourself addicted to online poker, Runespell: Overture might be a pretty clever means of rehabilitation. It could be methadone to poker's heroin, in fact: providing structure for your card games, while dialling down the real money expenditure. Maybe the NHS should publish it.

Runespell takes that structure from the familiar world of fantasy stereotypes. Like Puzzle Quest, it's a simplified slice of RPG with something else where the fighting should be. In this case, that something else is playing cards. You make poker hands to pummel your enemies into submission, clubbing them with clubs, acing them with aces, and then hitting them with a bunch of fives.

Runespell keeps things simple and casual. Your hooded character moves through a compact world map, going from node to node and fighting monsters. In towns, he can pick up quests ("Hey, go and fight some monsters"), buy stuff at shops ("Hey, this will be useful when you fight monsters-), and chat to the locals ("Hey, you look like you might be good at fighting monsters"). It's pretty - Runespell's small world is drawn in rich purples and golds, and the battle screen features particle effects and some surprisingly intricate 3D models at the top - but it isn't very involving.

The story is typical back-stabbing fantasy fun, and while there's the option to wade through multiple responses in the game's many conversations, there's also the option to skip the conversations entirely, which suggests that they have little bearing on how the plot turns out. The ending, when it arrives, is abrupt and anticlimactic, although there's a vague promise of more content to come when the developer's made it. In terms of pacing, the whole thing feels like a template waiting for the proper game to be bolted onto it. Hence the whole 'Overture' thing, perhaps.

Sword & Poker over on iOS offers a different take on the same idea.

That leaves the battle system, and here the game is marginally more involved. Each fight sees you and your foe given a Solitaire-style arrangement of cards, before you take turns - or rather, you take three turns and then your enemy takes three turns - to build very simple poker hands and fling them at each other. The better the hand, the more damage you'll do, so a full house, for example, is better than three-of-a-kind.

There's a little strategy to be had here, as you can entirely ruin your chances in a fight by focusing on building flushes while your nemesis wails away on you with pairs, so it's generally best to multitask and have a couple of low-power hands on the boil as you work towards something a little more damaging. Meanwhile, the ability to steal unused cards from your rival - and vice versa - throws in another sweet tactical note, as you have to pace yourself when it comes to exploring the rest of the deck. Enemy AI is smart enough to pinch a card that it knows you need even if it doesn't actually want it for one of its own hands. It can be brilliantly frustrating to turn over that six of diamonds you've been after - it's always the six of diamonds - right at the end of a round, only to watch helplessly as it's yanked away from you before you have time to use it.