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[Five minutes of... is a series of investigations by former Edge magazine editor-in-chief -- and current development director of social game developer Hide&Seek -- Margaret Robertson into what five minutes of play reveals about a particular video game, this time focusing on fascinatingly obscure iOS title Sword & Poker.]
From Elephant And Castle station to Loughborough Junction station, as a small but very select number of you may already know, is just a whisker under two miles. Or 3140 meters if you prefer to think that way.
Or three minutes 45 if you’re on the train, which you are, because otherwise it’s half an hour in the Walworth Road traffic jam or a joyless trudge past a lot of badly spelled chicken shops. Or, to put it another way, it’s almost exactly one bout of the excellent iPhone game Sword & Poker.
Which means that it isn’t a whisker under two miles. It isn’t three minutes 45. It’s three minutes 56 of Sword & Poker, followed by two seconds of heart-thump as you raise your head to see the doors closing on your stop, then three minutes of silent fuming till you get to the next one, two minutes of staring in fury at a departure board bare of any northbound trains, eight minutes of waiting for a bus, two minutes of giving up and walking before the bus overtakes you on the hill and a whole evening of being cross at your own carelessness.
I’d be surprised if anyone reading this hasn’t had that experience. We’ve been missing stops for 30 years or more, at least since Ball and Flagman arrived on Game & Watch and human punctuality took an irrevocable dip.
Why does it happen? Why do I miss my stop for a game more often than for a book or a daydream? Is it because Sword & Poker is just so darned engaging, so completely absorbing?
The iOS game was made by Gaia, the start-up founded by Kouji Okada, Shin Megami Tensei veteran and early force behind the Persona series. Gaia, I only recently discovered, went under last year, taking Sword & Poker and its sequel down with it. [EDITOR'S NOTE: Between submitting this column and publishing it, the two Sword & Poker games have returned to the Apple Store, happily.]
It’s best defined -- in one of my most favouritely dense game descriptions ever -- as a "poker patience RPG."
Played on a 5-by-5 grid, the game fills the centre square in with nine cards. You take it in turns, against an AI opponent, to play a pair of cards from a hand of four, such that they form a line containing a valid poker hand. Your opponent takes damage based on how good the hand is, and your cards replenish.
This, though, is an RPG, so these opponents are spaced out along dungeon maps and they wield -- as do you -- weapons which amplify damage, shields which protect, and special powers which radically impact your strategies.
These special powers can be collected and paired in carefully planned loadouts. One might multiply damage according to how many spades you have in your hand. Another might let you reorder the nine central cards according to suit, or number. More advanced weapons add status effects on certain hands -- poison or paralyse.
A simple combo system allows you to deploy a joker at critical moments. Some bosses have species traits that give them in-built advantages, like letting them always go first on a new round. The more opponents you beat, the more money you earn, the better kit you buy, the bigger opponents you can tackle.
Basically, you know the game you imagined when I said "poker patience RPG"? It’s that. Or it was that.