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Playing the bounteous Fall from Heaven mods for Civilization IV was a steady progression of “I can’t believe they even put this in here!” moments. But it wasn’t enough to come up with crazily imaginative factions, game bending concepts, and so many revised and refined rules that you forgot you were playing a variation on Civilization. Creator Derek Paxton even built into Fall from Heaven a deck building game called Somnium. You could play against the other factions for a diplomacy bonus or penalty, depending on how well you did. It was simple but hearty. It was the sort of thing you wished you could get for your tabletop. Or, years later, your iPad.

After the jump, it’s years later

Dead Man’s Draw is a pirate-themed and thoroughly amped up version of Somnium for your iPhone or iPad. The basic push-your-luck mechanics are the stuff of endless wasted minutes, perfect for a handheld system. The deck consists of ten suits, with six values in each suit. On your turn, you can keep drawing cards as long as you want, but if you duplicate any suit, you bust. If you don’t bust, the highest value in each suit adds to your score. I mean, seriously, there’s ten suits here, so why wouldn’t I draw a fourth card? Right? Another anchor! C’mon! What are the odds?

It’s exactly how Somnium worked. Every draw is a new piece in a risk/reward puzzle. But where Dead Man’s Draw really comes into its own is how it gives each of the game’s ten suits unique and cleverly themed gameplay. A cannon isn’t just a picture of a cannon. It lets you knock out any one of your opponent’s scored cards. A sword, which is naturally more up close and personal, lets you steal a card, but only if you don’t have that suit. A crystal ball lets you see into the future by looking at the top card of the deck. A treasure map lets you choose among cards buried in the discard pile. And a kraken? Fighting a kraken is always a nailbiting experience that can either gain you treasure or bite you in the ass. Who thought of all this stuff? Who translated these goofy pirate themed icons into such clever gameplay rules? And would they hurry up and make more games?

Fall from Heaven and Somnium creator Derek Paxton is currently Stardock’s VP and it’s a delight to see the creative insight of Fall from Heaven working its way into Stardock’s releases. One of the hallmarks of good game design is that each piece affects the other pieces in dramatic ways, and that’s exactly how the suits work. Dead Man’s Draw reminds me a bit of Love Letters, another recent favorite of mine, in that a low number is never just a low number. Certain mechanics emerge over time, giving the game life beyond merely learning the rules. Never have I seen so many mermaids slaughtered by so many cannons. Just as I thought I was quite undone by a kraken, the key to a treasure chest unlocks enough filthy lucre to upend the score entirely. And that hooked hand! Oh, the variations that come with letting me put back into play one of my own cards!

Furthermore, Dead Man’s Draw draws out these gameplay mechanics by gradually folding in power-ups and tweaked tournament rules. You’re not just getting a nifty card game; you’re getting a long steady feed of new ways to play. Stick with it long enough and you’ll tame that kraken, shoot that cannon with deadly precision, and use an anchor to wrap up extra treasure. Of course, so will the other player (and kudos to Stardock for including an AI that knows how to play the basic rules and even the many variations). Dead Man’s Draw might be simple, but it’s going to be a long time before it’s done fiendishly tweaking its various simplicities.

The business model gets in the way a bit. Stardock is selling bits and bobs even after you’ve bought the game. For instance, you have to recharge your special powers using the gold you earn, but you never have to worry about this if you drop a few dollars more on micropayments. You can also micropay your way around the gameplay advancement, as Dead Man’s Draw continually reminds you. An invitation to buy double xp throbs relentlessly on your xp bar. There’s even a special power reserved solely for people who pay a premium above and beyond the cost of the game. The level cap has less to do with what level you are and more to do with whether you’ve tipped the developer.

Not that they don’t deserve a tip. Am I railing against this game in particular or the financial ecosystem in which it exists? Who can tell anymore? But rest assured that Dead Man’s Draw is a fantastic game only slightly tainted by the lure of filthy microlucre.