A good card game, whether that be a trading card game like Magic the Gathering, a deck-builder like Dominion, or a classic game like Poker or Bridge, needs to get just one thing right to be worthwhile: it needs to take the randomness inherent with card games, and place the agency and strategy on the shoulders of the player. If you’re good at Bridge or Poker, you can turn a run of bad luck into a winning position. If you’re good at Magic the Gathering, you’ll be able to construct a deck so beautifully balanced that it almost doesn’t matter what order the cards turn up.
If you play Cards of the Dead, however… well, you may as well just not, because your actions don’t matter, at all, and once you realise that dirty little secret (not that the game does much to hide it) then the game becomes so pointless that you’ll find it unplayable.
Here’s the concept: You’re a survivor of a zombie apocalypse, but you have been bitten and you need to find your way to an antidote fast. You do that by flipping over cards that are arrayed in front of you in the play field. Sometimes those cards will have health serum (necessary to stave off the zombification on your journey). Sometimes they will have food (to replenish physical health), weapons (to hit zombies) and other useful items. And then sometimes the cards will conceal zombies or traps. If you don’t kill them, naturally they’re going to eventually kill you, so you drag one of your weapons over that card to attack it. Finally, after clearing a board you’ll find a card that will direct you to the next board, which will have more turned-down cards to flip, and so on and so forth, until you either die or succeed on the final board and (one assumes) your character then survives into perpetuity.
There are three different characters and, in the developer’s defence, there’s a decent range of cards to unearth and situations to overcome. But that’s the only defence I have for this game because, as I said earlier, it is pointless. There is no strategy to Cards of the Dead. You pick up limited use items, use them to keep your character alive or attack zombies, and then pick up more limited use items. The rare time where there are more items on the board that you can carry is really rare, but there’s no strategy to dealing with that even when it happens, since the choice will always boil down to dumping a food can that will restore two health for one that will restore four.
I understand why the developers decided that everything in Cards of the Dead would involve limited-use items. They’re going for the survival vibe, and survival needs to be a war of attrition, meaning that you can’t come to rely on anything. However, for a game like this, resource management was going to be the only way to implement some kind of strategy, and without that, the whole experience falls flat. You just burn through the resources that you have as you need them, and hope that you’ll find more resources (completely at the mercy of the deities of randomness) before the zombies slaughter you. This game has less strategy and skill involved than children’s card games. Snap requires fast reflexes. Memory requires you to be able to store a lot of information and remember it accurately as you play. Cards of the Dead is a game of flipping cards, performing the prescribed action, and then flipping more cards until the game stops you from flipping them. The closest this game ever gets to “skill” is that you need to remember not to use a health serum that will restore seven points when you only need six points of health to be back to maximum. You don’t want to waste resources, after all. But I wouldn’t call that level of decision-making strategy, either.
Sometimes you will flip over the “progress to next area” card early, by chance, but unless you’ve also tripped an alarm (which summons a new zombie every so many turns), you’ll never want to use that until you’ve flipped all the other cards. The resources may be valuable. No single run of the game is long anyway, so the game’s not even going to test your patience as you bother to flip over the last few cards in a level.
If Cards of the Dead were some visual masterpiece then there might be aesthetic value in playing, but the pixel art cards are purely functional. They’re not terrible, but functional is hardly inspiring. Given that there’s nothing else sitting behind this game – no meaningful narrative, no multiplayer, and no real variation from one game to the next, Cards of the Dead simply doesn’t have anything going for it.
The Nintendo Switch has been blessed with a number of good single-player card games at this point. Whether it’s Shadowverse, Lord of the Rings, or The Witcher spinoff, Thronebreaker, players have plenty of deep, rich, highly strategic card games to choose between. Cards of the Dead, meanwhile, is about as engaging as Solitaire. Sure, I’ve played a game or two of Solitaire in my time when I’m that utterly bored, but that was when I was on a work computer and relying on pre-installed games, or on a boat with nothing but a pack of cards. If you’ve got Cards of the Dead on your Switch, you’ve also got a thousand alternatives for single-player games, and most of them are more worthwhile than this.
– Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @mattsainsb