Poker apps have had considerable success on the iPhone, but America’s favorite card game was designed for real gambling, and there’s really no getting around that. Because of that, poker apps on the App Store have generally felt like an uneasy compromise between what poker really is and what is allowed on Apple’s mobile platform. Fortunately, Chillingo and Aspyr have brought us an inventive way to tap into the appeal of poker without simply creating a weak facsimile of it.
Describing Poker Pals without referring to Scrabble or normal poker is practically impossible. The game is such a great interpretation of the two games it’s inspired by; it just makes sense to give in to the obvious connections between them.
It’s like you’ve never played poker before.
In Poker Pals, you use cards/tiles in your hand/rack to make five-card poker hands on the board that you share with your opponent. You earn points based on the ranks of the hands you play: one pair earns 10 points, and you go up the ladder until the elusive Royal Flush, which nets you 90. You also get 10 points for each card/tile you played that contributes to the hand. You must use at least one tile from your hand and one on the board (and three more from either) to make a scoring hand, a rule that may escape beginners.
So that’s how it works, but how much fun is it? Tons, if you’re a fan of both Scrabble and poker. Poker Pals doesn’t test your complete skills in both games, but it takes elements from each and requires a brand new kind of strategy.
Unlike Scrabble, you won’t need to memorize any obscure two- or three-letter words, because each play needs to result in exactly a five-card hand. However, you will need to know the rankings of poker hands (or look them up frequently, which is easy enough to do in the game) to make sure you’re not robbing yourself of points. Other than maybe keeping track of which cards have already been played, this is the extent to which your poker skills will be tested.
Now that’s a full house.
Towards the end of the game, however, you become less concerned with making the single highest-scoring hand you can, because it becomes necessary to make multiple hands in one play if you want to win. These combos are absolutely key to success, so it’s important to look closely at the board as it fills up with more tiles.
To compare the game to Scrabble yet again, it’s also important to keep in mind what you’re opening up or blocking off for your opponent. Each corner has a wild card (analogous to the triple word bonus square) that can, for example, turn two pair into a full house. You also need to strike a balance between setting yourself up for future hands and not doing the same favor for your opponent. This depth in strategic considerations speaks to how much fun it is to play Poker Pals over and over again, and it’s a nice mix of chance and skill, just like… well, Scrabble and poker!
You can keep multiple games open at once, and it’s a good thing, because while a game against the AI takes just a couple minutes, your human opponents may not play quite so quickly. The game also features well-designed achievements, and this game may very well be the best reason to sign up for Chillingo’s social network, Crystal. All in all, Poker Pals is an awesome mash-up of two classics, and we can’t recommend it enough to fans of board games.