PokerStars Power Up

PokerStars Put a Lot of Thought into Power Up

I have written a lot about PokerStars’ new wacked-out game, Power Up. The turbo, three-handed Sit-and-Go in which players can manipulate the cards by using special “powers” is wild and though poker purists will think it is blasphemous, it is truly a lot of fun. On Friday, PokerStrategy posted an interview with one of the game’s developers, Chris Straghalis, and quite frankly, I came away impressed with how much long-term thought has been put into the game.

Power Up was in public testing mode on and off for the better part of this year and obviously in development and internal testing well before that, but I have a feeling most people don’t consider just how much planning went into this game. Sure, there is all of the programming involved – PokerStars developed an entirely new game engine for it – but the game’s creators considered very seriously how the game needed to work to both be fun and not pervert poker too much, while being viable in the long run.

Using a Disintegrate Power in PokerStars Power Up

Straghalis said that the idea for Power Up didn’t necessarily come from Hearthstone or Magic the Gathering players (I and many others have compared the addition of powers to these card collecting games), but rather from a casual player who wanted more control over his poker fate and a more serious player who simply fantasized about cheating.

What is interesting to me about this is that it would have been very easy for PokerStars to add dozens of powers, letting players do virtually whatever they wanted during the game. And that would have been fun at times, but PokerStars also realized that there had to be limits on what the powers could achieve, lest the game become a joke. Straghalis provided an example:

….it was a very specific rule early on when doing game balancing that we do not want to have powers that say “I win” on them. In fact, the first power ever designed unfortunately never made it into the final version of the game. One of the game designers created a power called “Zombie” which, when played, would bring a player who had folded back into the game. Their cards would be live again, overcoming that familiar complaint we all have about folding a hand like 92o and having the flop come 992. The problem was that in practice it was a power that almost always said “I win” because you would only use it when you had the nuts (or near nuts). That doesn’t mean we have given up on the power, but it will have to change before we ever let it see the light of day.

At first blush, “Zombie” really is a fantastically fun power, but the team was right: it was too much of a game changer. Powers can bail players out of sticky situations, but they shouldn’t completely bail someone out when they have already given up on the hand. The foresight was strong here.

In Hearthstone and Magic the Gathering, players amass their own personal collection of cards and then construct a deck to bring with them to a match. While skill is what generally wins the day (luck does play a not insignificant role), players do usually have to commit to spending decent amounts of money to build strong decks if they want to challenge to rank among the best of the best. PokerStars thought about adding such a deck-building aspect to Power Up, but decided that keeping everyone on an equal plane and not rewarding players for simply being deep pocketed was the best idea:

In general, it will be a more level playing field. We do not expect that one player in the game will have a power that other players do not have access to. We did discuss deck building early on but as most strategy card gamers will tell you; this aspect of gameplay can add yet another element of skill-testing. This is something that would make balancing for real money gameplay even more difficult. It could also have brought about regulatory hurdles about fair play practices that it’s just not a good idea to introduce and that we wanted to steer clear from.

Straghalis said that more powers will be added down the line, which again, is a well-thought out move, as it will keep the game fresh, allowing new strategies to develop.

I have a feeling that some people, upon seeing Power Up for the first time, see the advent of powers as removing skill from the game. After all, if I can implement a power that lets me see the next card in the deck, I certainly don’t need to be as skilled on that hand, right? Straghalis (and I) would argue that Power Up requires more skill than the regular Hold’em game:

In addition to all of the normal poker strategic elements (and it’s important to note that we haven’t removed those elements) such as position, stack size, betting patterns, hand ranges and so on, we have added new areas for players to focus on. The powers themselves are certainly the biggest skill-testing element but players will also need to consider how they combine powers. On top of that, the ability to form and craft a hand of specific powers in order to set up a particular play; having more information than otherwise (such as knowing which cards have been discarded with Engineer and Scanner) and how to manage your energy effectively are just some of the new strategic areas to focus on with Power Up.

He is absolutely right and I think that is what will allow Power Up to have staying power (no pun intended). The powers look gimmicky at first, but they add an entirely new skill dynamic to a game that already required heaps of skill. I know I’ve gotten nailed more than once when I thought I was being oh so clever in using a power only to fail to think ahead to what powers my opponent could use to totally turn the tables on me. I wasn’t even mad. I just nodded and told myself I should’ve seen it coming.

Check out for the entire interview.


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