Diabolical! is loosely based on a variant of poker called Shawnahoma. It’s a stud variant where players are dealt seven down cards and they discard two of them, then players reveal each card one at a time between rounds of betting and high and low hands split the pot. What makes this variant interesting is that players are essentially telling a story to all of their opponents as an unreliable narrator. One could argue that this is essentially all forms of poker with the way bluffing is implemented, but what makes Shawnahoma unique is that the true narrative of the story (the actual hand) is always known to its owner, but is revealed in parallel with the implied narrative (the player’s betting behaviors) instead of all at once. As each card is revealed, the player’s prior betting behaviors are either supported or unsupported by the newly broadcasted information. This gives players additional layers of information as a hand progresses, starting with very little information apart from the player’s betting behaviors and ending with seeing basically their whole hand.
Additionally, the high / low nature of this variant creates even more interest, as the last card revealed in the hand makes for a climactic finale which ultimately reveals which players told a truthful narrative and which didn’t. For example, if I have an off-suit hand of 2-3-4-5-7 – the lowest possible hand in poker – I can construct that narrative in a way that makes it look as though I have a straight, a reasonably strong hand. By revealing what appears to be a straight one card at a time, players with hands slightly higher than mine – say a 10-high – are baited into staying in, thinking they’ll get half the pot for the lowest hand. This can be further reinforced by my betting behavior, primarily looking at and reacting to other players who appear to be going for a high hand. However, when the last card is revealed, that player learns that what appeared to be a high hand is actually exceptionally low.
It was the constantly shifting nature of information in this poker variant – along with the exciting way in which hands typically finished – which attracted me to it. I felt that by taking that core chassis and modifying it to play more like a modern board game, I would leave players with a compelling, strategic experience.
The game as it stands today shares little resemblance with Shawnahoma. The “draw seven, discard two” hand-style has been replaced with a drafting mechanic, the suits and numbers have been replaced with minions and commands, and betting is replaced with another form of resource management. However, the core elements – slowly gaining more information about the strength of a player’s position, along with a dramatic finale – keeps Diabolical! true to its heritage.
You can learn more about how Diabolical! is played on our “Gameplay” page.