Full House Poker preview: Know when to hold 'em

After leaks about the secret beta appeared way back in November, Microsoft finally unveiled its Full House Poker game during an event at CES this past week, and I sat down with members of the gaming press (and celebrity guest Shannon Elizabeth) to run the Xbox Live Arcade poker title through its paces.

The rumors of the game being part of 1 vs. 100's legacy are true. "This is pretty much a spiritual successor" to the popular-in-certain-circles event-based massively multiplayer arcade title, says lead designer John Scott Tynes. But rather than a snappy trivia game show, this is definitely a Texas Hold'em poker game -- there's no celebrity hosts or mob members here. If you don't know your straight flush from your two pair, ace high, the game does have a tutorial to teach you the basic rules, but you'll have to find your own way to figuring out when and how to go all-in.

The basic idea of Full House Poker is that your Xbox Live avatar has a gambling addiction. Sitting down at the dealer's table as your system avatar, you can try making a lucky fortune as a single player, invite your friends in to play according to a set of house rules (in a number of different cosmetic settings), or even join a few planned tournaments, in which up to thirty people battle it out for the whole pot.

But the real centerpiece of the game is a mode called Texas Heat, which is where the legacy of 1 vs. 100 ties in. "When we began working on Full House Poker," says Tynes, "our intention was to do sort of a World Series of Poker-style thousand player tournament, like a big massive tournament every week or month. We just realized that spending four, five, six hours straight at one of these giant things is just not a really very viable idea. 1 vs. 100 inspired us to instead take the tack of: What can we do with thirty minutes? What can we do with poker in that time frame that would be fast and fun?"

The Texas Heat mode is what they came up with. There will be a series of live events run in seasons (Tynes suggested a few a week, but I don't think the scheduling is firmed up yet), in which players will go head-to-head in groups of 30 at a time across three tables with 10 players each. Each 10 players will play hands of poker, and if anyone loses all of their cash, they'll drop down one table and get another stash to play with, with the biggest moneymaker at the table below them moving up to take their spot. At the end of the game, you've got three tables with three winners, with the top winner at the top table taking first place.

Throughout it all, players are rewarded with XP and avatar awards. Avatar awards are mostly for in the game, but players will be using their real Xbox Live avatars to play, so, says Tynes, "yes, Master Chief and Marcus Fenix, and the guy from Assassin's Creed will all be playing poker together." XP is rewarded across all of the game's modes, but it's especially used to reward non-paying moves in Texas Heat -- even if you don't get the cards you want to win big, but make a smart move like folding at the right time or raising on a good hand, you can still get an XP bonus. That XP is tracked across the game, and Tynes says that will be the real indicator of the best poker players. "The smartest players, the best players, not necessarily the richest, are the ones who are going to be the best overall."

There's one more way to earn XP -- if your Xbox Live friends happen to be playing in the live Texas Heat events, even if they're not at your actual table, you'll get periodic updates on how they're doing (whether they're holding, folding, or walking away, for example). And you'll get XP for getting those updates, so the more friends you have playing, the more XP bonuses you'll get. The presentation is smooth throughout all of this. Not only will you get those updates, but you will constantly get feedback on who's winning during the game, and at the end of each event, there's a neat recap of what happened, and plenty of money, ranks, and stats to go through.

As for price, Tynes says that "all of the XBLA games we're doing these days are 10 or 15 bucks, and we expect we'll be in that range." That's for the entire game -- the Texas Heat events will be free with purchase. Not all 1 vs. 100 fans will probably be thrilled to know that the "successor" is so poker-centric, but poker fans will definitely be intrigued by this avatar-based take, and the impressive social features should keep things interesting hand after hand. Look for Full House Poker in Microsoft's House Party lineup, starting up this February.