HoldemX Review: A Rush To Release Leaves Room For Improvement
Online Poker Report

Review: HoldemX A Fun Diversion But Hardly A Game Changer

Hold Em X poker review
HoldemX, the latest innovation from Global Poker Index owner Alex Dreyfus, launched in alpha form last Tuesday after months of hype and fanfare.

The game, which is one piece of a larger puzzle in Dreyfus’ grand vision to sportify poker, attempts to bridge the gap between traditional Hold’em and widely popular games such as Blizzard’s Hearthstone – and to that effect it succeeds.

Yer compared to the very best competitive video games on the market, HoldemX comes off as a clever, but ultimately thin and gimmicky amusement, that’s in need of added depth if it hopes to stack up against eSports heavyweights.

Prepping for battle

Unlike traditional poker, HoldemX tasks players with making a bevy of decisions before the match even begins.

After choosing a game mode and deck scheme (the Discovery Deck is the only option presently available), players are shown a grouping of 15 xCards, with each card assigned a special ability and a numerical point value. It is presumed that the point value equates to what the developer perceives as the relative strength of the card.

As an example, the Board +1 xCard (point value of 19) enables players to hoist the value of any community card up a rank, while its counterpart Board -1 (point value also 19) tips the scale in the other direction.

A few more commonly used cards, along with descriptions and point values are as follows:

  • Pair Top Card (33): Pairs a player’s highest ranking hole card; card retains suit.
  • Pair Bottom Card (27): Same as above, except pairs the bottom ranking hole card.
  • Switch Club to Spade/Diamond to Heart (5): Changes the suit of a single board card from a heart to diamond (or vice versa) or a club to spade (or again vice versa). Note that the only card(s) that can be changed are community cards dealt in the most recent round.
  • Hole Card +1 and Hole Card -1 (25): As the name implies, these cards increase or decrease the value of a player’s hole cards by one rank; card retains suit.

And the list goes on.

Then players are allocated 45 points which must be used to ban three xCards, effectively preventing their opponent from using them in game. This is a much appreciated nuance of HoldemX, as it potentially blocks players from relying on cookie-cutter strategies.

At the same time, I found that players with any semblance of experience are already relying on a default banning strategy that consists of preventing Pair Top Card, Club to Spade and Diamond to Heart from being used.

After the banned cards are selected, players are assigned another 90 points, only this time around they must spend points on six xCards in which to wield in battle.

How the game plays out from there is somewhat dependent on what game mode was selected.

Normal Mode

In Normal Mode, players are unable to select the three xCards that were banned by their opponent, forcing them to choose from six of the remaining 12 xCards.

Given that players must choose 50 percent of the remaining cards and taking account that some cards are blatantly stronger than others, players should already have a fairly strong sense of what to expect from their opponents going in. Because of this, gameplay soon felt predictable and at times robotic.

My fear is that as more players learn the best default strategies, this feeling of monotony will be magnified.

Hidden Bans

Hidden Bans is a slight variation of Normal Mode, only difference being that players are permitted to select banned xCards, as they are unknown. As a consequence, any attempt to use a banned card in-game will result in a failure to produce the intended result.

The problem with Hidden Bans is if players are unlucky enough to select one or more banned xCards, they’ll be at a severe disadvantage against opponents who “chose wisely.” I wouldn’t mind this if players had some clue as to their opponents’ banning tendencies, but as is, it all feels very random and unfair.

Face Up

Again, very similar to Normal Mode – just that a player’s selected xCards are on full display for their opponent to see.

Assuming HoldemX introduces more xCards, this mode will become more deviant from Normal Mode.

Like a Hyper Turbo Sit & Go, with Extras

Like Hearthstone, HoldemX pits players against one another in head-to-head combat.

Players familiar with traditional poker variants will notice that the poker aspect of the game largely resembles a hyper turbo heads-up sit & go. Blinds start off at 20/40 with a 1,000 chip starting stack and players only have four minutes total (up from three at launch) in which to act. The match ends when a player either runs out of chips or their time bank expires.

While I understand the necessity for the chosen format, it does present a few concerns:

  • Hyper turbo heads-up sit & go’s are notoriously known as having a low perceived skill edge. By extension, RNG figures to have a strong influence on determining HoldemX winners.
  • At present, it is just as (if not more) important to play rapidly than it is to think logically. Although the frenetic pace may find favor with some eSports enthusiasts and casual gamers, it does so at the consequence of stripping away some of the game’s chess-like appeal.
  • Real-money and social poker players accustomed to playing full ring or 6-max games just might not take to the game. Then again, the increased emphasis on Zoom HU games at PokerStars may bring in a new generation of young players who favor always being a part of the action.

Again, my main concern is that the game will be essentially “solved” in short order. Even Hearthstone, with its hundreds of cards and nine classes, has been boiled down to a dozen or so viable decks each meta.

It’s arguable that this is one of the reasons why Blizzard is constantly updating the game via new expansions and game modes.

The success or ultimate failure of HoldemX may hinge largely on Mediarex’s willingness to do the same. As is, the game is hardly a week old and already cookie-cutter strategies have developed.

For more on some of those strategies, see here.

Graphics, sound and interface in need of update

I’m going to grant some allowances here, as the game is still in alpha testing, but HoldemX is far from a polished product.

Although the graphics range from dated to aesthetically painful, and the sound effects feel as though they were lifted straight from the 1990’s, the game interface is generally serviceable. I did experience a few clipping problems and lag, but I expect these issues to be ironed out prior to an official launch.

Unfortunately, the HoldemX website itself has greater problems. From the tutorial video that plays every time you enter the main page, to the links that direct to the same page and the general lack of polish on the mode selection page, everything about the site screams rushed. Players deserve a better first impression, even from an alpha product.

Luckily, many of these problems can be rectified rather quickly.

Bottom line

All of this mixed-to-negative commentary is not to say that HoldemX isn’t fun. However, as soon as I concocted a strategy that proved effective, I either ran over players new to the game or became overly reliant on RNG against players that were utilizing similar strategies.

Because of this, I feel that the game in its present form is subject to vastly diminishing returns. Apparently I’m not the only one either, as after a somewhat promising start, liquidity seems to have fallen off sharply. At the time of this writing it can take several minutes to find a Normal Mode game, and often times Hidden Bans and Face Up games do not run at all.

This, despite poker author Jonathan Little streaming HoldemX on Twitch Poker quite recently:

A little polish, new xCards and ranked play will certainly go a long ways toward increasing the game’s viability, but in my estimation it’s going to take a fairly monumental overhaul to transform HoldemX from fun, niche diversion into an eSports powerhouse.

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Robert DellaFave
- Robert DellaFave is a game designer and avid poker player. He writes for several online poker publications and dreams of one day programming a poker simulation clever enough to beat the pros. Read more by following @DivergentGames on Twitter.