One of Microsoft's internal game studios, Carbonated Games, recently released a new multiplayer card game that takes the standard online poker bar and raises it.
Bicycle Texas Hold'em is a free-to-play tournament-style card game for eight (8) players and available through Microsoft's MSN Games portal. Although primarily a Web-based Flash game, you will need the Windows operating system and IE to play it due to the ActiveX controls the game requires.
It is a fairly standard game for its kind, featuring rounds of increasing blinds and classic all-in, no-limit betting. The buy-in is $100, though no actual money is ever won or lost in the game.
One of the criticisms of online poker games is that you lose the body language clues that can play an important role in determining whether to bet, call or fold. What sets this game apart from others is the addition of "digital tells" revealed as animations that occur when players: look at their cards, examine their chips, examine the pot or the chips of other players. These subtle clues could potentially tip the cards in your favor if read correctly against the player being observed. While no "tell" is a guarantee since even tells can be faked, it does indeed add a dimension previously missing from online poker.
To play Bicycle Texas Hold'em you will need an MSN account, which is free. Just register, select a nickname, and you're good to go. Once signed in, click the "Play Now" button to load the game and get to the main game menu. From there you will find three (3) modes to choose from: Vs. Computer, Quick Match, or Invite a Friend. Computer opponents in this game are rather dull and very easy to beat so I suggest playing against real human opponents if you want a challenge. If you have an MSN Messenger account the game apparently interfaces with that and will allow you to invite your friends to a tournament. That being said, I recommend selecting the QuickMatch option because that is where all the action is.
Once in QuickMatch, choose between a 'Standard' non-rated game with no turn timer, All-in Hold'em, or Heads-up play against a single opponent. The real deal of these three choices is, of course, the All-in Hold'em game, which will factor into your overall rating and, more importantly, the system will try to match you against other opponents of your skill level. The game keeps track of your statistics and your overall rating if you decide to play rated games, and your wins and losses are factored into the computation. All-in Hold'em is also where most of the online players are.
Analysis: I have been having a lot of fun playing this game, and I've played with many nice people online. Of course, the higher my rating has climbed the higher calibre of player I am being matched with, which also increases the quality of play experience. Having a higher rating, however, does not prevent the lower rated players from appearing from time to time, but they are often eliminated before the end of the first round.
The digital tells are a welcome improvement and provide just enough additional information to make it apparent that you are playing against real people. Some players reported to me that the little animations can be distracting, but there is an option to turn them off if that is the case with you.
My biggest complaint is with the matching system responsible for collecting 8 players together for a game. Often at least one player will fail to join and the system must then find another to fill the empty space before a game can begin. The problem is that the matching cycle often takes longer to wait through than the time it takes a player to quit out to the menu and request another game. In fact, many players have realized this and will begin to drop out immediately as soon as one player fails to join. From my observations, the more players that do this the more difficult it becomes to actually get a game started.
Another issue is that sometimes cards that are folded appear back on the table in front of the player that discarded them. Although they are generally in a different orientation to the cards in play, it can make it confusing to keep track of who is still in a hand.
These are rather small nuisances to an otherwise excellent effort. Microsoft's Bicycle Texas Hold'em makes no bluff about raising the bar with the introduction of its digital tells that bring you closer to your online opponents.