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Astraware Casino - another masterpiece!

Wed Dec 26, 2007 - 1:38 PM EST - By Harv Laser

Turn your Treo into a virtual Las Vegas casino

Astraware, the venerable UK-based game software house, has been cranking out one masterpiece after another. In two recent reviews, I was blown away by their Hidden Expedition – Titanic and collection of classic Board Games.

They've proven themselves to be prolific code wizards, with a staff of sublimely talented artists. When it comes to producing feature-packed games with eye-popping graphics, that are non-violent, family-oriented, and just totally satisfying time-wasters, I'd put Astraware at the top of handheld gaming world, at least as far as PalmOS is concerned.

Astraware Casino ("AC") takes the form of a single, hefty 2mb .prc file which, like their other recent titles, is totally card-friendly. Just load it onto your SD card, and, when you tap its icon, it runs in available free Internal RAM. When you exit the game, it unloads and frees up the memory it was using, and there's no guessing what's going on as a progress gauge (which in AC's case takes the form of long row of casino chips.. of course!) shows you exactly what's happening.

AC beautifully simulates the eight most popular real-life casino games:

  • Blackjack ("21")
  • a multi-pay line Slot Machine
  • a Video Poker Machine with Jacks or better and Deuces Wild
  • Roulette
  • (video) Keno
  • Craps
  • Baccarat
  • Texas Hold'em Poker

In all but one game, you're playing alone. Oddly, even at the Roulette and Craps tables. Only in Hold'em do you play against a cadre of computer-generated opponents.

Astraware has packed as much of the real-life casino gaming experience into this package as they could possibly get, even in a 2mb program. Missing are such things as restaurants, bars, gift shops, stage shows, cocktail waitresses, valet parking, and a hotel room to crash in. Hey, you want miracles in 2mb? {{grin}}..

Starting out

Since AC, like many of their other games, accommodates multiple players, when you fire it up for the first time, you'll enter your name into the "Users" window and you're given an initial bankroll of $1000.00, a typical wad of cash one might take on a jaunt to Las Vegas. Your friends and family can play the same installation of AC under their own names, each with his or her own bankroll.

The games were coded with more "player friendly" odds than in real-life casinos. In other words, although these are (mostly) very accurate simulations, the odds of winning at any of the games is pushed more in the player's favor rather than the house's. After a few hours of jumping around the games over multiple sessions, I grew my initial one grand into nearly $1.5 million! This isn't because I won on every spin of the wheel, every hand of Blackjack, or every draw on the VP machine – far from it. It's because the player-friendly logic lets you win more often than you would in real life.

The more you win, the fatter your wallet / bankroll, the bigger the bets AC lets you place in any of its games. Bigger bets = higher stakes = bigger wins when you win. For example, starting out from scratch, a new user sits down in front of the Slot Machine, and the highest denomination bet s/he can place is $1.00 per each of its nine possible pay-out lines. But once your bankroll reaches a certain threshold, you can place higher and higher bets as the game promotes you from a novice tourist through various stages to the highest of high rollers. With over a million bucks in my money belt, I could play the slot machine at $900.00 a pull! The same "the more money you have, the higher the bets you can make" goes for all the other games too.

Hey, if I could walk into a Vegas casino with a thousand bucks and walk out a couple days later with over a million, you wouldn't even be reading this.. that money would be in the bank, I'd retire and be living off the interest!

It remembers everything

AC stores which user has how much money, and, unlike a real casino, remembers each person's exact position (bets laid out, cards dealt, and so on) in each of its eight games every time you exit a game to play another, or quit the program entirely and fire it up the next time, so you can, for example, have your chips spread out the Roulette table, jump over and play Video Poker for a while, then go back to Roulette and your bets are still on the felt field, just as you left them. In a real casino, you can park yourself at a VP or Slot Machine, a Blackjack table, and some other games, and when mother nature calls, hit the restroom, come back, and your stack of chips or machine credits (hopefully) will still be there.

At a live table game, the dealer will watch your chips for you. At a machine game, one usually leaves a coin bucket on the seat and asks a nearby player "hold my place, I'll be right back." But you could never spread your bets out on a real Roulette table and walk away for a few minutes. Real roulette tables typically have more than one person playing at them, and the dealer is not going to pause the next spin of the wheel and make everyone else wait while you trot off to do your duty. But in AC, you CAN do this, since you play Roulette alone.

This isn't a training lesson.

Unlike other some computer casino simulators, AC doesn't teach or train you how to play each of its games. There ARE Instruction screens built into each game, and some take many more pages of instructions to explain than others. There's a lot more complexity and strategy involved in Texas Hold'em, for example, than a Slot or Keno machine, so it takes more verbiage to explain how to play it. But unlike LDW's Video Poker Teacher, AC won't suggest which cards to hold and which to discard in its VP machine. It assumes you already know how to play. If you don't, there are a bajillion casino game books and Web sites out there that explain VP strategy.

The games

Let's take a look at AC's different games and I'll also point out a few quirks that Astraware should consider fixing when they crank out an upgrade, which they told me IS in the works. We'll visit each game in increasing orders of complexity.

The Slot Machine

By far, the favorite game of the "tourist" gambler, AC's slot machine is a five reeler, with nine payout lines. The only real choices to make here are how much to bet and how many lines to play. Easily navigable with finger, stylus, or d-pad, since you're not playing with real money, there's no reason not to go all-out and place the max bet on all nine lines with every spin of the reels. In fact, during my prep work for this review, AC's slot machine is where most of my fake fortune was built, as the more I won, the higher the bets it let me make until I was playing $900.00 a pull!

The spinning reel animation (which you can turn off for faster play) and sound effects are smooth and realistic, and if you hit a spectacular win combo with a huge bet, you'll even hear cheers and applause from an invisible crowd of onlookers gathered around you.

Video Keno

A perfect simulation of the real thing – 80 numbers, choose from 1 to 10, place a bet, 20 numbers are computer-selected, and the more you hit, the more you win. Unlike the Roulette sim (see below), here you CAN just keep playing the same numbers over and over, and turn off the animations for faster play.

Video Poker

AC's VP machine features the two most common variants: straight Jacks or Better, and Deuces Wild. Unlike slots' mindless button pushing, you have to use your brain in VP. The beautifully rendered screen looks exactly like the real deal. I'd like to see Astraware expand the machine with some of the other variants of the game, such as Joker's Wild, Bonus, Double Bonus, and (my favorite) Double Double Bonus VP.


Here's your standard, American-style table with 0 and 00, as opposed to the European-style single 0 tables, you can drag your chips out and make almost every possible real Roulette bet you can think of with a couple exceptions. As with all of AC's chip-based games, the chips are the correct real-world color for their denomination, and a chip's value appears in tiny white numbers when you touch it. The animated wheel spin is gorgeous, and even features a window with a close-up view of the ball dropping into a number, plus, the last seven spins' results display at the top of the screen.

The main flaw in AC's Roulette game is there's no function to repeat your last layout of bets. This needs fixing, and Astraware will add it to AC's next upgrade, so they told me.. Seasoned Roulette players often make the same bets over and over again, or let the previous winning bet ride for the next spin. It gets tedious having to place your bets from scratch on every spin so a "re-bet" or "make same bet" button would be most welcome here.


In a real casino, you'll see FAR more Blackjack tables than any other live dealer table game in the house. In AC's shoe-based version, you play head-to-head with the invisible dealer; there are no computer players at the table with you. Again, as with all the games, the bigger your bankroll, the higher denomination chips you get. No real complaints here, although the option to fill the table with AI players would be a cool feature. And how about a cocktail waitress?


Craps is one of the most popular casino games in the world, and no wonder! Its origins date back to the first crusade and its noble ancestor "hazard", which the nostalgic still play in England. From an outsider’s point of view, the game appears deceptively simple, until you start rolling the bones. Craps usually intimidates novice gamblers since there are so many possible bets and the action is very fast and furious. While other table games are often church-quiet, in a real casino, you'll hear a LOT of screaming and yelling coming from nearby craps tables.

The basic idea is that you place your bets on the outcome of the roll of two six sided dice. The easiest number to hit is a 7 (called a natural), followed by the second easiest set of numbers, 6 or 8. The hardest numbers to hit are 2, 3, 11 (called "craps") and 12, which is also a natural.

The term "craps" is a corruption of the word “Crabs”, the French term for a roll of two ones, known as "Aces" or "snake eyes." In fact, most rolls have some sort of a pet name to them. A roll of 2-2 is a "hard four" and "little Joe", and 5-5 is hard ten or roses. 6-6 is "box cars."

The overall layout of the AC's craps is spectacular. The graphics are crisp, clear and realistic and the dice actually roll across the table as if you had thrown them, although it’s impossible to "set the dice" in this digital rendition. The only major drawback of this crap table is that, much like the roulette game, there are missing bets. The game does not allow any C & E, Horn or Hop bets, except for the usual Hi-Lo (2 and 12), and you can’t be a wrong bettor (that is, bet on Don’t Pass or Don’t Come).

The funny thing is, playing a traditional craps strategy isn’t optimal in this virtual scenario, as the dice roll hard-to-hit numbers much more frequently than realistic odds dictate. I’ve never been at a crap table where 2 and 12 come up so frequently, and I’ve even hit Hi-Lo five times in a row in AC, so the money seems to be in the long odds bets. Thankfully, even if you can’t follow standard betting procedure, the game is both beautiful and fun, so it’s easy to kill many hours of time without breaking a sweat.


Real casinos, at least in the US, have very few Baccarat tables; it's a game much more in favor in Europe (and featured in almost every casino scene in the James Bond movies)..

Three pages of built-in instructions explain game-play. This is a flawless sim in which you place your bet on the Banker, the Player, or Tie. If you're a Blackjack maven, Baccarat might, at first, confound you, as face cards are worth zero, and Aces are always one. Again, you play alone in this shoe-based game, against an invisible dealer.

Texas Hold’em

Texas Hold’em Poker ("HE") has rapidly become the prevailing live action poker game in American casinos. Between the televised World Series of Poker and World Poker Tour events, hosting prize pools with top payouts in the $6,000,000 range, it’s no wonder that everybody wants a stake of the action.

Unfortunately, the only real failing aspect of AC's version is its HE game, as it neither recreates the feel of a Vegas style game, nor the table. In a regular casino, a Hold'em table is long, oval and seats nine players plus a dealer. Once in a while, you see ten player tables, but that's rare. You never see a table that only seats five to six people, though occasionally you may play at table with only five or six opponents, which poker pros call a short table. AC's classic “round table” feels more at home in your den than in a big casino, and the action is just as wearisome.

This HE game is a structured limit game. That is, the bet amounts are fixed and you can’t decide how much to bet or go "all-in" when appropriate. Therefore, unlike in a No-Limit or Pot-Limit game, protecting your hand is all but impossible. Furthermore, the computer opponents are complete donkeys, meaning (in general) they repeatedly make extremely bad calls and never lay down a pair, so you really never know where you stand in a hand, unless you have the stone cold nuts. In the case of the latter, bet and raise like mad, because they are coming.

For those of us who are good HE players, this game quickly develops into a headache where, if the opponent were a real person, you’d be screaming out “How can you call there?”. Naturally, a smart player takes advantage of this, raising only with AA, KK or QQ, and limping with any Ace or “twenty hand”. Then, if you hit, bet it out and watch the virtual players have at it. For the most part, all these guys know how to do is call or raise, and it’s rare that the virtual people don't cap the betting on both the turn and the river.

With this kind of play, it’s easy for them to bet you off a hand, so my advice is to always take top pair on the flop to the river, but don’t over-bet it. The AI (and I use the term loosely) opponents will do all your betting for you. Sure, it’s frustrating when you hold AK and you get beat by Mister A4 getting his two pair on 5 th street, but at least it’s a good lesson in how a 3-6-limit game plays in real life.

It’s also fun and savvy to check-raise the AI (and I use the term loosely) players on the flop, because you will always get calls out of them, boosting your bankroll further. Once you unlock higher levels, this is a good game to play because the pots get into the $150,000 range and you can grow a gross bankroll in just an hour or two of solid play.

The Souvenir Case

As you achieve different goals in AC, such as playing all eight games at least once, hitting $10,000 wins in certain games, and other delights that almost never happen in real life, a cute feature of AC, its Souvenir Case, fills up with interesting little goodies for you to "take home" with you, such as Bronze and Gold Chips, a Lucky Rabbit's Foot, a showgirl's hat, show tickets, and even the keys to a luxurious Executive Suite hotel room. I have yet to accumulate EVERY souvenir, so I don't know if something special happens on that occasion, and even if I did know, I wouldn't tell you and spoil it.

They sweat the details.

Like its other recent games, Astraware Casino features a real-time clock and a battery gauge at the top of every game's screen. With PalmOS's lame multi-tasking, it's important to know your battery's juice level if you're not plugged into an AC adapter without having to leave whatever program you're running.

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