Game Title: "Hoyle Card Games 2009"

Platform: Windows XP, Vista / Mac OS X (DVD-ROM)

Studio: Encore

Rated: T for Teen (simulated gambling)

Rating: 8 out of 10

THE REVIEW

For the past few years, Hoyle has been putting out its version of classic card games in video-game format, and this year's installment only improves on the company's prolific legacy of card gaming entertainment.

With more than 150 classic games, this new release truly is "according to Hoyle," with online and in-game official rules, tips and strategies. Everything from the uber-popular and ubiquitous Texas Hold 'Em poker to more traditional home and recreational games like Pinochle, Bridge and — my personal favorite — Gin.

By creating your own character (which is fun in and of itself), you are joined by a virtual cast of relaxed rookies and competitive sharks sure to provide hours of diversion. And there are so many games to play with this collection that you may even learn a few that may be new to you, like Euchre, Minnesota Whist, Skat and Canasta. Don't want to play with others? No problem, there are more than 45 variations of Solitaire in the collection.

For the '09 edition, an online feature lets you log on to an interactive Web site for playing and socializing in a setting called Hoyle's Royal Suite (broadband Internet service recommended). I don't play a lot of games online, but I did register for this one, and found it to be intuitive and fun. The only drawback seemed to be a pattern exhibited in the DVD-ROM game, where cards are hard to read at some of the tables.

Graphics: This component of the game received upgrades in spades (pun intended) from years past. From the slick intros and environments to video effects and pleasing visuals, Hoyle's gamble to improve in the graphics department has paid off. Unfortunately, it seems they may have lost sight of one of the main ideas of the game with these upgrades: at some tables, like a few of the poker tables, the cards are a little hard to read. And there is an odd slant to cards on a few other tables, giving them a bit of an angle instead of a straight-on read.

Audio: A decent selection of background music and environmental effects are utilized, while the dozen or so characters set up in the game have unique dialogues and friendly banter. Best of all, if you don't want table conversation or care to listen to the background music, simply deactivate the audio choices without losing game play ability.

THE WRAP-UP:

Parent's take: Given the virtual gambling aspects, a good deal of this video game should probably be left for kids 13 and older to play. Yet there are several games that are non-gambling in nature for the younger crowd to be involved in, including classics like Hearts, Go Fish, Old Maid and Crazy Eights. Also, many of the characters in the game are friendly and good-spirited when engaged in game play.

Final word: For a cool $20, this robust and entertaining video-game collection of card games may be just the investment you need to improve your odds of holding the winning hand the next time you organize a friendly night of cards or go all-in at the Vegas tables. Again, the only real complaint of the game play is that at some tables, the cards can be a little hard to read.