I click on TallSquare, my Elf Wizard (who was named such because she is, indeed, quite tall and rather angular around the jaw), and her flat-figured representation on the board sort of bounces ecstatically in place. 'Little Zap', I decide. After all, as the flavor text on the card so eloquently put it, it's better than no zap at all. I click on a nearby kobold and the RNG gods, for once, are feeling generous. The critter takes full damage and is immediately removed from the playing field, tucked away between a score of multi-sided dice and what looks to be either a rubber band-bound rulebook or a bargain-bin grimoire.
If some games are love letters to an analogous hobby then Blue Manchu's Card Hunter is the rhapsodic magnum opus, beribboned and gift-wrapped in gold foil, that Casanova wrote for tabletop role-playing games of yore. It's magnificently, unapologetically nerdy. Your Dungeon Master is bespectacled and earnest, with a popped-up Dracula collar and a not-quite-understanding family that continuously harangues him. All the illustrations and the in-game literature look like they're straight out of the 80s. The in-game currency is comprised of pizza slices and there is decorative junk food everywhere you look. You'd have to try really hard not to like Card Hunter.
I mean, look. It even starts on a delightful note:
Down in the Undying Marshes are hidden three priceless artifacts: a sword of peerless sharpness, a mace blessed by Saint Temrun herself, and a staff infused with demon fire! But brave indeed would be the adventurers who would invade the brooding fens to face the enmity of the lizardmen - for it is rumored that they are protected by the viridian dragon Greenfang itself!
That's the description for the first campaign in Card Hunter. Notice the exclamation marks, the overenthused prose, the cheesiness of the names. Card Hunter is practically wobbling in ecstasy at its own existence. And the best part? Underneath its enthusiasm, there beats the heart of a well-considered, turn-based card-game-meets-RPG-meets-just-plain-awesome. Which probably shouldn't be surprising because, hey, Irrational Games co-founder Jonathan Chey and former LucasArts Director Joe McDonagh worked on this with Magic the Gathering creator Richard Garfield serving as a consultant.
Mechanically speaking, Card Hunter is simple enough, so much so that you may have better luck teaching your siblings to love this than you did evangelizing Dungeons & Dragons. There's a world map, with modules to unlock and an assortment of establishments to the visit. Both are pretty much what you may have suspected them to be. The first provide access to to the meat of the game (which we will advance to shortly), the latter will permit you to do everything from recruiting new mercenaries to spending pizza on equipment-laden chests.
Yes, in-game currency in Card Hunter is made out of starchy, tomato-laden goodness. Had you been expecting anything less?
The campaigns themselves are hugely irreverent, breathlessly written and riddled with tropes; you can almost hear Gary the Dungeon Master hissing the text dramatically, his voice pitched low to avoid incurring the wrath of his parents. And while the general tone is light-hearted, the actual battles themselves will punish any attempt at dismissing the game as a casual diversion. They range from brief skirmishes with the local fauna to multi-tiered affairs culminating in a boss encounter. Though there doesn't appear to be an upper limit as to how many enemies can appear on the board, you will only ever have access to a party of three.
But, wait, I hear you say, that isn't that much of an issue, is it? All I have to do is get my Dwarf Warrior to level 50, get him a +50 Spear of Radness, a full set of dragon-scale armor and Bob's my uncle, right? Not quite. While obsessive loot collection is indeed a huge part of Card Hunter, combat plays out like a card game as opposed to your traditional RPG. Each piece of gear you acquire will add cards to your library. These, in turn, are randomly doled out every round along with movement cards appropriate to the character's race. As you might have surmised already, not all of them contain active abilities. Those corresponding to armor tend to yield passive stuff like armor and block cards, both of which will help you mitigate incoming damage.
It gets better (or worse, depending on how you look at it). Given that Richard Garfield himself has working with the team on its design, I hope you weren't expecting something quick and dirty. Card Hunter has layers, man. To hit something, you're going to need to be within range. To be within range, you're either going to have to hope your target will co-operate or expend a movement card. To use a movement card, you're going to have to use a turn, thereafter opening yourself up to the risk of being shivved while hapless. More importantly, utilizing that movement card can mean stranding the character in a cluster of enemies with no hope of escape until the next round.
Still with me? Like poker, five cards are all you're going to get. You're responsible for determining whether you want to discard that dash card in lieu of new attacks or to hang onto your armor for dear life. Further compounding the issue is the presence of damage-over-time attacks, terrain of varying degrees of lethality and restrictiveness and drawback cards that can interrupt a jaunty stride. To escalate things even further, let's add the fact that not every upgrade is immediately superior to your last piece of equipment. Some cards just flat-out synergize better with others, nevermind how certain combinations can be, in varying circumstances, plain superior.
... but, really, why are you still reading this? Card Hunter is free-to-play. Nothing about it is really trapped behind a paywall. It's elegant, it's fun and you can chuck $25 at the developers if you want to be generous and to get a special Basic Edition which comes with a whole bunch of goodies. I haven't had the time to try the multiplayer component (the single-player campaign is already devouring all my free time) so I can't offer you an opinion on that just yet. But having said that, Card Hunter is fantastic. Go try it out. I'm going to go back to beating up golems.
I’m sure you’ve been here before: someone tells you about something, and they’re all excited and enthusiastic. You just sit there and nod, waiting for them to finish so you can deliver some kind of pleasantry like, “that sounds interesting,” and then move on. Because actually, what you’re hearing sounds like a really dumb idea and you have no interest in it whatsoever.
That someone was Cassandra, and that something was this game.
But I was on the hook for a second opinion, so with sunken shoulders and a long sigh, I opened a browser, typed c-a-r-d-h-u-n-t-e-r-.-c-o-m and registered an account. About 30 seconds later, I was playing, and, of course, it turns out that her excitement was spot-on, and my cynicism was undeserved, because Card Hunter is brilliant. It feels like a traditional board game at first, but as you start playing, you realize it mashes up a number of different physical gaming elements into something original, deep and really great to play. And it’s funny too – the way it’s written makes you feel like you’re in on the joke.
I won't go into the machinations of the game, because I don't think I need to. All I’ll say is this: if you like board games and card games that enable you to showcase your strategic prowess, and if you’ve ever enjoyed gaming with these old-fashioned things called a “pen” and “paper” try out Card Hunter as soon as you can. It’s free to play initially, it takes next no time to get going, and it'll be very quickly apparent whether it's something you'll enjoy or not. My betting is if you've ever kicked ass at Risk, have mashed monsters in AD+D, whooped someone in Carcassonne, totally settled Catan, or smugly decimated an opponent in Magic the Gathering, Card Hunter will be plucking on your gaming heart strings before you even know it.
The Nitty Gritty
- Visuals:The comic book-like aesthetics and attention to detail is fantastic. Card Hunter is probably not going to win any beauty contests but it certainly has looks to fit the setting.
- Music:There's no actual music in Card Hunter. It's just ambient sounds.
- Interface:Elegantly simple, so much so that even the guy who introduced you to D&D could understand it.
- Lasting Appeal:Card Hunter is an absolutely brilliant homage to tabletop roleplaying. If Blue Manchu continues adding expansions, you'd be hard wrought to find a better alternative to those pen-and-paper days.