LNL-Tactical (Modern)

A Review of Card Hunter

Reviewed by Brant Guillory, 23 September 2013

Developed and Published by Blue Manchu Games

So I have a confession to make: I’ve been too busy playing Card Hunter to really write a good review of it. I wanted to write an article about the beta, which I was graciously given access to by a fellow GrogHead[1], and I’d even worked up an initial outline. Then I got sucked back into playing it, and that went out the window. After that, the game released to the public, and my “preview” lost the “p”.

But here’s the truth in the matter – as much fun as the game is to play, it’s damn hard to review. It’s not hard to describe mind you, but it’s tough to review. And honestly, I think it’s a testament to the genius of the game that such simple gameplay was wrapped up a package that defies an easy set of comparisons and still manages to satisfy the gamer’s itch for simple jump-in-and-play addictive fantasy gaming. And oh God, is it addictive.

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Everything about the visual style is designed to evoke a tabletop gaming experience

 

The Easy Part – Describing the Game

Card Hunter is a Flash-based game that requires a computer with an internet connection to play. There is nothing to download to your machine, but you will need your web connection to stay live during the game. It is free-to-play, with no need to purchase anything to succeed, but there are offers available to upgrade some graphical elements, as well as the equipment available to your party, through in-game purchases. The economy of the game uses a generic “gold” for the in-game economy with the characters, and a clever and mood-setting “pizza slices” medium of exchange for players to use for their purchases.

As a player, you have a three-member party, picked from a relatively small set of class / race combinations. There are fighters, mages, and clerics, and they can be humans, elves, or dwarves, with all their obligatory plusses and minuses that you’d expect. Your initial kit options are minimal, and are limited to a simple weapon, maybe some armor, and a pair of boots. You might pick up a stray option here or there, like wizards having an “arcane item” slot.

Each item you have on your character has with it a handful of cards. These cards make up the deck from which you player draws his hand of actions each turn. For example, a simple short sword will have 2-3 cards with a “penetrating cut” and one high-powered attack card. Additionally, most weapons will also include one weaker-sister sort of card, like the “backbiting strike” that hits your opponent for 4 damage, but also hits you for 2. Boots include cards for movement, and occasionally something else like an armor card. Shields and armor grant blocks (one-shot use) and armor (keep-and-reuse) cards. Arcane items include a variety of magical attacks, most of which are ranged, but may also include cards like telekinesis, that let you pick up and move another character. Divine items will often include healing powers, or combat bonuses.

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The items carried by a character determine what cards are in his “deck”. Raf here is equipped with 3 weapons, a helmet, shield, armor, and boots, and has 2 skills.

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Mousing over a particular item highlights the cards that the item gives you for your deck. On the right are other items that your party members could swap in and out.

 

Additionally, there are “skill” slots that allow you to gain particular effect-based cards for both your class and race. So a martial skill might grant bonuses for particular kinds of attacks, like chopping or slashing. The arcane skill family of “rifthopping” includes a few teleportation-related movement cards, as well as the occasional attack. As with other items, some of the skills will include cards that limit your actions, or harm you in the process of your turn. There are also racial ‘skills’ that are class-independent. Elves get to sneak around and skip through bad terrain, while humans get tactician/command cards that let the entire party move.

Players alternate playing their cards to take actions during the turn, maneuvering on a square grid with a variety of terrain. The avatars are styled as 2D stand-ups, almost like the poor-man’s minis that most of us started with in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. The 2D styling allows the player to more easily tell which direction the character is facing, so the visual style supports the gameplay quite well. Once the players have exhausted the cards in their hand, or have chosen to pass and take no more actions, then hands are refreshed and the next round begins.

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Note the dice in the upper right corner. The game map is the central part of the tabletop, but it’s not all that’s there.

Victory in a given encounter is usually based on “kill all the bad guys” but there are some scenarios that include yellow-accented victory locations that grant points toward winning the battle. Adventures are strung together from 2-4 individual encounters. After each encounter, the players get some loot in a treasure chest, and at the end of an adventure, they get a more well-stocked chest. Some items they can use, others they may choose to store until useful in a later encounter, and the rest can be sold at the obligatory “Adventures-R-Us” shops for restocking your kit. Most adventures can be played during your lunch break, and yes, I have extensive field data with which to back that statement!

The campaign narrative unfolds nicely as you level up and grow in prowess, with new adventures revealing themselves either on the completion of a predecessor in the story arc, or upon leveling up to the point that players are ready to tackle them. Additionally, the initial entry into the game is very well-scripted as a tutorial for how to move, fight, win, manage cards and characters, and progress through the game.

So, that’s the easy part. “Describe the game” takes just a few minutes, but reviewing it is a whole different ballgame.

 

A Short Review of Cardhunter – Through the Eyes of a Nostalgist

Back when D&D and AD&D were separate games, and softcover, low-color-palette books with binder holes pre-drilled and frayed folds on the seams from being flipped through all day and carried to and from school to play over lunch were the norm, and maps were dusty pencil sketches on the only pad of graph paper you were lucky enough to find at the stationery store in the era before Staples and Office Depot, there was a childlike simplicity to the game. You wander through a maze, killing or trying to outsmart anything that you stumbled across. Why? Because it was there. Occasionally, ‘it’ being ‘there’ meant there was some lame backstory about ‘it’ molesting a village ‘nearby’ or someone having a reward for the return of something that was stolen, etc. etc. But really, who cared about ‘why’? The key thing was running around and killing stuff and taking home the loot.

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The visual styling is straight outta 1981, yo.

These adventures were played out after school[2], at a friend’s house, with a pile of snacks and sodas all over a big-ass table (usually in the basement, occasionally the garage) with dice, good-natured insults, and rules arguments all flying in roughly equal proportions. The modules had suitably high-adventure titles, with faux-medieval lettering over some craptacular pencil art that usually looked like Bullfinch’s Mythology was being performed by extras from a late-night Elvira, Mistress of the Dark movie marathon.

Guess what? Those days are back.

Ignoring the entertainment value of the game itself, the presentation of it to the audience is clearly designed to transport us Generation X players back to 1981 and re-invigorate our sense of wonder and exploration as we hack our way through this game. The mechanics of the game are not so intricately bound to the theme that this misty-eyed homage to the past is necessary to enjoy it. No, the designers and consultants (including guys like Skaff Elias and Richard Garfield) are obviously fond of the days of yore, when fantasy adventures didn’t involve a power cord, and they were both social gatherings and dice slinging episodes.

The GM interplay, with little brother Gary and big brother Melvin is pitch perfect for younger siblings who grew up in game-playing households where the younger kids wanted to emulate older brothers and their games[3]. The ‘covers’ of the adventures, introduced as you move through the campaign, look like they’re straight of the shelves of Gamescape back when you were in middle school. The background around the map on which the game is played is designed to look like a basement table littered with bowls of cheesy puffs and soda cans, as well as dice that look like they were lifted from your parents’ Yahtzee game.

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Gary, your GM, is an entertaining interlude between encounters, as he grows into his own as a GM.

In short, the art direction on this game isn’t targeted at today’s 17-year-olds, for whom Magic: The Gathering has always been on the shelves. The game might be aimed at them, with equal parts monty haul campaign[4] and collectible-deck-building aspects to it. But the theme of the entire site takes their 43-year-old parents and whacks them square in the forehead with a 2×4 full of memories from those early days of roleplaying, when none of us knew what the hell we were doing but we were doing at full speed with a sense of entitled authority to it. It’s equal parts Greek heroic mythology, Knights of the Roundtable, and Hawk the Slayer, just like our first tentative forays into adventure-building were. Card Hunter brings back the feeling of those days better than any other game I’ve tried – better than Hackmaster, better than Castles & Crusades, better than any of the Zork-inspired web-based games floating around out there. Card Hunter takes me back to 1982 at Ft. Ord when my classmates first introduced me to this crazy thing called a “role-playing game” and I became infected for life.

 

Another Short Review of Card Hunter – Through the Eyes of a Cynic

With its grid-driven tactical play, obvious roles (dwarf = tank, cleric = medic, etc), and lack of discussion- or story-driven interactions, gamers who hated DD4e[5] will look at Card Hunter and say “see – that’s exactly what 4th Edition felt like to me!” But the point those gamers will miss is that Card Hunter might seem like it had set out to parody DD4e, but along the way the designers realized that there’s a pretty damned good fantasy combat game underneath all the hate.

It’s easy to see the DD4e influence in the gameplay – not the theme, mind you, as discussed above. There’s the grid-driven combat, facing, and movement, as well as the aforementioned party roles. The structure of the cards as they are associated with their weapons and equipment mimic DD4e’s much-maligned daily and encounter powers, wherein the über-cards appear sporadically during the battle and force the player to rely on solid tactics, teamwork, and coordinated use of the at-will, uh, excuse me “more common” cards in their character decks. Even the cards themselves have names that evoke DD4e’s attacks, like “Shifty Stab” and “Mighty Chop”.

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After each encounter, you get a treasure chest with a few items. This chest happens to contain a pair of “skills.”

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Right-clicking on the item enlarges the cards that it grants you for your deck.

The wizard class, especially, falls into this paradigm. Their spells are primarily granted through their staves and wands, and the mix of high-powered, low-powered, and “aw crap, I shot myself” cards is clearly blended to look like the power cards from DD4e.

It’s not a mental leap to imagine the design team having a conversation not unlike the designers of “Seasons” but with a heaping helping of gallows humor while trying to mix and match DD4e, the deck-building of Dominion as reimagined by Ascension, old-school anti-WoW graphics, and quasi-parody 1979 adventure names and artwork to blend together a game of “hey, let’s pick on everything people gripe about in adventure gaming” and then halfway through discovering that their Frankenstein’s monster is actually pretty entertaining.

As noted, this is a cynical view. With my rose-colored glasses, I prefer to imagine the Card Hunter design team envisioning the nostalgia trip they’ve sent me on for the past three weeks, blended with the limited deck-building aspect to appeal to the younger crowd who has no idea why the original “Palace of the Silver Princess” artwork stirred up such controversy. But after spending as much time as I have in and around the game world, it gives me pause when I see games as publicly flayed as DD4e was that get reinvigorated with a game-engine transplant to a new milieu, and the Penny Arcade lemmings chasing off after the latest fad that’s an outright rip-off of the very game they’ve screamed to high heaven about for four years. I can’t help it.[6]

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The game helpfully pauses when a new card comes into play to give you a moment to read the text.

A Note on the Team

In case you never checked out the “About” page of Blue Manchu’s team, it’s pretty damned good. Veterans of games such as Bioshock, System Shock, and Magic: The Gathering, as well as talent that came from companies like LucasArts and Irrational Games have joined forces to put Card Hunter together. There’s no lack of heavy hitters in the game design team here.

 

Putting a Bow on the Love-Letter to Card Hunter

In case it was in any way unclear: I love this game. I love the theme, the supporting artwork, the interlude narrative with the GM Gary, and his interactions with his older brother, and the pizza girl. I love the mechanics of the game, with its tactics-driven solutions that allow players to gear up for particular adventures, matching tactics to equipment to defeat specific types of enemies (the last battle with the Trogs out on the island took me 12-14 tries to finally beat – oy!).

Would I love a mobile version of the game? Sure, but I think the interface on a 3” phone screen would strain the developers’ skills as much as it would my eyes. I can live with playing it on the computer.

My biggest negative in the entire game is that the Blue Manchu gang seem to continually underestimate their own success. I’ve had a devil of a time getting onto the server at almost any hour of the day other than around 6am Eastern time[7]. Part of me wishes there was a tabletop equivalent to the game that I could invite some friends over to play to recapture that nostalgia of 30 years ago, but I do understand that the mechanics would be challenging to recreate on the tabletop. And besides, as I type those words, phalanxes of Pathfinder fanbois are lining up at ENWorld with their anti-Brant sarissas[8] to tell me to just go play DD4e and get the same effect.

I’ve not yet played Card Hunter enough for any sort of “sameness” to set in. Maybe when my guys all hit level 23, the fun factor will wear off. Then again, I’ve been playing the same basic red-book family of basic-expert-companion D&D since the early ‘80s, and it hasn’t worn off yet. I’m willing to play Card Hunter as long as it takes for that to happen.

This is a tremendously fun game – well-balanced, clever, and enjoyably themed – with enough tactical depth to keep a GrogHead engaged in the hack-and-slash fantasy romping around that the WoW generation will find “retro.” Given that it’s free to play, it’s a value that can’t be beat. As long as you can actually get onto the server…

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Card Hunter – smells like…

 


[1] Next drink is on me, Blast!

[2] Because let’s face it – none of us really needed to do the kind of homework/busywork that was foisted on us back in 4th grade when most of us were reading on an 8th grade level and going 9th grade algebra in our heads.

[3] It may be unintentional, but it’s pretty darn funny that Gary comes across as a more competent GM than the older brother he struggles to emulate.

[4] Not that they have clue-freakin’-one what a monty haul campaign is. Yes, I’m showing my age!

[5] Dungeons and Dragons, 4th Edition, for those of you that won’t bother to go look up the acronym

[6] By the way, if you think that’s cynical, ask me about defense contracting sometime

[7] No, I’m not waking up just to play Card Hunter; I have kids, and if I don’t get up before them, I never get any time to myself in the morning.

[8] Look it up.

3 Responses to A Review of Card Hunter

  1. ArcadianRook says:

    “As long as you can actually get onto the server…”

    Delightfully, this hasn’t been much of a problem since shortly after the game;s official launched.

    • Brant Guillory says:

      It had not officially launched when this review was written, but it has been significantly upgraded over the past few months.

      I’m anxiously awaiting the expansion of the campaign to new levels / adventures

  2. […] Give it a play!  And you can check out our old Card Hunter review here. […]

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