Card Hunter is gaming comfort food. It's like the thick stew your mother would start on a cold day, it's flavors slowly mingling together until they are perfect in form, and delicious in function. Sure, the analogy may be a little over the top, but there is not a single moment, not a single, solitary instant, when Card Hunter didn't leave a dumb, childish grin on my face.
I have no doubts that part of this silly grin is the immediate nostalgia kick, the call back to my own time playing Dungeons & Dragons or Magic: The Gathering through my formative years. It wasn't in my mother's basement (I live in Florida, we don't have basements), but I spent more then just a couple of nights huddled over a table with friends, throwing dice, moving miniatures and pitching fits over rolls that didn't go our way. Everything eventually devolved into a frenzy of bullshitting, chips, soda and laughs, but at the heart of those gatherings, the reason for all of it, was whatever game we were playing that week.
Blue Manchu's mix of card collecting, miniature play, and old school D&D (were we still a group and not scattered to the winds as life has a way of doing) would have been one of those games. I'm the one who would have brought it up. I was always the one who paid attention to new games, release dates and other nuanced crap, and I would have busted into the three bedroom apartment where most of our adventures took place, rushed to my friend's computer and popped it open. From the first click, bringing up the map of Cardhuntria, to Gary the Game Master's introduction of the party, battle, and a green dragon of not so insignificant size, they would have been hooked, and the first hour at least side tracked. Eventually, we would return to the table, return to our miniatures and our campaign, but I would know that the next time I came over, my friend would be on the computer, playing Card Hunter.
While the game starts with a fully equipped party and an encounter with an acid spewing, green colossus, Gary's brother, Melvin, is quick to point out that those are his characters, his cards, and his adventure, and Gary, being a beginning GM, is not experienced enough to wield the power and responsibility that comes with a later level adventure. Gary, who's always quick to accept the criticism of his older brother, brings out the starter kit, and offering you a choice of a human, elf, or dwarf fighter, starts you on your very own Card Hunter campaign.
These story beats come in between encounters and serve as the primary narrative, but each mini-adventure, made to look like the old D&D encounter booklets from the early 80's, continues the story of the small team of adventurers you've assembled. It's an odd mix, the pseudo, stereotypical gaming life that Gary leads set against the semi-serious, yet also stereotypical band of adventurers. Coming from the perspective of someone in that position, I was happy to see that the story was always laughing with me. The writers never took their position for granted; instead of mining the endless material for gags and jabs, they integrated and embraced the stereotypical nature as simply part of the story and the game landscape itself, using all of those things as a backbone rather then a punchline.
Playing Card Hunter is akin to playing a board game with cards dictating your movements and actions instead of dice. The game map, with a square grid laid over it, represents a 3D area on a flat 2D plane. Walls, columns, and other area defining features still work as intended, providing line of sight in regards to your characters' abilities and acting as barriers in regards to movement. It's a simple system, and while it's occasionally difficult to tell blocking features from regular floor, your cards are quick to tell you when and where you are allowed to move or act.
Gathering your characters decks is as simple as choosing your weapons and equipment. As each character gains levels, more equipment slots are opened on the character page, allowing for multiple weapons, trinkets, and even pieces of armor to be equipped. Each piece comes with cards that define it's purpose. Weapons, like axes and swords, come with penetrating strikes and sweeping chops, armor comes with special cards that stay in your hand, but provide blanket damage reduction, and trinkets may come with special properties, like allowing your entire party to move an extra space, or adding damage to spark attacks. Checking the properties of each card is as simple as right clicking on it, and simply hovering over one while in an encounter will show you the spaces it can reach, or the area it will effect.
This Item = Cards system makes the prospect of building a working, playable deck, incredibly simple. The character screen shows what cards your character has already, and by hovering a new item over an already equipped item, you can see what cards it currently has compared to what you will be changing. It also makes it easy to see what kind of holes your deck may have, as all the cards are color coded according to their function. Paying attention to what cards you are coming in with is essential, especially in the beginning, when your characters don't have a ton of slots to play with or options as far as the kind of cards you bring into the field. As cards are drawn into your hand at random from the deck, early encounters, especially for fighters, can be frustrating as you pull whole hands of movement cards, leaving the other two characters to carry the load that round.
It doesn't happen often enough to qualify as annoying, but it has raised more then a few exasperated sighs, especially when an encounter looks/feels like it might be coming down to the wire. Thankfully, as your character levels and are allowed to equip more items, getting your deck ready for any eventuality becomes not only doable, but a game unto itself. While it never equates to the hours spent crafting a themed Magic deck, time spent switching out pieces, picking through the shops, and digging through the treasure chests that appear at the end of every encounter is as enjoyable as scouring through the loot drops in Diablo.
I make that comparison, because while the drops may have the same feel, the pace is considerably slower. The initial heroes your get, a fighter, wizard, and priest, are doled out to you one at time, with a couple encounters between them. That means that the levels of your party are staggered in the beginning. Through the first two or three encounter booklets, it's not an issue, but by the time you've reached the level 5-6 adventures, having a character that is almost two levels lower (the priest) can begin to hurt, both in health and in card options. It's a problem that's easy to rectify, as there is nothing a little farming can't fix, but Card Hunter slows that pace by only allowing you to play through an encounter book a single time per day.
For most, that's not a problem. For players who consume their entertainment like Great Whites in a feeding frenzy, it may cause a bit of an issue. In the beginning, the approach kind of turned me off. For one, this is a free to play game, and seeing things locked up like that, waiting for a day to pass before I am able to play again made it feel to much like I was waiting for some arbitrary energy bar to fill up. Once you are past level 5 though, this feeling goes away, as each encounter completed opens up additional booklets, and you slowly begin to push your way across the map.
Make no mistake, though. Card Hunter is free to play. There are two types of currency, Gold, earned by your heroes selling the treasure they find in shops, and Pizza, which is bought with actual money. There are a few instances where this is made mention to, like a shop that will sell you random treasure chests filled with loot, or a costume shop that will sell you new miniatures, or a special rewards club that grants you an extra piece of loot at the end of every encounter. Probably the most egregious, and the only one that feels like a true cash grab, are the treasure hunts, special encounters that guarantee an epic piece of loot at the end (they even go so far as to show you what it will be). Accessing the first one, you are shown a screen where you can pay 30 pizza (about a dollars worth) to gain access to it, or pay 300 pizza (do the math) to unlock this and all future treasure hunts. Considering everything else that you are given access to for no money out of pocket, I found that to be more of a “oh that's how they are working that in!” moment rather then some sinister plot to make me buy imaginary pizza.
Could this have done with out that? Probably. I belong to the class that would rather pay up front for their entertainment and not have to purchase my way through special gates to access it. Given the way this is set up though, especially with everything else available, and the treasure hunts being in now way necessary, I can't stay mad at it, or Blue Manchu for that matter, for trying to monetize this. The 10 bucks or so it would take to unlock the treasure hunts feels ok, especially if you want more Card Hunter. And if you can't tell yet, I do.
The final thing left to tackle is the game's multiplayer aspect. It's one on one. Each player involved gets heroes that have been raised to level 18, and they are even started with a full set up of equipment to make you immediately competitive. It's true strategy, and in most cases, just like in Magic, the person who knows his heroes, knows their cards, and utilizes them the best wins. The human element is much more cagey then the AI could ever be, so if you are looking for a true test, the community is there waiting. There are rewards for playing/winning a certain number of matches per day, and participating doesn't mess with your progress through the single player campaign one bit...
Ok that's not true, and, if anything can be, this is my one major beef with Card Hunter. At around level 6, they introduce multiplayer to you by having you play a fake match against Gary. You are given you're level 18 heroes (you can easily swap them out at the multiplayer tavern), you're walked through a match, and you even get to take all the loot, equipment from those heroes and all, back into the single player to do with as you see fit.
This completely jacks up your inventory. What was a nice, orderly packed and arranged mule (the inventory area has a little picture of a pack mule) is now a jumbled mess of equipment my single player folks wont be able to use for at least 5-6 more levels. I don't want to sell it, cause that's my multiplayer loot, and I don't have a stash to put it in, so I am left with nothing other than to carry it, which destroys any semblance of order that might have been there... that was there. Stupid to care this much about that? Probably. But damn it I do. And if I had the option to change one thing, I would either make a stash, or keep them separate. Or hell, give me a warning that this is about to jack my stuff.
Extremely minor gripes aside, I love this game. It absolutely harkens back to my own time as a tabletop gamer, with both D&D and CCGs, and its story treats those memories like they're a treasure, rather than a punchline. Will you enjoy it as much if you don't have those memories to draw on? Well, if you like fun, and can stomach learning something new, then I don't see how you get out of this without having at least a little. It may not grab everyone the way it has me, but then it doesn't have to for you to see its charm. And hell, it's.. mostly free. So you have no excuse.
Reviewer and Editor for Darkstation by day, probably not the best superhero by night. I mean, look at that costume. EEK!