Do you like Magic: The Gathering? Dungeons & Dragons? Tactical RPGs? Open, self-aware parody? If the answer to any of these is a yes, Card Hunter may well be worth your time. If the answer to several of the above was a yes, I’d be a bit surprised if you haven’t actually heard of this one already and aren’t playing instead of reading this right now.
Created by Blue Manchu – a team of former Irrational Games, Looking Glass Studios, and Wizards of the Coast employees – Card Hunter is both a thoroughly crafted combination of deck-building and grid strategy and an exercise in well-trod if not still somewhat accurate gaming community metatropes. If you’re thin-skinned when it comes to nerd stereotypes the humor here will grate on you very quickly, but even if that’s the case I’d heavily recommend toughing it out, because the actual meat of the game is well worth it.
Those who have played D&D or any tabletop RPG in general will immediately feel comfortable with the aesthetic of the game: Each mission is presented as though from an adventure module, complete with flavor text in each virtual sourcebook setting up each encounter; Dice rolling abounds, though the polyhedrons in question are 14 sides short of what you might expect and are employed in a manner more reactive than active (mainly for dodge/block and extra effect chances); Fantasy tropes handed down from Tolkien are both faithfully preserved and playfully poked at in just the ways you’d expect those all too familiar with them to be. I’d say it’s everything you’d expect sitting from down to an actual tabletop session, but there’s no real substitute for cross-table talk with real people.
All this dresses up a game that’s equal parts card battle and miniature strategy. All characters are represented by paper figures on a grid map, and all actions down to basic movement are governed by decks of cards. Cards are not individually chosen, but rather come in groups of 4 or 5 attached to pieces of gear obtained in shops and at the end of each successful encounter. This turns what would otherwise be a card chase into more of a gear chase similar to what you’d see in an RPG, with that gear granting specific kinds of actions instead of stats. On the plus side there’s no energy system narrowing your options on cards during your turns, but that won’t stop the deadliest of maladies all card-based games suffer from: getting dicked over on the draw. Sometimes it just doesn’t matter how balanced your deck is, you’ll just draw everything except what you need.
It should come as no surprise that Card Hunter comes with a multiplayer element, but what disappointed me about it was that this doesn’t include an option for cooperative play, only competitive. Considering just how much of a group experience tabletop roleplaying is the concept of it being a solo endeavor (even if you control 3 characters on the board) eliminates one of the main identifying aspects of the experience. That said, multiplayer matchmaking is serviceable and PVP combat just as responsive as single player, and considering that the game can be played completely for free it becomes harder to criticize the exclusion of a few features.
Besides, what’s available for solo play is still enough to keep you busy for a while. Committed (read: addicted) players will be able to plow through the several continents’ worth of adventures with a few dedicated days of play, but Card Hunter is built more as an occasional game, and in that capacity its challenges should be enough to fill a few weeks at least. Most of these boil down to a simple “kill everything before it kills you” objective, but the occasional king of the hill-style mission requiring you to occupy and control certain squares on the map offers a nice little change of pace on the rare occasions it comes. Don’t worry, the scope of enemies and variety of strategies required to appropriately dispatch them keeps this from getting stale. You’ll be getting some use out of the ability to tweak your loadout during the mid-adventure breaks, and if you don’t believe me now just wait until you start fighting skeletons; The phrase “Only Bones” will become the bane of your existence.
Microtransactions cover the usual cosmetic options and various temptations of additional or superior loot, the latter of which I also consider to be one of the game’s biggest drawbacks. It’s a shame to see such a streamlined, well put together game resorting to tactics like this for 100% content access, but once again the fact that such a title is completely free makes it difficult to argue these points too hard. In any event, especially considering that last bit, Card Hunter deserves a try. Even if you’re likely to find yourself done with it sooner than later, it’s fun while it lasts.