Dorky, lovable and deep, Card Hunter has an earnest love for its subject matter. Whether it’s in the little exclamations of “Adventure!” and “A-ha!” from its dungeon master, Gary, the complex systems that make up its turn-based, card collection design, or in its descriptions of caverns and sorcerers’ towers, this is a game that’s built on Dungeons & Dragons foundations and isn’t afraid to show it.
D&D and tabletop RPGs have a monolithic presence in videogame culture today. They’re certainly a badge of honour among game developers, the genre’s twin pillars of rules and storytelling offering a proving ground for professional skills. It can’t be a coincidence that a return to videogame grace has coincided with a growing appetite for collectible card games, and Card Hunter blends the two forms effortlessly in a F2P browser-based card strategy game that, for all its studied anachronisms, has its finger right on the pulse.
Card Hunter plays in a similar way to classic RPG boardgames such as HeroQuest, its three player heroes placed as counters on flat boards decorated to look like rooms and caves. Its innovation, though, is that every hero’s actions are governed by the hand of cards they hold, cards drawn from a deck defined by the armour, weapons and other adornments that hero is wearing. So a pair of boots, for instance, might throw three movement cards into the mix, while a weapon might supply a set of hack-and-slash cards.
The three classes handle very differently: the Warrior’s armour adds cards that mitigate damage, parry and block, as well as weapons that add melee moves; the delicate Wizard specialises in ranged spells, burning with fire or hitting distant foes with bolts; and the strongly armoured Priest assists with healing magic and other support cards. Adding more complexity to the mix, each class can be one of three races: the Dwarf’s toughness is balanced by a lack of movement cards, the Elf’s mobility is countered by low hitpoints, and the Human sits somewhere between the two.
One of the many lessons Card Hunter teaches you is that every card has its place. Take, for example, the situation where three Skeletons are bearing down on our Warrior. With a hand of armour-piercing spear stabs and multiple-enemy axe chops, the Warrior would normally be able to stand his ground, but the Skeletons have a unique card, Only Bones, which negates slashing and piercing damage. If only we hadn’t disregarded our Priest’s Wavering Faith, which could’ve made the enemy drop Only Bones from their hand. But Spear Of Darkness looked cooler, and now our Warrior is dead.
The game’s vast array of items come loaded with cards taken from a pool that numbers in the hundreds, some of which give you negative traits (such as Superstitious, which causes a hero to drop all its cards whenever anyone – friend or foe – dies), presenting an enormous range of tactics to explore. Card Hunter’s real victory, though, is its emphasis on RPG development as an intellectually gratifying expanding set of options, rather than just a dopamine-gratifying increase in damage output. By level eight in the singleplayer campaign, you’ll have a pack filled with items, some of which will be ideally suited to one of the very specific challenges found across its large map. With heavily armoured Trogs that you can barely sink a hit into, swarms of Kobolds with Mob Attack (which does more damage for each enemy in range), or attack dogs that can score damage bonuses if they get behind you, you’ll need to adapt your strategies and loadouts to win.
You play with the constant unease that you might get dealt a bum hand, but then again, so might your opponents. There’s also always a sense of the possibility that you can snatch victory with a genius move. On the flip side, encounters can sometimes play out like they’re not under your control. Card Hunter is not as strict as some strategy games, and can devolve into two characters left standing, passing turns until one finally gets to deal the killing blow. But always on Card Hunter’s side is the fact that you’re responsible for the cards you brought into battle, and given the sheer range of variables in play, it’s remarkably well balanced.
The proving ground is multiplayer, where you play heroes locked to the current level cap of 18, which are separate to the ones you cultivate in the campaign. Multiplayer Card Hunter is quick-fire – each player plays a single card per turn – which is well suited to live online play, quickly finding similarly skilled matches on its so-far-busy servers, and starting an AI match if it can’t. Just like completing encounters in the campaign, a multiplayer victory gives you the chance to open chests with different chances of presenting you with rare, epic and legendary items.
Blue Manchu could easily monetise aggressively here, but resists anything unfair or intrusive. Just under $10 will give you a 30-day membership to the Card Hunter Club, which gives you an extra item in each chest of a certain rarity, and enables you to buy different costumes for your hero, adventure packs that award special rare items on completion, and gold to buy items in shops. But the randomness inherent in the drawing of hands helps to smooth out the sense that players are simply paying to win.
Knowledge of tactics is the most important thing, after all. “Knowing the difference between an Orc and a Goblin is life or death in this business, Gary,” insists fictional player Melvin during the campaign. This is a game that takes its fantasy as seriously as it needs to be, which is to say both lightly and with rigour in homage to the communal games that make up videogames’ heritage. But it’s also a real original.
Card Hunter is out now on PC and Mac.