Saturday, April 19, 2014

Card Hunter: Early Impressions

I'm finding myself addicted to Card Hunter, a game that's a cross between a dungeon-crawl RPG and a collectible card game. If you lost interest in this blog post at the words "collectible card game," just give me a few more paragraphs. You might find that this game isn't quite what you expect.

I'll explain the game first, and then I'll explain what really keeps me coming back.

Card Hunter isn't primarily a competitive, player-vs-player game. There is a PvP mode which can earn you in-game loot, but from my experience, it looks like most of the interesting content is in the single-player campaign mode. In brief, you control a small party of adventurer characters, battling their way through an extensive series of maps and encounters. Your characters' powers are represented by stacks of cards. When it's time for your characters to act, you play a card in order to use a character's ability. The cards represent movement, attacks, spells, healing, curses, and other such game effects.

There are some map tactics involved as well. Each encounter takes place on a battleground containing terrain elements such as walls, rubble, chasms, and other features that you'll need to contend with. You'll need to keep your characters moving to keep the enemy from flanking you, to put your heavy hitters where they can have the most effect, and to rush your healer to where he's needed most.

Leveling up your characters and gaining equipment gives you more cards, and better cards. Your characters' abilities will expand, and their capacity to suffer and inflict harm will increase. By inspecting the cards that your equipment grants, you can find synergies that allow your cards to amplify each other.

The AI is a decent opponent, and the encounters present a wide variety of threats. You'll have to adjust your tactics from battle to battle as you learn the capability of the enemy. All of this, by itself, makes for a rewarding game experience.

But it's the style of the game that pushes my buttons. The game is presented as if it's a classic, old-school roleplaying game, being played in a classic, old-school environment: around a table in someone's basement, with snacks and dice close at hand. At the start of each adventure, you'll get to see the cover of the adventure book you're playing through, and the visual style of these books will be immediately familiar to anyone who played the original D&D. The battlefield itself is presented as a cardboard map, and the players are stand-up cardboard tokens. The illusion even extends off the map, where you can see dice, GM notes, and adventure aid cards from the fictional "real life" Card Hunter game. For gamers of a certain age, this is a fairly faithful re-creation of your childhood.

And that, I think, is what makes Card Hunter special. It celebrates the simple appeal of "kick in the door" RPG's like D&D, and the excitement of opening a new adventure book with your friends. The card-collecting aspect of the game may put off traditional roleplayers, but honestly, it's not a hardcore CCG like Magic. You don't have to hand-assemble a deck, card by card, balancing your mana curve and inventing devastating combos. You just have to drop some swords and armor on your character sheet and sally forth.

Yes, it's a free to play game, but it's not one of those free-to-play games. It doesn't try to penalize you or shame you if you haven't paid up. There's a lot of adventuring to be had for free. I wish more free-to-play games were like this; they should earn your gaming dollars by entertaining you, giving you such a good time that you're glad to kick in just to support the developers.

If you like tactical RPG's, or if you like card-collecting games but you don't want to spend time studying cards and building decks, or if you just have fond memories of making saving throws while eating potato chips, give Card Hunter a look. It won't cost you a dime to take a good, long look and decide for yourself.