"...the nigh-perfection of the game design and pacing of Card Hunter deserves praise and recognition."
What do you get when you take the former Director of Development for BioShock, former Production Director at PopCap games, and design consultation from the creator of Magic: The Gathering? Well, a Cthulhian monstrosity, but also one of the finest strategy RPG experiences I've had in the past several years. While Jonathan Chey and Joe McDonagh had the help of many other talents, these titans of the industry almost guarantee quality wherever they go, and Card Hunter is no exception. What does it cost? Your time — and maybe some pizza.
Players take the role of an unnamed gamer who sits at a table with a basement dweller and aspiring D&D Game Master named Gary. Together, you and Gary duke it out across a table from one another, your only weapons: cardboard standies, dice, and cards. The word "together" is used deliberately, because Gary is less about destroying you and more about the experience. His older brother, Melvin, however, doesn't feel quite the same. Throughout the campaign, players experience the typical D&D fare: kill some kobolds here, return a merchant's cart there — all pretty standard as far as fantasy lore is concerned. While each module and battle is opened and closed with well-written narration that ably sets the stage, I found the dialogue involving Gary, Melvin, and the pizza delivery girl more engaging.
That isn't to say that I ever wanted to skip the campaign's text — indeed, this feels authentic — but Gary and the rest of the crew are a fascinating combination of nerd stereotypes and realism. While they are archetypes, they also feel like real people entrenched in their hobbies. I venture to say that most gamers either have a Gary or Melvin in their lives or are Gary or Melvin. The campaign is no mild excursion, either. Although I have not finished the game, simply scrolling through the map and taking note of the spacing between modules clearly suggests that dozens of hours of strategy RPG fun are for the taking — not just Greenfang's hoard.
Card Hunter is a browser-based Flash game that is free-to-play with microtransactions. Before you stop reading here, know that this is no casual game or pay-to-win affair. While the engine may be simple, the design and content is not. Card Hunter is as simple or complex as the player wishes for it to be. By that I mean that if you intend to win in the campaign or ranked PvP matches, you had better treat this as a complex game. Initially, the game is painfully plain, serving more as an extended tutorial than an engaging experience. After reaching level five or six, players will start to realize that some strategy in card selection is warranted, lest they fall at the hands of mere troglodytes.
But how exactly do players choose their cards? As previously mentioned, this is a strategy RPG. Gameplay takes place isometrically using squares, with each character moving along this grid until he or she can engage another unit in combat with ranged or melee attacks (cards). Each turn, the party of three draws three cards from each unit's deck, which is determined by the equipment they carry. Gary and the player take turns using cards from any one character or unit. Players may pass at any time, but they never forfeit their ability to play the next turn. Once both players have passed, three new cards are drawn, and battle continues. The battle is won when one team fills up their star meter, which is typically completed once each unit on a team has been wiped out. However, some maps contain victory point squares that offer stars at the end of a round to whichever player has the most units occupying these yellowed areas; in this way, some battles may be concluded before either team loses all of their units. Once the player claims victory, he opens a chest containing new equipment that varies in rarity depending on the quality of the chest and length of the module.
Using equipment to determine the power of one's deck is an ingenious design. While some equipment is clearly better than others, I found myself on several occasions agonizing over a decision, such as between a level 2 common sword and a level 5 uncommon pike. At times, a lower-level piece of equipment may play into one's strategy and preferences better than supposedly more powerful loot. Side-boarding situational weaponry and armor also plays into the strategy and customization strengths of Card Hunter. To complicate decisions further, some equipment offers extremely powerful cards, but includes negative cards that can cripple a character if drawn. When these negative cards are drawn, they must be played immediately, penalizing a character. In this way, luck plays a factor in the outcome of battles, but I have found that balance and shrewd deck construction trumps luck almost every time. I admit, however, that some battles seem to require a specific type of strategy to win, such as a level 7 battle in which penetration or armor discarding spells were a necessity. Players shouldn't fret, however; while defeat is inevitable, should someone fall slain at the end of a long module, three chances can be used up before restarting. If a particularly difficult battle continues to stifle a player, money can be spent to revive the party.
Shops scatter the map intermittently. Here, gold can be spent for new equipment. Shops increase in levels as the game continues, and the selection changes once in a while. Alternatively, players can buy chests and try their luck, though each chest clearly indicates what type of rarity is expected. The best equipment can be earned more easily with pizza. Pizza is the currency that players can buy with real money, offering them a quick road to success with stronger equipment. That isn't to say that people who refuse to pay can never get the best loot — it's just incredibly rare and difficult. In addition, some modules can only be unlocked with pizza, but these are far less common than the free-to-play modules.
As of right now, multiplayer seems to only include ranked and casual versus battles. Players can climb the ladder of skilled play or bout with someone else in an attempt to earn loot for the campaign. While equipment earned in multiplayer and single-player can be used interchangeably, character levels remain even in multiplayer. The matchmaking system attempts to pair players with others of similar skill (or equipment) level. In this way, the game involves a slight pay-to-win aspect. Pizza can also be spent on costumes, which change the way characters look.
On top of deck customization, players select a party based on class and race. While class determines the type of equipment one can carry, race influences base stats and race-specific equipment, which can blur the lines between classes. For instance, a dwarven warrior lacks mobility by virtue of being a dwarf, but certain warrior weaponry allows the dwarf to move and attack with one card. Unfortunately, only three basic races and classes are available presently.
Card Hunter controls as most SRPGs do; that is, control doesn't play much of a role except in terms of character selection on the field. At times, I made errors in my targeting because I couldn't quite click where I wanted, as sometimes squares are obstructed. An undo function would help in the event of misclicks, as these mishaps are infrequent.
Card Hunter is gorgeous and charming in its authentically D&D style, but not everyone will appreciate what appears to be minimalistic graphics. The standies don't animate when completing or receiving actions, and character dialogue is not met with any mouth-movement or animation. However, these minor reservations hardly impact the experience. Some folks may take issue with these design choices, although those who care are unlikely to pursue browser-based games in the first place. In truth, any fan of D&D will find that the ever-changing table decorations and quirky references enhance the experience tremendously, small they may be.
While visually stellar, Card Hunter falters in the sound department. Music doesn't play much of a role aside from small intro sequences and fanfares, and dialogue is completely text-driven. Occasionally, Gary will say, "Encounter!" which adds to the game's personality, but more certainly could have been done here to offer a more complete experience. That said, what's offered complements the game.
Addictive and sound in design, Card Hunter doesn't revolutionize the gaming landscape. Everything done here has been touched on in some form somewhere else, but the nigh-perfection of the game design and pacing of Card Hunter deserves praise and recognition. Of course, with the kinds of names behind this project as stated earlier, what else can one expect?