Impressions: Card Hunter Beta

By Alec Meer on June 13th, 2013 at 9:00 pm.

Ah, that’s the stuff. I couldn’t have wished for anything more stabilising during a week when the games industry seems of the verge of eating itself. A game about games, a game where all this came from, a game about the purity and the silliness of escapism, a game about boardgames, card games and pen and paper roleplaying games. Console scenesters might have their Monster Hunter; on PC, we have Card Hunter. Card Hunter, I heart you.

I’ve had closed beta access to Blue Manchu’s unwaveringly cheeerful, celebratorily geeky CCG/RPG/TBS/boardgame mash-up for about a week now. I’ve yet to try the multiplayer, but the singleplayer immediately proved as comfortable a fit as that pair of underpants I’ve had since 2003. (They’re red, you know. Or at least they used to be.) In the age old tradition of successful compulsion loops, I’ve found it very difficult to not return to Card Hunter again and again and again and again and again and again and again.

Mercifully, that compulsion doesn’t stem solely from the deathless hunger for raised stats and better weapons, though that plays a big part in proceedings, but also from how satisfying and tactical the turn-based, grid-based, card-based combat is. It’s a thoughtful and varying challenge every time, as from turn-to-turn I can only have a limited, if any, idea of what my characters will be able to do next.

Abilities, everything from chopping to magic and, most crucially, simply moving, are granted to each character at the start of every turn based on their ‘hand’ of cards. The deck this hand is drawn from is based upon the items your little cardboard fellows carry – axes mean an assortment of chops and lunges, flame wands primarily mean fire magic, divine trinkets mean heals and buffs. But while your Long Axe of Retribution might add 3 minor heals to your deck, there’s no guarantee these cards will wind up in your hand in a turn when you really need them. Instead you might end up with five different movement cards, or a few puny spear attacks.

That’s great if you were planning to go on the offensive against the assorted D&D-derived fantasy stereotypes you’re up against, but terrible news if you’ve got a party member with one health point left who is taking damage over time from a recent zombie bite. Alternatively, you might start a turn on the other side of the map from your enemies, with a hand full of devastating attacks but no movement cards. So you’re stuck where you are, probably getting pummelled with arrows and magic from afar. It’s low-level gambling – not replacing the strategy of picking and combining your moves wildly, but adding a potentially game-changing element of risk and surprise throughout.

As your party levels up and collects new kit the contents of their deck expands, improves and changes, but it’s not a matter of just sticking the rarest sword or the highest-level armour on them. You need to look at what cards specifically each item grants you, how they stack with other items and other cards, and how effective the new cards will be against certain types of enemies. For instance, a warrior character might wind up with a fancy-lookin’ new Martial Skill of a higher level than his current one, but if it adds bonus effects to any impaling attacks it’s wasted on a guy who’s currently carrying a couple of big lumpy clubs.

Despite the need to manage your inventory, the game isn’t manic like Diablo. This is an elegant roleplaying system from a more civilised age: finding or buying a new item is a pretty big deal, because it makes potentially sweeping changes to your deck and hand, such as transforming a fire-based wizard to an electricity-centric one. As such, equipping should be done wisely and occasionally, for maximum pay-off.

The singular elegance – that word again – of Card Hunter is that it takes all this very very statty, very Magic The Gatheringy stuff but manages to stop the card element from taking over. What you see and what you control is a party of adventurers, having a tense, razor’s edge fight against an assortment of Kobolds, skeletons, dragons and the like. It’s not just that Card Hunter provides graphical context for your chosen battle actions, but that placement of characters, both in relation to enemies and each other, is crucial, in the manner of something like Heroes of Might & Magic. You need to see and manage the battlefield, not just a set of faux-cardboard rectangles with icons and numbers on them. The two elements, the CCG and the RPG, are fundamentally combined – and that also means Card Hunter has twin streams of compulsion, of course.

Surrounding the whole affair is a good-natured and entirely affectionate pastiche of 80s pen and paper roleplaying games, as you’re guided and goaded by amiably dorky dungeon masters, missions are grouped into multi-battle ‘modules’ with brief, breathless storylines about monsters terrorising villagers, and the screen surround shows bowls of cheesy puffs and cans of presumably teeth-demolishing soda of indeterminate origin. It wants to evoke the simple, social pleasures of happy, harmless teenage escapism, and it succeeds so well.

It makes me yearn for the ability to flashback to more carefree times, before games and the games industry required constant analysis and objection, to when I could relentlessly chatter about my AD&D adventures to friends without feeling self-conscious, to when I had the time and freedom to just go and have that experience for a full weekend. Bittersweet indeed.

As is the the decision to make Card Hunter free-to-play, and supported by an optional payment system that primarily exists to make the game easier. The concept of ‘pizza slices’, the quintessential fuel of an all-night RPG session, as the purchasable currency is cute, and Card Hunter certainly takes some care to draw a clear, non-obnoxious line between what you get if you pay and what you get if you don’t, rather than have constant prompts for the former infecting the latter. The primary payment structure is The Card Hunter Club, a sort of subscription system which means you’ll be given bonus loot at the end of every successful battle.

300 Pizza Slices buys you a month of this, at a real-world cost of $10 (with discounts if you pay for a longer subscription up-front), which isn’t bad value at all within the grand scheme of free-to-play. It’s just that, even taking into account that the extra loot will still be random and thus probably of minimal use a lot of the time, it feels as though it’s on the road to Pay To Win. It’s bringing in out-of-game aid to make the fantasy adventure easier-going. It’s so much less cynical and obnoxious than in many other games, but I wish Card Hunter had stuck strictly to the concept of buying new Modules, new adventures. That is there too, as is the option to buy new artwork for the cardboard miniatures which represent your party, and both aspects simply make sense for this game, given how it’s trying to represent classic pen-and-papering and all its add-on books and whatnot. I can well imagine myself buying bonus modules – partly because, admittedly, they have epic loot rewards, but primarily because I imagine I’m going to want more of the meat of the game.

However, it must be said that there’s an awful lot of game here for $0, and the Club and other payment stuff is surprisingly non-obtrusive. Card Hunter is, I think, trying to make sure its players love it first and then maybe, hopefully, they’ll feel warm about the idea of investing cash into it, as opposed to games which try and wring cash out of you the second you’re out of the tutorial. Card Hunter’s clearly steeped in love for its subject matter, and that seems to have translated into treating its players with respect too. Add hey, let’s no forget this is beta – no doubt there’ll be plenty of tinkering with the payment systems before they settle on anything.

It’s so lovely to look at, as well – clean, simple but hugely characterful art that looks straight out of vintage funny papers, but augmented by modern graphic design sensibilities. The die-cut cardboard characters fit the concept brilliantly without robbing party members of personality, and most of all it fuses RPG tropes such as ridiculous fonts with a minimalistic UI and backgrounds. Apple should have got these guys to liven up iOS7. Meanwhile, comic patter from your nebbish GM, as he bickers with his arrogant brother and hopelessly attempts to flirt with the pizza delivery girl, keep up a written charm offensive.

‘Likeable’ is one of those words that risks sounding like a back-handed compliment, but I can’t think of a better summation of Card Hunter, and it’s one I employ only positively.

Card Hunter is taking closed beta applications now.

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55 Comments »

  1. Proximity says:

    I’ve been in the beta for almost a month now and my opinion mirrors just about everything in this article. The game is just downright fantastic, and having not played much of the multiplayer myself, I’m still nowhere close to completing the single player game. This is one to watch for just about anyone.

  2. Zogtee says:

    A browser game? Eww.

  3. Phendron says:

    Richard Garfield has somewhere between a finger and a hand in it, I’m in.

  4. Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

    That art style is just so charming.

  5. Ninja Foodstuff says:

    I think this might be my game of the year so far. I’d be playing more of it, but am wary about the probability of account wipes, so I’ve largely steered clear of it since my proper inspection last month.

    It’s truly remarkable how all the pieces fit together so comfortably.

    • Corporate Dog says:

      It’s absolutely my game of the year. So many “Just. One. More. Skirmish.” moments.

      Early in this game’s development, I was chatting with one of the devs on Twitter.

      There are a few ex-Irrational guys on their team. And one of them had posted a retrospective article about Freedom Force. So that was the topic of conversation.

      Turns out that if Card Hunter does well, they really want to pick up the FF IP, and develop a turn-based game out of it.

      And based on Card Hunter, I can’t think of a better set of hands for that game to be in.

    • Lobotomist says:

      My game of the year as well.
      Its truly gameplay mechanic masterpiece. Its really rare to see a game these days that brings something new to the table. And not to mention to wrap it up in such charming package :)

      I think Blue Manchu really nailed it.

  6. Shiri says:

    Yeah, the browser game part is ugly (lags to shit in a way there’s no way it should as an application) but it’s actually pretty fun and the art is nice enough.

    • Insolentius says:

      I know it may sound rather strange, but the game runs silky smooth in IE whilst it chugs under Chrome (for me, flash content just works better in IE). Also, pressing F1 three times in a row (activate, expand, close console) helps.

      • thulfram says:

        Everything seems to chug in Chrome right now, while IE 10 is getting pretty speedy. I’m fond of Firefox, but test all three every day for work. Do you have a bunch of plug-ins in Chrome?

        • Insolentius says:

          Not really, just three (Adblock+, Reddit Enhancement Suite and Shortcut Manager). Disabling them doesn’t help. I think the problem has to do with the fact that Chrome uses PepperFlash instead of the real thing.

          • jonchey says:

            I play the game on Chrome with no problems at all. If you feel like posting some details on our forums (www.cardhunter.com/forum) we’ll try to figure out what the problem is.

  7. Deadly Habit says:

    The multiplayer component is where I’ve spent most of my time (hell rendering a video of a joint LP of a best out of 3 matches game with another youtuber that we just finished a couple hours ago) so can comment more on that bit.
    You can always find a match with another player no matter the time of day, and have yet to come across any actual unpleasant banter or players.
    This is how to do a free to play model, the pricing is fair and it doesn’t hamper gameplay at all, nor does it make it pay to win.
    If it looks interesting I’d say sign up for the closed beta as they’ve been sending out keys like mad.

    • MaXimillion says:

      I have yet to come across any banter whatsoever, since the interface is not designed to accommodate communication. Chat and combat log being one and the same and the fact that it immediately throws you into the reward screen post-game instead of letting you even gg are both bad design decisions for fostering a community.

      I assume both will be fixed in time, of course.

      • Deadly Habit says:

        Weird I’ve had plenty of banter during matches and most people if they know a victory or defeat is inevitable will pop a GG into chat before their final move or resigning.

    • Randomer says:

      The three or four times I’ve tried to do multiplayer I get put into a fight against Gary after about 10 seconds of waiting. That doesn’t bother me terribly, mind you, as getting to skirmish with my otherwise currently unusable high-level gear is fun, but I would like to play against a human eventually. Then I might even have a chance to win.

      • jonchey says:

        I just finished adding a feature where you can elect to avoid AI opponents in multiplayer… will be in the next build!

  8. JamesTheNumberless says:

    I want a skeleton in splint mail to pour me coffee when I’m working late :(

  9. nindustrial says:

    I hope the keys-like-mad is true, I reaaaally want to play this game, but I signed up a month ago and no dice yet. This article just makes me more excited.

    • HKEY_LOVECRAFT says:

      I found this news heartening, but the staring contest I’m having with my empty inbox may result in eyes that are no longer fit for gaming if it doesn’t show up soon.

      Was signing-up for the beta the same as providing contact information on their page months ago? I just visited the site and the ‘form’ looks different…

      Dare I submit again?

  10. Insolentius says:

    I won a beta key in a story conest on reddit a while back and I have another key I got via beta opt-in, so, here it is… first come, first served.

    NHJG-HHDV-KSJH

  11. nindustrial says:

    WOAH! Thanks so much, I’m very very grateful!

    Whoops, should’ve been a reply, but so be it.

  12. Gap Gen says:

    I have no fears of the industry eating itself after I heard of the new Apple operating system, OberOS.

  13. strangeloup says:

    I had a beta key for this, but it buggered up and didn’t register my account properly. I suppose I could have emailed their support thing but I couldn’t really be arsed, I can wait until it’s properly out.

    I do wish it wasn’t in-browser though. Browser based games have an awful association for me, makes me think of Newgrounds trash and Facebook cow-clickers.

  14. Nate says:

    I played through all of the free content of Card Hunter. Actually played everything at least 2 times. Quite a fun game. Didn’t care for the stupid story and characters but those are easily ignored. The matches against people are also quite intense.

  15. Greggh says:

    Wait, did I read Monster Hunter? For the second time in an RPS article?

    My oh my, I like this site more and more by the day!!

  16. Farbs says:

    See the map up there with the zombies all standing in a line? I totally made that! It’s a custom scenario I built to test/demonstrate the system.

    I’m a Card Hunter dev, but in theory anybody could have made it since it was built using player tools. So that’s cool.

    Also I’m excited to see my party on RPS. Go team I-ran-out-of-ideas-for-team-themes! EXCITED!

  17. aliksy says:

    Signed up for the beta… and now I wait.

    Anyone else see resemblance to Scrolls? Maybe just me.

    • Kesmolato says:

      its just you. the rules of both games are totally different.

    • Lobotomist says:

      There is small resemblance in having cards and being able to move the “soldiers”. But lets say that Scrolls is TCG with some movement ability – while CH is tactic game (like Chainmail) with cards instead of abilities. CH really brings something entirely new to the table.

  18. JB says:

    Card Hunter is awesome. I could play it all day (Though, as mentioned above, I find that animations start to chug in Firefox after a while. I left-click on the “tabletop” and it semi-skips the animation).

    One point though – “with a hand full of devastating attacks but no movement cards”. That’s only going to happen if you’ve been forced to discard a card (or a similarly rare situation). Everyone gets a free draw of their racial movement card every draw phase. Elves dash, humans run, dwarfs walk, trog spearmen scuttle, and so on. Plus your boots (when you have them) will probably put 1-3 more move cards into your deck for random drawing.

  19. Wraiths says:

    I’ve been signed up for the beta for a while now, and I kinda forgot about it. After reading the review, I went their to take another look at it. I signed up, checked my E-mail. It turns out that I’ve been in the beta for Months now without realising it! I’ve been playing for an hour or so so far and I’m loving it. It’s excellent.

    Thanks again RPS.

  20. vonkrieger says:

    Played the beta pretty heavily for a while before hitting a brick wall in terms of difficulty. The core mechanics of this game are really excellent and I would certainly be happy to buy it as a ten or twenty euro single player experience, however the nature of a free to play model put me off.

    While you have the option of going back to earlier adventures and grind potentially better items for free, the idea is clearly to have you opt in for the paying customer only content in order to keep pace with the difficulty of adventures.

  21. DarkFenix says:

    Signed up for the beta a while back. They don’t appear to be letting people in very quickly though, still no invite for me :(

  22. Hmm-Hmm. says:

    I’ll probably sould like a broken record saying this (I think I’ve said similar every time Card Hunter appears on RPS), but man, what a shame it’s browser-based and free-to-play. Having it not browser-based would help playing the game.. you know, off-line, and it not being free-to-play would mean less hassle and worrying about any payment shenanigans.

    But considering what we know of the game so far, I’ll probably give it a go regardless.

  23. Time4Pizza says:

    This game really is fantastic. If you are an old-school D&D player, here is your holy grail. It really does give you that nostalic feeling of an all night D&D session with friends, much more than any other game I have played including the recent ones with the D&D logo slapped on them.

    If you played Magic: TG, or D&D, or just like turn based combat this game is a winner. There really are very few bad things to say about it. It being browser based means I can even play at work, oh and I do.

    I am usually a very harsh critic of games. Let’s be serious, most of the games coming out these days just don’t “feel” right. They don’t engage or entertain as you would hope they should. This one does engage and entertain, and brings you back to a better time when board games and video games were addictive in a great way.

  24. sysdefect says:

    This game is masterfully executed. The strategy when you get your head around it will make your brain tingle in a good way. This game also has some of the strongest rewarding feelings for new loot, particularly in multiplayer. Finding that epic or legendary high level loot can really make a difference and you’ll cheer when you bump yourself from wuss slaps to obliterating blows, really because you fight so many assholes who will tear you apart and you want to be able to trade punches.

    With that being said, two gripes I personally have with the beta so far. The single player dialogue is abysmal. There are good chuckles with dnd and fantasy type jokes and maybe the dynamic between Gary (newbie) and Melvin (grognard) but otherwise it’s just nauseating.

    And the multiplayer is quite easily pay to win. While multiplayer does enable one to win rare and powerful loot through chests, people who pay can buy additional chests or even better chests which is that more of an edge, and the loot is so overwhelmingly vital to your competitiveness that it can be overwhelming. They balance out high level loot with limited slots but with rarities, loot can be feet and head above the rest. Of course you can always try different strategies but you’ll always be limited by your inventory and then you run across the guy who has decks full of parries, hand redraws/draw additional cards, enemy/ally pushes and other bullshit that will boggle you.

    Then there’s also the people who farm the ranked games. They can be either people who drop their rank by resigning games right as the daily reset hits so they can smurf lower rankers until they hit a certain amount of wins for a big fat chest or there’s people who will run a game to their 20 min turn limit to try and get you to resign. Luckily, I haven’t seen too serious of a problem with this but with a community so small, it can be apparent.

  25. Howl says:

    iOS7 is borne of Jony Ive’s biblical purging of skeuomorphism. I’ve been in Card Hunter beta for a week too and loving it but I’ve never seen a game with more skeuomorphism.. ever.

    I’m not a fan of the pay for loot aspect though. I don’t mind pay for content but pay for loot needs to die a death, and fast.

  26. guygodbois00 says:

    Yes, Mr Meer(kat) strikes again. More of this, please.

  27. pertusaria says:

    I’m really glad that this is coming and still looks promising. I don’t think I’ll try for the beta, as I suspect I won’t have the time to give to it. Also, I love the header image.

  28. nyarlathotep says:

    Just got e-mailed two beta keys: grab ‘em while they’re hot:

    MTDQ-XBGX-WZJY
    VMXH-HKQD-QWPN

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