The Amazing & Astonishing RPS Advent Calendar: Day 5

By RPS on December 5th, 2013 at 10:00 am.

Where is it? Dammit, I know I put it somewhere. Hang on, it’s probably fallen down between the arm of the chair and the cushion… No. Damn! Where the bloody hell has it gone? Oh, is it behind this door?

It’s Card Hunter!

Adam:

I hadn’t planned to play Card Hunter at all and yet, as 2013 teeters on the brink of oblivion, there are maybe two or three games that have absorbed more of my time in recent months. Most of my hunting took place around the time of release, when a brief look at the game became a four day battle-binge and a 1,600 word review. The structure of the game taps into the ‘one more turn’ compulsion that can be so very naughty in free to play games, which often seem more interested in dangling the carrot of progress in the middle-distance while wielding a bloody great stick and littering the trail with microtransactional caltrops. Card Hunter isn’t like that, even though it is free to play and has an in-game store that accepts real world money.

In some ways, the fact that it’s free to play means that writing about the game is incredibly simple. I sit back, brew in hand, instruct you to go and play it for a while, and then wait for you to return. Go on. Try it.

Hopefully you haven’t been away for too long. Maybe you started playing, enjoyed the turn-based tactical combat and loot gathering, but didn’t want to invest too much time, fearing that a paywall was looming on the horizon. I think that’s my biggest fear with free to play – it’s easy to ignore the worst examples, but an otherwise enjoyable game weighed down by transactions and money traps is a sad sight, like a plucked parrot. Imagine if wonders took three times as long to build in Civ, but paying a couple of dollars would finish them immediately? Stop imagining it now and stop punching the screen and raging at the sky.

Thankfully (for the players at least – sadly, perhaps not for the developers), it’s entirely possible to have a satisfying relationship with Card Hunter without hunting for your credit card every five minutes. I’ve spent money in exchange for access to special quests, which are permanently available after one transaction, and I’ve seen just about all of the content in the game. Some quests stumped me and I lost half of my nose on a grindstone during one spike in difficulty, but I never felt encouraged to throw money at the problem and the challenge is mostly enjoyable.

And that’s because the most interesting thing about Card Hunter is the actual combat. The cards themselves are items and each hero in the player’s party has inventory slots that can take various kinds of equipment, just like in a proper RPG. That’s because this is a proper RPG, of the turn-based tactical type.

As the name suggests, the main draw is the search for cards. Because new equipment often provides new abilities rather than simple stat boosts, there’s a strong sense of progression, and enemies become more intriguing as well as more powerful, requiring new tactical considerations rather than simply wearing hundreds of hitpoints. It’s some of the best small-scale combat I’ve played this year, and is fresh and distinctive rather than a browser-based version of a system we’ve seen a hundred times before.

The most surprising thing about Blue Manchu’s game is how well it works as a complete package. The dialogue and story, along with the detail of the fictional tabletop RPG that is the game within a game, are beautifully produced. It lives in a browser and doesn’t have to cost a penny, but Card Hunter is a large structure, exquisitely crafted.

It’s probably best if you open a new tab and start playing right now.

Alec:

This and Desktop Dungeons are two sides of the same (physically impossible) die to my mind. They’re both taking an askew look at the rudiments of dungeoneering, going right back to the nuts and bolts and elves and dwarves of Dungeons & Dragons then building them into something new and challenge- rather than narrative-led. At that point, they part company. While Desktop Dungeons is an instrument of brutal precision, Card Hunter is a roulette wheel, all about making the best of whatever chance throws at you and – ideally – being amused by such assorted slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

Like Magic, the other prime seed for its orc-bothering family tree, learning and tactical thinking plays an enormous part of things, of course. Making the best of random involves understanding what that grab-bag of cards in your hand mean, both in themselves and for what might remain further down the pack. Poker with swords, and a jolly, self-aware, playful tone that takes me back to D&D-with-chums glory days I never really had.

Most of all I love the chunky, clicky, cardboardy look and feel of it, accompanied by the evocatively dull taps and thuds of your static figurines clomping about, or unseen dice clattering across a tabletop. This is a game dressed as a game rather than reality, and it makes the thing so much more tactile, more there. I get a huge kick out of simply having this on my screen, as much as anything else.

Where Card Hunter gets it both right and most wrong is that it gives away so damn much singleplayer (and multiplayer too) game for free. A better value prospect you probably won’t find this year, but I worry (going purely on the limited online chatter about Card Hunter) that this may have held it back from being the commercial success it absolutely deserves to be. Why spend on new adventure modules and character skins when there’s so much to do for no-pennies? All credit to anyone who so consciously avoids the grabby-greed of free-to-play, but I hope it didn’t hurt them.

Back to the calendar!

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39 Comments »

  1. DestructibleEnvironments says:

    Is this the “unknown indie game gems” calendar? I feel like you’re only recommending games to get me to spend more money! I got you figured out, sirs!

  2. SgtStens says:

    Is there a mobile version of this? It looks like it would be perfectly suited to play on a tablet.

    • Wedge says:

      Well it is browser based in Flash so… possibly it works on a tablet? I don’t know much about them things, but I would hope they can handle this.

      • Harlander says:

        The tablet OS manufacturers are expending a lot of effort in annihilating Flash support – so it’d probably take more fiddling than I’d care to bother with to get it working, YMMV

    • tpwoods28 says:

      I seem to recall one of the developers saying on an episode of Three Moves Ahead that they were making a tablet version. I believe they have a working prototype and are basically just refining it at the moment.

    • Snargelfargen says:

      It’s playable on tablets, barely. I’ve tried playing it on a Surface Pro. The UI is too small in places and there’s no proper way to preview cards. It wouldn’t take much to make to adapt the game for touchscreens, so wait and see what happens.

      I’m over the game now though. I’m a big fan of turn-based strategy, not so much deck building. I thought this would be the game to change that, but reequipping characters became a chore after the first couple weeks, sadly.

      • gerryq says:

        Snargelfarben: “I’m over the game now though. I’m a big fan of turn-based strategy, not so much deck building. I thought this would be the game to change that, but reequipping characters became a chore after the first couple weeks, sadly.”

        Latest content is a series of user-created dungeons (‘Mauve Manticore’, in theory the name of a magazine about Card Hunter). It has pre-generated parties. I like not having to re-equip too, and it seems there will be more issues.

        And of course, you can go straight to the user-generated scenarios. But when they have the imprimatur of the devs as in Mauve Manticore the have more cachet – and also, loot.

  3. Discosauce says:

    Glad to see this make the calendar!
    I played it for a few weeks before the “official” release, and that was more than enough to encourage me
    to pay for the starter pack (or whatever it was called) when it became available. Experimenting with different race and class combinations was fun, and as I never touched the multiplayer I still have something to look forward to.

  4. Saul says:

    Nothing has absorbed me this year like this did. And like Adam, I didn’t expect to like it at all.

    • boyspud says:

      Me neither. For a while my rig was out of commission and all I had to play games on was a crappy old laptop. I was able to play a few things well on it like FTL and Dungeons of Dredmor, but happened to see this on RPS one day and thought ‘eh, I’ll give it a look’. I spent the next 2 weeks playing it pretty much non stop.

  5. President Weasel says:

    All right, I shall give this a go – and throw them some money if I like it. Cheers for the recommend Adam and Alec; if you’d only had Anton or Aileen recommend this too it would have been a triple A title (what do you mean that’s not how it works?)

  6. Drake Sigar says:

    Totally agreed, tis a great game and deserving of a place on the calendar. Unfortunately I and some others are burnt out after playing non-stop for 2 weeks (and I didn’t even reach a quarter of the content) when we really should’ve spaced things out.

    • Illessa says:

      Hah yeah, that was my experience, two weeks straight of me and my boyfriend sat at our PCs comparing gear and yelling in victory/frustration over it, then neither of us have gone back to it since. Feels like the kind of thing I’ll pick up on again given a little time though, it really is a lot of fun and more than deserved my starter pack money.

  7. Turkey says:

    I always saw the header image for this game and just assumed it was a Cardboard Children article and never clicked on it.

    • Sleepymatt says:

      Double disaster!

      Not only have you missed a really absorbing, intelligent and entertaining game, but you’ve missed some of RPS’ most absorbing, intelligent and entertaining writing too! You don’t have to play tabletop games to enjoy Robert Florence’s articles – give yourself an early Christmas present and go remedy both of these issues!!

      • Vinraith says:

        I can only speak for myself, but I find reading about board games I’m never going to have the chance to play is simply depressing, regardless of the delivery.

      • Hmm-Hmm. says:

        Eh. I would like to read about board games, really, but Robert Florence is the single returning writer I avoid reading. he’s a board game afficionado, but I just can’t stand his writing. I’m not sure whether that’s because of his writing style or the attitude he displays. I’d have to go read some of his writing and frankly I’d rather not, I’m afraid to say.

        More on topic: lovely game. I tend to play this in very small chunks.. I just have to remind myself every once in a while that it exists.

        • Groove says:

          I used to love Rab, I’d never miss Cardboard Children or anything else he wrote. Then I discovered just how far apart some of our ideas on games are, essentially his love of the random. I can’t remember which game it was that made me realise it, but afterwards I looked back at a couple of games he’d made me quite excited about, did my reseach, and I realised that I would hate to play those games.

          Also a year or two ago he started a Christmas reccomendations list that barely started before Christmas and had an overly rushed end afterwards. He also had the whole ’10 games every gamer should own’ thing that I believe got to number 2 before being abandoned? I know he had other priorities but these things drove me up the wall.

  8. Merijeek says:

    I have to say that I did like Cardhunter, but I’m not sure the part about “no paywall” is accurate.

    Round about level 18 or so I hit the bit where you can either buy new dungeons or go repeat old ones with some seriously ludicrous restrictions (everyone has 1 HP, everyone fights naked, etc). If that isn’t an absolute paywall, it still might be a pay-minefield.

    Did I miss something absolutely huge? This made me give up in…not disgust, but general annoyance.

    • xao says:

      All of the extra content is pre-18. Once you finish the level 17 dungeons, you can replay old quests or take a shot at the challenges for guaranteed rare+ gear. Some of the challenges are pretty tough (the single hitpoint challenge can be diabolical), but many of the others are pretty reasonable (like completing the adventure with no party deaths).

  9. Geebs says:

    Two sided dice aren’t physically impossible – my pocket contains a bunch of them right now, although more of them are a sort of coppery colour than I would like.

    • Merijeek says:

      Technically there’s a one in a couple million shot it’ll come down on the 3rd side, so that’s not absolutely correct.

      • Urthman says:

        Yeah, but there’s roughly the same chance that a six-sided die could land and remain balanced on one of it’s corners or edges. Are you going to insist that we call it a 26-sided die?

        • Merijeek says:

          I’ve seen a coin hit the ground on edge, roll, and come to rest against a wall still standing.

          I’ve never seen a six-sider land on a point and stay there.

    • GernauMorat says:

      I like my dice non-euclidean.

    • Convolvulus says:

      Two-sided dice are like regular dice rounded off a bit. Imagine the cube is constructed of paper, and it comprises two planes each consisting of three contiguous squares. Now remove the edges separating the squares in each three-square group but keep the ones separating the two planes. Then you have to balance them and add numbers, or you’re just wasting everyone’s time.

  10. Kefren says:

    Cardhunter was a really good game. However, since I’m not interested in multiplayer, I think it would be good if they released a standalone offline single-player version too, via GOG. I’d have then bought it, rather than play the whole thing for free online, so that would have benefited the developers. It would have benefited me too: I suffered the occasional loss of a mission when the Internet went down for a bit, or the incredibly long waits when it was slow/servers were busy. The online component was a barrier to the fun for it as a single player game. If they released it on GOG too they would satisfy everyone and make more money. (Although I said I only like single-player, multiplayer on hotseat or LAN would be a great feature). If it does ever appear on GOG I’ll buy a copy and no doubt play through the whole thing again.

  11. Aerothorn says:

    And I was betting on this for GOTY. Too good to be true, I guess. I think only Alec and Adam played it, alas.

  12. PopeRatzo says:

    Oh, I see. This is the year for elitist old-school games that suck and nostalgia for computer games that don’t require a computer to play. At least it seems like we’ve moved beyond the celebration of every games that looks like 8-bit.

    We’re back to that again.

    How ’bout we just make Far Cry 3 GOTY again? Since every good game isn’t coming out until Q4, 2014, maybe we can just go for a three-peat and take the next 12 months off and read some books.

    • Arren says:

      elitist old-school games that suck

      Such a charming and cogent analysis — a contribution to be proud of, to be sure, Ratzo.

      Do you leave turds in random places in meatspace, or do you restrict yourself to forum threads?

    • mazzratazz says:

      Er, what? Elitist oldschool games? Which ones are you referring to exactly? Card Hunter is surely not that, I just spent an hour and a half playing it and it seems pretty damn casual. And newschool. Nostalgia for computer games that don’t require a computer to play? What does that even MEAN? I guess you may be referring to D&D in connection to this, but the link is vague at best – this is a combination of a pared-down turn-based RPG à la FFTactics and a card collector.

      Seems like a pretty useless comment. Oh well, the rest of us can still enjoy this list regardless :}

  13. MellowKrogoth says:

    Really fun game for the dozen of dungeons I tried. I get sick of it pretty fast, though, because there’s nothing to break up the pace of battle after battle. I had the same problem with Shadowrun Returns, but there at least the story and nice writing kept me coming back and I eventually finished the game.

    • theslap says:

      I feel the same way. I really wanted to love Card Hunter but the battles got more and more monotonous. It’s essentially the same strategy every fight (occasionally swapping gear here and there) and there is little consequence when you lose a battle or even a campaign.

      Progression felt slow and farming old campaigns to keep up in level was a bit annoying. I’m not convinced that I like their “f2p” model either. I would’ve rather just bought the game for $20 and bought expansions down the road as DLC.

  14. JackMultiple says:

    Is there no way to make the text font bigger? I’m sitting a foot away from a 24″ and I can’t read that tiny text. Too bad for me, I guess.

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