Wot I Think: Hand of Fate

uh, you really should learn how to fast shuffle, dude

Hand of Fate [official site] is a CCG/roguelite in which a masked, magical figure challenges you to play an increasingly deadly card game against him, switching to high-speed, stabby third-person combat whenever you get into a fight. It’s out now.

The reason I so often want to play boardgames despite having a hard drive full of more videogames than I could ever hope to complete isn’t simply because occasional contact with other human beings is unfortunately necessary in order to remember how to talk. It’s because having an opponent who voices their frustration and exhilaration as the game goes for or against them makes it seem so much more than it is. It becomes a true contest, its cards and dice these physical extensions of your will to defeat another lifeform. Videogames, usually, offer us the canned, meaningless soundbytes of a hundred thousand slain foes, but they don’t often offer us a single, overarching opponent who lets slip irritation or indulges in crowing. They’ll often offer us someone we want to defeat because they’re shown to do terrible things or have a skull for a face, but they very rarely offer us someone we want to defeat purely because they are our rival.

There are many things that Hand of Fate does rather well, but the standout is that you spend so much of the game staring at this guy:

I HATE YOU SO MUCH RIGHT NOW.

Throughout the game, before and after almost every action you take, he’ll offer a warning, sneering chastisement or grudging respect. He looks like Raistlin but sounds like Sean Pertwee (though what I strongly suspect to be an Australian accent irregularly breaks through the faux-Brit), and while he’s almost avuncular at times, the desire to defeat this smug SOB who quietly revels in your misfortune can become overwhelming. The cards you draw and transitory enemies you battle are merely a means to that end.

There are so many spoken (and well-written) words here, but all with one aim: sell the character. Where other RPGs (I loosely stick this in there, but there is as yet no safe phrase for what’s an ever-broader genre that flirts with roleplaying essentials) bulk their hours of play up with sprawling, flabby lore and cutscene, this is dedicated to a single cause and backs that up with tight, compulsive mechanics.

This is, for the most part, a masterclass in a single character’s sustained dialogue holding a whole game together. While lines do noticeably repeat by around about Hand of Fate’s halfway point (some three or four hours in, if that’s your metric for a game’s worth, though even then you’re very likely to go back and revisit old opponents with new cards in hand), whatever tombola they’re stored in chucks them out in random enough combinations that it really works. You’re not just playing a game, you’re playing a game against a masked dick who thinks he knows it all. DESTROY. And yet, he also feels like an ally in the joy of playing the game. You might be trying to best each other, but you’re experiencing this adventure together.

Hand of Fate does cut to hack’n’slash fantasy combat, using a looser, simpler take on the Batman: Arkham games’ counter/combo system (more on which shortly), but in the main it’s a simulation of a collectible card game. Where something like Magic The Gathering: Duels of the Planeswalkers simply does as this as pretend cards on the screen, this goes all out to show the physical minutiae of play. The little bowl full of tokens, the unused cards pushed to one side, the carry case full of stored decks. It’s all in character, though – you’re duelling a vaguely malevolent wizard in some dark fantasy land, not meeting Ian from Accounts in the darkest corner of The Red Lion.

It’s lovely, it’s appropriately dorky, and it understands that the appeal of board and card games comes from something far more tactile and tangible than the accruement or demolition of numbers. With its regular switching between the table and the battlefield, Hand of Fate blurs the lines between cards-as-combat and actual combat.

Once in a while I wish it would just stick to the cards – because the hacky-slashy stuff feels like a interruption – but I appreciate what it’s trying to do. It’s this sweetly literal interpretation of how our minds create heroic escapades from a dungeon master’s enthusiastic descriptions. File Hand of Fate alongside Community’s Advanced Dungeons & Dragons episode in terms of successfully evoking why this world of pen, paper and imagination can, with the right mindset, explode into something so thrilling. Honestly, it’s brilliant.

It’s not just painstaking cardboard simulation and characterful, Aussie-tinged pomposity, of course. There’s also a smart card game with a roguelite structure and regular forays into satisfyingly crunchy combat. The cards are split into exploration, denoting path, places and enemies, and items, which comprise a colourful selection of weapons, armours and magic doohickeys. The smart thing is that your deck and your opponent’s deck are equal but asymmetrical. The more cards you add to yours, the more he adds to his. The stronger yours becomes, the deadlier his becomes. Your deck is dedicated to keeping you alive, his to killing you off. The stakes escalate every time you win, sometimes gruesomely.

A sustained element of chance (some events have a Find The Lady-style choose a card system, with increasingly disastrous outcomes if you pick the wrong card) means it can feel unfair, but equally unexpected victory can be snatched from the jaws of defeat because a couple of cards festoon you with health and wealth. I do prefer Hand of Fate when it’s simply a matter of which card falls next and dealing with the outcome, as the find the lady element can feel like being punished by a shuffle, but it adds more variety to what otherwise might be too simple.

Then there’s the combat, which does feel slightly airlifted in from another game entirely but again switches things up and makes this more than a pretend card game. Whereas an item card or stronger monster in, say, Hearthstone, essentially just means a bigger number when you attack your foe, here you get to actually wield the cool stuff you find or buy. An ice sword isn’t just a drawing on a card, but a big spiky blade which can intermittently fire a cone of ice at a gang of skeletons. A new weapon feels appreciably, tangibly different when you’re walloping goblins, in a way it wouldn’t were it merely a card with +3 written on it.

Some boss fights aside, the combat isn’t particularly challenging – so much of it is about hitting the Counter button whenever a green danger icon pops up – but it’s got a rhythm to it, it throws in a respectable number of randomly-acquired powers and power-ups, and it goes to town on simple, small but evocative environments. Hand of Fate could probably have gotten away with just being that combat game, but that it’s just part of this greater package only makes it more likeable. Part of me would like to play a variant that was cards only, and let my imagination do the work of the fights, but I suspect my mind might have wandered too soon if I had.

Where the wheels can threaten to fall off an otherwise superb cart is that Hand of Fate doesn’t manage to imbue its overall objectives with the meaning of its individual bouts. To dip into for a half hour here and there it holds together beautifully – the meeting up with a mate and challenging each other’s decks ethos – but played in bulk each individual victory has less meaning even though the ultimate aim of beating every ‘boss’ seems woolly. I keep saying this lately, but this is perhaps a reflection of how a critic necessarily plays most games as much as it is some shortcoming in the game itself, so my advice is to limit yourself to a couple of bouts per day rather than try to binge-play Hand of Fate.

This does allude to my deeper concern, not just with Hand of Fate but also with every smart, adventurous roleplaying-esque game that appears somewhere in the Steam top ten in recent months. I don’t feel entirely qualified to get into the formalism debate going on in some quarters of games development (and moreover don’t believe in either/or), but I guess this is sniffing around the territory. Like the similarly excellent, similarly characterful Darkest Dungeon and Sunless Sea, Hand of Fate’s deepest foundations are compulsion loops, knowingly exploiting the human hunger for more and better items and numbers and to keep on cleaning up a map/board/menu until no more options remain. I love that there’s this trend to use a tried and tested design mindset to hook people into playing stuff that then goes to more experimental and thoughtful places, but I’m quietly concerned that there’s a routine forming and that it’s closing the door on emotional connection. Sure, there are plenty of ‘indie’ games which are exploring the latter, but I hope we don’t end up with a hard separation. This is, I suppose, a meta-criticism rather than a significant concern about HoF specifically.

All that said, what makes Hand of Fate so very special is that it does very successfully bring one very human emotion to bear: hatred. I’m gonna give you what for, Australian Raistlin.

Hand of Fate is out now.

41 Comments

  1. LogicalDash says:

    but I’m quietly concerned that there’s a routine forming and that it’s closing the door on emotional connection.

    Do you mean to imply that routines, perforce, deaden emotional connection? Because that’s weird and dumb and I hope that’s not what you meant.

    • Alec Meer says:

      No, I’m saying there might be something routine about the underlying design ethos in games like those mentioned (i.e. maybe there are many devs thinking ‘we should make this stuff the game’s backbone because that what seems to do well on Steam’), and expressing gentle concern that the trend towards including these tried and tested compulsion loops may be coming at the expense of exploring other, equally interesting schools of design thought.

    • Craig Stern says:

      Given the context (it comes right after a paragraph where Alec laments that the game “doesn’t manage to imbue its overall objectives with the meaning of its individual bouts”) I suspect that Alec might be butting up against a limitation of the game’s procedural generation mechanism.

      I’ve run into this a fair bit myself lately with games that use procedural generation: they create compelling short-term scenarios for play, but lack an overall arc that gives those scenarios lasting narrative or emotional significance. Even among games that lack a strong narrative hook, there’s an art to designing them so that they build upon themselves as they progress, teaching the player new skills and then requiring the use of those skills in increasingly challenging and creative ways to progress. I don’t know of any roguelikes or roguelites that successfully capture that skill-building arc over the course of a single playthrough, let alone couple it with a narrative or emotional through-line.

  2. Artist says:

    Well written, Mr. Meer and a solid conclusion. Interestingly I already played the game as single sessions after noticing that it doesnt cope well in “binge-playing”. Same counts for Darkest Dungeon, imo.

  3. Veles says:

    I think this sort of thing would make a great article that I’d love to read

  4. X_kot says:

    Dragonlance represent!

  5. airmikee says:

    I have to wonder if they chose that name knowing the history of the term.

    link to imdb.com

    One of the worst movies ever made, so bad that MST3K could barely make it watchable. The term should be put to rest permanently.

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      Harlander says:

      Dunno if I can get behind discarding a centuries-old turn of phrase because someone decided to name their ropey film after it, to be honest.

    • ResonanceCascade says:

      That was a MST3K classic. Completely nonsensical movie.

      • G_Man_007 says:

        I’m so glad I was not the only one thinking of Manos when I read the title. KEEP CIRCULATING THE TAPES!!!

        • Fumarole says:

          Repeat to yourself: “It’s just a show.” You should really just relax.

    • Rikard Peterson says:

      There has also been a game with that title: link to gog.com

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      Skabooga says:

      My brain jumped immediately to the Legend of Kyrandia: Hand of Fate, the second installment in that series. link to mobygames.com

      Does that make it more or less nerdy for me that I don’t immediately jump to MST3K?

    • gorgonaut says:

      I saw the title. Clicked on it, and went straight for Ctrl+f and wrote “manos”. I was not disappointed. Thank you RPS Hivemind!

    • hanakogames says:

      Just chiming into the pile of other hands-of-fate, there’s also this:
      link to store.steampowered.com Heileen 2: The Hands of Fate
      IIRC that dev actually wasn’t aware of the MST link when he chose the title…

    • April March says:

      And of course there’s also the game that is literally based on that movie.

  6. PancreaticDefect says:

    Nothing hurts worse in this game than when you are made to draw a weapon or armor card and then have to sit there and watch all the useful armor or weapon cards you included in your deck and that just happen to have been on the top of the armory stack get discarded until you reach the card you are being made to draw.

  7. Xzi says:

    Great article, made me want the game even more. One thing though, you touch on the fact that combat isn’t particularly difficult, but the game kinda bills itself as a roguelike, and the Steam community also gave it that tag. I assume you still end up losing to that oh-so-jolly robed fellow way more often than not, correct? How long does each game take before you lose on average?

    Personally, I love the semi-repetitive nature of roguelikes. The story is only told in a broader sense, and needing that perfect combination of skill and luck to “beat” a game gives it so much more replay value. Especially when you still manage to unlock things by dying/losing.

    • Alec Meer says:

      I didn’t lose once during the first half of the campaign (though took some hard knocks), but the challenge rises sharply from thereon in and there were plenty of losses in the second half. It’s not really a roguelike, other than in that if you lose a ‘match’ you lose all your progress through it and any items you had equipped. But your progress through the over-arching campaign, plus any new cards you unlocked, remains. (It would be impossible otherwise).

    • morganjj says:

      Hey there – I’m one of the devs.

      It’s actually really tricky, and we try to be careful not to bill ourselves as roguelike, or a ccg, or a board game – we draw from a whole bunch of different genres, but we’re not a faithful version of any of them. We try to be incredibly careful not to misrepresent the game – at best we’d say it’s a roguelite (or a roguelike-like).

      Ultimately, it’s a hybrid game that has pieces of many different types of game, but isn’t a true example of any of them.

      The funny thing about that is, the user generated tags (which we don’t control) and reviews frequently describe the game as exactly those things. Which isn’t surprising – the game is hard to explain!

      • Chirez says:

        Please, please change the chance cards, make it random or make it a skill game, but for the love of god not both. It started out good, but in the fourth quarter it hurts my eyes and my brain. I’ve taken to shutting my eyes and listening for the shuffle to end, because tracking the cards is so pointless.

        • sberg says:

          I liked the fact that the shuffling game was part skill and part luck. You sometime following the cards has an impact, and sometime it doesn’t. It is actually great if you think about it.

          When I play a rogue-like part of the fun is trying to make the most out of the opportunities given to you. I find that the shuffling game brings a similar feeling.

          • Chirez says:

            It was fine in the first quarter, and not too bad in the second, because the shuffle introduced limited randomness. If you were lucky it remained possible to track the cards.

            My problem is that you learn the chance game as something you can ‘win’ by carefully watching the cards, and then when you get to the second half of the game, and especially the last quarter, it becomes literally impossible to win because the card order is entirely randomised, little to no useful information remains after four shuffles. So it’s random, pick a card. Which would be fine had I not been taught early that I need to watch the cards.

            It’s introduced as a skill game, and then becomes entirely random, which in me produces a horrible sense of dissonance, like I should know something I cannot possibly know.

      • vecordae says:

        I think you guys did good work, here. I’ve really enjoyed the game so far. Also, props for the Linux release. It’s what eventually convinced me to support it in early access.

  8. Wolfone88 says:

    I just wanted to point out that the “random outcome” Success or Faliure card choice is NOT random. If your eyes are fast enough you can actually follow the cards move.

    I’m slowly getting the hang of it when it doesn’t shuffle it three times, but basically you can see the cards slide on top or under each one.

    • Underwhelmed says:

      Eh to a point. It is possible to follow them until they end up under the stack, and after that you are left with guessing if a particular card went right or left. Obviously you know where the top went, and its opposite side mate will still mirror it after swapping, but the other two cards may or may not be flipped, and at that point it becomes a coin toss.

      I’m not complaining though. This is how the game rolls dice, and still gives you a chance to alter your odds; I can live with that though it will rub some people the wrong way.

      • Wolfone88 says:

        When they overlap you can clearly see which one goes over which other one though. Even when they are shuffled multiple times. The problem is that theu go way too fast to follow. I might end up recording my screen and playing it in slow motion just to figure the trick out.

        • Chirez says:

          There is no trick. The cards go into a single stack, and then out again. Each shuffle you know where the top card ended, and you know which cards were above which, but there is no way to know which cards below the top went left or right. This is my whole problem with the chance shuffle, particularly when it starts doing it three or four times. That missing information makes the cards literally impossible to track, while the system taunts you by giving you ALMOST everything you need to know which card is where.

          It’s cruel and unusual.

  9. Mr Coot says:

    Australian RP is a real thing! link to youtube.com (one of the 3 types of Oz accent – but I think Raistlin is trying to do faux-Brit).

    I love what Defiant have tried to do with HoF, and I desperately want to play it, but I’m left with a sense that it started off as a console game and no-one bothered to properly consider how mouse and keyboard-using PC gamers would get the most enjoyment out it. The keyboard input method is game (and hand)-breaking for me, unpleasant and unwieldy enough that I can’t persist with it.

    • NathanH says:

      The mouse-and-keyboard controls are a bit iffy but “game-breaking” seems little excessive from my experience—what is it in particular that you’re struggling with?

      • Mr Coot says:

        I spose I am used to either WASD movement with directional mouse turning or Diablo/PoE style click to move where the click can be mapped to an Orbweaver and movement is accurate – mouse for end location then thumb button for the click. Meanwhile my left hand can pick up action keys and it is non-fatiguing, and with economy of effort. HoF would be perfect if I could do that. As it is, my hand feels cramped up and the movement itself feels very inaccurate (even if I map the 4 directions to the thumb button). I really dislike how movement is tied to the direction you face too. Outside of combat, selection of things in the shop etc seems clunky too, but that is a mild annoyance.

        I will give it another go and experiment with a few diff layouts on the Orbweaver tho’, because I do love the concept.

  10. Gothnak says:

    I love the idea of the game, it’s just the look of the combat that turned me off. If it was Turn Based party based xcom a-like I’d have been all over it.

  11. noodlecake says:

    I really like this game. It’s something that I dip into for one, maybe two runs at a time, but I’m enjoying it played that way. By the third run the combat, when combined with the harsh cards thrown out by the dealer wizard fella, can be devilishly difficult. I’ve never actually managed to get past the devil card where it strips almost all your health and puts you against a hoard of enemies. I’ve nearly done it, but I’ve died every time (3 or 4 times now). I always take the offer because I want to unlock the token that comes with it. I think the combat is perfect for the little snippets and makes it far more fun than any regular pc card game (for me). A whole game with those combat mechanics would be terrible but all the systems working together make it pretty enjoyable.

  12. bill says:

    This sounds great.

    But I’d love a proper RPG with a malevolent dungeon master who taunts you. It’d be a pretty similar game, except only the DM would have cards and they’d be invisible to the player. The player would just encounter the results of the DMs choices during their quest.

  13. Cyrius says:

    I am just happy with how someone said Raistlin in a modern article.

  14. Chirez says:

    So, after 13 hours and butting my head up against the ridiculous curses of the final boss many many times, I have this to say:

    The Endless mode probably gives the clearest view of what the game really is. The bosses are all lesser versions of this slow, painful spiral toward inevitable failure. The only reason you can actually defeat the bosses is that you reach them relatively soon, before the burden of playing by his hideous rules becomes too great to bear.

    During the game you will gain things, and you will lose things. The things you will gain will be few, and they will be largely worthless. The things you will lose will be many, and they will be onerous. Thus, with every step you take you will be worse off than you were before. Even if you are blessed with extraordinary luck, within a half dozen steps whatever you gained will have been stripped from you. There is no precarious balance here, just a deck which is stacked against you and an opponent you will come to thoroughly loathe.

    Whether any of the foregoing is a good thing or a bad thing, I suspect, is largely a matter of personal preference. I have played it, and I have enjoyed it, but not because it was fun. I have enjoyed those moments when the dealer throws a dozen lizardmen at my feet, with me on twenty health and basic equipment, and I somehow manage to survive on adrenaline and willpower alone. Inevitably I am then rewarded with three gold and a rusty axe, while having taken enough damage to starve to death immediately afterward. But I don’t care. I have taken the worst that bastard can do and I still have the strength to raise a finger to his lying, cheating, smugly punchable face.