Wot I Think – Card Hunter (Steam Edition & Expansion)

Card Hunter [official site] is a free to play D&D-themed CCG/boardgame for one or more players, originally released two years ago as a browser game. It’s now been re-released on Steam, with a new, System Shock 2-inspired paid expansion. I jumped at the chance to go back.

“I’ll just fire up Card Hunter’s newly-released Steam version and System Shock 2-inspired expansion one more time before I finalise my positive review,” I thought. Grab some more screenshots, double-check my thinking and… oh. A 20 minute queue. For a game I was playing entirely as singleplayer. Back to the drawing board, Meer. A server upgrade then knocked the game offline for a few hours, so I left the thing alone for the night. Come the morning it’s online but tells me it’s going offline again in 15 minutes. I appreciate these are issues only likely to haunt Card Hunter during launch week, but my mental associations for it are now ‘bit of a bleedin’ hassle’. Especially given I, like a great many others, essentially play Card Hunter as a purely singleplayer affair.

While Card Hunter has multiplayer and co-op, the extensive singleplayer mode is a big draw, and one in which your solo dungeoneering won’t be disrupted by so much as a hint of other humans. It sucks to be made to wait for something that, to all intents and purposes, plays like an offline game. Even once I was in, the game was noticeably and sometimes maddeningly laggy as it pinged remote servers between moves, but as server upgrades are ongoing this piece is going to be irrelevant the second it goes live. I’ve already rewritten the last couple of paragraphs three times: videogames can be such a moveable feast.

Is the game worth sticking with through all this turbulence? Well, yes. Card Hunter was a lovely thing upon its first release, though from the discomfort of my old armchair it rather looked as though it wasn’t a great success. A second chance on Steam dramatically increases the odds of it finding a big audience, which in turn means it can enjoy more updates and additions, and it can be the perpetual D&D/card game mash-up/infrastructure I’d always hoped for.

I won’t re-review the game entirely, as Adam already did it back when it was a browser-only affair, and I agree with his verdict. If you can’t be bothered to read that other piece though, here’s the summary. Card Hunter themed to evoke pen and paper roleplaying in the 1980s, which means a certain amount of very deliberate cheesiness and a conscious embracing of fantasy tropes as cheerful and colourful rather than grimdark. Various dungeon masters ‘direct’ your adventures, and they’re very much in the mould of nerd stereotypes – the awkward enthusiast, the snooty, pony-tailed elitist – while you make delightful faux-cardboard cut-out characters do battle. This can tip into trite, but in the main they give the game life and character. It’s generally a romp, but there are a few carefully-played deviations into bittersweetness and sympathy too.

The presentation is boardgame, but the the mechanics are card-based. Your deck is built by equipping armour and weapons to your party, each one of which means new ability cards, which may or may not come up during your next fight, rather than direct damage/defense. Quests, meanwhile, are turn-based fights with a slight puzzle focus – i.e. most enemies or map layouts have some sort of gimmick which prevents you from simply steamrollering them with attacks.

There’s a ton going on, but Card Hunter manages the improbable feat of remaining highly strategic even when there are thousands of possible deck permutations. I’ve even seen people complain that they have to ‘grind’ early dungeons, which close for 24 hours after a successful run unless you pay to unlock them, in order to progress, when in fact quite the opposite is true. Learn the game well, play tactically and thoughtfully and the grinding isn’t required. Refuse to do this and yes, you’ll be repeating yourself endlessly, and no, maybe Card Hunter isn’t for you.

I like it a lot because it’s like a puzzlebox, fantasy XCOM, and because the boardgame tropes are both thoughtful and silly enough to be effective, at least if you’re a guy sat playing virtual board games on his own, as his by turns rampaging or sleeping toddler means he can almost never get out the house to play actual boardgames with actual humans. Though Card Hunter never goes all the way to making me laugh, it feels like an old friend.

It’s got its limitations, however, and I’d hoped the Steam release would mean a bit of an upgrade. Sadly, this isn’t the case. Its browser-based origins are all too evident even when it’s running as a standalone client – no zoom, no rotation, not much scaling up to high resolutions, almost no keyboard controls… I ended up playing it in a window because all the fake wood effect dead space around the main UI made it look too stark in fullscreen. Maybe these things will come with time, and success, but for now expect something pretty but a little rudimentary-feeling.

The Steam release does bring two big additions, though. One is a co-op mode, which I confess I haven’t looked at much yet, thanks to all the queues and downtime, and the other is a major expansion. Expedition To The Sky Citadel lends the game’s affectionately satirical tone to a sci-fi setting, and one which is openly inspired by space-zombies and mad AIs of System Shock 2. This isn’t a case of fanfic: some of Card Hunter’s key staff are ex-Irrational folk who worked on Shock 2, so this is them homaging their own past. Don’t expect ‘Cardotron’ to work his way into your skull like SHODAN did, or to ever feel any more scared than if someone waved a Heroquest figurine at you, but it’s a giggle. It’s full of silly ideas and clear fondness for the scope and span of sci-fi: the mood is celebratory. Some of the ‘a whopping 4K of RAM’-style gags about olden computer marketing get a bit laboured, but generally it’s a pleasant atmosphere of tongue-in-cheek nostalgia, all underpinned by a very clever, even fiendish, turn-based battle system.

The game gives you an option to jump almost directly to the expansion, gifting you a ready-made level 18 party with which to play it (if you don’t have high-level dudes of your own already), but you’ll be in for a bit of rough ride if you do. The puzzle aspect of the game is ramped right up, with almost every enemy requiring specific strategies to defeat. There’s also some stuff, such as the ability to sell unused items, that’s locked out unless you’ve beaten a bunch of early core game quests. So without a fair amount of Card Hunter experience you’re probably going to struggle. In other words, you can’t defeat an evil super-computer without cracking a few goblin skulls first.

The expansion’s hard as hell, and I’ve not finished it yet. That’s a recommendation: I’ve got this appealing and substantial challenge sat there, keeping me going, rather than that I’ve just churned through some perfunctory ‘content.’ But it costs $13 to unlock the expansion, and potentially that’s on top of the earlier, dinosaur-themed one, and/or the ‘Basic’ edition for $20, and maybe Club membership which gives you bonus loot every fight, and Pizza and Gold which buys chests and new figurines and… Yeah, the microtransaction stuff might have gone a little overboard. Card Hunter gives you an awful lot for free, and on that basis there’s simply no world in which I can recommend against grabbing the base version, but the sums of money involved to get ‘everything’ are eye-watering:

Clearly changing everything now would outrage its existent community, but I do wish its Steam relaunch had pared things back to a more traditional base+expansions model. All the loot-buying stuff is disconcerting, even if ability rather than gear is broadly what wins the day. Card Hunter’s in an awkward halfway house between traditional and free-to-play, and while I’m an old man and change is terrifying etc etc, I do think going wholesale for the former would have been a better fit for it. Still, whatever brings success, whatever keeps it alive, whatever creates a situation whereby I can drop in every six months or so and have a new clutch of adventures to play. I’m so glad it’s on Steam. Card Hunter feels as though, with a few technical tweaks and a neatening-out of the biz model, it can be a perennial. I really hope that proves to be true.

38 Comments

  1. Gothnak says:

    As others have mentioned before, i’d have happily stuck down £15 on this for a full version with all unlocking in game and less grinding (When you get stuck, you can get stuck for a while). But as it is a free i haven’t spent a penny. I assume the whales out there are making up for all the old school box copies old men like me though.

  2. jingies says:

    I played card hunter back when it was web based, and really enjoyed it. The microtransactions were so complicated I didn’t bother, but the server woes often ruined it for me. The ragequits from when something broke just as I was about to win a hard-won fight were too often.

    Shame that the move to Steam hasn’t fixed these, but I’ll give it another chance once it settles in.

  3. strummer11 says:

    Always online? No sale,

    • Troubletcat says:

      Good thing it’s free, then!

      • MadTinkerer says:

        If I was going to ever put up with always-online microtransaction bullshit, Card Hunter would be the game. But sadly for the devs of Card Hunter and the numbskull that decided that Steam is basically the same as the IPhone App Store or Facebook, I’m just not participating.

        When Card Hunter goes on GoG (or if they modify the Steam version so it respects my desire to play it after they arbitrarily turn off the server), then I’ll jump at the chance to buy it. As it is, that “free” button on the Steam page was the road block that kept me from installing the game. No exaggeration.

        • Xzi says:

          *Sigh*…GOG elitists are just as bad as people who will only buy games if they’re available on Steam. Which is fine I guess, but they never seem to see the hypocrisy in their supposed moral high ground.

          • Aetylus says:

            No! You won’t fool me. I’m not using that free distribution platform to play that free game like they want me to. Me not buying their free game until it is released on that other free distribution platform will teach them a serious lesson!

    • Dawngreeter says:

      Dude. That Elder Sign is, like, so not up to date.

  4. Kefren says:

    Oh, if this was offline and on GOG I’d buy that for a dollar! (Or 15).
    I played it a bit in the past but just wanted an offline single player game (ideally DRM-free so I could back it up – I’m still playing games from over 20 years ago!).

  5. Tony M says:

    Alec those prices are for bundles including figurines, chests and club membership. You can get all the content by just buying the Base Game Treasure Hunts, and the 2 Expansion Treasure Hunts (you buy them with Pizza, which you mostly have to pay for but theres a little free in game). Thats how I purchased the content.

    • Freud says:

      Each expansion, if you just buy the modules with pizza only cost $5 each.

  6. Freud says:

    It’s a fantastic game. I’ve finished all six expansion modules and I think they aren’t as good as the previous expansion. It’s too much pure RNG involved with the game messing with your cards way too much for it to be enjoyable. It removes the point of building a deck.

    But still for anyone who hasn’t played it, the previous 30-40 modules are good and it’s a game you can sink hours and hours into.

  7. Premium User Badge

    Jarmo says:

    About this: “All the loot-buying stuff is disconcerting, even if ability rather than gear is broadly what wins the day.”

    It’s not possible to just go out and buy all the best items in Card Hunter. If you choose to spend cash on chests, they contain a few random items. The item pool is so big and contains so many so-so items it’s pure chance whether you get anything useful at all for your pounds or dollars. That is, unless you have hundreds or thousands you’re willing to spend on it — and even then you might still miss the high-rarity items you most coveted.

    In practical terms, there is no pay-to-win in Card Hunter. Some of the best PvP players have never spent a penny on the game. It is perfectly possible to just play the game in single player or multiplayer or co-op (SP & MP bot available!) the way one personally enjoys it most and loot a thoroughly competitive item pool.

    Also, most of the really good items are low-rarity and readily available for everyone. The high-rarity items can even be worse than the low-rarity items, and often are. It’s a totally different item model to traditional single-player RPGs.

    This is a very important point because if you look at the Steam forums or in-game chat, one of the most often asked questions by new players is “Is this game P2W?”. No, Card Hunter is not and has never been pay-to-win. I’ve played it daily for two years and it’s always been a fair fight.

    Also, Card Hunter is so fun and varied I’ve played it daily for two years, mostly single player. How many games achieve that? For my (non) money it’s the best game system to have come out of the 2010’s so far.

    • TheAngriestHobo says:

      So… if the rare items don’t hold up against the common items… where’s my dopamine trigger? Awesome loot loses its appeal real fast when everything’s, well, awesome.

      I’m not at all advocating P2W, but “everyone wins” doesn’t seem like a great solution.

      • Underwhelmed says:

        Saying that Rare items are worse or not as good as common is maybe a little misleading. I would say that the rarer cards tend to have a greater number of effects that are more powerful in specific contexts. They fit well into certain builds, but are often less useful without the right cards to support them.

      • Premium User Badge

        Jarmo says:

        There are also highly-usable high-rarity items in Card Hunter but they are in the minority. The dopamine hits are there for collectors but they are rare enough to make pay-to-win nonexistent. The hit is all the greater when you finally get a genuinely good Legendary item instead of all the useless boots with very, very situation-specific rare cards on them.

        The high-rarity items in Card Hunter are very rarely straight up better than low-rarity ones, but they are instead very specialized.

  8. Premium User Badge

    Jarmo says:

    SP & MP both available, not “bot”, sorry about the typo.

  9. Chaoslord AJ says:

    Hm that 20 minute queue actually lasted 40 minutes for me. With long lags between the hero turns as the client seems to send each mouse click over to the server.
    The bigger problem is the time commitment. I did the dungeons one by one and hit a wall where I got outleveled (no guild items or payments) so I guess you’re supposed to grind the dungeons daily and I’m afraid while the game’s quiet fun it’s not that interesting to grind the same dungeons over and over again for rare loot, gold and levels.
    It’s not pay-to-win but at least grind-or-pay-to-win.

    • Premium User Badge

      Jarmo says:

      Grinding is not necessary to progress in the single player campaign. It is mostly a matter of adjusting your tactics and party and the equipped items to counter the things the monsters use. You have to change your items and tactics for almost every adventure. It’s puzzle-like in that respect.

      The traditional “Ok, my best sword is +2 so I’ll just use that until I get a +3 one” system does not work. For the next adventure, you might need a spear and a sword is useless. The next migh need a macr and all bladed instruments are useless.

      I just for fun beat some level 7 adventure with trogs in armor in it with a brand new level 3 team with just the starting equipment. No grinding needed once you can work around the monsters.

      • Underwhelmed says:

        For an example: I had a fighter built around lots of gear that had penetration, with a few support items and skills that added bonuses to penetrating hits. I thought I was pretty clever until I ran into a mob of undead that had immunity to piercing.

        • Jockie says:

          Wait until you meet maps that have Skeletons (immune to melee except bashing) & Blobs (immune to bashing). Other option is to stack your deck on these missions with armour destroying items (most commonly found on mage gear).

  10. aircool says:

    I like the old D&D Boxed Sets style to everything.

  11. namad says:

    I don’t think you have to pay to access the expansions, just a small part of them? the rest is free? yes?

  12. vorador says:

    While i quite liked it, there’s enough problems to shoo me away. The lack of scaling ( i have a 4k monitor, so it covers like 1/5 of the screen and the font is barely readable) and the queues to pay single player began to annoy me.

    Well, that and the microtransactions. I would rather pay for the game outright than having to deal with them.

  13. Big Murray says:

    It boggles my mind that after all this time, they still haven’t included an option to replay the campaign. It’s even in their FAQ, which suggests that enough people have been asking.

    I fired it up again after a long time to play when the Steam version came out, but I can’t remember what all those cards do and I wanted to start again. I had to make a new account. Oh, and guess what? There’s no function to logout once you’ve logged in to the Steam version. I’m now locked into playing my old account on Steam, and have to use the browser version if I want to play otherwise.

    The ability to logout of your account is a basic goddamn function. How could they keep screwing this up?

  14. abomb76 says:

    Bit disappointed at how narrow this review is. It barely scratches the surface of what Cardhunter has to offer. Is that the state of RPS journalism these days? Take a quick look, write some paragraphs, wipe your hands and be done with it? What about a comprehensive look at the game in its entirety instead of selling it short by only looking at one facet of the entire gem? For shame Alec, for shame.

    It seems remiss to not cover the PvP portion of Cardhunter in a review of the game – I’ve been playing Cardhunter since it was originally in beta and I still log in to play every day because of the PvP multiplayer. Once you finish the single-player campaign PvP really extends the life of the game and this is where the deck-building and strategy of the game really shines as metas develop, players compete for ELO rankings and there’s an entire guild community that competes in monthly seasons to win pizza. PvP is also the easiest way to unlock chests to get more loot.

    This review also doesn’t mention the huge variety of multiplayer leagues (mini-tournaments) that not only completely change the game, but are also very generous in their chest rewards. Last place still wins multiple gold chests. Some of the leagues are fixed-deck, meaning everyone plays w/ the same decks, some are custom where you bring your own pre-built party and others are weird and wacky – like Oozeball which is a Cardhunter version of soccer. And then there’s Quick Draw which is the Cardhunter equivalent of a Magic: The Gathering booster draft tournament – you draft your deck for each match.

    For me the switch to Steam is bittersweet. The browser version ran almost perfectly while the Steam launch has been plagued by lag and server downtime. I’m sure that will smooth itself out eventually but I can’t help but feel like a pleasant little secret that I shared with a few people has now been exposed to the masses. While this is certainly good for the growth of the community and the success of the deserving devs, I also have noticed the sudden influx of user names in poor taste and a drastic rise in ‘inappropriate’ lobby chat.

    • Big Murray says:

      You expect them to be able to go into detail on every single game release?

      • abomb76 says:

        I expect a ‘Wot I think’ to provide comprehensive coverage of a game, not just 1 aspect of it.

    • Llewyn says:

      I won’t re-review the game entirely, as Adam already did it back when it was a browser-only affair, and I agree with his verdict.

  15. neoncat says:

    CORRECTION:
    “early dungeons, which close for 24 hours after a successful run unless you pay to unlock them, in order to progress”
    No such thing exists. You can’t get XP from a completed dungeon by any means except waiting for the daily reset at 00:00 GMT.

  16. neoncat says:

    CLARIFICATION:
    “it costs $13 to unlock the expansion, and potentially that’s on top of the earlier, dinosaur-themed one, and/or the ‘Basic’ edition for $20, and maybe Club membership which gives you bonus loot every fight, and Pizza and Gold which buys chests and new figurines and… Yeah, the microtransaction stuff might have gone a little overboard.”

    You can buy the expansion *adventures* for $5 of pizza (150 slices). The kits mostly get you decorative figurine sets and a steeply-discounted month of membership on top of the adventures. (Yes, it’s confusing. The community thinks it’s confusing. There’s only 1.5 devs for the game, and no marketing team. :P)

    • Rizlar says:

      CLARIFICATION SQUARED: It looks like the sci-fi module unlocks for free! when you complete the base campaign. At least that’s what it tells me every time I boot the up the game.

      corollary: For me it’s amazing how much of this fantastic game is available for free. I’ve already spent a few quid to unlock a badass ball-and-chain wielding elf priest cosmetic item and would happily spend more money on it. But I’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s freely available. So much good stuff for zero money and absolutely no pressure to spend.

      • abomb76 says:

        only the first module of the new expansion unlocks for free – the rest have to be purchased

  17. neoncat says:

    CLARIFICATION:
    “All the loot-buying stuff is disconcerting, even if ability rather than gear is broadly what wins the day.”
    Erm? You can’t pay money for loot, just for a slight increase in the number of items that drop. If you could pay for loot directly, I’d have gladly payed for a 100% collection, rather than my measly 95%. ^_^

    CONCORDANCE:
    “Card Hunter feels as though, with a few technical tweaks and a neatening-out of the biz model, it can be a perennial. I really hope that proves to be true.”
    Yep. Jon is nice. He’s not the bestest best at marketing / business though. :P

  18. Premium User Badge

    teije says:

    This sounds interesting but frankly, extremely confusing in their pay model.

    I like games where I can buy them and enjoy them fully without worrying about having to purchase extra things. Does this game have that? If so, good. If not, not for me.

    • abomb76 says:

      Even better, you don’t have to buy Cardhunter. Just create an account and enjoy it fully for free. If you find it’s to your liking then you may be tempted to spend some money to unlock more content or buy some cool costumes for your characters. Otherwise, no need to pay a single dime.

    • Dawngreeter says:

      You must purchase very few games, then.