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

System Shock Solitaire

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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.

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Alec Meer

Senior Editor

Co-founder of RPS. Dungeon Keeper & X-COM 4 Life.

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