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Hands-On: Card Hunter

Cut out and keep

One of the games my greedy little brain is currently most anticipating, now that my previous most-anticipated games have arrived, is Blu Manchu's Card Hunter. A boardgame/CCG mash-up from one of Irrational's former bigwigs and a cartel of highly experienced devs, its focus is on recreating cheerfully dusty boardgame socials as it on coming up with some tight strategy/roleplaying mechanics.

I've been able to play the demo made available on the show floor at PAX, but without having to experience the unbridled horror of being in the close vicinity of other human beings. It's only two matches, but I liked what I saw, yes I did. I liked it very much indeed.

While the attention is inevitably drawn mainly to the entirely charming (but cheese-free) pseudo-hand-drawn characters, styled to resemble cardboard playing places and looking ever so neat and crisp with it (do not fear Card Hunter's browser-based nature), the turn-based strategic battles are at least as important to why Card Hunter works. It's oddly reminiscent of smaller-scale, far more randomised XCOM. Your little team of fantasy heroes (in this instance a mage, a dwarven healer and a human warrior) is up against a enemy with greater numbers, and must carefully choose abilities each turn to whittle them away.

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It's the thoughtfully making the best of what you've got aspect that reminds me of XCOM, and the attendant ability to get into or spectacularly find a way out of a tight spot. The big difference is that abilities come via randomly-selected cards rather than fixed character attributes - although what gear you equip on your characters before each match dictates what set of cards will be randomly picked from once battle commences.

So, a better sword means your Warrior will have some beefier attacks to call upon, if the right cards come up. The interesting thing is that movement is also a card - so you might end up with a character positively bristiling with deadly attacks, but unable to stride over to the monsters arraigned against him and give them a right old stabbing. Less of a problem for mages, however, where it's more likely you'll curse when a movement card comes up instead of a honking great fireball.

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You've also got trick cards in there that can grant extra cards to other members of your party, grant everyone a free move, that sort of thing. Very Magic, but with the visual and navigational logic of a boardgame. It's much more immediate than a CCG because of this - and likely has a whole new layer of tactics in terms of character positioning.

There's a fascinating tension in that neither player (whether you vs AI or you vs another human) can get new cards until both have clicked next turn without spending a card. So there's an aspect of calling each other's bluff - spending any remaining cards that you don't really need to, purely because every turn that the other guy has no cards to spend is another turn you don't get biffed on. Conversely, if you end your round without doing anything in the hope of new cards, the other guy might then pull something out of the hat to really mess you up while you're left helpless.

My favourite aspect of Card Hunter is easily the chess-style collection of 'killed' character and monster pieces that builds up along the side of the board as each match proceeeds. It's something visual and not-quite-but-almost tangible, a far and satisfying cry from scoreboards and questlogs. Look upon my trophies, ye mighty, and despair. Unless you're losing, of course - barely possible in these two introductory missions, but presumably as the challenge heightens (or you're in multiplayer) you'll see the little cardboard evidence of your own failures stacking up.

On the nitpick front, I found some of the interface and presentation of stats ever so slightly too fussy - certainly not opaque, but slightly at odds with the easy, instant neatness of the art style. Still, very early days, who knows what that side of things will wind up looking like. And it certainly didn't stop my extreme frustration at the demo ending, denying me the chance to use my new loot and puzzle over more complex battles. I'm super-keen to see more of Card Hunter: there's an elegance to it that makes it one of those games I feel like I've always known, even though I've never played it before in my life. And I positively demand a real-life boardgame version of it, too.

Card Hunter will be out soonish, maybe. You can sign up for the impending beta right here.

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