Ah, that's the stuff. I couldn't have wished for anything more stabilising during a week when the games industry seems of the verge of eating itself. A game about games, a game where all this came from, a game about the purity and the silliness of escapism, a game about boardgames, card games and pen and paper roleplaying games. Console scenesters might have their Monster Hunter; on PC, we have Card Hunter. Card Hunter, I heart you.
I've had closed beta access to Blue Manchu's unwaveringly cheeerful, celebratorily geeky CCG/RPG/TBS/boardgame mash-up for about a week now. I've yet to try the multiplayer, but the singleplayer immediately proved as comfortable a fit as that pair of underpants I've had since 2003. (They're red, you know. Or at least they used to be.) In the age old tradition of successful compulsion loops, I've found it very difficult to not return to Card Hunter again and again and again and again and again and again and again.
Mercifully, that compulsion doesn't stem solely from the deathless hunger for raised stats and better weapons, though that plays a big part in proceedings, but also from how satisfying and tactical the turn-based, grid-based, card-based combat is. It's a thoughtful and varying challenge every time, as from turn-to-turn I can only have a limited, if any, idea of what my characters will be able to do next.
Abilities, everything from chopping to magic and, most crucially, simply moving, are granted to each character at the start of every turn based on their 'hand' of cards. The deck this hand is drawn from is based upon the items your little cardboard fellows carry - axes mean an assortment of chops and lunges, flame wands primarily mean fire magic, divine trinkets mean heals and buffs. But while your Long Axe of Retribution might add 3 minor heals to your deck, there's no guarantee these cards will wind up in your hand in a turn when you really need them. Instead you might end up with five different movement cards, or a few puny spear attacks.
That's great if you were planning to go on the offensive against the assorted D&D-derived fantasy stereotypes you're up against, but terrible news if you've got a party member with one health point left who is taking damage over time from a recent zombie bite. Alternatively, you might start a turn on the other side of the map from your enemies, with a hand full of devastating attacks but no movement cards. So you're stuck where you are, probably getting pummelled with arrows and magic from afar. It's low-level gambling - not replacing the strategy of picking and combining your moves wildly, but adding a potentially game-changing element of risk and surprise throughout.
As your party levels up and collects new kit the contents of their deck expands, improves and changes, but it's not a matter of just sticking the rarest sword or the highest-level armour on them. You need to look at what cards specifically each item grants you, how they stack with other items and other cards, and how effective the new cards will be against certain types of enemies. For instance, a warrior character might wind up with a fancy-lookin' new Martial Skill of a higher level than his current one, but if it adds bonus effects to any impaling attacks it's wasted on a guy who's currently carrying a couple of big lumpy clubs.
Despite the need to manage your inventory, the game isn't manic like Diablo. This is an elegant roleplaying system from a more civilised age: finding or buying a new item is a pretty big deal, because it makes potentially sweeping changes to your deck and hand, such as transforming a fire-based wizard to an electricity-centric one. As such, equipping should be done wisely and occasionally, for maximum pay-off.
The singular elegance - that word again - of Card Hunter is that it takes all this very very statty, very Magic The Gatheringy stuff but manages to stop the card element from taking over. What you see and what you control is a party of adventurers, having a tense, razor's edge fight against an assortment of Kobolds, skeletons, dragons and the like. It's not just that Card Hunter provides graphical context for your chosen battle actions, but that placement of characters, both in relation to enemies and each other, is crucial, in the manner of something like Heroes of Might & Magic. You need to see and manage the battlefield, not just a set of faux-cardboard rectangles with icons and numbers on them. The two elements, the CCG and the RPG, are fundamentally combined - and that also means Card Hunter has twin streams of compulsion, of course.
Surrounding the whole affair is a good-natured and entirely affectionate pastiche of 80s pen and paper roleplaying games, as you're guided and goaded by amiably dorky dungeon masters, missions are grouped into multi-battle 'modules' with brief, breathless storylines about monsters terrorising villagers, and the screen surround shows bowls of cheesy puffs and cans of presumably teeth-demolishing soda of indeterminate origin. It wants to evoke the simple, social pleasures of happy, harmless teenage escapism, and it succeeds so well.
It makes me yearn for the ability to flashback to more carefree times, before games and the games industry required constant analysis and objection, to when I could relentlessly chatter about my AD&D adventures to friends without feeling self-conscious, to when I had the time and freedom to just go and have that experience for a full weekend. Bittersweet indeed.
As is the the decision to make Card Hunter free-to-play, and supported by an optional payment system that primarily exists to make the game easier. The concept of 'pizza slices', the quintessential fuel of an all-night RPG session, as the purchasable currency is cute, and Card Hunter certainly takes some care to draw a clear, non-obnoxious line between what you get if you pay and what you get if you don't, rather than have constant prompts for the former infecting the latter. The primary payment structure is The Card Hunter Club, a sort of subscription system which means you'll be given bonus loot at the end of every successful battle.
300 Pizza Slices buys you a month of this, at a real-world cost of $10 (with discounts if you pay for a longer subscription up-front), which isn't bad value at all within the grand scheme of free-to-play. It's just that, even taking into account that the extra loot will still be random and thus probably of minimal use a lot of the time, it feels as though it's on the road to Pay To Win. It's bringing in out-of-game aid to make the fantasy adventure easier-going. It's so much less cynical and obnoxious than in many other games, but I wish Card Hunter had stuck strictly to the concept of buying new Modules, new adventures. That is there too, as is the option to buy new artwork for the cardboard miniatures which represent your party, and both aspects simply make sense for this game, given how it's trying to represent classic pen-and-papering and all its add-on books and whatnot. I can well imagine myself buying bonus modules - partly because, admittedly, they have epic loot rewards, but primarily because I imagine I'm going to want more of the meat of the game.
However, it must be said that there's an awful lot of game here for $0, and the Club and other payment stuff is surprisingly non-obtrusive. Card Hunter is, I think, trying to make sure its players love it first and then maybe, hopefully, they'll feel warm about the idea of investing cash into it, as opposed to games which try and wring cash out of you the second you're out of the tutorial. Card Hunter's clearly steeped in love for its subject matter, and that seems to have translated into treating its players with respect too. Add hey, let's no forget this is beta - no doubt there'll be plenty of tinkering with the payment systems before they settle on anything.
It's so lovely to look at, as well - clean, simple but hugely characterful art that looks straight out of vintage funny papers, but augmented by modern graphic design sensibilities. The die-cut cardboard characters fit the concept brilliantly without robbing party members of personality, and most of all it fuses RPG tropes such as ridiculous fonts with a minimalistic UI and backgrounds. Apple should have got these guys to liven up iOS7. Meanwhile, comic patter from your nebbish GM, as he bickers with his arrogant brother and hopelessly attempts to flirt with the pizza delivery girl, keep up a written charm offensive.
'Likeable' is one of those words that risks sounding like a back-handed compliment, but I can't think of a better summation of Card Hunter, and it's one I employ only positively.
Card Hunter is taking closed beta applications now.