Where is it? Dammit, I know I put it somewhere. Hang on, it's probably fallen down between the arm of the chair and the cushion... No. Damn! Where the bloody hell has it gone? Oh, is it behind this door?
It's Card Hunter!
I hadn't planned to play Card Hunter at all and yet, as 2013 teeters on the brink of oblivion, there are maybe two or three games that have absorbed more of my time in recent months. Most of my hunting took place around the time of release, when a brief look at the game became a four day battle-binge and a 1,600 word review. The structure of the game taps into the 'one more turn' compulsion that can be so very naughty in free to play games, which often seem more interested in dangling the carrot of progress in the middle-distance while wielding a bloody great stick and littering the trail with microtransactional caltrops. Card Hunter isn't like that, even though it is free to play and has an in-game store that accepts real world money.
In some ways, the fact that it's free to play means that writing about the game is incredibly simple. I sit back, brew in hand, instruct you to go and play it for a while, and then wait for you to return. Go on. Try it.
Hopefully you haven't been away for too long. Maybe you started playing, enjoyed the turn-based tactical combat and loot gathering, but didn't want to invest too much time, fearing that a paywall was looming on the horizon. I think that's my biggest fear with free to play - it's easy to ignore the worst examples, but an otherwise enjoyable game weighed down by transactions and money traps is a sad sight, like a plucked parrot. Imagine if wonders took three times as long to build in Civ, but paying a couple of dollars would finish them immediately? Stop imagining it now and stop punching the screen and raging at the sky.
Thankfully (for the players at least - sadly, perhaps not for the developers), it’s entirely possible to have a satisfying relationship with Card Hunter without hunting for your credit card every five minutes. I’ve spent money in exchange for access to special quests, which are permanently available after one transaction, and I’ve seen just about all of the content in the game. Some quests stumped me and I lost half of my nose on a grindstone during one spike in difficulty, but I never felt encouraged to throw money at the problem and the challenge is mostly enjoyable.
And that’s because the most interesting thing about Card Hunter is the actual combat. The cards themselves are items and each hero in the player’s party has inventory slots that can take various kinds of equipment, just like in a proper RPG. That’s because this is a proper RPG, of the turn-based tactical type.
As the name suggests, the main draw is the search for cards. Because new equipment often provides new abilities rather than simple stat boosts, there’s a strong sense of progression, and enemies become more intriguing as well as more powerful, requiring new tactical considerations rather than simply wearing hundreds of hitpoints. It’s some of the best small-scale combat I’ve played this year, and is fresh and distinctive rather than a browser-based version of a system we’ve seen a hundred times before.
The most surprising thing about Blue Manchu’s game is how well it works as a complete package. The dialogue and story, along with the detail of the fictional tabletop RPG that is the game within a game, are beautifully produced. It lives in a browser and doesn’t have to cost a penny, but Card Hunter is a large structure, exquisitely crafted.
It’s probably best if you open a new tab and start playing right now.
This and Desktop Dungeons are two sides of the same (physically impossible) die to my mind. They're both taking an askew look at the rudiments of dungeoneering, going right back to the nuts and bolts and elves and dwarves of Dungeons & Dragons then building them into something new and challenge- rather than narrative-led. At that point, they part company. While Desktop Dungeons is an instrument of brutal precision, Card Hunter is a roulette wheel, all about making the best of whatever chance throws at you and - ideally - being amused by such assorted slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
Like Magic, the other prime seed for its orc-bothering family tree, learning and tactical thinking plays an enormous part of things, of course. Making the best of random involves understanding what that grab-bag of cards in your hand mean, both in themselves and for what might remain further down the pack. Poker with swords, and a jolly, self-aware, playful tone that takes me back to D&D-with-chums glory days I never really had.
Most of all I love the chunky, clicky, cardboardy look and feel of it, accompanied by the evocatively dull taps and thuds of your static figurines clomping about, or unseen dice clattering across a tabletop. This is a game dressed as a game rather than reality, and it makes the thing so much more tactile, more there. I get a huge kick out of simply having this on my screen, as much as anything else.
Where Card Hunter gets it both right and most wrong is that it gives away so damn much singleplayer (and multiplayer too) game for free. A better value prospect you probably won't find this year, but I worry (going purely on the limited online chatter about Card Hunter) that this may have held it back from being the commercial success it absolutely deserves to be. Why spend on new adventure modules and character skins when there's so much to do for no-pennies? All credit to anyone who so consciously avoids the grabby-greed of free-to-play, but I hope it didn't hurt them.