Card Hunter describes itself as an online collectible card game and sells itself short in the process. I don’t think of Card Hunter that way. I think of it as a masterful blend of game genres that runs in a browser window and is such a high-quality production that I still can’t believe developer Blue Manchu is giving Card Hunter away for free.
Card Hunter is part pen-and-paper role playing game. It’s presented as a series of adventure modules, self-contained adventures the likes of which you bought to supplement the old Dungeons and Dragons red box set in the 1980s. You have a party of up to three characters. They gain experience points and level up. They are designed around familiar fantasy classes and behave accordingly. Wizard classes cast damage spells, healing classes cast healing spells, warrior classes attack monsters with swords and axes, etc. But Card Hunter doesn’t play like a pen-and-paper RPG.
It’s more like a board game. Each character and monster is a playing piece or figure on a two dimensional board where the majority of the action happens. You fight skeletons and goblins and kobolds and dragons and the goal is usually to kill all the opponent’s pieces before you lose yours. The two dimensional playing pieces look like they’re cut from foamcore and slotted into plastic model bases, which is appropriate because Card Hunter doesn’t play like a board game.
It’s more like a tabletop war game. The board has walls and pillars that block line of sight and rough terrain that slows movement. Your figures’ facing, guarding your flanks, movement and attack ranges are all things you have to keep in mind. I’d almost prefer to call the playing pieces “models” instead of “figures.” But Card Hunter’s turn-by-turn rules don’t resemble tabletop wargames.
Now it’s more like a collectible card game. Every action on the board is tied to a card, and each turn you play one card for one character. Movement cards and attack cards are what you will play the most. Armor cards are played automatically out of your hand when a character takes damage and can trump attack cards. But you don’t build a deck of cards one-by-one like you normally would in a collectible card game. The cards are tied to the equipment your characters are wearing. Use sword A and get a collection of six cards added into that character’s deck, but use sword B and you get an entirely different set of cards.
At the end of each adventure module you open a chest and earn gear and treasure that you can sell at shops that you visit via a campaign map. You also use the map to enter new adventure modules, go to a tavern to hire new characters, or go to an armory to change your characters’ equipment. This campaign map is the only part of the single-player experience which feels like it’s drawn primarily from videogame design.
I’ve never played a game like Card Hunter before. It blends elements from five different types of games. This ought to suggest the most important thing I want you to walk away from this review with: Card Hunter is something new.
Card Hunter ought to run in any web browser that can run Flash. Browser-based games do not usually conjure images of quality experiences, which is another way that Card Hunter feels like it’s breaking ground.
The art in Card Hunter reminds me of Jim Lee’s comic book style, clean lines married with crisp definition and attention to detail. Animations are buttery smooth. The sound supports the art beautifully, whether it’s the background hum of an adventurer’s pub, the ring of a sword on armor, incidental music fit for a renaissance faire or the flap of a card onto a table.
Card Hunter steadfastly commits to its theme of feeling like playing an old, pen-and-paper RPG. The campaign has a very loose text-and-still-image based story involving your amateur Game Master, Gary, who explains rules, sets the mood (“Your party of adventurers head into the dark, misty mountains to fight the goblins!”), argues with his overbearing brother and veteran Game Master Melvin and fumbles in his attempts to talk to the pizza delivery girl.
Bowls of cheese puffs, cans of soda, spare dice, rule books and other varieties of appropriate detritus are always scattered on the table around the game board. If you want to buy different figures to represent your characters the figures are presented on classic action figure bubble cards complete with the distinctive hole punches to stock them on store pegs. Even Card Hunter’s monetization model plays into the deftly-crafted illusion of playing a nerdy game in the basement with your friends. You spend your real world money to buy Card Hunter pizza slices.
You can spend pizza slices on chests to open for more loot, bonus adventure modules, hiring new adventurers into your party, the aforementioned new figures or Card Hunter Club membership. Club members earn a bonus item every time they open a chest. You will always be able to see that bonus item but can only have it if you’re a Club member which was as heavy a sales pitch as I ever encountered in Card Hunter.
I never felt the need to buy pizza slices during my weeks with the game prior to review. I was tempted to buy a Club membership but did not because I wanted to test the game as an entirely free experience. The temptation alone was the evidence I needed that Blue Manchu had nailed the design formula for a successful free-to-play game. If you give the player a full, robust experience without their paying you a dime the good will you engender may open their purse strings.
I’m not a fan of Card Hunter’s multiplayer mode. Successive victories earn you gear which you can bring into campaign mode, but rather than using your campaign party in multiplayer you command an entirely different, pre-made high-level party. I understand the need for this system—campaign parties could be so different from one another as to make the creation of evenly matched multiplayer games almost impossible—but any game with RPG elements engenders a sense of attachment to its characters so I was turned off by this degree of separation.
The little noises and nerdy quips made by Gary and Melvin are perfectly in keeping with the theme but got on my nerves. I wished for more fine control over my card decks. Some pieces of equipment add so many common (ie, garbage) cards into my deck that sometimes the only way to tip the odds of pulling the best cards during a battle was to leave equipment slots empty, and that’s completely unintuitive for a game with RPG elements.
These are all minor blemishes compared to Card Hunter’s holistic quality. It’s a fresh experience which helps put to bed any ideas that free-to-play games or browser based games aren’t capable of setting the kinds of lofty standards that their big budget cousins often fail to meet.
Dennis Scimeca is a freelance writer from Boston, MA. He has also published on Salon.com, Kotaku, Ars Technica, xojane.com and lots of other places. He is glad that you cannot ever be sore at him for trying a game which he gave a near-perfect score and then feeling like you had wasted your money based on his recommendation.