As a fan of Magic: The Gathering, particularly its highly accessible Duels of the Planeswalkers incarnation, I’ve been following the development of Card Hunter, a free-to-play trading card game with some very interesting twists, for quite some time now, and was recently invited to participate in the beta.
The game is built in flash and runs in a browser, which is usually enough to put any serious gamer off. Add the label “free-to-play” and you’ve got something that will instantly turn people away (myself included). Indeed, were it not for the fact that I’d been anticipating the game’s release for so long, you probably wouldn’t be reading this right now.
All those worries melt away right from the start. It may be built in flash, it might need you to load it from a bookmark rather than your Steam library, but click the prominent “full-screen” button, and all that gets forgotten. So much so in fact, that I repeatedly found myself looking for the “exit game” button after each session, before reminding myself I need only switch back to windowed mode and close the tab (or indeed, not).
The game is simple enough, particularly if you’ve experienced other trading card games. You have three characters (mage, warrior, priest), each of which can be either dwarf , elf or human, loosely translating to slow but tough, fast but weak, or in-between. Each character has its own “hand” of cards (think along the lines of “three-headed giant”, Magic fans), with which to move around on the grid-based board, as well as attack opponents, buff allies, as well as trigger other weird and wonderful effects.
The board itself is a wondrous thing. Parts of it might be inaccessible, whilst other parts might impede a character’s movement. Crucially, line of sight also plays a small part, so moving a wounded character behind a wall is a viable strategy. Certain card effects also leave their mark upon the terrain, so for example going up against an acid-spewing dragon will soon mean that your party is having to position themselves between pools of acid to avoid taking damage over time. There are status effects that can apply to characters for certain amounts of time, and there are still other effects that trigger under certain conditions (such as a block card activating when a character gets hit), but the engine handles them with such elegance that the game ticks along at a steady pace, and you don’t notice the sheer amount of number crunching going on– something that would be an absolute nightmare for players to track if this were an actual board game.
Which is doubly interesting, because the entire game has a skeuomorphic aesthetic, with characters represented by cardboard cut-outs atop a wooden table decorated by incidental items like pencils, erasers, and multi-sided dice. Even “terrain attachments” such as fire and acid pools are represented as little cardboard tokens, making it an incredibly evocative experience.
All that would be meaningless, were not the basic gameplay enjoyable, and it really is. The rules are very tight, a round plays out at a quick enough pace, but giving you just enough options to weigh up. Every turn, each character draws a hand of cards (retaining up to two cards from the previous round if you’ve saved them), at least one of which is always a movement card. This means, amongst other things, that even if you draw a bad hand, you always have the option to reposition, at least. Although of course, as trading card game aficionados know, there are no bad hands, just bad decks.
The deck-building aspect is where the game really shows its masterful design. Rather than choosing from a pool of cards, you assign pieces of equipment to your characters, with each piece of equipment having its own set of associated cards. These are balanced to some degree, so though you can certainly equip a sword with a very powerful attack card included, the chances are that sword will also have a much weaker attack card included too. Your characters gain experience from battles, levelling them up, and granting them yet more equipment slots, which means in the long-run they get more options, rather than linear stat boosts (although they get those too). At the end of every battle you’re awarded a random assortment of loot, and again, there’s just enough to satiate your lizard brain whilst spurring you on to play another round.
So the business model then, or the answer to “how are they planning to make any money?”. Of course, being a beta this is subject to change, but right now you can spend money to get the in-game meta-currency “pizza”. Pizza can be spent on a variety of things in the game, from new character skins, to certain “treasure hunt” maps, to a special (if rather pricey) “club” subscription, which awards you a bonus random item after each battle. You can also convert pizza to in-game gold (which may be acquired through normal gameplay, and is used to buy new characters and items), but not the other way around. Currently you get around 30 pizza (which equates to 150 gold) per dollar, with additional skins costing 80 pizza, each treasure hunt map costing 40 pizza, and the club subscription at 300 pizza per month, all with bulk discounts. The campaign seems a little on the easy side so far (I only lost a single battle out of the 30 or so that I’ve played so far, but I’ve not tackled any of the higher-level areas yet, and haven’t yet dipped a toe into multiplayer), and I’ve not felt the need to spend any real money in order to progress, so I don’t find the system to be too expensive, though I’d like to see more middle ground, giving me the option to support Blue Manchu with a typical game’s worth of money, without feeling like I’m buying lottery tickets (or just useless crap).
If there has to be a criticism of the game so far, it’s that the setting is just too generic. Everything in the game would be at home in any Dungeons & Dragons clone, right down to the equipment your characters can use. It seems counter to the personality the game otherwise so infused with (after all, even Magic has a healthy dose of wackiness), although perhaps this will happen at higher levels (and I suppose this “safer” setting will make it more accessible to some degree). I’d also like to see a way to turn gold into pizza, if for no reason than to alleviate any qualms people would have about this being “pay to win”. Finally (though I’m by no means an expert), I do wonder if the nature of a flash-based game will make it susceptible to hackers.
The game is so highly polished from the start, I wondered why they even need a beta period. The tutorial is top-notch, the visuals look great at 1920×1080, and the animation quality is absolutely superb, easily on a par with the most recent Duels of the Planeswalkers edition, with sound effects that nicely complement the art style without sounding cheap or tacked-on. Most importantly, the gameplay is varied and, ultimately, a great deal of fun. In short, it’s all the things I’d hoped for in The Banner Saga. All in all, this is shaping up to be a game to keep a close watch on. For me it’s already looking to be a contender for game of the year, and this from a free-to-play game.
Card Hunter is in beta right now, and you can sign up to take part via the official website. No release date has been set.