Blue Manchu Games
Card Hunter closed beta hands on: Classic D&D filtered through a card game, and it’s amazing
Most video games allow you to become your character, to step into the armor of a warrior and pick up a sword. Card Hunter goes to great pains to take an extra step back into abstraction. You’re a normal person playing a classic role-playing game with other normal people, the game's characters talk to you as a person, controlling these miniatures. There may be pizza ordered between battles. The rules are explained by a nebbish dungeon master who also provides flavor text for each encounter.
It’s a neat idea, but it hides a surprisingly innovative and fascinating card-based battle structure.
Your sword is filled with cards
So this is how it works. You’re playing a series of modules for a tabletop role-playing game, controlling a party of three characters who go into battle against a variety of common role-playing enemies. It’s a throwback to the classic days of Dungeons & Dragons, and the game’s writing playfully takes a few jabs at genre stereotypes. The text on the modules you play is pitch-perfect however; this is the sort of humor that comes when someone has deep affection for the thing they’re sending up.
You play a card to move each character, or to attack. When you’re out of usable cards, you pass, and you refresh your hand when both sides pass. You gain levels which give you more hit points, and also allow you to customize your character by earning items in the game.
This is where things get interesting. You don’t build a deck card by card, you gain new swords, shields, staffs, and accessories by playing through the campaign or against other players. Each item has a series of cards attached to it, so a level 2 sword will have more powerful attacks than a first level sword. Rare items will give your attacks different bonuses. You don’t collect cards, you collect loot, and you’re building your deck while outfitting each character in the best possible equipment. It’s a graceful, elegant way to allow players more comfortable with role-playing tropes to micro-manage their deck.
We knew all this after playing the game at PAX, but it’s been a joy to explore the SP campaign and to earn better equipment and in turn build a better deck in the closed beta. I’ve also been able to explore the free-to-play game’s economy, and I’ve been happy with how things are set up.
Gold is the official in-game currency for buying items and the like, and you can earn gold by selling the loot you don’t want. You buy pizza with real-world money however, and pizza can be used to become a member of the Card Hunter Club, which gives you an extra item per battle. One month costs 300 pizza, while a year will cost 2,900 pizza.
You can also purchase chests to gain new items and cards: 18 gold will get you a simple chest with 2 random items that are for level 1 to 8 characters, 30 pizza will get you a magnificent chest with 5 random items, with one rare or better item, levels 1 to 18. Big rollers can spend 180 pizza to get 5 random items, two rare or better, levels 1 to 18. You can also buy different looks for your characters. This is a closed beta, so I’m guessing these values will be adjusted a bit due to player feedback.
150 pizza slices are $5, but you can buy 3,800 slices for $99 as well. This puts the real-world cost of pizza at between $0.02 and $0.03 per slice, approximately. That means chests will cost you between $1 and $5.50, if you’re buying small amounts of pizza. Buy pizza in bulk and you’ll end up paying a little less.
It sounds complicated, but it’s easy to understand in practice. It’s also easy to ignore; I seem to be finding pretty decent loot in the main game, and you can also earn items through playing against other players in ranked matches; I’ve been playing for hours and have yet to hit any kind of pay wall that’s keeping me from moving forward.
You can play campaigns you’ve already finished once per day to gain levels and get more loot as well. The best free-to-play games don’t beat you over the head with the need to buy things, they simply provide a fun game and make buying one or two things seem attractive. I’m planning on making my first purchase of pizza later today.
Learning how your deck works, how to build the best character, and then move and attack in ways that make sense is not a simple thing. Armor adds defense cards to your deck, but there is still a virtual dice roll to make sure you deflect or absorb the attack; better armor has a lower difficulty rating for these rolls. You’ll have to build the best deck possible, and then react to the cards in your hand to survive. Opening chests to find out what loot you earned is thrilling, as is having a new, powerful card show up in your hand right when you need it.
This is a great example of mixing different influences to create something new and rather addictive. You’re playing through classic role-playing encounters using well-worn tabletop clichés, and your knowledge of those systems is being used to get you comfortable with a fun but deep card-based form of combat. The interface itself also works with you; it’s easy to get information, to see the effect of each card, and to learn the rules. UI is important in games of this type, as we only notice it when things don’t work. The UI seems to disappear in Card Hunter, allowing you to sit back and play. Frustration is minimal.
I’m looking forward to seeing how the game evolves in the closed beta, and we’ll be sure to let you know when you can get access yourself. For now, this is one of my more anticipated games, and that feeling has only grown now that I have access to so much of it. I don’t know about you, but I’m having pizza for dinner.