Blue Manchu

Card Hunter is a classic homage to basement-dwelling role-players, filled with heart and generosity

Card Hunter is a classic homage to basement-dwelling role-players, filled with heart and generosity

Card Hunter is an amazing mixture of collectible card games and traditional Dungeons & Dragons. It’s also free-to-play and browser based, but for the love of Gygax don’t let that scare you away. Card Hunter has more charm, personality, and role-playing cred that damn near any other game released this year, and it has already taken over the Penny Arcade offices.

It was also created by a group of insanely talented heavy hitters. The team is led by Jonathan Chey, the co-founder of Irrational Games, director of development of Bioshock, producer of System Shock 2, and designer of Freedom Force. Impressed yet? Richard Garfield operated as a design consultant on Card Hunter, and he created a little game called Magic: The Gathering. The studio is loaded with talent from Looking Glass and Irrational Games.

We talked about the game once before during the closed beta, but I wanted to track down Joe McDonagh, the game’s designer and writer, to talk about what has changed now that the game has been officially released.

This is Magic the Gathering mixed with classic Dungeons & Dragons, with nods to sweaty basements filled with warm pizza and cold soda, and features one of the best systems for deck management I've ever seen. If that description has grabbed your interest, you need to stop reading this and get started on your account.

Card Hunter is filled with warm feelings about long sessions of adventuring in your friend's garage, and walks the edge of being funny without making fun of its subjects. Everyone who grew up nerdy is in on the joke, instead of being the butt of it.

It helps that the game itself is also wildly fun, subversive, and inventive. A winning combination in role-play games or card games, and Card Hunter is both. Let's dig into what's been happening since the closed beta.

What’s changed since the beta

One of the updates that has come since launch is a difficulty curve that’s much more even.

Card Hunter is designed to be challenging but we've been trying to find the right balance between the good sort of challenge and the sort of challenge that's just frustrating,” McDonagh said “Make no mistake though, this is designed to be a strategic game, not a cakewalk.”

The game will still kick your ass if you don’t spend time working with your crew and their respective decks, but you’ll no longer feel like you’re attacking a brick wall. It’s not easy, but it feels fair, and that’s a step up from the sometimes frustrating encounters found in the closed beta.

Still, the game is free-to-play, and those are some loaded words for many gamers. Trying to tweak the game’s economy has also been a challenge.

“Firstly, we wanted to the game to be amazing fun even if you don't want to spend any money on it. You can access almost everything in the game for free, except for the costumes and the 11 Treasure Hunt adventures,” the designer explained.

“That's something like 55 adventures and 155 battles! You can also get all of the in-game equipment without spending a cent,” McDonagh continued. “This felt important to us. We want people to pay us because they think we deserve it, not because they feel compelled or coerced into it.”

Indeed, I played for hours upon hours during the beta without feeling the need to pay any money. The amount of free content is generous to the point of absurdity.

This philosphy of generosity extends to the multiplayer portion of the game, where you’ll be battling against the adventurers of other players. “We feel passionately that multiplayer should be a level playing field for paying and non-paying customers. During the beta, two of our top five players, that we know of at least, didn't spend money on the game. I hope that means we've got the balance right,” McDonagh said.

The other feedback was that people would love to be able to pay once and then be basically done, which led to the creation of the Card Hunter Basic Edition. $25 gets you all 11 Treasure Hunt Adventures, one month of the club membership, 9 extra figures, and 100 pizza slices. The Club Membership gets you an extra piece of loot per adventure, and this purchase will allow you to play for a long-ass time before you feel the need to dump any more money into it.

It's a nice, even approach to free-to-play. The one-time price gives you basically everything you need to play competitively, so players can safely pay once, support the developers, and not worry about the rest of the free-to-play aspects of the game.

Yes, it’s browser-based, but don’t run!

Card Hunter is both free-to-player and browser based, and that combination doesn’t tend to attract a hardcore audience, and Card Hunter rapidly feels like a hardcore game for role-players and card gamers.

“I think those words can hurt, yeah,” he said. “A lot of gamers have had bad experiences with browser games and free to play games, I know I have. That creates an understandable degree of skepticism.”

“However, as someone who's spent a lot of time looking at the Monster Manual from first edition D&D, I can testify that you shouldn't judge a book by its cover,” McDonagh said. “We think that free players will find a tremendous amount of value in our game because we value them as members of our community regardless of whether they choose to pay or not.”

It's not about being scared of games that are free-to-play, especially when you get so much content without having to play. What's important is to support the developers that do it right. Being browser-based also means that it works on your PC, your Mac, or even lightweight gaming laptops. A tablet version of the game is also something the team is interested in, but one thing at a time.

“I think the larger point is that, if we can get this right, we can perhaps contribute to changing the perception of how these games operate,” McDonagh said. “I’d like to see the free-to-play browser genre developing and maturing rather than remaining the domain of mindless pay-to-keep-going treadmills.”

Amen, brother. I'm ordering pizza, both literally and figuratively, and settling in for a long night of play.