Let me preface this review of the delightful deck building meta-RPG Card Hunter with a wee story from my own personal vault. I got to experience very little tabletop roleplaying as a youth. I dabbled with Shadowrun and played a spot of D&D, but the UK in the ’90s was not a place where it was easy to find a single game, let alone a regular campaign. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I actually got to enjoy a continuous campaign, and that’s thanks to our reigning Robot Overlord, Andy Astruc. This was before the days of AWESOMEoutof10, and he invited me to join a roleplaying group he was putting together for a campaign of his own devising in a world that he and his missus had conjured up.
I’d stay up till 6AM playing in this bizarre, steampunk world, talking nonsense, developing a character that I absolutely adore — Rogg, a one-time boxer turned engineer who started off as a common thug before working his way into high society thanks to his killer dance moves — and getting to know the chaps who would eventually become the founding members of this lovely site. Much of the planning phase of the original Tumblr was done between dice rolls and roleplay.
I offer up this little piece of history because Card Hunter‘s developers Blue Manchu understand that tabletop RPGs are more than just games of questing and loot. They are about stories, both in the game and around the board, and shared experiences; close encounters with gnolls and bad puns from the dungeon master; eating junk food because cooking takes away precious time from the game; and maybe even being a little subconscious about playing a game that’s 90 percent imagination. Card Hunter captures all of this, and wraps it up in compelling combat and gorgeous art.
Card Hunter is a tactical RPG with lots of deck building. A game of classic D&D themed adventures, coaxing the player all across a cartoon fantasy realm infested with goblins, gnolls, golems and other things beginning with “g”. Ghouls! There’s another. An adventurer first and foremost, you are still, as the name suggests, a hunter of cards. But these are not frayed and faded playing cards; instead they are magical powers, savage attacks, staunch armour and even the occasional unfortunate trait.
And how are these mystical cards hunted down, you ask? In the best way possible: by looting gear from the corpses and treasure chests of recently deceased villains and monsters. Each piece of gear has has appropriate cards attached to it. A crappy axe might have some weak attacks, while an enchanted one might allow for powerful strikes and mighty cleaving swipes. Some items cast spells, others even generate movement points based on race, with elves being the fastest (they travel more squares in a move), and armour cards only spring into action when you’re struck, deflecting blows should the dice be on your side.
Every single action is tied to these all-important cards, which often means that brave adventurers are at the mercy of luck as much as the mercy of the dungeon master. Jogging is apparently good exercise, but a hand filled with movement cards is bugger all use in a fight. Similarly, a hand filled with sword attacks and armour isn’t going to get a warrior very far when he’s unable to move. Thankfully, cards can be ditched and new cards brought in, leaving fingers crossed, and whispers of “Daddy needs a new set of dead golems” common.
With each quest and dead golem comes the chance for a new level, unlocking more item slots and more gear, promising a deck of cards bursting with possibilities. You can sell unwanted gear and loot at the shop, but sometimes it’s worth holding onto them, building multiple decks which you can experiment with. When it comes to the battle, the random luck of the draw can throw a spanner in the works of careful planning, and there’s no sneaky manipulation of the opponent’s deck — even though you can see what’s in their deck once they’ve played the card — which can be a tad frustrating after carefully planning a strategy, but it also gives Card Hunter more immediacy as you keep having to react to each turn based on the few cards your dealt, and you don’t know what’s coming next.
On the peripheries of this grand old adventure through mines, wizard towers and crumbling castles is the real world. Surrounding the map of the realm and the dungeons contained therein is a table, with notebooks and dice sitting atop it. Instead of reality being an obtrusive, unwelcome guest, it’s an integral part of the romp, elevating it from an entertaining tactical RPG to a whimsical, nostalgic tabletop, umm, simulator.
The heroes and monsters are all little cardboard miniatures, lavishly detailed and full of comic charm, and the flat dungeon boards they walk around have equally flat environmental obstacles. This is a board you have undoubtedly played on. Even if you never delved into the realm of tabletop gaming, you’re sure to remember a board game or two. But that eye for detail that makes the miniatures come to life makes the dungeon boards of Card Hunters a cut above the rest. Cold, stone fortresses dotted in lava pits to verdant forests where the trees share their home with hordes of monsters — there’s no dearth of environments that pose different challenges. I imagine that underneath the dungeon master’s seat is a huge stack of maps, just waiting to be sprung on the player. They are probably next to the campaign books, occasionally pulled from under the table to be splayed open, revealing the quest flavour text and some lovely sketches.
And wearing that dungeon master’s mantle is an eager, yet naive and clumsy teen. Rather than being a booming, omnipresent narrator and the architect of the player’s death, he’s a pal, spending a day playing a cracking campaign, arguing with his older douche bag brother (also a dungeon master, and an absolute prick), and nervously trying to talk with the cute pizza girl. He makes mistakes, messes up quests, gets put down by his aforementioned brother and is too clueless to realise that the pizza girl wants to play Card Hunter – he’s awkward, but totally invested in the tale he’s spinning and the game he’s running.
This is what free-to-play browser games can be. It’s a game worth buying, and yet there’s no pressure to spend money. Even the currency is charming, and thematically spot on. You can spend pizza slices – perfect – and order a subscription from the pizza menu. The subscription comes with a ton of slices for buying choice items, new miniatures, extra quests and you can snatch up an extra item every time you finish a scrap. Card Hunter is almost perfect without any of those things, but the premium rewards are good value and offer up welcome extras.
Since it’s free and only a click away, I assume that most of you have already stopped reading and started playing. I could probably just sit here in my pants and eat some pizza while hammering away on the keyboard typing nonsense. More nonsense than usual, anyway. I’ll try to restrain myself and instead, craftily tie in my introduction to my conclusion. After I started playing Card Hunter I got the bug: that itch to get a tabletop roleplaying campaign going. I care not that Andy now has three tiny humans to look after, he’s running a Call of Cthulhu campaign and it’s going to be splendid. It’s hard to play Card Hunter and not remember how bloody great tabletop RPGs are.