Card Hunter puts free to play gaming to shame.
Card Hunter is a lot of things. It’s a turn-based RPG for one. It’s also a card game, and a tabletop game. But the tabletop is virtual, and there’s also fake cheetos and soda on it. Also it’s a Dungeons and Dragons style role playing game, but the dungeon master is a pre-scripted character who talks you through quests. As you might have gathered from that opening statement, it’s also a free to play game, but one of the few that isn’t a soulless cash-grab money-pit.
Card Hunter has a very meta presentation, with you and your virtual friend playing the two player game, Card Hunter, as player and DM respectively. You roll characters D&D style, from a pool of three races (human, elf and dwarf) and three classes (warrior, mage, and priest), and then equip them with different items that affect their decks. The way it works is actually pretty elegantly designed deck building system that essentially takes away any real world value to individual cards. Everything you equip to your characters has a 3-6 cards associated with it, usually ones that have something to do with what the item is. For example, a sword might have a few stab cards and a couple chop cards. Each race and class has a few “natural” cards associated with it that get shuffled into the deck Humans might have a walk card or two, but a quicker elf will have a few run cards instead. Each card acts as an option you would have in a regular RPG, and plays out pretty similarly. Walk lets you move two spaces in any direction, bludgeon does four points of damage, and armour protects you from damage depending on a (again, virtual) dice roll. It’s all very easy to understand, and makes deck building a pretty simple thing for the less card savvy among us, but also creates some very cool complexities as the system starts to show more of its hand, if you’ll excuse the pun.
Later on in the game, you’re introduced to traits, black and orange cards that are automatically played if you draw them into your hand. Black traits are negative, and include effects like the loner card, which causes a character using it to take damage at the end of the turn for every other character adjacent to them. Orange traits are positive, and often boost certain types of attacks or spells. The trick is that a powerful piece of equipment, one with plenty of useful cards associated with it, will usually carry a negative trait. So it’s hard to create a truly overpowered character, since luck of the draw will usually ensure you end up with a negative trait on one of your characters at some point. Most of these traits are neat little role playing touches for your characters too, which helps the game in its presentation of a classic tabletop RPG. The gameplay side effect is the point, but the cute touch of turning these virtual cardboard standees into characters with character flaws is one of the things that Card Hunter does that puts it head and shoulders above the competition.
Another is its ridiculously generous approach to the free to play business model. For starters, the entirety of Card Hunter, single player campaign, multiplayer, every piece of equipment and card is free. Of course, that means there are microtransactions and an in-game currency to buy with your real money. You can exchange real human dollars for pizza, which can then be exchanged for various things, like a shop that sells chests of random loot, different (purely cosmetic) character models, and membership to a club that gives you one piece of bonus loot after every battle.
"What’s really interesting though is that when you take a step back, you realize that the developer Blue Manchu have given you three ways to treat the game"
You can also choose to buy a starter pack that includes some pizza, a one month membership to the extra loot club, some bonus character models, and 11 “treasure hunts” that get you a fixed piece of high level loot which you can just find as a random drop in other missions.
The starter pack will basically make you instantly competitive in multiplayer, with only minimal loot grinding in the campaign, but it isn’t necessary. The game also gives you some free pizza anytime one of the paid mechanics is introduced, so you can try them out before you buy in.
What’s really interesting though is that when you take a step back, you realize that the developer Blue Manchu have given you three ways to treat the game, financially speaking. It can be a completely free game, where you have to grind through the (very, very fun and charming) campaign mode to get competitive in multiplayer, a one time $20 purchase that lets you speed through the campaign and have a better chance in multiplayer early on, or a microtransaction-based game where you can pay for some bonus loot, but never enough to really turn the tides unfairly in your favour. Unlike most microtransaction games, paying in isn’t necessary for staying competitive. Even the Card Hunter’s Club, which nets you a piece of bonus loot after every battle, isn’t “pay for the best loot” it’s “pay for some extra loot that has a chance of being great.” Paying in doesn’t let you conquer the game, it just increases your odds, but never too much.
It’s a delicate balance there, but it’s one that Blue Manchu is pulling off flawlessly for now. And even if you avoid multiplayer altogether, the totally free single player campaign has 155 battles, more than enough to keep you busy for a while.
That’s not to say the game is perfect, of course. Since it relies so much on random drops, dice rolls and draws, you can sometimes end up losing battles because you drew a bad hand on your first turn and couldn’t make up the lost momentum. The randomness is part of both the D&D and card game DNA in Card Hunter, but that same randomness is what caused a lot of people to leave tabletop RPGs behind and take up their console cousins. It’s a source of frustration, but there’s no changing it, since it’s so intrinsically tied to the games very concept. The 155 battles are also split across 50 or so missions, making individual battles feel less important than the final battle of the mission they’re in. It’s hard to complain about a totally free game, but I do hope for some paid mission expansions in the future.
But for people who can handle a little randomness, and anyone who has some fond memories of playing D&D in a dimly lit basement, drinking warm soda and eating cold pizza, Card Hunter is something you should be playing right now. Hell, even if that doesn’t describe you, you might as well give it a shot. It’s the best card game I’ve played in years, and the fact that it’s free just means I’m actively looking for ways to give these guys my money.