Tabletop gaming is a low-cost slice of entertainment. Grab a few friends, a rulebook, scraps of paper, pawns for miniature stand-ins, and construct adventures from scratch. Consuming unhealthy servings of junk food and copious caffeinated beverages is commonplace as well, but not all gamers adore D&D’s social aspect. Card Hunter, a browser-based pen-and-paper RPG, respects that shortcoming. Together, you and budding Game Master Gary dish out dice, partake in plentiful pizzas, and conquer cardboard skeletons, slimes, and other fantasy freaks. Not sold yet? How does "free to play" sound?
Right away, players will notice the commitment to the tabletop aesthetic. The camera is not glued to the board. Looking around, many-sided dice populate the map’s perimeter, and empty soda cans lay discarded nearby, drained of their nourishing fluids. At the center of the conflict sits you, a challenger to the GM’s domain. Like most role-playing games, you accept various quests, weeding out zombie infestations or chasing goblin caravans in exchange for loot.
I could gush endlessly about Card Hunter's art. Even the quest modules have character.
Not that your artificial assailants give up their goodies so easily. Card Hunter looks the part of a Dungeons & Dragons clone ‒ heroes rank up after missions and navigate areas dominated by lava, poison, and spikes ‒ but combat borrows Magic: The Gathering’s card collecting/deck building formula (the developers even consulted Richard Garfield). Each piece of equipment, from swords to shields to arcane knick-knacks, provides cards for attacking, blocking, moving, or healing. Opponents then take turns in battle, activating cards one at a time.
A hand might include bludgeons, spells, or a mix of buffs. Strategies derive from how effectively you use each ability, like backstabbing boss creatures who obliterate unprepared parties. Line of sight is needed to attack, but you can always skip your turn. Once both sides skip, the fight advances to the next round and deals fresh cards. Unlike D&D, where every player manages one pint-sized persona, Card Hunter supplies you with three. Do you send your tank on the warpath, have the priest patch wounds, or pick off stragglers with a sorcerer's fireballs?
Card Hunter is delicately balanced, easy to follow even for people who don't understand D&D’s finer mechanics. Whereas tabletop RPGs require some imagination and mathematical finesse, developer Blue Manchu lets the computer do the busywork: mousing over a movement card reveals terrain penalties; damage reductions or blocks resolve after automatic dice rolls; and so on.
Gameplay is not lacking in information. Need to know a spell's radius or a bludgeon's secondary effects? Just right-click the card.
That leaves time to develop characters’ dubious backstories, given Card Hunter’s random name generator. (Dhengelweim, anyone?) Troggs kidnapped Kingsteel’s wife and daughter; he’ll slaughter anyone to get them back. Cara, an elven mage on the run, accidentally incinerated her clan's leader while lighting his birthday cake, and Herzewolf smash things good. You always control one warrior, one mage, one priest, though their races vary. Dwarves compensate for their limited mobility with large health reserves, elves sacrifice vitality for agility, and humans fill that middle ground.
Back on planet Earth, the rest of the story is delightfully meta. Gary aspires to be a renowned Game Master, despite regular interruptions from his family. He fumbles his words around the cute pizza delivery girl, and older brother Melvin waits ever ready with the insults. “With great responsibility, comes great power," he quotes, taking his hobby quite seriously. Yet Card Hunter wears these stereotypes as a badge of honor, one comical but never derisive.
For example, pizza (bought via microtransactions) pays for a multitude of in-game services, letting players purchase rare loot chests, alter figures' appearances, or undertake exclusive missions. You can join a monthly club as well, which unlocks extra items after every fight. Gary will fork over some free pepperoni slices, so everyone can see the value of future cheesy investments. Players without funds won’t feel left out, however. The campaign is chock full of content already. After ten hours, I just passed level eight. The cap exceeds twenty.
Like I said, chock full of content.
Too bad testing weapon combinations is painful and repetitive. When you lose a battle, the game offers hints for improvement. Did you equip the wrong boots or cast too few area-of-effect spells? Pray this next attempt pans out. Otherwise, kiss ten to thirty minutes goodbye. I rarely trust video game dice rolls, too, as The Throne of Strench quest line is stacked against first-time challengers ‒ the Troggs roll enough damage-negating fives and sixes to clean out a Vegas casino. Ideally, you should utilize cards that ignore armor ratings, but to get within striking distance invites physical punishment. I wish there were equipment presets players could opt between.
Thankfully, everyone starts off equal online. In multiplayer, heroes begin at the max level, so any differences fall to personal play styles. Do you favor rush tactics, surrounding priests to prevent escape? Do you feign helplessness, skipping turns to set up an ambush? Card Hunter usually matches opponents based on rank, though I did secure victories from folks who've been playing since launch.
Card Hunter should not work as well as it does. You may have noticed, I have not said a word about Card Hunter’s browser-only format. It runs using Flash … without crashing! Is there higher praise than that? I could still name a couple quibbles to enhance the experience ‒ multiplayer is begging for co-op ‒ but if social RPGs intimidate you, Card Hunter is an approachable first step any tabletop novice should take.
Publisher: Blue Manchu
Developer: Blue Manchu
Release Date: September 12, 2013
Number of Players: 1 (Campaign), 2 (Multiplayer)
Platforms: PC (Reviewed)