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Many recent games have utilized the new “free to play” business model, in which the game itself is free but players are encouraged to make small purchases, known as “microtransactions”, while playing. Purchases can range from purely cosmetic items to convenience features (reduced waiting times, single-use boosts) to major upgrades that have big impacts on the game. Multiplayer games especially have had great success with this model; since the game is free there are always a lot of players to keep things interesting, and only a small percentage need to spend money for the game to be profitable. But many players (especially older players accustomed to purchasing games with a single transaction) decry the free to play model, citing constant pestering to make purchases and game designs that ignore artistry and vision in favor of squeezing money from players. This certainly can happen, but it’s a mistake to denounce all free to play games on the basis of a few bad ones. There are plenty of games for which the model works very well, garnering both critical praise and popular support. One such game is Card Hunter by Blue Manchu Games, and it’s the perfect game to convince older, curmudgeonly players that free to play isn’t so bad after all. Why? Because it’s an homage to a beloved, classic genre that’s older than even the earliest computer game: the tabletop role-playing game.

I didn’t realize just how much of an homage it was until I started playing. I knew it was going for a tabletop aesthetic, with its depiction of boards and cardboard pieces and dice, but I expected something that simply celebrated the mechanics of board games. Card Hunter does that, to be sure, but it also does much more, focusing on the social experience of playing these games with friends. In addition to the game components, there are soda bottles and snacks scattered around, as well as manuals, checklists, and other things that don’t actually come into play. When I started the game, I was introduced to Gary, a young high-school student who was acting as the Game Master (or GM for short), taking control of the monsters while I led my team of heroes. Gary was really excited to try playing Card Hunter with me, because he’d heard so much about it from his older brother Melvin. We then proceeded straight into an epic battle that acted as the game’s tutorial: my party of three heroes fought against the minions of the dragon Greenfang and then the dragon himself. It was suitably epic, and Gary seemed to be having a blast, but then Melvin showed up, and was quite cross that we were using his level 18 party. This was not the correct way to play Card Hunter, he pronounced. We had to start from scratch with a level 1 party. Cowed, Gary and I did just that, and the campaign began in earnest.

Indeed, while there is something of a story linking the various adventures in the single-player campaign, the true story is that of Gary and his brother, and their different approaches to the role of GM. There’s even some romance that brews as players learn of Gary’s crush on the pizza delivery girl. I was troubled by this at first, fearing a cliched story where the pizza girl (Karen) would simply be a reward to be claimed, but I’m happy to say she plays a bigger role than that. The tale is told from the male perspective, but it’s handled well enough. And this meta-story makes it clear that the developers at Blue Manchu have a genuine fondness for these types of tabletop games. The story is filled with in-jokes and references to Dungeons and Dragons and the wider world of tabletop role-playing games in general, from digs at obscure rules to the specific differences between various types of polearms. When starting each adventure, the player is shown a scenario book for the module with custom artwork and descriptions for each encounter. Each battle takes place on a custom board, with a layout and set of environmental hazards appropriate to the theme of the adventure. Occasionally the player faces an adventure designed by Gary or his brother, which features a hand-drawn board and figures for an appropriately scrappy feel.

The game mechanics play the neat trick of feeling just like the type of tabletop strategic battles they pay an homage to, while only actually working in digital form. Each member of the player’s three-person team has their own deck of cards to utilize during combat, and each draws a hand. The player and GM (usually Gary) then take turns playing these cards to perform various actions. Everything requires a card: movement, attacks, spells, even defenses like armor or blocks. And players can only play one card per turn. This leads to difficult decisions. Do I have my Mage play a movement card to get out of range of a dangerous foe, knowing that my opponent may then do the same and I’ll miss my opportunity to land that powerful attack with my fighter? Do I spend my turns on getting a single character to close the distance to the enemy, or do I spread out my turns and bring the whole party closer at the same pace? What if that means the enemy will be able to fire off long-range spells at us while we slowly inch forwards? Play continues until both sides decide to pass rather than play a card, and then the round ends, each character discards down to 2 cards, and then draws a new hand for the next round. Each character is guaranteed to draw at least one movement card each round, which is just one mechanic that works on the computer but would be nearly impossible to implement in an actual tabletop game. There are others too: spells that move heroes and monsters to random positions on the board, status effects that require tracking which cards each character is holding and how many rounds they’ve had them in hand, and more. Yet the experience still feels like a tabletop game, it’s just one that takes advantage of a computer to deal with all the busywork.

Completing adventures, finding loot, and leveling up all lead to better cards, as the title of the game suggests. But cards are not found directly; instead, each hero can equip various items, from armor, weapons, boots and shields to various trinkets, each of which adds certain cards to that hero’s deck. These items come in tiers of rarity that correlate with their desirability and will be instantly recognizable to those who have played collectible card games or computer games like Diablo or World of Warcraft. Often items come with both advantages and disadvantages. For example, a weapon may have several powerful attack cards but also the “large weapon” card, which, if drawn, must immediately be played and makes one’s attacks fail if the attacker is next to a wall and doesn’t pass a die roll. The various weapons and other items are pre-designed rather than randomized, which means they are well-balanced and players are often faced with difficult decisions over which items to use. This is further compounded by the power orbs which are required in order to use certain items. Heroes have a limited number of power orbs (gaining more when leveling up) so they can’t always use all of the best items at the same time, and tradeoffs are required as the situation demands.

In fact, carefully choosing equipment for each adventure is very important. In the early adventures, the mechanics seem simple: position your heroes, hit the enemy with spells and melee attacks, cast healing spells when someone is hurt, rinse and repeat. But the system is actually much, much deeper than that. A scenario might have heavily armored opponents, requiring the player to stock up on penetrating attacks and spells that force the enemy to discard armor cards. Or maybe the player needs to bring lots of bludgeoning attacks in order to effectively kill some skeletons, who resist piercing and slashing attacks. Or maybe the enemy is stock full of block cards, which cancel attacks entirely provided a die roll is passed and the enemy is facing the attacker. But since an enemy turns to face an attacker automatically when hit, careful positioning allows one to alternate blows against an enemy, hitting it from behind each time. To pull that off successfully, the player will need a good selection of move cards. Card Hunter requires a different type of thinking than a typical computer role-playing game, in which there is usually a clear “best” set of equipment to use at any given time, until something better is found. Here, one must constantly adapt, and it’s a bad idea to sell off old equipment, because it might be needed in order to meet the specific challenges of an adventure. The downside of this is that managing inventories can become tedious, but the upside is that each adventure feels like a fresh challenge.

In fact, I was pleasantly surprised at just how distinct each adventure was. Facing an army of undead is very different than dealing with lizardmen, or demons, or animated trees, and each type of monster has some unique characteristic or set of cards that give it its own tactics during battle. The individual boards make a huge difference too; facing a mob of zombies in the streets of a village is a very different prospect than being surrounded by zombies in an open room in a dungeon. Since zombies gain great attack power when there are other zombies nearby, one wants to funnel them through streets to avoid getting surrounded. But in the open dungeon, getting surrounded is almost inevitable. Careful use of magic to move the zombies around and create movement bottlenecks is required for surviving the latter scenario. Throughout the lengthy campaign I rarely felt I was facing the same type of challenge twice, and even then I was using better equipment and new types of cards and strategies. And I haven’t even touched on some of the more subtle mechanics like terrain attachments and the differences between different elemental magic. There’s a huge amount of strategic goodness here, and it’s almost entirely free.

So how, then, does Card Hunter make money? Well, microtransactions are in place mainly for cosmetic items (new cardboard figures for one’s heroes, for example) or getting more loot, in a similar manner to buying a pack of cards in a collectible card game. One can buy a treasure chest that’s guaranteed to contain a set of items of specific rarity and a specific level range, although most of these can also be purchased with in-game gold that’s earned from completing adventures and selling old loot. In-game gold can be purchased directly too, of course, so specific items can be bought from shops using real-world cash if the player desires. There’s also a monthly membership to the Card Hunter Club on offer, which provides an extra piece of loot when collecting loot from any source (cleverly, even players who are not Club members get to see this extra item, even though they can’t claim it, so they can see exactly what the benefit of Club membership would be). Then there are several special Treasure Hunt adventure modules that are only available if purchased, and which provide a unique Epic quality item as a reward. For those older, curmudgeonly players who like to wax poetic about the good old days when they used to buy a game once and then they actually owned it forever instead of having to pay tiny bits over time, there’s the Basic Edition, a one-time purchase of $25 that gives access to all the Treasure Hunts, a one-month subscription to the Card Hunter Club, several new figures for one’s heroes, and a bunch of in-game currency to be spent on any of the things I listed above at the player’s discretion. I ended up springing for this once I ran into my first Treasure Hunt scenario, because I was already enjoying the game a lot by that point and I wanted to support the developers. The Treasure Hunts are just as high-quality as the rest of the adventures and they even manage to slot neatly into the ongoing saga of Gary and his brother Melvin, without being required reading (i.e. the free adventures still tell a complete story). And a one-month membership to the Card Hunter Club is certainly long enough to allow players to complete the campaign while still reaping extra loot.

I should reiterate, however, that what’s on offer for free in Card Hunter is more than substantial. In fact, I’ve heard others worry that the game is too free, and that Blue Manchu won’t be able to make enough money off of it. I hope that’s not the case, because it really is an excellent game, and far more substantial than I (and likely many others) expected. There’s plenty of room for more adventures to be added later too, and there have already been some user-made adventures featured. And I haven’t even mentioned the multiplayer mode, which I’ve only barely tried. I would recommend at least looking at multiplayer even if you aren’t that interested, because it actually provides some useful high-level items for free that you can use in the single-player campaign as well. Multiplayer battles happen with a separate party, with all heroes at the highest level, and they seem to be where the true card hunting happens. Matches are ranked, so you shouldn’t be facing off against anyone too deadly when you’re just starting out, but the dedicated players have built some truly terrifying decks full of incredibly powerful cards. During the single-player campaign I tended to use whatever I found while adventuring, and never even spent any of the in-game currency that came with my Basic Edition, but those who delight in collecting the best and most epic equipment will likely be drawn to multiplayer, where such collecting is encouraged and where players can show their collections off to fellow card hunters.

The best part about Card Hunter, though, is that it runs off of Flash in your web browser. That’s right: you don’t even have to install it, and you can run it on any device that supports Flash. It does require an internet connection (and signing up for a free account), but hey, it’s free. There’s really no reason not to try it out, and it’s the perfect game to play in small sessions, with each battle lasting only a few minutes and each adventure clocking in at maybe fifteen or twenty. Whether you’re old and curmudgeonly or not, I recommend giving it a shot. Just head over to the game’s site, sign up, and you’re good to go. Happy hunting!