I Can’t Wait To Play More Of This Role-Playing, Deck-Building Mashup

Plenty of great games combine multiple game ideas into a single cohesive package. Persona mixed a dating sim and a party-based JRPG. Deus Ex combined sneaking, shooting and role-playing stats so successfully that it’s still mimicked to this day.

You might think that a strategy RPG, a deck-building card game and a dice-rolling tabletop RPG wouldn’t work that well together. And yet Jon Chey and his team at Blue Manchu look to have pulled it off with aplomb in their upcoming PC game Card Hunter. From what I played at PAX last week, it works like a charm. It was also the coolest game I saw all weekend.

The setup is this: In the game’s fiction, you’re playing a tabletop role-playing game (think Dungeons & Dragons) with your friend and game master Gary. The story works on two levels — on the one level, there’s the adventure that your band of three heroes undertakes, and on the other, there’s your relationship with Gary, which Chey told me will change as the story goes on.

The story sounds cool, and as you can see from the trailer here, aims to channel our collective memories of sitting around a table, drinking soda and playing D&D. (For some, those memories are decades old. For others, last Thursday night.)

Card Hunter plays out on a grid in a setup that’s similar to strategy role-playing games like Final Fantasy Tactics or Tactics Ogre. You and your opponent can take one action per turn — every character has a set number of hit points, and the goal is to knock the other characters out of the game.

The twist is in how your characters move and deploy abilities. Rather than a set number of preset moves with some timed magic recharges/stamina/mana points, each character has a deck of Magic: The Gathering-style ability cards. As you begin the game, each character draws a “hand” of four cards from his or her respective deck. Those cards represent the actions you can take.

In the image here, you can see that the warrior has a “chop” attack card that lets him attack foes in adjacent squares. He’s also got a “shield block”, which has a chance to play when he’s attacked (The game also rolls dice to determine the extent to which your cards are successful). His armour will reduce damage further. The monk can heal, and can use the “run” card to move three spaces (all decks have blue movement cards.) The mage has ranged attacks, and so on. There is a wide variety of cards, and they inflict the same sorts of status effects, area-of-effect spells, buffs, de-buffs and regular attacks that you’d expect from a turn-based tactics RPG.

As you play, you and your opponent (either the CPU Gary or a real person in multiplayer) take turns playing a card apiece until you’re both out of cards, at which point you both “pass” and draw a new hand.

I was amazed at how well this works, and how intuitive it is. I played two games — in the first one I took on a group of smaller enemies, and the second was a boss encounter against a powerful (and difficult!) dragon. Fans of tactics RPGs will be right at home in Card Hunter — area of effect spells, healing, tactical positioning and directional strategy are all intuitive and familiar, despite their different packaging.

Card Hunter‘s smartest idea may be in how it handles deck-building and maintenance. Cards are, brilliantly, tied to inventory items, so the cards in a character’s deck is directly related to the quality of his gear. At the end of each quest, you’ll pick up loot that you can use to equip your characters. All of the cards associated with an item or piece of armour go into the character’s deck and might come up — that goes for strong attacks, spells, and movement cards, but also for de-buffs and drawbacks that must be played when they’re drawn. Chey says that will be a way to make bad equipment actually feel bad, but also a way to counterbalance strong magical weaponry, just like in a regular RPG.

The game looks great, too. Card Hunter is running in Flash 11, which I found difficult to believe after seeing it in action (though less difficult now that I’ve spent some time playing the lovely looking Flash 11-based FarmVille 2). Everything looks great — the character pieces are 2D cardboard cutouts, but thanks to former Irrational art director Ben Lee, they sport a visual look that’s immediately familiar and charming. Played cards fly across the screen as slashes knock off enemy hit points, and every action and reaction is accompanied by a punchy, fun sound effect.

Card Hunter is deep and feels balanced — it’s designed to work with versus multiplayer, and Chey says that you could play it with any combination of character classes and still do fine.

Blue Manchu has a strong game-design pedigree; in fact, that feels like something of an understatement. Chey was a co-founder of Irrational Games and worked on BioShock and System Shock 2. (For more about his journey from Irrational to Card Hunter, check out this great interview at Gamasutra.) Chey’s Card Hunter teammates include art director Lee, who also comes from Irrational, ex-Looking Glass designer Dorian Hart and perhaps coolest of all, Magic: The Gathering creator Richard Garfield.

Card Hunter will be out next year, and will be free-to-play (!) through your web browser (!!). Given the level of talent working on the game, it makes sense that Card Hunter works as well as it does. But I was still surprised by how unlike so many games today, Card Hunter still engaged with my imagination. The board is lovely to look at, and the cards are nifty and well-drawn. But all the same, the adventure still takes place in your mind, just like it does in a tabletop game.

It’s rare that a game feels nostalgic and new at the same time, and rarer still that it all feels so tightly designed. The moment I saw how Card Hunter worked, I thought, “Oh, but of course!” It’s so well-done it feels obvious.

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