Angry Dragons and Lucky Dwarves: Hands-on with Card Hunter

Jonathan Chey is an interesting fellow. He got his start at the now defunct but still every bit as legendary Looking Glass Studios where he had a hand in such marquee titles as Thief and Flight Unlimited II and soon was a designer on Freedom Force and a producer on System Shock 2. Chey then moved on to co-found Irrational Games with Ken Levine and Robert Fermier and worked on BioShock as the director of development.

But in July of 2011, he forged on alone and formed Blue Manchu Games, the announcement coinciding with the reveal of his first independent title, Card Hunter, just about as far as you can get from the likes of BioShock and Freedom Force. It is an online collectible card game that plays a bit more like an MMO but has the trappings of a tabletop game like Dungeons & Dragons.

You see, you’ll have your party—in my case, a sorceress, a dwarf, and a paladin knight—and you’ll explore dungeons while collecting loot, fighting bosses, and the like. You play on a grid-based system where every move or attack you do has a certain range of blocks it can affect, so an axe-wielding dwarf can maybe run and attack just within a 9×9 area in any given turn but a sorceress can teleport and attack pretty much anywhere on the map.

It sounds a bit like standard fare until you add in the cards to the mix. Everything you do from dashing around the dungeon to mitigating damage with a shield requires a card, each character and enemy having its own individual hand to draw from. Each character’s deck is built from the items they equip, so if you equip a good axe, you’ll get better attack cards and if you equip a paltry shield, you’re liable to get easily-bested counter cards.

Each turn, you’ll be given to the opportunity to either play any single card from one of your characters or pass. If you don’t have any cards left to play, you have no choice but to pass, and if all players (AI or otherwise) pass, then a new round begins.

Rounds are important because they not only allow you to draw new hands for your characters while discarding whatever remains of your old hand but also delineate the timings of certain effects, such as environmental acid or character burn statuses. If a round ends with me standing on a square that is covered in acid, then I take damage, or if I’m unable to remove the burn status by the end of the round, then I take burn damage. Most of these effects only last a certain number of rounds, too, so passing quickly can determine just how long you’ll have to deal with or take advantage of them.

But here’s where it’s important to pay attention to the details: you don’t have to skip if you don’t want to. If your opponent runs out of cards and is forced to skip but you still have a bunch of sword stabs and lighting shots left in you, you can just ravage him. They’ll be defenseless, unable to move and unable to attack. Of course, the same thing could happen to you, so you’ve got to be careful about how you play your hands.

And this all makes for a very, very interesting game. After a brief tutorial level where I was taught how to move around the map and attack and how passive defense cards worked (there are also meta cards that allow you to draw extra cards or augment other cards based on what you have in play or in your hand), Chey dropped me into a fight against a single enemy.

I still have my knight, dwarf, and sorceress, and given the previous battle where I took down upwards of 10 goblins of varying power and abilities, I felt pretty confident I’d gotten the hang of the game. Attack from a distance with magic and get in close with my cutlery. Simple enough, right? Well, nothing’s simple when you’re fighting a dragon. A large, persistent, and mean dragon.

The thing about this particular dragon is that he also has natural armor, so while I have to have cards on my characters to roll virtual dice to determine if I block or halve damage with my shield, the dragon simply has it. This renders any non-penetrating, non-magic attacks on level with spitting at him. Attacking from the side or the back would help, but this guy is so agile and with moving and attacking each requiring one turn, that just wasn’t going to be an option, even with three characters in my party.

But luckily my dwarf drew some sizable movement and attack cards, so I figure I’d test the waters with him. The pillars obscured my sorceress’ spells and I preferred to have my knight heal if the occasion called for it, so I moved in, close enough to smell the beast. The dragon, however, had other plans.

He flew from the far end of the dungeon and landed smack dab in front of my knight. “Not a problem,” I remember thinking, “I’ll just move back.” But that dragon was having none of that. I may have cleared out a solid four or five squares between us, but his acid spit covered both my knight and my sorceress in about seven or so points of damage, which is a lot when you’re only working with 50 points of health to start with. Wanting to avoid that again and hopefully get far enough away from the dragon, I move my knight even further from the acidic epicenter.

No dice. The dragon flew right up against him once more, snarling and dripping globs of dragon drool onto his once pristine armor. And now I was out of movement cards, so I did what any knight would do: stand my ground. I took a mighty swing at him with a bronze attack card (every card has a color value associated with it, indicating its overall worth and rarity, much like Magic: The Gathering cards or pretty much any RPG loot system) and managed to knock another four points off of his seemingly insurmountable supply of health. And then he retaliates, and boy does it hurt.

At this point, Chey points out that the sorceress’ teleportation card not only works on her but pretty much anything, including other party members and enemies. Given that we’re all pretty much on the same side of the dungeon, I opt to teleport that dragon as far away as possible. This buys me a couple turns to burn through some healing cards and contemplate the meaning of life.

But the dragon closes in once again and spits more acid at me, covering more squares with dangerous vitriol and my knight and sorceress with more damage. Given no other choices, I move both my dwarf and my knight in closer and my sorceress further away in preparation for the inevitable last stand, but the next turn yields a minor miracle: the dragon passes.

The dragon had apparently run out of cards and I’d failed to notice (the top area of the screen shows how many cards each enemy has left while any attached or revealed cards are clickable for you to examine and read at your leisure). This was my chance, so I began to savagely stab and lightning and insult the dragon, a few beating his armor rolls, a few not, but in the end, I had taken him down to half health. Not bad, but also not enough.

The next round began after I used up my last remaining card—an environmental clearance card, removing any acid within a certain range—and it was the dragon’s turn. The next three turns would be my knight’s last, turning into a rather macabre game of fire-breathing cat and shiny mouse. But his was a necessary death, allowing my dwarf to get in two incredible silver penetrating attacks and using the knight’s card to draw into the dwarf’s hand a gold attack card. My dwarf is now standing face-to-face with the dragon, but given how much armor I have (some of which are of Reliable silver quality), I decide to play a gold meta card that allows me to draw cards until I find an attack card, and wouldn’t you know it, another gold attack card.

And in another turn of the tables, the dragon has also run out of cards while I am absolutely flush with them. I use up everything in the hands of my dwarf and my sorceress save for one last eight-point bludgeon. And the dragon has eight points left. This would depend on me beating a dice roll to win this battle, my two remaining party members haggard from unrelenting acid attacks.

And I do, and Chey and I celebrate, me silently cheering and him continuing to eat his sandwich. I dig through my loot, equip a few things, and end the demo.

Going into Card Hunter, I wasn’t sure what to expect. It was so vastly different from anything else Chey or the few other Irrational and Looking Glass alumni he’d gathered along the way has ever made, but with Magic: The Gathering creator Richard Garfield and designer Skaff Elias on his side, there seemed to be a good chance that it would turn out better than my dubious mind could imagine. And given that my hour with the game seemed to pass by in an instant, I would say it has. By a large margin.

Card Hunter will eventually be free-to-play with a beta bubbling up in the coming months, so I suggest you hunt it down when you can. It’ll be browser-based and powered by Flash, but will hopefully also come to iOS and Android devices soon after.

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