Dungeons & Dragons played with cards, controlled by Gary: the magic of Card Hunter
Card Hunter looks like a classic game of Dungeons & Dragons, complete with 2D characters moving around a flat dungeon. It’s an aesthetic that is immediately welcoming to anyone who grew up in garages and basements, surrounded by soda, pizza boxes, and dog-eared source books. Jonathan Chey, who co-founded Irrational Games before moving on to start Blue Manchu Games with an impressive group of industry veterans, clearly loves early role-playing games. Chey also has one of the more impressive resumes in the business: He was the director of development on BioShock, producer of System Shock 2 and designer of Freedom Force. At Looking Glass he worked on Thief and Flight Unlimited 2. “Thematically, it’s a nostalgic look at very early Dungeons & Dragons,” he explained. “I have a first edition D&D box, I started playing in primary school. I photocopied a version of the rules that my brother had copied by hand from someone at school.” Card Hunter is a look back at traditional Dungeons & Dragons, through the lens of a modern card game, and it’s fucking amazing.
Character creation as deck building
“I think the genesis of this game was that I wanted to make a collectible card game that you could play online and win cards,” Chey said. “I wanted to play it like Diablo, like an RPG where you get loot by playing the game. That was the initial idea. It’s evolved a lot since then.” The game will be free-to-play, with aesthetic options, side-quests, and other content for sale. You field the normal types of heroes, including wizards, warriors, and dwarfs, but each character is pulling from a deck of cards for their movement and attacks. If you want to make a mobile character, you’ll give them movement cards. If you want to create a tank, you’ll load them up with attack and block cards. You keep a limited number of cards in your hand, use them to move and attack, and then draw up at the beginning of each turn. “We wanted it to be more about deck building and less about feats and traits,” Chey explained. Luckily, building your deck is fun. You don’t go through your cards one at a time, instead you equip your characters with items. So a sword will have six cards attached to it, of varying power. Different swords will have different cards, including cards that may negatively affect your character. Imagine an axe that gives you six cards, where three are savage attacks and three cause your character to trip. Is it worth the risk? Magic users can equip wands to add spells and buffs, and you can give characters shields and other equipment build their deck. You gain loot as you play the game, so building your deck is simply a matter of equipping your character with items; that legendary sword you just found gives you better attacks if equipped. Strong armor will allow you to block. It’s a brilliant mix of collectible card games and classic role-playing systems, and makes managing your deck both simple and fun. Chey does admit that the game’s audience may be limited by its theme. “Our target demographic is 40-something guys who played D&D thirty years ago… We’re going to find out if people think it’s interesting if they don’t have those reference points.”
The single-player game within a game
Your characters are cardboard cut outs, both literally and figuratively. The real meat of the story takes place in the meta-game, where your game master, Gary, takes you through the campaign. You aren’t taking the role of an adventurer as much as you’re becoming someone who is playing a role-playing game. You're playing the player. It’s all very meta, but it works well. You can tell Chey respects the act of playing Dungeons & Dragaons, not just its themes and iconography. “You are playing a game with Gary. As you play through the single player game, you’re developing a relationship with him, because that’s what our game is about, playing Dungeons & Dragons, or in our case, Card Hunter, as an interactive social experience,” he explained. Chey comes from a generation that spent much of its time playing Dungeons & Dragons, and he describes the tone of the game as an “affection regard” for the game. “Even though it’s kind of stupid fantasy stuff, it meant a lot to us growing up,” Chey said. “We used it as a way to escape primary school, high school lives that may not have always been the easiest, and to develop relationships and to socialize with other people and interact with other people in a way that was comfortable for us. So we actually tell a story which is more about the story of playing a game with someone rather than saving the world from an evil wizard.” The single player game looks both fun and accessible, but multiplayer is where the game will find its legs. “We want this to be a competitive game on par with Magic, where people are really focused on deck building and finding the best builds. The multiplayer is honestly the best part of the game, but the single player is much more accessible. It’s free, so anyone can jump in and try it.” The basic campaign will be free, but there will be side missions you can pay for, aesthetic options, and other content that you’ll pay for. They are also planning multiplayer competitions. While the setting, aesthetics, and card mechanics are all strong, the act of playing the game is where it shines. It's fun to use cards to move your character, as you hope to draw a great hand at the beginning of each turn. Certain moves and interactions even require you to roll virtual dice. It's a fun collection of mechanics, mixing classical role-playing games with modern game play sensibilities. The game is “months” away from launch, and there will likely be a beta. We’ll be staying on top of this one. Chey is a little nervous about the game's reception, but the small amount I was able to play was magical, and the game quickly became the talk of PAX Prime. “It’s got a lot of potential, but part of launching it will be testing the waters. It’s kind of, I don’t want to say it’s brave. Maybe stupid. Adventurous. I don’t know how big of an audience there is for this kind of game.” I have a feeling he's pretty safe, especially among Penny Arcade readers.