Kard Combat is a well-polished card battle game with fun gameplay and beautiful art

When I look at the calendar, I know it’s 2011 – but when I look at my iPhone games collection, I can’t help but wonder if it’s really just 1994 all over again. Why would I wonder this, you might ask? Because customizable card games are back in a big way on the App Store, and I for one couldn’t be happier. Kard Combat is the latest such release, and it’s easily one of the best in the bunch.

Loosely based on the 2008 PC release Spectromancer, Kard Combat takes players on a magic filled journey to the top of the Black Tower. The Black Tower is the seat of power in the world of Kard Combat, and if a mage wants to wield that power, they’ll need to scale the 33 floors of the building, defeating rival mages on each one before finally reaching the top.

Ok, so the story is a little hokey – it’s Enter the Dragon with wizards – but it doesn’t need to be anything more. Only directly affecting the solo game, players will be able to choose from one of four different mage classes as they explore their way to the tower’s top, effectively learning the game and encountering a variety of unique scenarios along the way. (While the game is free, though, it should be noted that you’ll need to make a small in-app purchase to unlock all of the tower levels for each mage).

The battles, or titular “kard combat” as it were, play out with players choosing different cards to engage their opponent with. Cards will come in five flavours – fire, water, earth, air, and mage-specific. If you’re a Machine Mage, that last category offers machine cards. If you’re a Dominator Mage, they’re dominator cards. You get the idea.

Players are dealt 20 cards from their deck to play with each round, comprised of four cards for each of the five types. Each card type will have its own mana pool, so you’ll only be able to play cards if you have enough of the right type of mana. The cards are played into a row of six spots, directly across from your opponent’s row of six. The object of the game is to defeat your opponent by draining all of their hit points, but you can’t damage your opponent directly if there’s a card opposite you – you’ll have to destroy their card first.

The cards themselves have their own attack values, hit points, and special abilities, so you’ll need to weigh your options carefully with each and every decision you make. Some cards may provide boosts for the other cards in your row. Others may do damage to every card on the table including your own. There’s a huge variety of cards here, each of which does something markedly different from the next card in the deck. You’ll never feel like you’re getting the short end of the stick on card selection.

As players proceed through the Tower with each different mage, they’ll unlock all of the cards in that mage’s deck. So if you finish the Tower with the Holy Mage before taking him into multiplayer battle, you’ll have a much better deck of cards to draw from in real world competition than you would if you hadn’t. And if playing through the solo campaign isn’t your thing, don’t worry – you can unlock all of the cards for every mage right off the bat through a simple (though sizable) in-app purchase.

Kard Combat Kard Combat

As you might have guessed, multiplayer is going to be the area of the game with the strongest pull for most players. Kard Combat‘s is asynchronous, which is going to be a good thing or a bad thing depending on how you look at it. On the one hand, I love being able to start a game with a friend whenever we want and return to it at my leisure. On the other hand, though, Kard Combat is a deeper game that demands a little more attention than most asynchronous games like Hanging With Friends. Being able to remember which cards you were planning on playing next or what your opponent’s behaviour is like after waiting hours (or even days) for your next turn can become something of a ludicrous proposal. And keeping track of the play styles of multiple opponents if you decide to tackle multiple games at once? It’s simply more than we could manage.

Despite this, we found that most of our online competitors didn’t really care that the game was designed asynchronously – they just sat across the virtual table and took turns back and forth as if we were playing in real time. And even if that hadn’t been the case, people have been playing Chess by Mail for centuries. If those folks can wait weeks to make their next move, surely there are some gamers that can tackle Kard Combat‘s multiplayer with a similar degree of ease and finesse.

Whether in solo or multiplayer though, the one thing that matters here is how well the game plays – and it plays really really well. There’s a good deal of strategy in which cards you’ll place where, with the decisions largely based around the moves your opponent makes. If he takes out one of your cards wedged between two weaker cards, for example, you might want to play the fire card Belial, which boosts the attack rating of its neighboring cards by 2. Or if he manages to wipe out nearly your entire row of cards in a single turn while keeping a full row on his own, you might want to play the General who spawns two additional cards alongside him to cast a wider net of protection – or maybe a spell card that deals 25 damage to every remaining card on the board now that all of yours are safely out of the way. The decision-making here is deeply satisfying, and since your deck is dealt out randomly each time, you can never come to rely on the same combination of cards to storm your way to victory.

Kard Combat Kard Combat

For the most part, the game looks as good as it plays. Card art is outstanding – we’ve had to pick our jaws up off the floor more than once while playing Kard Combat. And no two cards ever look alike. From dancing fire demons to blindfolded ladies to hulking monsters, the visuals here will knock your socks off. The only complaint to be had is that it’s a little heartbreaking that we can’t see the card art full screen. That, and that the graphics in the periphery, like menus and such, fall flat when compared to the core of the game.

As a fan of battling card games like Magic: The Gathering and Shadow Era, Kard Combat scratched my card-fighting itch sublimely. The game is simple enough that anyone can pick it up, yet deep enough that a tougher opponent can really test your skills. With great art, great gameplay, and a solid variety of cards, there’s simply no way we wouldn’t recommend Kard Combat. If you’ve ever had even the slightest interest in card-based gaming, Hothead’s latest offering deserves a permanent home in your collection.