You down with RPG? (yeah you know me!)

Time is precious. Especially gaming time, which means video games, collectible card games, and tabletop games are all vying against each other for yours. Happily, Blue Manchu has a solution to this modern dilemma. Card Hunter manages to combine elements from all three into one fun package that also happens to be free-to-play and run right in your browser window. Sound too good to be true? Then read on adventurer – your new favorite game awaits.

In classic meta fashion, Card Hunter is not only the game you play, but also the game within the game, administered to you by an eager but relatively novice GM named Gary. He manages to use big brother Melvin’s card set to teach you some of the basics of battling and questing in the land of, ahem, Cardhuntria, before he’s discovered and you have to start over with just one lowly Level 1 Warrior. You’ll eventually form a party of three from pretty basic archetypes: Warrior, Wizard and Priest, all of whom can be Elf for greater movement, Dwarf for more durability or Human for a happy medium.

Card Hunter

That simplicity is alright though, because there’s a lot more to absorb. Every adventure – which look like old school D&D modules, down to the retro art style and flavor text – contains two or more battles. That’s where the magic happens, figuratively and somewhat literally, as each battle takes place on a unique board with a square-shaped grid. The board is 2D but has artwork that depicts terrain, structures and other obstacles, whereas your characters and any enemies are represented by 3D figures.

Every action for each participant in a battle is determined by a deck of cards, though groups of like monsters sometimes share a common deck. Movement, attacks, magic, heals, and defenses like armor, blocks and parries can all be found on different types of cards, so your options at any given time are determined by what is in each character’s hand. The game makes it simple to plan before acting, as hovering over a card will show its range on the board, and right-clicking will enlarge it so its full text can be read.

The random element necessary in any good tabletop game is built into the drawing of cards, as you can only have a few in your hand at a time. Thus there’s no randomness in the effects of cards; an attack that does three damage always does three damage, though it can be blocked or modified in other ways. This keeps the action moving, with dice rolls needed only for armor cards whose strength is determined by how often they are effective.

Card Hunter

As a result, the whole system is simple to learn but fairly intricate once you spend some time delving into it. Leveling up characters increases their health but also opens up additional slots for weapons, armor and traits, gradually expanding each deck to a maximum of 36 cards. Gear determines what cards are in your deck, so swapping one set of armor for another essentially means changing out three cards. Some powerful items even come with one “negative” card (like Wimpy, making your attacks do one less damage for several turns), forcing you to decide whether it’s worth the powerful cards that come with it.

Cards will make you think before playing them too. One of my favorites is Firestorm, a spell that damages everyone on the whole map and sets them aflame for more damage at the end of the round – but that includes your own characters, so there’s always a mental risk/reward calculation necessary before playing it. That extends to everything on the board, as terrain matters for movement and line-of-sight, as does the facing of figures since they can’t block attacks coming from behind. Everything in Card Hunter has been carefully planned out, and it shows.

Maybe that shouldn’t come as a surprise since the Blue Manchu team is comprised of industry veterans whose former stops include places like Irrational Games and Trion Worlds, and also has Richard Garfield and Skaff Elias (yes, the guys from Magic: The Gathering) on hand as design consultants. But it’s far from a dry, serious affair thanks to Gary’s continuing saga. Will he earn his brother’s grudging respect as a real Card Hunter GM? What dark and yet sparkly secrets is Melvin hiding? And is the pizza girl more than she appears? You’ll want to keep adventuring just to find out.

Between sifting through deck options among your plentiful loot, you can also tackle Multiplayer battles. These are PvP skirmishes with fully leveled and equipped parties on each side, so victory is dependent on skill and the luck of the draw instead of who has the most stuff. Yet you keep the loot you earn in Multiplayer for solo play, and a ranking system with its own rewards means there are multiple reasons for giving it a shot, even if PvP isn’t normally your thing.

Blue Manchu even seems to have concocted a pretty fair way to monetize the game. Pizza Slices serve as the premium currency, usable for new figures for your characters and to unlock special adventures called treasure hunts that guarantee one epic item. Joining the Card Hunter Club is another option, as members get one extra piece of loot from each battle that is at least as rare as the rarest item you would normally find. Due to feedback during beta, the developers also added a pay-one-price option for the game’s launch that unlocks all 11 treasure hunts, grants one month of Club membership, unlocks nine figures, and throws in 100 Pizza Slices to boot.

Card Hunter is one of those rare treasures: a free game that they’ll happily pay to play. Blue Manchu has done a masterful job taking elements of several styles of gameplay and weaving them into something that has its own unique identity. It’s great as is but still leaves you excited for the possibilities of future growth, and that’s a very rare combination indeed.