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First Impressions: Card Hunter (beta)

I got into the Card Hunter beta last Thursday.

It is rare anymore for me to spend a lengthy amount of time playing the same game. Game developers these days front-load their daily bonuses in such a way that the most “efficient” way to maximize your playtime is to switch between 3-4 titles. And yet I spent ten hours playing Card Hunter on Saturday, and another six on Sunday. So, spoiler alert: I really like this game.

Card Hunter grabbed me from the word Go. In essence, this F2P browser-based game is a tactical, turn-based RPG where your abilities come in the form of random cards. Instead of building an entire deck on your own, a character’s game deck is actually the sum total of the cards associated with that character’s equipped items. This might sound complicated, but it is the exact opposite – after about 5 minutes of looking at the screen, the system becomes immediately grokkable and engaging. For example, here is a character sheet:

I have an immediate urge to go play right now.

I have an immediate urge to go play right now.

All of the cards along the bottom are the sum total of the deck. When you look at a specific item…

Kinda funny how it's pretty much always going to be purple = epic from now on.

Kinda funny how it’s pretty much always going to be purple = epic from now on.

…you can see what cards it contributes to the overall deck. As you might imagine, weapons usually contribute attack cards, armor contributes armor cards, and so on. Occasionally though, you will have some items that contribute cards from outside their “theme.” Most items are limited to certain classes, of which there are three: fighter, cleric, and wizard. You can have either human, elf, or dwarf versions of any of those classes, with the differences being the typical D&D tropes; elves have low HP and fast movement, dwarves have the opposite, and humans are in the middle.

How does the game play? Fabulously.

Yes. YES!

Yes. YES!

As you can see, the “setting/lore” of the game is retro-D&D, and it is adhered to from start to finish. All characters are represented with those figurines, and all the maps are exactly like this one (with different terrain and such, of course). The game’s F2P currency are slices of pizza, the battles are all prefaced with D&D-module write-ups, and there is clearly some tension going on inbetween the new DM Gary and his rules-lawyer brother Melvin in campaign mode – not to mention Gary’s awkward crush on the pizza delivery girl. Change some names around, add in two more teenagers, and Card Hunter could have described my high school D&D experience to a T.

As far as the game flow goes, it is pretty intuitive. You and your opponent take turns playing one card from any of your characters’ hands. You don’t have to alternate which character’s cards you play – if your warrior has 3 attack cards and someone within reach during each of his/her turns, you can wail on them 3 times. When you and your opponent pass turns in sequence, the Round ends, everyone discards down to two cards, three cards are drawn (one of which is always a movement card), and any Round triggers fire (e.g. players starting their turn in lava take 10 damage, etc).

The strategic brilliance of this combat system simply cannot be praised enough. Yes, the card-based nature of abilities can lead to immensely frustrating, if not outright impossible scenarios. In the screenshot above, for example, my elven mage has drawn all movement cards, severely crippling any initial attack I could muster. Defeat can (and will) be drawn from the jaws of victory even if you are careful. Here was a moment I exclaimed “You have got to be shitting me” out loud:

I mean, come on!

I mean, come on!

The above screenshot was taken from the dreaded Compass of Fucking Xorr level, right from where you might imagine is an insurmountable advantage. The armored dogs are dead, I have the last mercenary backed into a corner with 5 HP, and all my dudes are (barely) alive. It’s a new Round, my turn, and… look at the bottom. Don’t see many red cards, do you?

In fact, I drew exactly one attack card, and it only deals 3 damage. That larger card in the screenshot is a “seen” card that I know is in the merc’s hand, and it’s a doozy. Basically, any time you would deal damage to the merc, he rolls a d6: on a 4 or higher, the damage is reduced by 3. Like many Armor cards, it also has the Keep quality, which means it stays in his hand after triggering, ready for the next reduction in damage. And from fighting this guy, let me just tell you that his attack cards all deal 6+ damage from two squares away.

I did kill the merc on the turn after this one, as he just happened to draw a “drawback” card that caused him to discard all his armor cards. But it was a close one either way.

In any event, I am having a blast with Card Hunter thus far. That might sound strange after I just dedicated a few paragraphs to describing what could have been a terrible RNG-based wipe, but that kinda goes with the TCG territory. Who hasn’t been mana-screwed in Magic: the Gathering before? Part of tactical thinking should include the possibility of things going wrong – if games like Frozen Synapse taught me anything, it would be that. If nothing else, it keeps you on your toes.

I’ll go over the other elements of Card Hunter, including the ever-important F2P bits, next time.

Review: XCOM: Enemy Unknown

Game: XCOM: Enemy Unknown
Recommended price: $15
Metacritic Score: 89
Completion Time: 22 hours
Buy If You Like: Relatively simple but slick Tactical Sci-Fi games

I do what I want.

It’s the only way to be sure.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a reboot of the 1990s cult-classic tactical title of the same name. In this game, you take charge of the XCOM project, which is a worldwide military response to what appears to be an alien invasion of Earth. You engage in a series of turn-based tactical battles, which is then broken up by periods of base building and resource management inbetween alien incursions.

Combat is “team turn-based,” which means that you can move all of your own units before giving the floor over to the aliens to do the same. Individual unit turns boil down to “Move + Shoot/Ability,” while trying to make an effort to end your turn next to some cover.  As units earn experience, they gain levels and can unlock new abilities/bonuses in their class’s (limited) talent tree. There are a number of different weapons and armor types available (including special items like Grenades and Medkits), but for the most part they are limited to the class they are designed for.

If this all sounds pretty simple, that is because it is. While XCOM won a number of accolades and serious blogging goodwill for its tactical combat, its primary accomplishment is simply existing as a tactical offering at all in a desert of similar titles. At no particular point did I find myself especially challenged tactically, at least in terms of historical titles like Fallout Tactics, Final Fantasy Tactics, Tactics Ogre, Suikoden Tactics, and so on. While I did “only” play on Normal Ironman mode (Ironman meaning you cannot reload a saved game to avoid a team member death), I simply do not see enough moving parts to justify some claim to XCOM’s tactical brilliance. In particular, I have a problem with team turn-based gameplay leading to “dogpile tactics” (maneuvering units so as to unload a full turn’s worth of damage without recourse), combined with an enemy that almost always waits patiently for you to discover them before taking any initiative at all. And then there are a few of XCOM’s uniquely questionable design decisions, such as not showing the range on, say, Sniper Rifles.

Kinda overkill, but it looks cool.

Luckily the aliens give you all the time you need to get into position.

Some of the lack of complexity in the tactical segments is made up in the planning stages. Character growth and equipping is straightforward, but trying to juggle base expansion, e.g. building more research centers vs power plants vs ect, with the other demands like satellites for XCOM member states or research into better weapons can get a little dicey. While I got a handle on things by the end of my first playthrough, I was not particularly sure whether the complexity was via the underlying systems or if it were just random chance that, say, China kept getting bombarded by UFOs.

All of this is not to suggest that XCOM is a bad game. It is, in fact, a fun game that I think is an auto-buy at $15 or below. I just want to distance myself from the blogging narrative that XCOM is some kind of superstar in the tactical gameplay arena. It certainly wins the “best tactical game in years” award, but it does so due to an utter lack of competition. If you enjoy this subgenre you will enjoy XCOM, but you will likely find most of your planning taking place outside of the tactical battles rather than in them.

XCOMed

By the time this gets posted, I will probably be done with my first play-through of XCOM: Enemy Within after ~20 hours.

Taking the advice of many others, I started out with Normal Ironman difficulty which turns the game into a sort of roguelike. While I have lost quite a few agents, the majority of them were rookie redshirts I tasked with carrying around the stun gun to take the aliens alive. A sort of morbid hazing ritual, if you will. An unfortunate few were grizzled veterans who got one-shot by new alien types before I had a chance to realize the danger. Or simply victims of poor planning when the only guy with a Medkit is the one bleeding to death. Too bad all the people standing around him cannot, you know, take the Medkit from his pocket and spray him, but I suppose knowledge of medicinal nanomachine application is only imparted at the character select screen.

I always find it interesting how I start developing relationships with the randomly generated characters though. Name, gender, nickname, nationality, and even class are all randomly determined, but you can customize some of those qualities. One stun gun redshirt managed to beat the odds and survive the bagging of two new alien species… and suddenly I am taking Chloe Dupont the saucy German Assault trooper with me everywhere. Mechanically, Chloe is indistinguishable from any of the other max-level Assault troopers, but I have had more fun ordering her watching her aggressively breach UFOs armed with a shotgun and the same stun gun she has carried since her initiation than any of the others. Just yesterday there was a rather hilarious moment when I put her on Overwatch mode, and during the enemy turn one Muton Elite turned a corner only to get an Alloy shot in the face, while a second Muton triggered her auto-reaction shot when it climbed a ladder I didn’t realize she was standing next to. It was practically a scene out of an action movie.

Other times, I sorta feel bad bringing, say, any new sniper because that entire class is cursed. “Sorry, Yoshio Saito of Japan. You’re probably going to die.” Sure enough, that is the mission when the aliens start using grenades, a redshirt bites the dust, my other redshirt panics and, in defiance of his accuracy rate for the entire goddamn mission up to this point, shoots Saito in the back of the head, killing him instantly.

Anyway, game is pretty fun thus far and the full review will need to wait until A) I finish, and possibly B) I try out Classic Ironman. The only negative I have is the slight impression that the game isn’t really all that deep for a “tactical” game. A lot of times I feel like I’m playing a turn-based Dawn of War 2, or one of those WW2 squad-based cover games. Also, the game is terrible when it comes to indicating at which locations (and elevations!) you can actually see/shoot at the aliens someone else sees before moving there. If you have already committed your game to having grid-based movement, give me grid-based weapon ranges and Line-of-Sight indicators.

XCOM is no Final Fantasy Tactics, or Tactics Ogre for that matter, but it is pretty good nevertheless.

Hero Academy

I have been playing Hero Academy for the last five hours or so, and I must say it’s one of the best iOS games I have ever played on my iPod. If you have never heard of it, basically it’s a turn-based tactical game that takes elements of both Final Fantasy Tactics and Magic: the Gathering and smashes them together. Now, obviously, it is not as deep as either of those, but I am as impressed thus far with Hero Academy as I was playing Plants Vs Zombies for the first time.

Strategery up top, drawing "cards" down below.

In that screenshot, there’s a mage, two priests, a special move scroll, and a potion in the player’s “hand” at the bottom, and 18 more “cards” in the deck. Each turn, you have five actions to: place a dude, use an item, equip an item, move a dude, or attack.

An archer in range of a target at the beginning of your turn? Feel free to lay down some pain with five attacks in a row. Or drop a priest, move two squares, heal your dead knight, have the knight attack (which pushes the target back a square), and then move the knight away. Equipment can be placed to increase physical/magic damage resistance or increase your attack, the special scrolls makes your next attack cause triple damage, potions offer remote healing/rezzing, certain squares on the ground can increase damage to the crystals or just in general, each unit has its own unique properties, and so on and so forth. Since you have no control over the “hand” that you draw, each fight ends up playing differently, especially if you happen to draw your faction’s uber-unit.

Did I mention this game is F2P?

At the moment, you can only use the humans for free; it costs $0.99 to buy the dark elves, and the recently released dwarf faction costs $1.99. Each faction has completely unique units with their own special properties. The dwarf priest, for example, can put up shields but otherwise heals poorly. There is a lot of nonsense you can buy in the shop – 100 Taunts is $4.99, which I believe is the most worthless cash shop item in the history of ever – but none of it affects the game beyond the factions (but they certainly appear balanced so far).

Anyway, if you want to challenge me, feel free to search for Azuriel. I’m 2-0 thus far, and out of the 15 simultaneous games I have running, I suspect another 7 have given up.

Or, perhaps, they aren’t playing iOS games at 3:45am on a Friday night. Either/or.