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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.

Instant Gratification vs Fun Investment

All this talk about Magic: the Gathering makes me want to revisit a topic I briefly touched on last week, in the comments here and elsewhere. Namely, the sort of denigration of “instant gratification” and the elevation of investing in “long-term fun,” which is presumably shorthand for “doing a series of boring things for a reward later.”

The choice between instant gratification versus an investment in long-term fun is a false dichotomy. Gaming is an instance in which you can have your cake and eat it too.

One of the examples activities that was used to illustrate how “boring gameplay” can lead to bigger returns in fun was painting figurines in a tabletop game like Warhammer. Simply purchasing already-painted figurines would just not be the same despite having no direct gameplay relevance. I agree. I also agree with the notion that, say, using cheat codes to become immortal, having infinite money, and so on right at the start of the game likely diminishes the overall amount of fun you can derive from it.

But here’s the thing: someone who paints their Warhammer figures probably finds the act of painting them fun.

I used to play a lot of Magic: the Gathering back in high school. The games were nothing serious, just some 3-5 person chaos multiplayer amongst friends. However I would routinely spend about 10 hours crafting decks for every 1 hour a given deck would actually see play. In fact, if any of my decks began to routinely win, I stopped using them and built new ones.¹ And I had fun!

Deck-building was almost better than playing the actual game for me. There is something deeply satisfying in seeing a complicated scheme all fall into place, top-decking the one perfect counter that changes the game right when you need it to. But running all those scenarios through my head, pouring over all my available options, whittling down a pile of 250 cards I wanted to use into a perfectly-tuned 60-card machine was pure entertainment in of itself.

Another example: D&D. I ran a 4-year campaign throughout all of college, and a little beyond. As a DM, I let my players have ample freedom, but I made sure the world they inhabited was scaffolded in lore such that they had a place in it. In other words, I wanted to give them the ability to take the world as serious as they wanted to. Of course, most sessions started and ended with them starting a bar fight rather than the existential pondering I secretly wanted them to do. But it is not much of a stretch to say that I spent 20 hours per week in preparation of one 3-6 hour session. Never once did I consider those 20 hours a chore. I was excited to DM those games because it gave me the opportunity (and justification) to spend all that time world-building.

Now, clearly, what an individual finds fun is going to be subjective, and possibly something that changes over time and circumstance. But my point here is that the sort of activities necessary for long-term enjoyment – figure-painting, deck-building, world-creation – can be fun in of themselves. Not only can, but should. This extends to all in-game activities.

I do not buy the argument that something like Darkfall/EVE’s AFK resource-gathering systems is fun “because it gives you the time to do something else.” An activity doesn’t become fun by adding in a separate fun thing; an activity is either fun in of itself or it isn’t.² An unfun thing can become tolerable when mixed, but that is not a point in the base activity’s favor. Being punched in the face is alright if you give me $1,000, but I would rather just have the $1,000. Is desiring just the money considered “instant gratification,” or is that simply rational?

You can rightly question why I am not currently building Magic decks or constructing D&D campaigns if they are so fun in of themselves. The truth is that without the payout, without the destination at the end of the journey, these (investment) activities are not as fun to me. However, while they might not be as fun – that is, they are less fun than other things I could be doing instead – keep in mind that they still are fun. An actual destination acts as a force multiplier, if you will, to the entertainment of the journey. Contrast that with many of the in-game “investments” we are tasked to complete which make no sense to perform at all without reward, e.g. they are the punch to the face.

The distinction is important, because I feel it is far too easy to for us gamers to fall into the cognitive dissonance trap of “retroactive fun” and Sunk Cost fallacy. “I spent 5 hours farming herbs, it must have all been worth it!” Even if there is no real difference between actual fun and retroactive fun in practice (and isn’t that a depressing thought?), it does matter when comparing games mechanics in the moment.

All things considered, you should desire the mechanics that are both fun now and even more fun later. We simultaneously can and deserve to have both.

¹ A successful deck was a sort of “proof of concept” for me. Could my infinite damage combo reliably work in an actual hostile environment? Coming up with combos was a lot easier than constructing a deck capable of pulling them off, after all. Plus, my goal was never to craft a (P2W) deck that beat my friends 100% of the time; that sort of thing is never fun to play against anyway.

² It’s probably more accurate to say fun is a gradient rather than a binary distinction, one that can shift from one moment to the next. But I still believe that the unfun half of the scale hits zero right near the border.

Resistance is… Probably Not a Good Idea.

My (probably futile) attempts at conquering the Gratuitous Space Battle campaign mode continues. After looking at the available ship options, I decided to change races to the Empire. Some of the different races get access to unique weapons or ship layouts, but for the most part everything is the same. Except maybe not for the Empire. Most of their ships look like space stations, and come with a ridiculous number of standard module slots to match.

That and basically everything else likely means nothing to you, but just roll with it for now.

So my fleet composition looks something like this. First, the I-Point, which is essentially a damage-soaker featuring multiple shield generators and power plants to match. Under most circumstances, a ship will likely have ~200 shield HP, but the I-Point has 800+. It has a few weapons, but it’s orders are simply to close to EMP range and otherwise take the hits. Stuck in rigid formation behind it is at least one I-Help, which is a Frigate whose sole purpose is to use the Empire-specific shield-mending beam on the I-Point and on anyone else  nearby. Tank and heals old-school style.

The big surprise, at least as far as effectiveness goes, came from the I-Battery. This ship design is fairly unique in what I have seen thus far, with it capable of housing 8 weapons in a Frigate hull. As tempted as I was to put missile launchers in every slot, I decided that I would instead go with the almost-as-good ranged Plasma Cannons. Cost-wise, the I-Battery were surprisingly cheap, which gives me leave to build 1-2 of them each turn.

Finally, rather than replace any of my Plasma Cannons with anti-fighter laser weapons, I decided to simply field a bunch of fighters myself, flying Escort mode around my I-Point. They are not as powerful as the fighters of other races, but they are the fastest in the game.

I was undefeated for a while, conquering planets at a pretty good clip under my balanced doctrine… until disaster.

Hey, this looks familiar.

Hey, this looks familiar.

With a full fleet that was poised to take over a few isolated systems, I was instead attacked by a six cruiser complement of one of the DLC race ships. Their loadout? Missiles. ALL the missiles. I took special care in putting at least one Guidance Scrambler on each one of my ships, and their combined effort up to this point was usually enough to clear the sky. Not these missiles though, and not in this volume. I was annihilated by a specialized force – a missile force – and thus came full circle.

I did not give up yet though. Oh, no. I made an I-Screen ship, with Point Defense Mk 2 in every weapon slot to shoot down enemy missiles and nothing else. Remembering my failure with the fighters last time, I nevertheless fielded four squadrons of 16. And this time, I also made special orders for all ships to follow Vulture orders, e.g. always target the most damaged ship in range.

Remember me now?

Remember me now?

The result was almost comical. I don’t know whether it was the Vulture orders or the extra squadron or something else, but my fighters blew two of the ships up and crippled two more before my cruisers even got within range. The I-Screen largely turned out to be useless, as the range of its anti-missile guns was too short to prevent them damaging the shields of the I-Point, and yet it was too fragile to place in front (defeating the purpose of the tank). In any case, the revenge was sweet.

But it would not last.

Misty remains of Judgment.

Misty day, remains of Judgment.

Riding high on my prior victories, I was complacent until a nest of vipers landed in my lap in the form of five Parasite cruisers. It almost didn’t seem fair… for them. I had a slightly bigger fleet than before, after all. As it turns out, the Parasite race has access to an AoE flak cannon that simply shredded my fighters like so much tissue paper. Even with the combined might of my fleet, I was not able to collapse even one shield amongst their ships. Instead of the normal Guidance Scramblers that deflect missiles, they have a version that turns the missile around and causes it to hit you, all with a greater range.

My fleet destroyed once again, I attempted to mount a counter-offensive with a new fleet after 10 turns. The result was even worse than before. Then, they captured my only planet with a shipyard, effectively ending the game.

There is no reloading saved games in GSB. One’s failure is absolute.

_____________________

I should note, in passing, that the most frustrating aspect of GSB campaign mode is also one of its most novel. You see, 100% of those fleet compositions I talked about are player-generated. In the vanilla game, you could submit your own fleet as a sort of “puzzle” (aka Challenges) that other players could battle and then rate. I played a few of these maps, but it all felt a bit pointless after a while, especially when it didn’t reward Honor (the in-game currency for unlocks). Wrapping this all up in a cloak of purpose via campaign mode though, did indeed breathe life into the concept as evidenced by my repeated head-banging.

Of course, this also means campaign mode operates with no rhyme or reason, as you charge headlong into truly random and insipid battles that you cannot hope to prepare against. Specialization beats Generalization every time, but the player is never afforded the luxury of anything else. It reminds me of the great debate of Critical Hits in paper D&D. On the one hand, rolling a 20 and getting double-damage feels awesome. On the other hand, the players will always face hundreds more dice rolls against them than they ever will roll against individual mobs. Ergo, players are more penalized by critical hits than they benefit, increasing the chances of a Total Party Kill… unless the DM fudges the rolls behind the screen.