A lot of the enjoyment comes from uniting with and devilishly betraying your best friends, as you scheme and plot a way to take over the dungeon master. Card Hunter isn't quite as engaging, but it's a fine digital re-creation nonetheless.
Card Hunter (PC)
Developer: Blue Manchu Games
Publisher: Blue Manchu Games
Released: September 12, 2013
Card Hunter is a browser-based game that uses digital cards and a board to simulate a role-playing experience. But this isn't just an adventure game with orcs, warriors, and a kingdom to save: you're literally playing a Dungeons and Dragons game with a modern day meta-story woven on top of the exploration. At first you'll go through a short tutorial with a full party, but suddenly the Dungeon Master's older brother takes his full set back, hilariously forcing you to restart from level one with a basic set.
From there, the action takes place on a flat board that changes for every location to suit the scenario. In a city-based map you may have door tiles that you'll have to open, and caves might have impassable walls. All of this is easy to keep track of since you can just right click to inspect everything. In fact, the user interface is one of the best parts of the game, as all of the pertinent information you need is practically always on the screen.
You'll probably notice immediately that it isn't your typical art style -- the characters, enemies, and environments look like real tabletop pieces. I really love this unique visual style, as the pieces look freakishly realistic, and incredibly sharp. Full-screen mode is thankfully supported, which I highly recommend; Card Hunter looks far better in action on a big screen. The style is strengthened by the beautiful artwork and character designs, and each scene transition is actually worth reading due to the endearing writing and art.
Like the UI, the combat systems incredibly simple to understand, but there are a lot of layers working to keep it engaging. Before each session your deck is randomly shuffled, consisting of combat, support, and movement cards. By a random luck of the draw you may get an all-movement or all-attack deck, forcing you to think ahead multiple turns. Thankfully you do have a party of three (with customizable appearances, genders, and classes), so you do have a little leeway if you happen to draw one bad hand for a single party member.
Skirmishes aren't as simple as playing attack cards all at once, as you can browse enemy decks to decide how to counter-attack. For instance, using weak cards first to waste a foe's guard cards while you buff up a powerful warrior with high attack is a common strategy. Once you've exhausted your hand (or don't have anything to play), you can pass, but you can "hold" a few cards just like in poker should you like that particular hand.
In between turns you'll visit towns, shops, and search for new missions in a fairly non-linear map. Inventory management is as simple as clicking and dragging items over your avatar's equipment loadout or your stash. Online multiplayer is also present, allowing you to tackle boards with other players. One of my favorite online activities is the ability to spectate other games -- they're often very amusing, and a great way to learn tactics.
So what's the catch? Well, it's a free-to-play game after all, so there are some microtransaction elements. While gold is earned in-game, a currency called "pizza"is bought with real money. You can use pizza to buy extras (like cosmetic figures and other enhancements), as well as exchange it for more gold. But the pizza system is done a bit more tongue in cheek than other games -- there's even a pizza delivery person that the Dungeon Master has a crush on -- adding a bit of story to the system.
At the end of the day it's still a microtransaction currency, but it's a cute and novel way to go about it. Should you really decide that Card Hunter is your thing, there's also a membership option for a little under $10 a month, or a reduced price if you commit longer. For your troubles (and credit card), you'll net an extra item every time you complete a stage and loot a chest.
If you've ever spent an evening huddled around a table telling tales of crypts and wyverns, I highly recommend that you give Card Hunter a shot. Even if you eventually hit a paywall, you'll have a ton of fun, and may even recall some of your fondest role-paying memories in the process.