Free online strategy game Card Hunter pushes all of my buttons. A title conceived by former members of Irrational Games (Bioshock, Freedom Force) and Popcap (Peggle, Plants vs. Zombies), Card Hunter plays like a combination of Magic: The Gathering and X-Com: Enemy Unknown.
In short, you control three heroes—an archetypical Fighter, Wizard, and Cleric—and move them around a gridded battlefield by way of cards. They acquire these cards by you equipping them with different items. You play cards until both you and your opponent have nothing left to do, then you draw more. And, eventually, one team is dead
Card Hunter comes to the fray dressed in the trappings of old school Dungeons and Dragons. It’s not just in the characters you control. The game is narrated by a pair of brothers, Melvin and Gary, who are obsessive Dungeon Masters. Melvin, the older, ridicules Gary, while the younger brother asks you for Cheetos and mocks you for bringing him Diet Coke. Each adventure you undertake comes with a classic-looking booklet, like old Advanced Dungeons and Dragons adventures.
There are so many things Card Hunter could have gotten wrong, but it succeeds at every step. The humor, rather than feeling hostile or ill-intentioned, feels like a bunch of dudes who played a lot of Dungeons and Dragons realizing how awkward it is to be a teenager. The game is free to play, so there was the chance microtransactions would render it pay to win; in fact, most of the transactions are shortcuts, designed to let people with money but less time field functional multiplayer teams quicker.
Most important, though, it’s a fun, addictive turn-based strategy game. And—judging by the server queues on launch day—it’s one that is going to have some success.
Five years ago, the squad based strategy game was dead and gone, a relic existent only on Japanese handhelds and in dusty CD cases curated by veteran gamers. Larger scale titles like Civilization still thrived on the edges of the mainstream, but no truly successful game went smaller scale.
Then came Company of Heroes, a real time squad-based World War Two game, and Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War 2, a real time strategy game based in the Warhammer universe where you controlled only a couple soldiers. Dawn of War 2 was a pretty big success, in part because it delivered the squad-based compromise between role-playing leveling systems and small-scale tactics.
But what really blew the genre open was last year’s X-Com: Enemy Unknown. The game, developed by Civilization devs Firaxis, took the framework of the classic X-Com games and made something that compelled beyond anyone’s expectations. Despite being completely turn-based, Enemy Unknown managed to wring more tension and dread from its rows of tiny squares than seemed possible. Even better, it allowed you to develop a squadron of elite fighting soldiers, then watch them die horribly as they’re ripped to pieces by plasma rifles.
What these games have done is they’ve revived a once-dead genre into something that can power a successful free to play game. We’re seeing so many games now that hop onto the turn-based bandwagon: last year’s Kickstarter darlings The Banner Saga (which also has a free to play variant, Factions), recent alpha releases Incognito and Doorkickers, and others.
Card Hunters—despite being free to play—falls squarely into this lineage. It’s small-scale, delightfully tactical, and features a compulsive system of developing the decks of each of your players. It’s the sort of game you start up just before bed to give it a quick go and end up, glassy-eyed and clammy at 3 AM, wondering how you’ll be awake for work the next morning.