Card Hunter combines tabletop gaming with digital magic
Jon Chey is a co-founder of Irrational Games, who recently formed up a brand new studio called Blue Manchu, to work on a new game called Card Hunter. Card Hunter might easily be mistaken for many similar games of much lower quality: It's a Flash game that runs in your browser, and it's going to be a free-to-play title monetized by microtransactions, using collectible cards to fuel the gameplay.

While Card Hunter may look shallow on the surface, it's anything but. Chey and his team have crafted what's essentially a love letter to tabletop gaming, combining mechanics usually meant for traditional board gaming (like game boards, cardboard cutouts, dice, and action cards) with a high-quality and well-designed video game.
Card Hunter obviously uses cards as a central part of its game rules, but the overall structure is that of a pen-and-paper D&D game. The proceedings are run by a dungeonmaster (named Gary, of course), who describes the settings and plot in colorful detail, while the actual graphics show off old-school game boards, and little cutout figurines for each character. Each character gets a set of cards per turn to play out as you like, and those cards equate to various movements or actions each character can make.

A warrior, for example, might play a run card to move a few spaces into range of a foe, and then an attack card to swing an axe and do damage. A mage might play a fireball card to lay down a spell that hits three enemies in range, or a paladin would play a heal spell card to heal himself or another party member. The player and enemies go back and forth playing cards one at a time (following the rules on each card), and then whenever both players choose to pass (which means you've either run out of cards or don't want to play whatever cards you have left), new cards are dealt out for each character, and the next turn moves on.

The gameplay is simple once you figure out the cycle, and Card Hunter has been polished thoroughly and carefully until it shines: The cards are clear and easy to understand, the graphical effects of spells and movement and attack ranges are laid out with precision, and the pieces move around the gameboard in perfect detail.

Card Hunter combines tabletop gaming with digital magic

Probably the game's best mechanic, however, is how the cards in each character's deck are determined. Chey believes that while Magic: The Gathering's deck-building metagame has a lot of fun complexity (and indeed, Magic's creator Richard Garfield worked on Card Hunter), it's a little too complex, especially when you're dealing with multiple characters and a browser-based UI. So instead, Card Hunter boils down your deck choices into six item slots, and any items you pick up and equip in the game then determine which cards are in your deck.

A magical greatsword, for example, might give you some attack cards with a certain amount of damage or status effects on them, or Boots of Running might add more powerful movement cards that will come up randomly on each turn. Chey says the item abstraction means "a much smaller decision space" for the player, which should make deck-building easier to do. Some items can balance out very powerful cards with debuff cards as well: One powerful magical item forces the player to include two "Mind Leak" cards in their deck, which are harmful debuffs that must be played when dealt out.

The items also allow Card Hunter to be monetized, though the actual model for how players will earn items and fill their inventory hasn't been determined just yet. But there will likely be both an in-game and a real-money currency: Gold and "Pizza Slices" were both spotted in the demo.

Chey and Blue Manchu have done some really fascinating work with Card Hunter. The studio was created to make sure "niche" games continue to be made, and Card Hunter certainly does have a lot of elements that appeal to fans of more traditional (and now niche) gametypes. But Card Hunter, which Chey believes wouldn't be too hard to put together on iOS following its Flash version, might find itself played by a larger mainstream audience.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.