Card Hunter and digital vs physical gaming

Card Hunter wallpaper

Card Hunter has the best visual design for a game I’ve seen in years.

As a regular reader might know, I play a lot of roleplaying games of the paper-based, face to face variety, as well as other tabletop games. So I pay attention whenever digital games approach this realm.

Obviously tabletop Dungeons & Dragons has had a major effect, inspiring digital games from 1970s onwards, and that inspiration has flowed the other way, too, with the current edition of D&D taking a lot of design cues from digital online RPGs (MMOs). My currently running D&D campaign uses a lot of very structured play – rules – and we spend the majority of our time at the table hunched over a map, pushing miniatures around. It is, essentially, a tactical exercise. If you leave out the human interaction and just hanging out with friends, is this something that could be adequately replicated in a digital game? One might think you could even improve considerably, what with today’s 3D rendering and computers taking care of the number crunching.

There is a very interesting case in point in Card Hunter, the beta of which is currently opening up. It makes an infectious, charming effort to take you by the hand and recreate that 1980s kitchen table where you sat down with your teenage friends to play (A)D&D. Even if you never did, I believe the feel-good warmth of it comes through. If you did, it’s equal parts endearing and maddeningly nostalgic. Those days may never return, but this is probably the closest you’re going to get. Card Hunter goes as far as including a newbie game master that stumbles through explaining the game to you, his more experienced, obnoxious older brother, and a pizza delivery girl the GM has a crush on. The game is presented as laid out on a table, surrounded by dice, cheese puffs and soda cans. The actual game components are cardboard, representing collectible cards and cardboard cutout characters on little plastic stands. I find the aesthetic completely irresistible.

Interestingly, Card Hunter’s approach mirrors what’s been happening in the tabletop roleplaying scene for some years now – a return to the simpler pleasures of hitting monsters with a sword and taking their stuff. There’s been a wave of retro-revival games, some of them very good.

Card Hunter is not roleplaying per se – all you do is fight exquisitely balanced tactical battles. Character development is all about equipping the gear you want, which in turn grant you more cards for that character’s deck. Mechanically, it combines the best elements of tabletop roleplaying by way of Dungeons & Dragons and collectible card games. But what you actually do at the table – fight battles over a grid-based layout, considering positioning and powers – resembles our bi-weekly D&D sessions very closely. It’s missing the real life banter and color you get from the characters’ long histories, loyalties and conflicts, ongoing jokes and drama, but the rules level and tactical space is similar.

Card Hunter screenshot

Card Hunter gameplay.

So does the tabletop experience have anything over the digital adaptation, on a mechanical level? You do get to play faster, and the fights resolve much quicker on the sceen, after all.

Even if you count out the face to face interaction, there are things digital games just can’t do, which turn an hours long tabletop confrontation with monsters into a memorable scene, whereas any given fight tends to be forgettable in a videogame – even if the fighting itself is very enjoyable, as is the case with Card Hunter.

I have a longer post coming up on this – the systemic differences of digital and tabletop games – but it’s interesting to see the differences just on the tactical level: grid and characters and powers. Because a videogame rarely relies on imagination, what you see is what you get. Characters on a grid are just characters on a grid, they aren’t actually just representations of the real game that’s taking place in the shared imagination of the players at the table. There are rules for movement and line of sight, but the digital game can’t adapt to surprising changes. You can’t suddenly bring in elements from above the flat game board or change things – unless, of course, they’ve been planned that way from the beginning. As the intensity ramps up in a tabletop fight, the players get crazy creative, using their powers in surprising ways, trying to find a way past their circumstances. In Card Hunter I must pray for the right combination of cards to get me through my “single hit point left and three foes standing” predicament, whereas in a tabletop game I might run away or improvise with a magic missile, perhaps bringing down the roof to buy some time.

And that element of the unknown is what keeps me coming back to the tabletop experience. Even if things start from an equal setup, a different group of players is always going to shape it into something new.

There are things I believe digital games could add to have a better chance of replicating that tabletop freedom of creative play despite basically quite strict and clear rules. But more on those in that longer post.

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