I have a pleasant, tingling feeling that Card Hunter is going to be the best game of next year. I think it’ll be better than sliced bread - if sliced bread were laid in uniform squares across the English countryside to facilitate an analogue version of XCOM.
Think the cherry-picked highlights of Firaxis’ finest, Magic: The Gathering and pen-and-paper Dungeons and Dragons, all baked into a delicious cherry cake by the co-founder of one of PC gaming’s most accomplished developers. I followed my nose, and wound up in the bakery with head Blu Manchu cook Jonathan Chey.
The story of Card Hunter is one you might think you already know. It’s a tale of two studios, both named Irrational Games.
In 1997, three Looking Glass designers broke off on their own to set up shop in Boston. Their first game proved more successful than they’d dared to hope, and after development wrapped on System Shock 2 they scattered to the winds. Levine stayed in Boston to captain the ship that eventually shored at BioShock. Robert Fermier returned to Texas to join Ensemble and is now lead programmer at Robot, makers of Orcs Must Die and Hero Academy. Jonathan Chey, meanwhile, moved to Australia to set up a new division of the company - Irrational Canberra.
For the next ten years, there was an Irrational in both hemispheres. Levine commanded the Boston team while Chey headed up Canberra’s. Some projects were developed independently, others collaboratively. The Australian Irrational led development on Tribes: Vengeance, two Freedom Forces and a SWAT 4 expansion, before both teams were sucked into a black hole named BioShock. Each studio had its own strengths and weaknesses, and were able to help each other out during those most frequent of times in game development - times of need.
“It turned out to be quite a useful relationship,” says Chey. “Ken and I both have our own areas of expertise, and I think maybe the studios mirrored those to a certain extent.”
When 2K Boston reclaimed the name Irrational in 2010, however, its Canberra wing stayed behind. Chey isn’t sure what his old studio’s name is anymore, but it was last seen merging with 2K Marin to work on a new XCOM.
I’m still thinking about Freedom Force, though - the squad-based, isometric superhero game rooted in the earnest cheese and cold war rhetoric of Silver Age comic books. Every aspect of Freedom Force’s design screamed niche, but it was possessed of a sort of mechanical-thematic cohesion that only great games possess. I see the same qualities in Chey’s new game.
Card Hunter is a turn-based tactics game. It has grids. It features a party of adventurers, to be levelled up via an experience system. It has a world map. It has an inspired 2D art style, gleaned from the idealised fantasy heroes and monsters that populated the first-edition books of Dungeons and Dragons.
I tell Chey that Card Hunter strikes me as precisely the sort of mid-level PC game Irrational might have made ten years ago, now made impossible by the spiralling costs of running a AAA developer.
“That’s exactly right. I know Ken really likes those kind of games too - both Ken and I are big fans of strategy games,” he says. “We originally wanted to make Freedom Force a turn-based game, but even at the time it wasn’t really possible to sell publishers on the idea of a turn-based PC game. Card Hunter is the game I’ve always wanted to make and never been able to convince anyone else to pay for. Ultimately I’ve taken on that burden myself, and I guess we’ll find out who was right.
“Maybe they were right,” he adds. “It’s probably not a very sound investment, I think.”
If Chey sounds flippant about Card Hunter’s chances of monetary success, that’s because he can afford to be. I get the impression that where Jonathan Chey, Breadwinner of Irrational Canberra was shrewd and careful, Jon Chey, Indie Developer is uncompromising and entirely design-focused, emboldened by the knowledge that he can “roll the dice at least once or twice”.
“I sort of don’t worry about [the market] too much, because I’m just trying to make a game that I think is fun, that I will be happy with,” he explains. “I kind of have the luxury to do that because I’m running this off money I made off selling my last business. If it doesn’t work out I’ll just go and work for somebody else again.”
Player numbers don’t worry Jonathan Chey. And yet I expect Card Hunter will draw in the crowds regardless. It’s a game designed from the ground up to remove any and all barriers that might prevent a PC gamer with a passing interest from becoming a player. When it launches next year, the game will be free-to-play and browser-based - two words that remain all but slurs for a large portion of its intended audience.
“Right. You don’t think quality when you hear those terms,” laughs Chey. “We picked browser because I wanted to make a game as accessible as possible. Somebody who really doesn't have any knowledge about the game can just click on a link and play it, without having to download gigabytes and install it, which is actually quite a big leap of faith.
“I think it is unfortunate that both of those things carry connotations of being either games that have had a very small amount of effort put into them or are designed to entrap people and fleece them. But I’d like to think that it’s not mandatory that you’re either of those things.
“Maybe we can help to raise the bar a little bit - there are other good games in that space, and there’s nothing about the technology or the business models that mean you can’t make deep, interesting engaging games in that format.”
Circumvented those preconceptions? Good. When you log into Card Hunter next year, the first thing you’ll see is the World Map. It looks like this:
Everything in-game is represented by a geographical location - hence the somewhat wonderful ‘Axes and Things’. New areas will be revealed as you progress through the campaign, tackling adventures as you go.
Each adventure will be made up of a series of battles. Battles will last 10-15 minutes, cut down from 45 or so thanks to a slick, contemporary UI and animations that are uncharacteristically economic for the genre (Explains Chey: “I’m quite impatient. I like things to move along quickly when I’ve made my decision.”). They’re fought with a party of adventurers, whose experience points and equipment are carried from one scuffle to the next. Chey says Blu Manchu are influenced by RPGs “too numerous to mention”, but proceeds to mention Baldur’s Gate, Dungeon Master and the Gold Box engine games anyway.
“There’s definitely a very large influence from paper-and-pencil, old-school fantasy role-playing games,” he says. “And that’s carried over into the visual style of the game.”
The debt to DnD lends Card Hunter a degree of abstraction that Chey is very keen on. “It’s not trying to present itself as a realistic portrayal of fantasy combat, whatever that would mean. There’s nothing in the game that explores what it would be like to be a real dwarf bezerker exploring a dungeon. Really it’s trying to explore playing miniature tabletop battles without having to assemble people to play with you.”
I bring up Sinister Design blogger Craig Stern and his game, Telepath Tactics. Stern is a champion of the determinism grid- and turn-based games can offer, and more specifically the scope to plan a strategy and see it come to fruition without too much randomisation muddying the waters. Chey seems similarly enthusiastic. He’s Googled the name before I manage to finish my question.
I couldn’t agree more,” he enthuses. “I think digitizing things, whether it’s time or space, can make your decisions much clearer. A game I think of a lot when I think about that is the original Prince of Persia. It’s not displayed, but everything in that game is laid out in a grid. That means that you kind of know whether you can make a jump or not. So you can make puzzles where you can’t make this jump before you do something else - like opening another door or going up to a higher level.
“You kind of know that, so you don’t have to waste your time. I think that’s one of the great strengths of turn-based, grid-based games - that deterministic aspect.”
The Blu Manchu team work remotely. This is how they look in each others' heads.
As you might imagine, Chey has been playing a lot of Firaxis’ XCOM, which he believes “trod a very difficult line” and kept its balance. Its success means that Blu Manchu find themselves in a strange, possible future: one where PC gamers are buying turn-based tactics games on a fairly mass scale.
“I think that’s the natural order of things,” says Chey. “Turn-based games got a bum rap for a long time. Everybody out there grew up playing some kind of card game or Monopoly. Turn-based games are much more accessible than real-time games. Real-time games are really quite forbidding, I think, because you have to react under pressure. In turn-based you can sit down and screw around, click things on the interface and take your time.
“The most popular games in the world I think are turn-based. Whether it’s Minesweeper or Chess or Scrabble or whatever.”
Jon Chey doesn’t need Card Hunter to become the most popular game in the world, though. All he wants is to make a game that has hitherto existed only in his head.
“I know there are some people out there who want the same thing,” he shrugs. “I don’t know how many there are. I guess we’ll find out.”