The roots of RPG gaming lie in the absurdly challenging dungeon crawls of ‘70s and ‘80s Dungeons & Dragons adventures. Small parties of adventurers were subjected to devious traps, surprise monster encounters, and regular party wipes in the name of the excitement that arose from constant risk. For better and worse, Blue Manchu’s Card Hunter nails the aesthetic and challenge of those classic games, and along the way crafts a complex tactical rule system all its own. 

Your friend Gary is game-mastering his fledgling sessions of Card Hunter in his mom’s basement, and you’re sitting on the other side of the table. Whether he’s talking about polyhedral dice or not knowing how to flirt with the pretty pizza-delivery girl, Gary’s endearing nerdery is a nostalgic and funny meta-story. The visuals support the concept, with a view of the table in front of you, complete with half-full soda cans, clipboard character sheets, and scattered cardboard miniatures. Inside the imaginary game, the story is appropriately cliché, as you lead a team of custom adventurers through one battle-oriented adventure after another.

Combat plays out as characters draw from a deck of cards based on their current equipment. New attacks, spells, and defenses pop up each turn-based round, and you make the best of the card selection available to defeat the bad guys or complete an objective. An astounding array of card effects rolls out over the course of the game, constantly offering new strategic options to explore. The increasingly demanding adventures offer a rich variety of monsters, environment designs, and tactical dilemmas.

That stiff balancing often suffers from the same problems those old classic D&D adventures are infamous for; battles can be unfairly brutal, and a few bad card draws can spell disaster. Knowing which equipment to bring into any given battle is often only accomplished through trial and error, while the process of prepping for a battle is further complicated due to little correlation between equipment’s level and rarity to overall quality. Spending so much time managing a ballooning equipment list is a bore when the battles themselves are so much fun. 

Even with its frustrations, Card Hunter is easy to recommend to tactics enthusiasts. The charming nods to old-school dungeon crawls are spot-on, but the depth of the incredibly flexible combat system gives Card Hunter its legs. There’s even a well-designed multiplayer mode that lets you test your skills against fellow online players. The fact that Card Hunter is also a free browser-based game is icing on the cake, and a potent reminder that awesome games are cropping up in all sorts of unexpected venues these days.