Most original game of the year: Card Hunter

Welcome to the PC Gamer Game of the Year Awards 2013. For an explanation of how the awards were decided, a round-up of all the awards and the list of judges, check here .

As gaming genre boundaries continue to break down and old fashioned genre labels lose their relevance, designers are increasingly happy to collide once separate ideas into inventive new ones. None have done that with as much cleverness this year as Card Hunter, which fuses turn-based tactical combat with collectible card games, wraps it up in an endearing D&D homage, and then gives it all away for free.

CHRIS I really want Card Hunter to succeed. It's a free-to-play game with a fair and generous business model that never gets in the way of doing what you want to do, which is negotiate a series of D&D-style dungeons with a party made up of individually customisable CCG decks. It sounds convoluted, but Blue Manchu have managed to marry two complicated genres in a way that makes both more accessible. The collectible card game underneath helps to break down the principles of turn-based strategy into individual, easily-understood elements, and the strategy game helps to present card battling in a context that gamers will immediately comprehend. It's a phenomenal bit of design.

CORY It's also an incredibly charming game. Right from the start, you can see the love Blue Manchu have wrapped up in its art style. This is a game made by tabletop fans, people who grew up sitting around, rolling 20-sided dice and scribbling furiously on graph paper. I love how it expresses its mechanics through cardboard cutout figures, and delight at every D&D in-joke the designers have baked into the various cards and actions. Card Hunter is charming as hell, and I would have easily paid full price to play its campaign. That its developers let you log in for free and only want to charge you for the smallest of details is, frankly, unbelievable. Even if you're not into CCGs, you should give the first few singleplayer missions a try. They're just delightful.

CHRIS I played singleplayer for about a dozen hours before graduating to competitive play, but I'm glad that I did. I love the room it provides for creative plays – the Flying Wizard Telekinetic Dwarf Slingshot is totally a thing, because I invented it. The game's CCG foundations allow for turnarounds and upsets, too – and as frustrating as it can be to be on the receiving end of one, they always make for good stories. Card Hunter is easily the year's second-best wizard 'em up.

PHIL As someone who doesn't like CCGs, I'm grateful to Card Hunter for the way it mitigates random chance. I've yet to move up to its competitive modes, so while being dealt bad cards is frustrating, it's mostly an opportunity for creative tactical problem solving. Even drawing a purely defensive hand isn't disastrous thanks to the pass system. By moving to defensible locations and skipping my turn, I can ensure I get first go when the new, hopefully more powerful cards appear – even using my apparent weakness as the basis for an ambush.

More interesting are the low-level cards that offer seemingly undesirable effects. What at first seems like a near-useless compromise can suddenly make all the difference. If a Warrior's bludgeon can't quite finish a monster, maybe that boobytrapped healing card can briefly turn your Cleric into an offensive unit, killing the enemy before the healing is applied.

That's what I love about Card Hunter: the necessity of invention. Experimental strategies aren't about showing off, or trying to be creative in the face of a more sensible or more effective option. They're the result of an intuitive deck-building system, that is then reduced down to a manageable and interesting set of choices to be made on any given turn.


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