A card exists. It cannot be denied. It will flip up by the time you’ve gone through the deck and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. It’s a matter of when, not if.
This is different from a die roll. A die roll, which is always an if, doesn’t exist until it happens. It is only a possibility. A six is no more inevitable than a lottery win or a lucky guess. You could theoretically roll a six-sided die all day and never conjure a six into existence.
Computer games, conjured forth from the stored possibilities of 1s and 0s, are usually die rolls. The very 1s and 0s are coin flips, which is really just a two-sided die. So when a videogame like Hand of Fate comes along and really gets the point of cards, I can’t help but notice.
After the jump, no card sleeves allowed.
Hand of Fate doesn’t just get cards as the tactile things you flip up on a table, or shuffle into a deck, or riffle smartly with your fingertips. And it doesn’t just get cards as the perfect format for an evocative title above a piece of distinct artwork (the artwork in Hand of Fate is a hybrid of the medieval woodcuttings you might find in a volume of Blake poetry and the illustrations in a collection of ghastly children’s faerie tales).
It gets cards as things you collect. Not collect as the dirty word we know from collectible card games, with expensive rarities and power curves and various other money-making tricks that pervert the appeal of cards. Instead, you collect these cards as mementos from your adventures. As the consequences of other cards. As story beats. As things you own because you won them. The ongoing saga of Hand of Fate is itself a deck of cards you put together, each card resulting from other cards, each card leading to other cards. It’s a collectible set of nested Russian dolls that tell stories from shreds of narrative, written with a simple and evocative style, mercifully free of the self-importance you’ll find in so much videogame writing. As you play, you constantly make choices, with almost no sign of the usual facile “kick the puppy/pet the puppy” choices. It’s exploring in the best sense of the word. Not a map, but a tree of consequences embodied in a deck of cards.
It’s also got combat. In a lot of games, combat can be an “oh-well-I-guess-I-have-to-go-deal-with-this-now” affair. Even though the combat in Pillars of Eternity, Atilla: Total War, and XCOM is top-notch, it’s a completely different groove than the larger game where you spend a lot of your time. As great as those battles are, they can be interruptions. Hand of Fate plays it almost to the opposite degree. The battles, played out like a modest helping of God of War, are brief action interludes where your equipment earns its keep. That Rat Cleaver, that spell that fires ice shards in all directions, and that weird shield come to life. It’s time for blade to meet bone, with just enough dodging and blocking to keep it from being clickclickclick. You might even want to hook up a gamepad. I didn’t bother, but you might want to. It’s a hearty enough diversion to matter.
These battles work because they’re short, they’re just interactive enough to be more than a minigame, and they look great. I never once reacted to a battle with “oh well, I guess I have to go deal with this now”. Instead, it’s invariably an “okay, let’s see how handily I can get through this with the least damage!” situation, since the point is to survive long enough to reach the boss and then defeat him to unlock his card. So when you kill the last guy in a battle, Hand of Fate knows enough to reward you with a gratuitous slow-mo kill.
But it always comes back to the stories and the choices you make and the cards you draw. Instead of rolling a die to resolve an event, you’re shown four cards that indicate success or failure. They’re shuffled and then you draw one. Some choices are harder than others. The Lovers were easy to resolve. But what’s up with the Devil’s Carnival? Three huge failure cards and one success card? You’ll find out one day if only you could only pick that single success card. And what’s inside the Royal Crypt that it’s so jealously guarded? It’s as bad as that time you barely made it through the Valley of the Giants. That was no easy feat. You know exactly what to do for the monks at the Holy Forge, but you’ll need to meet them in a game when you’ve found the Metal Ore card first. And one of these days, you’re going to go on an adventure with light armor so you can finally dive into The River and investigate the mysterious glint at the bottom. Is it time to retire Mr. Lionel? Do you dare play without The Maiden? Which magic rings will you put in the equipment deck?
These are the ongoing story beats in Hand of Fate, many of them memorable long after you’ve solved them, and as many of them as you want still relevant. You decide most of the cards that go into an adventure. At first, you’ll include cards because they still have tokens attached that will unlock new cards. But eventually you’ll make decks out of the story cards that can help you get to the end and defeat the final boss. It’s the same with equipment. You’ll have your favorite items to include in your equipment deck — every adventure consists of a story deck and an equipment deck that you build — but you also have the new treasures you’ve discovered that you’ll have to bring into play to figure out what they do. Do you take the magic sword you know or the magic sword you don’t know?
These card-based narrative beats are wrapped up in the overall presentation, in which a mysterious fellow seated across the table throws some of his own cards — some bad, some good, all entirely his own — into each adventure. There’s clearly something going on here, and more will be revealed as you play. But in the interim, he flips the cards and talks you through events with sometimes surprisingly context specific comments. “Dead. And with an artifact unused,” he tsks. “Perhaps that might have saved you.” It turns out this is no mere dealer, or even narrator. He hands over the tokens you win for resolving cards, putting them into a bowl on the table. As befits any simulated card game, Hand of Fate is so deliciously faux-tactile, from the snap of the cards to the gentle clink of the tokens in the bowl. Meanwhile, someone is gently fingering a mandolin in the background.
When a game is over, whether you prevailed or died, you get to “open” your tokens and see what new cards you’ve won. It’s a wonderfully gratifying take on the idea of a collectible card game, on the concept of leveling up, on rewarding failure as well as success, on marking progress through defeat and victory. So you died just before you reached the boss? Oh well. At least you had one heck of an adventure along the way and now you get to see what new cards you unlocked with the tokens you won. Better luck next time.
Speaking of which, hadn’t you better go put those newly unlocked cards into your deck for the next time? And now that you’ve built your new decks, might as well start a new adventure. Hand of Fate really knows how to pull you along.
Hand of Fate
Deckbuilding comes to life in Hand of Fate! An infinitely replayable series of quests -- earn new cards, build your deck, then try to defeat it! In a cabin at the end of the world, the game of life and death is played. Draw your cards, play your hand, and discover your fate.