Card City Nights

Card City Nights is frequently entertaining but I am not sure I would go so far as “good.” It is an interesting take on collectible card games with simple mechanics and an emphasis on strategic placement of cards. The difficulty is “trivially easy” until the beyond-Psychonauts difficulty spike for the end of the game. I played the PC version, which is an unusually good iWhatever port, a technical gem amidst the many sloppy ports.

The plot of the game is to visit locations around the city and challenge a motley assortment of quirky characters to card battles in order to collect the eight legendary cards, challenge the champion at the casino, and win $1,000,000. You battle children, corporate executives, gang members, bear miners, a somnambulist, pets, rocks, ghosts, produce, a robot, and others. The plot is gleefully incoherent and explicitly contrived. It is silly, and I enjoyed it more than I expected.

The mechanics are simple, slightly under-explained but easy enough to pick up. Attacks deal damage or disable cards. Defenses raise hit points. Rezzes re-enable cards. Cards are placed on a 3×3 grid, and they link up based on arrows on their corners; link 3 symbols to activate the cards. Stronger cards have more arrows, two symbols, and/or special abilities. Win by reducing your opponent to 0 health or making them unable to place a card.

Difficulty is very low because crowd control is overpowered. Disabling your opponents’ cards is almost always an easy path to victory, particularly the simple strategy of disabling a row/column through the center of your opponent’s grid. The few opponents who are able to counter that can be defeated quickly with a few direct attacks. Attacks are used for both damage and CC, while defense is healing and rezzes counter CC, so your one tool needs two counters, and if they have both they certainly don’t have the attacks to use against you. I played a deck of almost pure attacks with a few rezzes and no defense.

Difficulty rises over the course of the game by giving the computer better and more synergistic cards. Early opponents have commons that do not work very well together; a late opponent has rares and a theme. Given the previous paragraph, however, difficulty has a very low ceiling unless the computer has a similarly aggressive deck and strategy. A defensive deck may have endless health, but it still loses to your CC; the pure rez deck is a great gimmick that mocks CC and dies in two attacks.

To the extent that difficulty rises through better cards, the game paces player advancement admirably by giving you better cards. Why are you required to defeat multiple opponents per location to fight the boss? Because those opponents give you booster packs, and you will want more and better cards as you go along.(It does feel a bit grindy to chew through the opponents on your way through a zone.) Advancement is built into the storyline, and normal advancement will keep you well ahead of the needed power curve once you get a mildly decent offensive deck.

The ending of the game ruins that when your opponent explicitly says, “I am going to cheat and there is nothing you can do about it. Ha ha ha!” Okay, now you need defenses, and you will need to go grind to get a strong enough deck to play, and then you’ll need to grind luck because even a perfectly designed deck will fail if the computer has a great draw or you have a poor one. Now you need to look up how to get all the cards you never received but might want, and then the cards that you did not know existed but need to perfect a strategy. It is very dull to grind easy matches in hopes of getting that one uncommon card you need, although nicely cards are unlocked in a (non-cash) shop once you have a copy.

The computer, as noted, is going with the strategy of cheating, which is very effective if you can get away with it. I noted Psychonauts, but this is a more severe case of difficulty whiplash than the Meat Circus.

It is also a bit of tone whiplash because the cheating character contrasts strongly with the opponents along the way. There are some comical jerks across the city, but it is mostly a parade of positivity. Players are friendly and supportive, including praise for both casual and hardcore players, good sportsmanship, and enthusiasm for the game itself rather than extrinsic motivations. And then there’s this jerk, standing atop the most grindy, unreasonable part of the game.

The port is techincally deft. A few points you would tap on a mobile device seemed off when clicking, but you might not notice that the game was not made for the PC. The deck design filters are not perfect, but the game as a whole has a clear and simple interface that makes gameplay intuitive. Full marks for that piece of design.

This is not a long game, particularly if you declare yourself the winner and just stop without grinding to battle the cheating opponent. Even with that, you could play the whole thing in a day, and the grinding likely feels less painful if you play the mobile version and earn a booster packs while killing time over the course of a week. Additional content was later added, a post-game that equips opponents with better cards; I only stuck around to see the bonus bosses, although even the puzzle boss fell quickly to a minor variant on the same “pure offense” deck. If you are enjoying the gameplay and the cartoonish characters, keep playing; if it is starting to pall, nothing different/better lies ahead, so stop there.

This is not a great piece of gaming literature that you must play, but it is an enjoyable bagatelle for a while. I might have stopped much earlier had I known that there were no gameplay highs ahead, but I did enjoy the silliness of the setting.

: Zubon