Card games are extremely difficult to make, in my estimation: the game has to provide a rigid set of rules, while having to deal with randomness in a way that feels fair while reveling in the entropy that comes from not knowing what's next. I don't know if Card Crawl [$2.99] ever completely succeeds in that respect in terms of fairness with the randomness. But it does an excellent enough job otherwise at making a game that's super-fun with an interesting set of rules that I struggle to put this one down.

The game plays with a 54-card deck, based on a 52-card deck (not counting the 2 jokers), where you have a player card, two hands, and a backpack slot for items. Cards that are drawn consist of swords, shields, potions, coins, enemies, and five ability cards randomly selected from the ones you have unlocked. Four cards are drawn at a time, and you must play 3 of the drawn ones in order to draw another 3, hopefully getting to the point where no cards are left without running out of health from enemy attacks first.

Card Crawl 3 Card Crawl 1

There are two key goals to each game, one of which is surviving but the other is coming out with as much money as possible. You can sell item cards you don't want, getting coins back for how many points the card was worth, and you can discard coin and ability cards for no penalty. As such, sometimes a draw with a lot of items can be a bad thing, because you may have to sell or discard a valuable item, which could hurt you later on. And if you're playing for high scores, then you need to be going for every coin card you can, and selling items whenever possible.

Card Crawl has a great balance this way, in that not every item is explicitly good and not every enemy is explicitly bad. When you can use a Sacrifice card by taking damage from smaller enemies and then using that ability card to blow away a Souleater with 10 health, then using a potion to get back to full health, it feels very rewarding. Setting up these moments when you have an idea as to what's coming up next, but don't know exactly, is suspenseful and part of the fun. It really nails that hybrid between feeling like a dungeon crawler in terms of theme, but with a card game rule set. I'd love to see this game adapted to actual physical cards in some form. I think it could be done since the decks are standardized except for the ability cards.

Card Crawl 2Your score grants you coins which can be used to unlock new ability cards, with no in-app purchases at all. I like that there's both the normal mode where the ability cards are random, and constructed mode, which gives you a degree of strategization as to the 5 ability cards you can take into battle, but with its own leaderboard. Each high score table shows the 5 ability cards you were given to play with. I gravitate toward normal as there's less thought involved to just get a random deck and go, though constructed mode does feel a bit more satisfying. But the counterpoint to that is in normal mode being the one that teaches players how to use the myriad ability cards.

Card Crawl is a perfect game for one-handed iPhone play, as sessions are quite short, only taking a couple minutes to play a round, and the interface works great with just a thumb, even on the 6 Plus. It's way too easy to get sucked in with game after game on here, because you can just sit back and play endlessly with your phone in one hand while watching TV, or procrastinating on doing something else. It hits a real sweet spot between engaging yet relaxed.

The big concern I have with the game is if it's entirely fair. The problem is that because of the card draw, it can be quite possible to get hands that are impossible to win with. Really, there's nothing stopping the game from dealing out 3 hands in a row where you are doomed. If you get a poor cluster of cards, it could spell your doom. Card counting is probably quite important so that you know what's still to come and what is not. I do wonder if every game is winnable, but for certain there are some games where it would require super-intelligent play in order to do so. And since any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, there might not be a real difference between "practically impossible" and "actually impossible" for many folks.

It puts a bit of a damper on the experience because it's so clever. But I suppose half the fun of a card game is the randomness, and the Constructed mode does come in if you want to reduce that. Still, it's a game where you're going to have to accept that the luck of the draw will play a huge role in if you win or not.And the more risks you take, the less likely you are to win, but also the less likely you are to get high scores. I imagine constructed mode will actually be the game for experts to go for, because you can get some killer strategies going with some ability cards, as compared to others. Potionize has limited utility to me, for example, because shields and swords will ideally reduce damage instead of just heal it, so it's a card with very limited use cases. Meanwhile, something like Lash can be killer with the right draw, and Killing Blow is powerful if you happen to get a 2 Sword and a Souleater to take out.

I think that as long as you have patience for the inherent randomness of playing card games, you'll love Card Crawl's dungeon-y twist on things. It's got great art, gameplay with cards that isn't like other card-based dungeon crawlers (a surprisingly burgeoning genre), and is perfect for sitting back and relaxing while playing it. I highly recommend checking this one out.

TouchArcade Rating

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  • bluechipps

    I too have my suspicions about the randomness. More and more it's starting to seem like it reacts to how I play at least as far as what cards come off the deck when. Either way though I can't deny that it's a fun game.

    • gmattergames

      The entire fairness issue could be solved by one rule change: If it's not the last hand, with any hand made of 4 mobs, the player can elect to reshuffle and redraw without penalty.

  • Maglor

    I'm 100 Percent Sure That This is Game of the Week. See U On Game of the Week Article Soon.

    • http://twitter.com/JaredTA Jared Nelson

      Incorrect! Though it was a strong contender.

      • vectorarchitekt

        What? What else could you have picked??

      • Jake7905

        Sid Meier's Starships would be my guess and my pick. Though I wouldn't put it past TA pulling a troll, and picking Dungeon Hunter 5.

      • GiHubb

        Regrettably, Starships is one of Sid's worse games. It's just not much good - from the lack of tactical depth, repetitive gameplay, to exploitable tricks. Definitely not worthy of GOTW, and I'm very sad to say this as I was really looking forward to it.

    • worldcitizen1919

      It's not pixelated.

      • worldcitizen1919

        Ha! Another pixelated GOTW!! Could have bet my life possessions on it!! Lol!!

  • AnEpicPotatoe

    Yeah I understand the concern for randomness. I actually got so fed up playing card games based on luck that I went ahead and created a card game all my own with the sole purpose of all but eliminating luck. It's not too complicated, and it turned out to be really fun, but rounds can last a little long, and it takes some explaining. Still, I say that to say that a card game can rely entirely or heavily on strategy and still have elements of surprise based on what your opponent(s) do.

  • kleerkoat

    "random is random" sorry had to throw that out. 😉 just like playing poker, even if you make logical choices it's still not going to be in your favor every time.

    I got extremely frustrated starting the game. I didn't win a game until my 30th game. after winning a few I realized that there's no AI tweaking the deck to balance the game out so it feels like you have a chance.

    since there is really no penalty except a few minutes wasted, and the games are so short, this randomness actually makes your wins more satisfying.

    • islesfan

      My wife wins 9 out of 10 tries. I win 1 out of 10 tries. I guess we balance out the luck.

  • scottbailey

    Absolutely there are unwinnable hands. Not a big deal, start over. If this was a freemium game with energy, we would have a problem.

  • Adsinjapan

    I love this game! There's only one thing is like to see in future updates. Though the vector art is wonderful, I'd like to see a variety of cars-dealing opponents. If we're going to be stuck in a bar full of monsters, I'd like to play against a few more, maybe with some sort of league.

    As far as the game goes however, it makes an excellent replacement to solitaire. And let's face it (for those that don't like the randomness) you don't win all the time with that game either.

  • Kirs

    The last 4-5 cards always turn out to be the high level mobs. You know the trolls and the soulseeker or something. Every.single.round.I.played.
    This has so much charm I actually really like it alot. I don't regret the purchase, but neither can I recommend it at its current state.

    • MasonHurst

      I used to think that but I've had games where I prepared for the worst and yet the last three cards turned out to be coins and shields, etc. So even though it can FEEL like it's gonna be the big hitters in the end... That's not always the case.

    • GiHubb

      Maybe you use the discard all? As those cards get put on the bottom of the deck.

    • Adsinjapan

      It's not the games fault that you're getting big mobs on the last cards. If you keep getting this situation, it's because you're not dealing with them early on, but maybe you keep pushing them back into the deck to the point that they're the only cards remaining. If you keep big health potions to hand, you should let them hit you with their full power, then immediately fill your health back up.

      There's no use in complaining that there are too many high level enemies, because the game is based on a DECK OF CARDS. There are going to be 8s 9s or 10s wether you like it or not.

  • ร่มโพธิ์ หงศ์ลดารมภ์

    there's a glitch where you cannot use your card when you tap&hold your equipped card. fix it please, so annoying

    • ร่มโพธิ์ หงศ์ลดารมภ์

      ios7 iphone4 by the way

  • ffaust

    I have played plenty of games where the last 4-5 cards are not high level mobs. My high score is 90, I think the games is great. I would like to be able to choose a different avatar and play against something other than the bull. The strategy starts to open up more once you unlock more cards. For example the betrayal card is good for taking down several mobs at once so I save it or sap it back into the deck if it comes out too soon.

    • Adsinjapan

      That avatar thing is a little weird. Whenever you get hit, it's clearly a male grunt of pain, yet the avatar is a woman.
      If this game is a fantasy one, the avatars should be a little more diverse in appearance. Dwarfs, elves, and such.

  • GiHubb

    Good review, Carter. You hit the main points that I had - fun and compulsive overall, but getting a high score seems to depend too much on luck. I also think it lacks variety so not sure about longevity, but for $2, definitely worth a look.

  • http://deadjam.co.uk AKA James Bolton

    Love the art style. Card games don't appeal to me but 4.5 out 5 is telling me I should check it out...

  • Sikuzo

    It's a pretty decent game, unlocked everything in just a few hours once you understand the trick to win. A bit of luck is needed to be on the upper leaderboards.
    I can't think of how can they make this any more fun, adding new abilities or new enemies won't necessarily make the game harder.

  • Raketemensch

    It's a solitaire game, so it makes sense that there will be hands that you simply can't win. I've played so many games of Klondike and Double Klondike that numbers probably don't go up that high. I guess what I'm saying is that not only is it valid to deal players a hand that can't win, it's a mechanic as old as card games.

  • Paul Morphy

    I found the game too easy to beat and then I just lost the satisfaction of winning pretty rapidly...it became same old same old...very easy to figure out the optimum strategy and not much of a challenge really.

  • supernova6

    How the heck do you even get the archer? I try to use the Midas scarf to create a twenty gold card but it's just not working !

Card Crawl Reviewed by Carter Dotson on . Rating: 4.5