Review: Card Thief23 Mar 2017 20
Review: Card Thief
Released 19 Mar 2017
Before playing Card Thief, I was in the pink of health: now, I stand before you ravaged and thoroughly enthralled. I am red-eyed, bleary, wan, and yet grinning ear-to-ear. Sleep is precious to me but commonplace, especially when compared to the advent of a genuine surprise, so when I found the game had surpassed my expectations, high as they were given the studio’s pedigree, it was an easy choice to make. I’ve spent the past days shotgunning the game and can happily report back to you that it has innovated many of Card Crawl’s mechanics and served up a whole new bag of tricks. Suffice to say that Tinytouchtales’s latest is a delight, and well worth your time. It is a definitive entry into the canon of modern solitaire games
Mastering the Shadows
Our intrepid blackguard must navigate his thieving self through a deck of fixed elements, sneaking past guards, torches, sundry traps, braying dogs, watchful owls and the occasional two-headed ogre while lining his pockets with treasure. You must keep the thief’s stealth points high by manipulating the order and position of your enemies, as well as the scarce resources you have to refresh strength. To survive, the thief must cycle through the entire deck, pick up the chest which drops halfway through the card count, and then make way to the exit that appears after the deck is exhausted.
Each turn, you must move the thief at least two spaces on a 3x3 grid, clearing any cards you happen to move through. Usually this means spending valuable stealth on enemies or torches; treasure and stealth cards are free to move through and increase your gold score and stealth points, respectively. What makes Card Thief such a volatile, exciting caper rather than a bone-dry arithmetic puzzle is the dynamic and interactive nature of the many various card types.
Torches light orthogonally adjacent squares, potentially making you visible to guards, who will sound an alarm and increase their base strength if you step in front of a illuminated card they can see. (Perhaps one of the few ironclad tips I can offer is to eliminate dark enemies rather than lit ones whenever possible) Torches also make illuminated stealth cards worthless, though they paradoxically make treasure more valuable. Enemies will increase their strength if they detect you, presenting tougher obstacles in the future.
You can manipulate their attention, however, by moving to a presently un-surveyed card adjacent to them, which makes them turn to face the noise. If you sneak up directly behind a guard’s gaze, you backstab him, clearing the card for free. As if this weren’t enough to track, some cards have up-arrows on them which, when cleared, increase the ‘path difficulty’ by one. The path difficulty is multiplied by each card’s base value to give its current threat. What this means is one turn’s path could take you through five one-cost enemies, while a different route on the very same layout could end in a failed run through those selfsame enemies.
Managing light and enemies is the bulk of the game but involves so many cantrips and edge-cases that it makes my head spin just thinking about it. The game’s tutorial is perfunctory and tells no lies, but falls short of teaching well. I could spend the rest of this review trying to impart some limpid overview of the rules system. I would inevitably fail, as I respectfully believe the game’s tutorials have failed. They have given the player a list of simple things that are straightforwardly true about the game and left the larger implications and strategy, even the contours of a comprehensive picture, to the wit of the player. (Spoiler: the only rule that was deliberately kept secret in the tutorial is a whopper: clearing all of the grid in a single successful move will restore your stealth to 10 at the end of it. It feels like a casino jackpot.)
Shining and Silent
Such a minimalist, hands-off approach is refreshing and mature. If anything, I’m overstating the issue here. The game is forgiving, especially in the earlier stages, but it is also laconic in the extreme. No one is telling you explicitly how to thrive. Its display reacts clearly to each path you sketch, enabling you to toy with various layouts before committing to the best one. This detailed audiovisual feedback makes experimenting easy and intuitive. In turn, this means the best way to learn is by iterating, refining your technique and understanding over many runs while mastering the combos and interactions that pay off big.
To this end, the game’s quest and loot system serve dual roles as juicy incentive and dour gatekeeper. There are four castles to loot, a daily challenge, and twelve pieces of equipment. At the end of a successful run, you open the chest for a chance to reveal insignia, which accumulate and unlock harder castles and more sophisticated equipment at certain thresholds. Each piece of equipment, too, can be upgraded to a higher value in exchange for fulfilling unique quests. One quest wanted me to backstab two enemies in the course of one path; another asked me to hide in the barrel only once reaching -15 stealth; a third insisted I pickpocket a warden-type enemy worth 10 coins. Each of these encourages lateral thinking and exploration of those vexing edge cases I keep prattling on about. If the developer’s past work and statements are any indication, future updates will likely add even more equipment to tinker with.
Plunder and Wonder
David Parlett, author of the Penguin Book of Patience, heartily praises the benefits of good bout of solitaire as “the mental equivalent of jogging: its purpose is to tone the brain up and get rid of unsociable mental flabbiness”. Card Thief does this and more. It is difficult but fair. It respects your time and intelligence, and is as compelling to this reviewer as other thoughtfully designed mobile classics like Hoplite and Imbroglio. The playful art style and music score make for a distinct atmosphere that renders even failed runs more charming than they have any right to be.
Moreover, the presentation and core mechanics of Card Thief combine successfully to evoke the tension and fantasy of stealth. Even after unlocking everything, I find myself still curious about an untested combo, still learning a better use for equipment I dismissed as sub-optimal. It is a numbers game that encourages audacity and creativity, even self-expression. The handful of crashes I experienced are the only negative I can think of, and even those might be chalked up to my dated hardware. Maybe that old song is right and the best things in life really are free; regardless, Card Thief can be had for the price of a song and is spectacular.