It's my firm belief that Microprose's 1997 PC version of Magic: the Gathering remains the best video game yet spawned by the collectible card game craze.
It worked because it combined solid strategy with the thrill of exploration and random card drops - a lesson that's been lost on many current developers amid the scramble for micro-transactions.
Card City Nights is certainly not as good as that game. But it comes damn close.Adventure time
You're cast as a stranger in a strange land, wandering the town and competing in card battles against a variety of truly bizarre residents in a quest to collect eight legendary cards and beat the card king to win a fortune.
It's guff, naturally, but highly entertaining guff for all that, delivered with some smartly stupid dialogue and daft cartoon graphics.
While billed as an 'adventure', the exploration elements are paper-thin and really just a framework to hang a series of increasingly challenging card duels on.
Each player lays cards on a 3x3 grid, trying to line up arrows at the sides and corners to get a set of three symbols. 'Attack' can disable cards or damage your opponent, 'Defence' increases your damage absorption, and 'Revive' re-enables damaged cards.Shallow pool
At first this looks like a surprisingly deep combination from what's really a very simple set of rules. As time goes on, however, it becomes clear that there's really only one model of deck that can handle most eventualities.
The game does its best to throw you the occasional opponent that you'll need to stop, think about, and plan a custom deck to overcome, but the deck-building aspect of the game falls a little flat.
It's aided by an imaginative set of 180 cards with which to construct your victory machine, and these do a fine job of tweaking this simple framework for maximum effect. High-powered cards often have fewer arrows to match, or they're saddled by a flaw like random rotation.
The game is lumbered with a rather clumsy interface for card sorting, deriving from the limitations of a small screen and a touch interface. It's functional, but it quickly gets annoying.
Once you're in the game, though, there's plenty to keep you on your toes. Every card needs to be considered for possible match-ups with other cards in your hand and deck, and placed on the grid accordingly.
'Attack' combinations are sometimes best used for disabling creatures, sometimes for trimming down your opponent's defence total. Get things wrong and you'll be stuck with a useless card on the grid, limiting your options for future turns.
And after each card, there's the addictive glee of watching on tenterhooks to see if you're next draw is the card you need to complete your killer combo, or another piece of deadwood that's just going to clutter up your game.Habit forming
This is where Card City Nights really excels. Just like all the best collectible games, it feels custom built to keep you coming back for more.
Whether it's the lure of the next card draw, or waiting to see what the next booster you win is going to contain, or the rabid desire to sink a boss and win a legendary card to open up the next section, it's just a ridiculous time sink, hideously difficult to put down.
I hate to think what it might have been like as a freemium title. But there's none of that: one price, and you play to win the cards to build your deck. Magically refreshing.
Card City Nights has plenty of tiny flaws that might needle the perfectionists out there. Some of the card effects and the story elements are kind of superfluous to the bits that work. But taken as a whole it's a charming, addictive, and often challenging game that'll keep you coming back for fix after fix, all the way to your million dollar prize.