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Review: Card Thief

iOS Universal, Android (coming soon) •

Neil Gaiman is my favorite (living) author. I haven’t read anything from him that I’ve disliked, and will buy any new book he writes without even knowing what it’s about. I feel the same way about Wes Anderson’s movies, even though I’m not a hipster (and if you call me one, I’ll take off my glasses and jaunty hat and we’ll have to go outside, mister). For some reason, certain creators just connect with each of us regardless of what they put their minds too. It’s no different in the digital realm. For a long time, Blizzard was my spirit animal, then Playdek. I still like both of them, but I’m starting to think that Tinytouchtales is the one. Maybe it’s the art, maybe the gameplay. Probably both. Whatever it is, they know how to crawl inside my head and hit all the right buttons. Card Crawl is still in there, tapping away as one of my favorite mobile games ever. Their latest, Card Thief, might be even better.

Card Thief takes place in a castle or manor represented by a 3×3 grid of cards crafted from a 45 card deck. You play the titular thief, trying to wring as much gold from each card as you can while remaining unseen in the shadows. To complete each mission you need to steal a treasure chest which is always halfway through the deck, and then escape the manor via the Exit, the last card in the deck.

Time to pick a pocket or two.

Each castle is protected by a slew of guards who randomly face one direction when dealt, but will turn their attention your way if you walk through a lighted card. Yes, there are dark and light cards, with the light cards being illuminated by orthogonal torches. You can extinguish torches to create more darkness, but each card you step on each turn will reduce your Stealth. If your stealth is zero (or below), then guards will see you when you enter a lighted card and it’s game over. Some cards will not reduce your Stealth, like Gold cards or if you can sneak up on a guard from behind. Other cards will replenish Stealth, or you can gain 10 Stealth if you manage to clear the entire 3×3 grid in one turn.

There’s more! Cards that are 2 steps away from you at the beginning of each turn will raise a multiplier that will increase the value of all cards remaining on the board. Thus, where you end your turn matters for the next round. End in the middle, and there will be no multipliers to pump up the value of those gold cards, but guards will also cost less Stealth to remove. End in a corner, and you’ll have 5 cards to push up that multiplier which, if done correctly, can create massive amounts of loot to pickpocket from an unsuspecting guard.

There are also several different guards. There’s your basic guards which face one way and can’t see in the dark, then you have dogs which can sniff you out even in darkness, owls which can see in the dark, and two-headed monstrosities which face multiple directions.

The guild master. I kind of want to live in this world.

I haven’t even mentioned equipment. Loads of different equipment that you can take along which adds another complex cherry to this already rather complex sundae. Noise arrows to change a card’s facing, water arrows to douse torches from afar, a sap which will knock cards back into the deck, cloaks which add more Stealth to your total, and much more. On top of their basic function, each piece of equipment can be upgraded multiple times by nailing achievements that don’t always lead to a successful run.

Confused? Don’t sweat it. I’ve been playing the beta for over a month and I still can’t wrap my head around everything. Unlike Card Crawl, this is not a simple pick-up-and-play-for-a-few-minutes mobile game. This is a thinker, a game you’ll want to curl up with on the couch on a quiet night and really dig into. Card Crawl was merely the appetizer, Card Thief is the main course. While it’s complicated, once you grasp the basics, it’s incredibly rewarding as well.

Card Thief’s art is by Mexer, the artist who gave Card Crawl such a unique identity, and it ties both games together. It’s beautiful and makes even the menu screen an interesting experience.

An atypical chest…

So far, it sounds like a rather straightforward, if complex, game. It’s more special than that. Tinytouchtales knows how to wring every drop of fun from their titles, and in Card Thief that means pushing your luck to get the most loot you can. Each turn you leave the manor’s Chest on the board it will gain a level, becoming more valuable. How long can you leave it there before you don’t have enough Stealth points to pick it up? Even after the exit it revealed, the grid is filled with random guards and torches. Can you keep manipulating the board to pickpocket more guards, or do you need to get out of Dodge as quickly as possible? Just grabbing a level one chest and making it to the exit isn’t too hard. Doing it with style, however, is where the fun lies.

If the game has a downside, it’s the chests themselves. Getting a high level chest (or, more likely in my case, a low level chest) out of a dungeon feels great, but when you open chests the only treasure you’ll find are Insignias and Trash. The Insignias are used to unlock more castles to rob, while the Trash is literal trash that does nothing. More often than not you’ll open chests filled with nothing but Trash, and even getting an Insignia seems like a huge letdown. I’m sure that there are plans to make the chests actually mean something outside of each game, but right now they feel like a McGuffin, only existing to give your thief something to do. It’s a minor gripe, but it’s honestly the only issue I have with Card Thief as it currently stands.

…and one of my typical chests.

Card Thief is a different beast than Card Crawl. If you weren’t a fan of it’s light and tactical feel, then Card Thief should be more up your alley. It’s deeper, much more complex, and offers up strategic planning as you progress through each run. If Card Crawl was the best game you’ve ever played, be aware that this isn’t Card Crawl 2.0. If you don’t want to work a little bit (and it does take a bit of work) to unravel Card Thief’s mysteries, then you might find yourself bashing your head against the wall instead of enjoying yourself. On it’s own, it’s another Tinytouchtales game that will be on my phone for a long, long time.

Card Thief is proof that Tinytouchtales’ success with Card Crawl wasn’t a fluke. They really know how to make compelling and thoughtful mobile titles and, like my other favorite creators, I’ll be waiting eagerly to see whatever their twisted minds can come up with next.

Reviewed on an iPhone 6S

Notable Replies

  1. Lovely review. I've learned more about the rules here than the tutorial itself divulges! But it speaks volumes where I'm concerned, that even though I'm flailing around not really knowing what I'm doing, that I cannot put the darned thing down. It's the latest "just one more go" game.

  2. Great, great game. Pretty sure I've already played more games of this than I have of card crawl.

  3. I was, apparently, the only human around who didn't like Card Crawl. I bounced off it pretty hard.

    So ... I'm torn here. I like what the review has to say, but I've already got dozens of unplayed apps that each seemed to hold so much promise.

  4. CTD says:

    After going through the tutorial, where there was an exit in each "hand" it seems that isn't quite how it actually plays. Somewhat confused in my first actual attempt to play it! I am sure it will come clear... #inept

  5. It took me awhile to get it. Now I understand it, but absolutely suck at actually implementing any strategy.

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