A few hours in
Yup, nailed it.
I beat the Jack of Skulls! He was a skelly-man, in case you hadn’t intuited that yet. I’m not sure why the skelly-men were supposed to be more dangerous than the regular bandit-men, except that they were carrying shields as well as swords. But that’s nothing a good shield bash can’t fix, let me tell you.
I didn’t quite jump into the Jack of Skulls board immediately though. It turned out I had deckbuilding duties to attend to before the fight: combining the new cards I got from Jack of Dust with my current set, the contents of the Equipment deck and the Encounters deck were — respectively — completely and partially under my control. It was up to me to pick which encounters I wanted to risk, and which equipment pieces I wanted to bring along to face them.
With my decks, defeat the Jack of Skulls I did. And then the Queen of Dust, and the Jack of Plague, and the King of Dust, and the Queen of Skulls, and the Jack of Scales…
I’m currently banging my head against the Queen of Plague. She’s tough. Or rather, getting to her is tough: three times now, the cards have fallen such that I died to dangers partially or wholly unrelated. An ancient Lich, a giant rat monster, and a devil’s wager, roadblocks all I couldn’t get past. And so here I find myself: wondering whether or not to make another attempt, a fourth time as the charm. Will I try another time to put the Queen of Plague down? Or do I cut my losses and accept my final defeat?
Grumpy fatalism aside, I’ve had a lot of fun with Hand Of Fate. It’s an interesting game, diverse and engaging. The combination of random-draw deckbuilding and Arkham-style combat is the obvious mechanical draw, but Hand Of Fate offers more than just that: mook-beating and card-sorting is interleaved with engaging, multi-layered storytelling, tightly interlocking mechanics, and a gotta-catch-’em-all approach to card collecting that encourages unconventional play and risk-taking. Quite the game, in other words. It does suffer from needlessly obtuse explanations, a reliance on randomness to create tension, and slightly under-polished combat mechanics… but we’ll get to all of that in a moment.
I think Hand Of Fate is most easily explained by looking at each of its three core domains: the card adventure, the combat system, and the deck-building. And since the card adventure ties everything else together, let’s start with that.
The ‘card adventure’, ‘obviously’, is what I call the part of Hand Of Fate where you move across the card-built encounter map. More than anything else, this is the game’s heart and core: you’ll spend most of your time here, most gameplay mechanics come to the fore, and everything else is — one way or another — tied to your performance here. Consequently, more than anything else, Hand Of Fate can only be good if this part is good. Luckily for Hand Of Fate, it is.
The essence of the card adventure is a resource-based exploration game. You travel and explore the map as dictated by the cards, trying to find the resources you need to stay alive — and to prosper. The former is mostly Food, which drains every time you take a card step: eating Food slowly heals health, but running out of Food damages you through starvation. And while many of the maps take the form of straightforward lines, later card layouts encourage or even necessitate exploration.
Lacking Food means losing Health, but there are many more ways of having your red heart grow grey. Some cards represent mishaps or traps, and these can inflict pain outright. Sometimes gambles are Failures, or even Huge Failures, and that usually doesn’t mean anything good. And of course, combat encounters poorly done can leave their marks.
If Food and Health are about game survival, every other resource system is focused primarily on combat power. Gamble and challenge outcomes often reward you with equipment, either gained outright or ‘drawn from the Equipment Deck’: weapons, shields, armors, gloves, helmets, artifacts, you name it. Blessings (and their counterpart, Curses) mostly exist to help (or hinder) your fighting prowess. And at the many wandering stores you can find, Gold very easily translates into new items, new Blessings, Curse removal, wound healing, and additional Food. Gold has more purposes than just that, of course; every resource comes up in challenges sometimes, from the items you trade away to the food to give you starving orphans. But in general, the division holds: Food makes sure you make it to the end of the board, and Gold and items make sure you’re tough enough to beat the boss when that happens.
And speaking of ‘beating the boss’…
With so many systems focused on it, it’s no wonder that combat is a major part of the Hand Of Fate experience. It’s not as omnipresent as the card adventure: depending on luck, it’s entirely possible to complete many boards without a single battle. But when it does happen, every combat encounter purports to be a make-or-break moment, a potential life-or-death experience that could spell the end to your adventuring career.
And knowing this, it’s probably no major surprise that the combat in Hand Of Fate is… adequate.
Hand Of Fate’s combat feels and plays like Baby’s First Arkham Game. I know I keep dredging up that comparison, but it’s just so apt. It encompasses everything: the movement style, the auto-targeting attacks, the attack-block-dodge-counter interplay, and even the idea of different ‘special’ enemies that require particular tactics. Anyone fresh out of any Arkham game (or Shadow of Mordor, I suppose) can pick up Hand Of Fate and immediately intuit their way around the basic controls.
And then, discover that it’s not quite all there.
When I say Hand Of Fate feels like ‘Baby’s First Arkham Game’, I’m talking about two things. One, it’s relatively feature-light. Hand Of Fate copies the basic actions from Arkham Whatever, the ‘attack-block-dodge-counter interplay’ referenced earlier, but not any of the advanced stuff. Your character gets no ever-growing list of tricks and gadgets, only one optional ‘weapon ability’ and one optional ‘artifact ability’ depending on gear. There’s a combo meter, but no combo finishers: a few pieces of activated gear get more powerful ‘based on combo position’, but it’s not used anywhere else. And while different enemy types are introduced early on, very little — if any — of them require you to meaningfully change your tactics. Shield bash if they’re blocking, counter if they’re attacking, dodge if they’re doing a red attack, attack otherwise: this rule pattern gets you through all of the encounters I’ve seen so far.
And two, the whole thing just feels a little sloppy. If you do jump into Hand Of Fate from any Batman-Arkham game — even Arkham Asylum! — you’ll find that the controls and the mechanics just aren’t as tight. There is auto-targeting, but it’s never quite clear who you’re actually aiming at. You can dodge-roll and free-move, but doing so breaks the targeting a little, and can leave you floundering for ways to re-engage. It’s not always clear what attacks have what effect: I think a shield bash is supposed to stun, but I wouldn’t be willing to bet on it, and I can never quite tell if it actually interrupts until I eat a face-full of sword. And perhaps most annoyingly, not all combat elements are actually explicitly explained. Some enemy cards have one or two or three red diamonds on them; what does that mean? In one level, I’m suddenly under attack by wall traps. Where did those come from? And while the counterattack icon is specifically highlighted, later enemies start displaying different green icons. Over their heads, and mine. What do I do with this? What does it mean? Should I try to counter these too? Or…
Sloppy mechanics aren’t quite enough to make me dislike the combat. And there’s enough variety in enemies and locations, both visually and mechanically, to keep the fights relatively interesting. Simultaneously, though, it’s hard to really get into the system. And I blame most of my combat-related deaths on the game, not on me: if the fighting in this game was like the fighting in Arkham City, really like that, I wouldn’t have died most of the time.
Luckily, functionally-alright-if-sloppy-combat isn’t the only thing Hand Of Fate has to offer. I find that what drew me in wasn’t so much the brawling, it was the storytelling.
What makes Hand Of Fate’s narrative particularly neat is that it’s multi-layered. On the surface, the story that is going on is the ‘duel’ between you and the Nameless Card Master. The Card Master (who does all the talking) makes frequent references to the ‘stake’ and ‘the cost of losing’, and guesses at your reasons for playing the game. The surface narrative is that of a man gambling away something important — His soul? Nah, that seems too cliché — for the promise of undefined power. The Card Master, on his end, has a history of his own: he was a player of this game before he was a dealer, and the game is as it is now thanks to him — but not only him.
But beneath the surface of this ruling narrative, the cards themselves tell stories of their own. It’s outright mentioned several times that these cards are drawn from ‘your’ memories, that they represent significant events and places in your life that you are revisiting through the medium of the game. And Hand Of Fate cleverly handles these mini-stories, drawing them out over multiple cards and multiple play sessions by way of its deckbuilding and token mechanics.
Certain cards come marked with tokens. The little angry gold sun on the bottom of the card, in the example. All cards have outcomes, good or bad, but the token represents that there’s a meta-game reward for you — if you play the card ‘right’. Winning the gladiatorial arena of the Crucible counts as the ‘right’ way to handle this card, for instance, and you get the token for doing so; lose, and the token goes back into the dealer’s pot, waiting for the next time you find this card.
And at the end of a play round — either after you defeat the boss, or after you die — all your collected tokens are cracked, one by one. Revealing the delicious cards within.
Almost always, token rewards are cards. Sometimes, new equipment: magical arms and armor for you to wear. Sometimes, new boons: gold-gain and food-gain and health-gain cards that are more powerful than the default cards the dealer uses. And very often, the set of token-reward cards contains at least one new encounter. And this is the clever way in which Hand Of Fate threads its micro-stories: the encounter card(s) you receive from one token forms the narrative follow-up to the card you just defeated. If you conquer the Crucible arena, you receive new cards that represent you gaining access to the city beyond. If you help the star-crossed lovers escape town, a new card represents having to deal with an angry father. If you donate blood to a mysterious stranger, they provide directions to a ‘blood auction’ in the form of a new card. And so on, and so forth.
Because I’m a horrible completionist, I ‘want’ to collect all the cards in the game. And because the stories on these cards are decently written and interesting, I actually want to collect them. If only to find out what happens.
Not all tokens are quite as straightforward as the Crucible here, mind. In order to get the reward from a mournful ghost, for instance, you need to be lenient to a thief you would otherwise not hesitate to take apart. Sometimes, you have to meet invisible prerequisites the game never quite tells you about: I was lucky I was already Blessed when I found the Old Graveyard, to subtly hint you in the right direction. And I still have absolutely no clue how to beat the Devil’s Carnival.
I could, of course, choose to not encounter it in the first place.
In-between play sessions, Hand Of Fate offers you the chance to modify your decks. Your Equipment deck and your Encounter deck, to be precise. Both have an exact card limit that slowly scales up as you win levels — I think it caps out at 25? — and the cards you choose to bring can significantly influence your play experience. Or maybe they won’t.
Of the two, the Equipment deck is entirely under your control. You can add or remove anything, and have any balance of cards. In theory, it’s a pretty interesting system. In practice… Hand Of Fate suggests that you should have a certain balance of weapons, shields, armors, and artifacts, in order to give you easier access to the whole bunch of them. But in practice, I never quite experienced that that mattered much. The starting arms and armor are more than enough to beat most basic enemies, a consequence of the heavily skill-based combat system. And it is somewhat rare that you gain equipment by drawing straight from the deck. More commonly, you either buy items from shops — with the shop selection being randomly drawn from set — or you’ll get specific item types from specific encounter cards. Mister Lionel gets you a shield, the Twisting Canyon always gets you a weapon. That sort of thing.
I also don’t quite understand why there are three kinds of basic weapons — swords, axes, and maces — if the maces deal more damage and have the special anti-Undead ability. But that’s neither here nor there. After like three bosses, you’ll have enough magical doodads to cull all ‘normal’ items from your deck anyway. And from then on out, it mostly becomes a question of ‘what do you want to bring?’. ‘What will be the most useful’ in theory, but ‘which cards haven’t you used yet’ in practice: you only get to see what a given card does if you encounter it in-game somewhere. Gotta-catch-’em-all, done twice: one run to get them all, one run to find them.
The Encounter deck works a little differently. While you still have significant control over what goes in here, depending on the specific challenge and your stage in the game, certain cards will be ‘locked’. Which works out… more or less exactly as you’d imagine. Check it out, it looks like this:
Locked cards feel a little more annoying at first glance than they actually are. In their own way, they represent the evolving story. After you beat the Jack of Plague, for instance, your deck is studded with three ‘Ratmen Hunting’ cards: annoying, dangerous, hard-to-beat cards with little to no reward. You can’t get rid of them until you successfully play the ‘Culling the Ratmen’ card, which requires 50 Gold. At that point, the cards are unlocked, and you’re free to ditch them in favour of less annoying ones. Or keep them, if you’re not paying full attention. Not that I would know what that’s like.
Apart from the locked cards, the Encounter deck follows much the same logic as the Equipment deck does. ‘Which cards do you want’ in theory, ‘which cards have tokens that you want to see’ in practice. And given that so many encounter cards resolve to either combat, or infuriating luck-challenges, building this deck honestly feels a little low-influence. Particularly because, for any boss encounter, the dealer shuffles in his own cards anyway: shops, special encounters, and the actual boss fight. Still, building your own Encounter deck can add some flavour to the proceedings. And if you don’t want to, in the first few levels, Hand Of Fate is more than happy to suggest a default deck to you instead.
Or maybe the fact that I think these things is the reason I’m struggling. As I write this, I’m a little over halfway through Hand Of Fate: Queen of Plague, as I’ve mentioned, is my current target. And even though I’ve kept up with arms and armor and tokens, I’m noticing that Hand Of Fate is getting noticeable more difficult over the encounters. Not all cards you unlock are good for you, for starters. And the monster intensity keeps increasing, with 4- and 6-monster cards commonly outranking the 2s and the 3s. Hell, even the bosses I killed earlier start making reappearances! ‘Shuffled back into the deck’, the dealer tells me, in that lovely mellow voice of his. I had to bring a peasant woman’s husband home once, and it turned out he was the King of all Bandits! And his most trusted lieutenant, too!
So, who knows. Maybe I would be better at this game if I paid more attention to the deck building aspect. Maybe I could easily beat the Queen of Plague if I just pulled my head out of my ass and focused for five bloody minutes.
Let’s go try that right now!
It turns out that this was in fact totally the case!
So yeah. All things put together, Hand Of Fate is a fun, engaging, interesting game. Its three systems work together relatively well — better than I initially wanted to give it credit for — balancing resource-based exploration, deckbuilding, and Arkham-style combat to good effect. I still think that it could be better: the combat could be tighter, the deckbuilding could be less obtuse, the random-chance challenges are just a little too infuriating sometimes, and have I mentioned the slow animation speed? It’s very slow, from time to time.
But none of this countermands that Hand Of Fate is a lot of fun to play. If you like interesting storytelling, enjoy fiddling with cards, and don’t mind the occasional unavoidable random setback, I happily recommend trying it out. It’s a little pricey, at around 22 Steam bucks, but it also has the replayability, content, and production values to justify that price. And have I mentioned the massively game-extending DLC that’s already available? Or the free DLC questline that I didn’t even know was DLC? There’s more than enough to do in this game, is what I’m trying to get at. So if your interest is piqued at all, by any of this — better ante up.
Jarenth thinks that the ‘card adventure’ part of Hand Of Fate could actually work pretty well as an actual physical card game. Shame about the combat, though. Suggest ways to capture Hand Of Fate’s combat mechanics in tabletop form to him on Twitter or Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?