With the recent surge in popularity for both the virtual card game and roguelike genres, the only really surprising thing about Hand of Fate is that it’s taken this long for somebody to come up with the idea of fusing the two together.
But then it’s the obvious ideas that are often the most difficult to think of, and while Hand of Fate’s deck builder crossed with a RPG is seemingly obvious – it’s been done to a somewhat more limited degree in the Thunderstone card game, for example — there are certain elements of it that are outright inspired, first and foremost of which is humanising the RNG that draws the cards. You assume the role of a nameless warrior sat across the table from a dungeon master who is responsible for dealing the cards, seeding the deck with nasty surprises, and providing a constantly cynical commentary on your actions in a very Treguard-like manner. Exactly who he is — or who you are — is never outright stated, but the things he says hints towards this being a Seventh Seal-type scenario: you are dead, or close to it, and you’re playing against him for your life. Hence, Hand of Fate.
What exactly are you playing here, though? There’s two main components to Hand of Fate that you assemble prior to starting a game: the Equipment deck, into which you can insert various helpful items that you’ll have a chance of picking up on your travels, and the Encounter deck, which is what drives the adventures you’ll have and the monsters you’ll fight on your travels. When the game starts, the dungeon master shuffles all of the decks and deals out cards from the Encounter deck face-down onto the tabletop. You won’t know exactly what these cards are; all you’ll know is that they’re the cards you put into the Encounter Deck before the game starts. A dungeon entrance card is also played face-up onto which a piece representing your character is placed, which you can then move around from card to card, revealing and resolving each card’s encounter along the way. Your goal is to find the exit to the next dungeon level, and (eventually) to locate and kill the dungeon’s boss.
That’s pretty standard roguelike fare, but the twist Hand of Fate puts on it is twofold. First, the fact that most of the cards are resolved via text — and maybe a random draw to determine success or failure — means that it can have a lot of variety as to what each encounter card can be. They can range from encountering merchants to treacherous terrain that has to be navigated to interrupting an unholy ritual to summon an undead lich; they can be pretty much anything, and this makes Hand of Fate a good bit livelier than your typical roguelike as long as you’re willing to put a little imagination into it. Second, and more important, is that the first time you get the “best” outcome on an encounter you’ll be awarded a small token that goes into a bowl in front of you. If you’re doing well you can amass quite a sizeable collection of tokens, and at the end of the game, win or lose, you get to cash in these tokens for new Equipment/Encounter cards that you can add to your decks for the next game.
This is where the deck builder element of Hand of Fate comes in, and I have to say it works very well indeed. Because it doesn’t tell you what a given Encounter card does until you’ve actually encountered it in a dungeon, you have to strike a balance between known Encounter cards that you know will (or at least should) have a beneficial effect during your dungeon run but which won’t get you anything new, and unknown Encounter cards that could have risky events on them but which could also lead to new loot/cards. If you stack the deck just with unknown cards it’s likely you’ll come a cropper as bad outcome after bad outcome saps your life until you die; there’s a definite element of playing the odds and managing risk here that’s common to all deck builders, especially since you also know you’re not going to encounter every card you put into the Encounter deck unless you take the extraordinary risk of exploring every space in the dungeon.
Why is doing this risky? It’s because of the food mechanic. You start each dungeon with a set amount of food that increases every now and again as the dungeons get longer. Each space you move in the dungeon — whether you’ve flipped the card in it over or not — will heal you five life points, but it’ll also cost you one food. If you ever run out of food you start losing ten life points per space moved, and eventually you’ll starve to death. You can acquire more food by buying it at one of the shop cards the dealer seeds into the deck, by getting it as a random reward out of the Gain deck for successfully completing an encounter, or as a set reward for a specific type of encounter, but the catch here is that you have to actually find one of these Encounter cards before you can get the food; otherwise you’re stuck looking at a food counter that’s slowly ticking down to zero. This makes doing more than the bare minimum of exploration risky unless you’ve been fortunate enough to be able to stockpile on food, as you could easily end up killing yourself through wasteful consumption otherwise.
Here we’ve encountered a couple more game elements that Hand of Fate excellently contextualises into its card-based conceit: the Pain, Gain and Monster decks. These are decks that do change slightly from game to game but which you have no power to alter, and they’re used solely for managing Encounter outcomes. An Encounter will sometimes require you to fight a random selection of monsters that are determined by drawing one or two cards from the Monster deck, which can be anything from Lizardmen to Lava Golems. If you successfully complete an Encounter that gives a reward you’ll usually draw from the Gain deck to determine what it is; gold, food, or the chance of drawing a card from your Equipment deck that you can then equip and use in battle. And if you fail an Encounter the penalty for doing so will often be to draw one or more cards from the Pain deck, which mostly consist of cards that reduce either your current or maximum HP totals.
This is all ultimately a very fancy way of dressing up a random number generator, but — as with the dungeon master — by putting it into the context of drawing cards from a deck it’s made a hell of a lot easier for the player to swallow. Said context is helped immensely by the time and care that’s been put into illustrating and animating the cards so that the action of drawing them gives off a very tactile and real feeling. This is something that (for example) Space Hulk got horribly wrong by sticking all of its dice rolls into the backend of the game; if you’re making a video game facsimile of a physical game then you need to make it feel as real as possible to the player in order for them to buy it, and Hand of Fate is absolutely on point with this. It could just show you the drawn cards face up without any deck animations, but it’d be a far poorer game for it, especially since so much of it relies on that player-versus-dungeon-master adversarial setting.
It helps that even these relatively static decks aren’t purely affectations, as occasionally you can inadvertently seed new monster types into the Monster deck by completing an Encounter card that unleashes them into the world. Every time you defeat a boss their card also goes into the Monster deck as a random encounter that can potentially happen at any time in a subsequent Dungeon. For a game played entirely with cards Hand of Fate is surprisingly big on your actions having consequences; the tokens you “win” for completing events often reward you with cards that are unambiguously good, but they can also seed your Encounter deck with cards where you have to battle groups of monsters who are enraged that you slaughtered their leader. Most tokens given for completing an Encounter card will usually also unlock another Encounter card that continues the previous Encounter’s storyline, allowing HoF to string together rudimentary storylines. On the flipside the dungeon master also seeds various decks with his cards to make the various dungeons more difficult; these range from Encounter cards that are usually negative, to Curse cards that make parts of this particular dungeon extremely painful.
The card game part of Hand of Fate is very well done. It really is. The dungeon master has lots of lines for each individual Encounter card, taunts you when you run out of food, and will even comment when you’ve died a particularly stupid death. This segment of the game never, ever breaks character, playing out like a particularly brutal game of D&D against a particularly dickish DM. Unfortunately there’s another part of Hand of Fate that I’ve avoided mentioning up until now because it’s the one thing that mars an an otherwise excellent game, and it’s the elephant in the room: the combat system.
Hand of Fate’s combat system baffles me. I really don’t know what possessed the developers to think that a mediocre Arkham Asylum ripoff would be appropriate for their card-based light RPG, but it’s in the game and it kind of sucks, all things considered. Whenever you fight monsters your character transitions to a 3D arena where he dons all of his equipment as each of your equipped item cards is played, and then you’re off hitting and countering just like Batman would. Well, not quite like Batman. Batman was more fluid than this; the player character in Hand of Fate is fast (if you’re not wearing heavy armour, anyway) but when you’re actually trying to hit people with him he handles like a brick, locking in on the wrong enemies in uncancellable attack animations and getting stabbed in the bottom for his trouble. Combat can take place in any one of a dozen random arenas, some of which are far too small for the number of enemies you fight in them – especially considering your best chances of survival against large packs of monsters are hit and run tactics — and while the game tries to spice things up a bit with environmental traps these end up being very hard to spot unless you know they’re there, meaning more often than not you’ll inadvertently blunder into them and die. It’s also terrible at telling you that e.g. you’ve just run through a poison cloud that’s practically invisible, or that there’s a ranged attack coming in from offscreen that’s about to nail you through the throat, or that the bad guy you’re targeting is currently blocking and can’t be hurt. Too many times I died without quite knowing why, or took huge quantities of damage because the controls were so clumsy that meant I was too weak to finish the dungeon. I’ve probably died more from starvation than I have from the combat, but it’s the combat deaths I find more frustrating because it’s so at odds with the risk management of the deck builder side of Hand of Fate. It’s just a terrible fit for the game, and it really drags things down to the point where it’s actively putting me off the final set of dungeons because the enemies keep levelling up and getting increasingly bullshit abilities.
Still, I will try to push through to the end, and once I’m done with the story dungeons there’s always Endless mode. Hand of Fate isn’t a particularly dense game and I wouldn’t expect it to keep you occupied for dozens of hours like a conventional RPG would. It does lean little too heavily on its poorly-fitting combat system for my liking, and at the end of the day its various adventures are resolved either by that or by a very well-disguised RNG, so if you have problems with either of those it’s possible Hand of Fate isn’t really for you. Otherwise it’s a fascinating curio that’s well worth checking out if you have fond memories of ‘90s board games such as Hero Quest because that’s the part that Hand of Fate really nails: it feels exactly like that sort of light proto-RPG transplanted onto a computer screen, complete with cards, tokens and playing pieces. That part of the game, at least, is innovative, well-designed and plays to its theme incredibly well.