Card games might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but the past few years have seen some of the most innovative and enjoyable mobile gaming coming from card-based games. We’ve sung the praises of games like Threes! (which some gamers may recognize by its clone, 2048), a sliding card puzzle game where you combine numbers of larger and larger varieties to score points; Solitarica, a cross between solitaire and role-playing games where you use power-ups and attacks to defeat enemies through solitaire-like card mechanics; and of course, trading-card games like Hearthstone. In 2015, we saw the release of Arnold Rauers’ Card Crawl, a battle-card mashup that uses abilities and skill-based gameplay mechanics to accomplish your goals. Card Crawl was an instant classic, with great gameplay, artwork, and music all combining to make one of our favorite free-to-play games on the Play Store, and this year, Rauers’ returned with a sequel titled Card Thief. With all-new mechanics and power-ups, Card Thief has already skyrocketed to become one of our favorite free games on the Play Store—let’s take a look at why.
Upon first loading Card Thief, you’ll be greeted with a fairly-lengthy tutorial, teaching you every mechanic inside the game one at a time. This tutorial does have a habit of dragging on a bit too long, but it’s important for learning just how deep the gameplay is inside of Card Thief. Whereas Card Crawl focused on dungeon crawling, quickly defeating your enemies and powering up your abilities and weapons, Card Thief focuses its attention on stealth-based gameplay. You have a stealth rating in the upper-left hand corner of your player card, acting similar to a health rating in games like Solitarica or Card Crawl. The goal is simple: clear the entire deck of cards, eliminating unknowing enemies, disabling torches, gathering gold and other treasures, all without getting caught. Once the deck’s been cleared, the exit will appear, and you can make your way out with your bounty. Sounds simple enough, and it is accessible enough for most to jump in without a second thought. But don’t be fooled—this isn’t an easy game. With a mix of puzzle, role-playing, stealth, and card-based mechanics, Card Thief is far deeper in gameplay than most might initially think.
Every move and turn is taken on a 3×3 card grid, with new cards being dealt from the 54-card deck each turn to replace the cards you clear. You move your player card—one of the nine on the board—around the other eight cards, keeping an eye on your always-changing stealth rating that stops you from getting caught, avoiding and destroying guards that stand in your way. Obviously, the goal is to clear the cards as quickly and efficiently as possible, using a combination of luck, skill, and ability cards kept in your deck at the bottom part of your screen. The challenge comes from the enemy guards, who notice you moving, extinguishing torches, and will move in a direction that they heard your movement coming from. That’s where the puzzle mechanic comes in—not only do you have to watch your stealth meter, which raises or lowers depending on what cards you collect during a turn, but you have to avoid the guards’ movement, always keeping an eye on where they plan to move to at the end of your turn.
Luckily, mistakes are a welcome part of Card Thief, since your character doesn’t actually complete his movements until you end your turn. Instead, your turn is spent mapping out your movement between guards, torches, and empty hallways, with each move changing the remainder of your stealth rating, rising or lowering it depending on what card you choose to land on and collect. Much of the game is spent making sure your disabling torches and destroying guards in the correct order, but collecting the treasure chest inside each castle and managing your power are just as important. Interestingly, the one place we felt the game failed was explaining some of these core mechanics, which, in fairness, are difficult to explain to players, even while demoing the game.
In addition to the levels and daily challenge displayed by Card Thief, there’s a store system that allows you to purchase new abilities and skills. Called “The Guild Master,” it’s here where you can purchase equipment to use within levels. All of these items—things like rope arrows, climbing gloves, and black jacks—are purchased with items and currency you earn through playing the game, not through purchasing things like “power gems” or “orbs,” both of which find their way into other games we’ve included on this list.
The game is, of course, free-to-play—how else would it make it onto this list, after all? But unlike some free games on the Play Store—indeed, even some of the games on this list—Card Thief goes easy on both the advertisements and in-app purchases. During our testing, the app only displayed ads a handful of times, noticeably lower than what we’d seen in other games. As far as in-app purchases go, we only found one: a $1.99 purchase to unlock instant treasure unlocks (the free version requires you to wait for each chest to unlock, an interesting take on the time mechanic games like Fire Emblem Heroes use to force players to purchase disposable items), and to remove ads. This is a one-time purchase, and isn’t required to play the game, making it one of our absolute favorite free-to-play games on the market right now: a quality experience without annoying interruptions to the core gameplay mechanic.