Modern digital card games combine the cerebral appeal of tactical play with the adrenaline rush of random loot and top-decking. It might seem like they’re dime-a-dozen, but the games detailed below are all absolutely worthwhile, judged on their own terms.
No luck of the draw? Perhaps some quality strategy games you can play without internet instead!
Some are cutthroat tests of supremacy, others bucolic come-as-you-may types, but all are thoughtful and ingenious in sundry ways. There’s two flavours of card games that currently dominate the niche – highly competitive TCG/CCG multiplayer battlers derived from Hearthstone, and more cerebral or casual affairs, often translated from physical card games that already exist. We’ve woven the two types together into one supreme list.
Meteorfall: Journey (Review) (GOTY 2018)
Challenging and Stimulating: In the happier sessions, Meteorfall ends with a successful final showdown against the aptly-named Uberlich. Working backwards from that ultimate battle to the four starting characters is much more challenging than the squidy art and breezy interface might suggest.
This is a game that’s been wonderfully supported post-release, with several major content expansions at the time of writing. What’s better, it’s all been given away for free! There’s a reason this won our Reader’s Choice Game of the Year award, you know.
Reigns: Game of Thrones (Review)
The Pinnacle: The meme/phrase “living your best life” is not often one you hear applied to a videogame, but we can think of no title that’s more applicable than Nerial’s licensed Game of Thrones version of their hit card/monarch simulator Reigns. As Brittany mentions in her review, this is hands-down the best version of the Reigns formula, and it helps that it involves and engaging and popular IP.
The typical Tinder-style swiping mechanics coupled with the usual medieval hilarity and tough choices is coupled with some subtle new twists, where players get to try and rule the Seven Kingdoms as one of nine iconic characters from the show (which are unlocked over time). All this is enabled through the guise of Melisandre – you’re essentially playing out her visions of how these characters might get on sitting atop the Iron Throne. Licensed games often get a bad rap, but they can now look to this game to wash away all their sins. This is how you do it, folks.
The Gold Standard: Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a rogue, a priest and a warrior walk into the bar. Players struggle to reduce the opponent life to zero as players get more mana (read: energy) to fuel stronger minions and more devastating spells. The power curve and rarity drop rate are a little punishing, but later expansions and patches have remedied this somewhat. Hearthstone’s card battles unfold on a tavern table, in the middle of the hub-bub and merriment of a chaotic Warcraft scene, usually narrated in a dwarven brogue.
Yes, the card game itself is solid and as stripped-down as it can be without being simplistic, but Hearthstone flashes of creative genius and setting go well beyond the card base. The animations and sound design have been polished to a mirror sheen, and the gameplay, love it or hate it, is the standard because of its sterling quality and undeniable fun factor. Just don’t sweat the meta or top-tier competition, because then the grind will eat up your life.
Outrageous fun: A game of hot potato with a nitroglycerine-infused feline escalates until every player save one has met their maker. Fiery kitty death and simple humor belie a take-that game which puts everyone immediately at each other’s throats. Hostility and sabotage are the name of the game, because each player has only one life to live, and one defuse card to keep that hairball from becoming a fireball.
The game is a childish, cartoonish pastiche of obvious joke made too hard too often, but despite the unapologetic unrefined everything, it remains one of the best guilty mindless pleasures around. If you ever need a reason to froth at the mouth and fling spittle at your fellow humans over fictionally threatening cats, look no further: Exploding Kittens is simply an excuse to have a good time, a cheeky pretext. Irksome, shameless and perfect it its base way.
Plants vs. Zombies: Heroes
Food for thought: This franchise has reinvented itself several times since the original’s premier success. The sequel to the tower defense titan dallied with free-to-play energy timers and premium unlocks, then the series experimented with the FPS arena shooter, releasing Garden Warfare. Along the way, some of the magic and charm was lost. Plants vs. Zombies Heroes is an inspired and refreshing late entry into the game series, translating the original tower defense themes to a CCG with some nifty changes. Perhaps the coolest single defining feature of PvZ: Heroes is the asymmetry: one player represents the zombies shuffling forward for a quick bite while the other coordinated the plants fighting to repel the undead.
The power dynamic between the two sides is unusual and distinct, recalling Netrunner more than Magic or Hearthstone. The flow of new cards into eager players hot little hands, the balance between card strengths and their relative availability as well as the overall strategic robustness of the game are all top-notch. This core gameplay shines along with the visual polish and jazzy flair the series has come to be known for. Plants vs. Zombies Heroes is a fun late entry that deserves more love.
An evergreen choice: This one stands out from the other members of this list on two fronts. Firstly, for its palette, which is as frigid as monochrome as you’d expect. Secondly, because its gameplay is survival-based, not just thematically but actually. Gathering supplies, fending off nasties and keeping the elements at bay take every possible trick the cards will give you. Better performance will net you better tools, but unlike other games, Frost’s best rewards are a sense of security and temporary respite. In other words, the game won’t see you chasing exhilarating high score or excitement, but rather staving off the undesirable. Loss aversion, the fear of breaking a fragile equilibrium, the game daring you to take only appropriate risks when the phrase is a hollow oxymoron. The game rewards you with the chance to keep playing, keep exploring its stark dangers and bag of tricks.
The Elder Scrolls: Legends (Review)
Devastating combos: Bethesda’s entry into online card battling has the normal variety of twists on the race-to-zero archetype that most card battlers end up parroting to some extend or another. It has two lanes, one of which is a ‘shadow’ lane granting cover to units slotted there. The other change is truly radical though, and alters the core idea of card advantage. Players who lose a large chunk of life in a single turn get extra draws as compensation the next turn.
This acts as a huge counterbalance and means that showy and impressive turns in some cases actually become victims of their own success. Getting the most bang from your buck from each and every card still matters, of course, but the card-draw granted from life loss is a devious catch-up mechanism, especially when combined with the ‘Prophecy’ keyword.. Standard, with not much else to distinguish it from the crowd aside from the setting and its tweaks to the formula, but a worthwhile entry with intelligent design and classic appeal for Skyrim fans.
Card Thief (Review)
Stolen free time: Get in, get rich, get out. The story of a heist plays out with endless variety, thanks to Card Thief’s intermingling systems of light and shadow, directionality and position. These systems are intuitively taught through appealing sound and visual design, and the game rewards deeper understanding of the basics and their complex interactions by giving the player more finicky toys to play with. In short, an unstinting challenge to sink your teeth into, with a razor-sharp core idea enlivened by a pastel of special effects and alternate thieves.
Card City Nights
Solo-play stalwart: The characters are idiosyncratic, the game-within-a-game conceit a little cheeky but still refreshing, the consistent tone humor-ish, deadpan. Beating certain keystone characters unlocks their signature, ultra-powerful cards whose effects even jive with that character’s personality. In other words, there is a correspondence between writing, characterization and deck archetypes between. Never quite a rollicking good time or agonizing head-scratcher, the deckbuilding and collecting (yes, there are boosters, no nothing is truly ultra-rare) of Card City Nights makes for an easily enjoyed and easily binged experience.
Star Realms (Review)
Interstellar Deck-Building: This game marries the level of expansion and customization of a TCG with the bite-sized crunchy decision-making of a deckbuilder. Its combat elements and faction-specific combos make for a serious nostalgia trip for those looking to revisit memory lane without first collecting, collating and crafting a custom deck just for the occasion. Star Realms’ many expansions, rapid-fire gameplay and clear iconography make it a compelling addition to the game enthusiast’s roster and an easy must-have.
Race for the Galaxy (Review)
An age-old classic: Perhaps the quintessential engine-building card game, Race for the Galaxy is one of the more aged members within this best-of list, debuting originally in 2007. Its longitudinal sense of strategy and complex combos quickly made it a favorite amongst players. Along with this hefty strategic challenge, the unique simultaneous action selection mechanic enlivened the game with some bluffing. Barring the official release of Dominion for mobile, Race for the Galaxy represents a classic, yet innovative take on a victory-point race. The app runs like a dream and offers stiff competition and solid multiplayer.
Hall of Fame
We’re keeping the list pretty tight at the moment, but there’s way more than ten excellent card games to celebrate, with more on the way all the time. Every now and then we’ll rotate games out for other games, but we don’t want those past greats to be forgotten. Below is a list of previous members of this list, lest we forget:
What would your list of the best card games look like? Let us know in the comments!