By Alex Hemsley
This past January saw Blizzard’s digital Collectable Card Game (CCG) Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft enter open beta, allowing access to anyone to test the game out. While the ‘beta’ title gives the impression that the game isn’t complete, little is expected to change between now and the release version, rumored for next month. Blizzard has also committed to not erasing any progress made during the beta, meaning anything done now will be carried over to the official version when the game goes gold.
Fans of Magic: The Gathering will find the game mechanics similar, as Blizzard uses a dumbed-down version of the popular card game as template for Hearthstones’ game mechanics. Matches are fought one on one. Each player starts with one crystal of mana, and then gains an additional one at the beginning of every new turn maxing out on the tenth turn, at ten mana crystals. Armed with decks made up of thirty cards, players start by drawing three cards, then they take turns trying to play as many cards as they can, only limited by the mana cost of the cards, trying to kill their opponent as quick as possible, while mitigating the damage done to them.
There are two different types of cards, minions and spells. Minion cards summon a monster to the battlefield, ready to fight for you, staying in the game until its health is reduced to zero. Spell cards are one time uses, usually causing massive amounts of damage to a single target, or group of minions. They are quite powerful, and can often swing games that were thought lost back into winning situations.
Designed to be accessible to players of all skill levels, enjoyment can be gleaned from the simplest of moments. Blizzard brings their usual fantastic animation design and clever dialog to the game, adding instantly memorable lines to the overall experience, creating a great entry point for the genre. The basic game mechanics help, mitigating frustration while helping cultivate improvement.
Hearthstone leans deep into the lore of the Warcraft universe. Between Warcraft 1 through 3, and World of Warcraft, rich history can be found behind each cards, letting fans of old play cards that bright back fond memories, while fostering new fans by introducing them to the world of Azeroth.
Problems with Hearthstone start to arise after a few hours of play. At the moment, there are two game modes, starting with constructed play, where players all build decks then battle it out against others. The other mode, Arena, gives players random cards to build a temporary deck, then they battle against as many people as possible until three losses occur. The allure of the arena are the prizes which are handed out based on the number of wins a player was able to achieve.
From packs of cards to gold, the in-game currency, the prizes are sought after. There is a risk to the Arena though, it takes an entry fee, either 2 USD or 150 gold, making it nearly impossible to play endlessly. Forcing players who want to enjoy Hearthstone for long periods of time to only play “constructed”, a game mode that increases boredom proportionally with skill level.
The low number of cards is also an issue. Blizzard has promised more cards, in “the future”, but that’s a nebulous statement. The game has been out since August and the best cards have been figured out. This has led to many of the top end decks looking nearly identical. The most enjoyable experience in Hearthstone are when the unexpected happens, moments that disappear after a skill threshold is passed. High level decks mirror of each other, creating boring games, both players know what to expect, playing more by rote than for enjoyment.
Once the mystique of the game is gone, Hearthstone becomes a trite affair. A collectable card game with limited cards, a low collectable goal, and no social aspect, there is limited upside at the moment. Magic, Yu-Gi-Oh and other collectable card games are fun not just because of the game, making friends, chatting to people across the table, and goofing off all happen around the games, experiences that can’t be replicated in a digital space.
There is still a lot of potential within Hearthstone. Blizzard has a storied history of creating additive games, and if they added new modes, some more card, and somehow fixed the social “ness” of the game (while still keeping the game free of foul-mouthed language), Hearthstone would be a fantastic way to play with friends. As it is, it’s extremely low price point of free make Hearthstone worth trying out for at least a few hours.
You can follow Alex Hemsley on twitter at @Alexhemsley or reach him via email at email@example.com