Playing a card game on a computer is not so strange a thing as some would have you believe. At one stage or another we’ve all sat in front of a barebones PC at either work or school and have made the important life decision that Microsoft Solitaire was a far better time investment than say, you know, doing actual work. Now, Hearthstone is as far from Solitaire as it is from something like Battlefield, but at its heart it’s the digital representation, or better yet Blizzard’s take, on the whole competitive trading card game thing.
Kind of like if the cards in Solitaire were monsters that could attack you with fire spells. And also you weren’t playing alone, but against another person, making it more of a game of Multitaire. You could even go the obvious next step and say that Hearthstone is something along the lines of Magic: The Gathering, but set in the Warcraft universe. But more importantly as a free to play title coming hot off the heels of an extremely popular beta run, Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft is a digital card game that is addictive, fun, and something that everybody should check out.
For someone who doesn’t really have any clue or idea how exactly these type of card games work, looking at a set of Magic: The Gathering cards would be akin to looking at some miniature fantasy-themed art with stats and numbers that hold no real meaning. Looking at a screenshot of Hearthstone may conjure up similar thoughts, but with the addition of a neat layout one would at least get the sense of some sort of competition or battle that is taking place – of the card variety. Does this mean that Hearthstone is perhaps too technical or intricate to understand without investing quite a large amount of time? Well, the short answer is no. After all this is Blizzard, a company whose well-deserved reputation is born from releasing games in genres like real-time strategy (RTS) or online-role playing (MMO) and making them accessible to all players – and all without sacrificing depth.
So before you can actually take your hero and deck of cards online to battle other players, there’s a great single player tutorial that doubles as a mini-campaign where each new mission or card battle introduces a new element - effectively teaching players the ropes whilst still being a lot of fun. The ultimate goal of a round, battle, or card-frontation, is to reduce your opponent’s health points to zero, and in turn winning the battle, round, or what have you. Now, the most basic way to damage your opponent would be to get one of your minion cards to attack them directly, where they’ll deal as much damage as they have attack points. But of course you can hold off and strategically and attack one of your opponent’s minions, and take them out before they have a chance to attack your hero during your opponent’s next turn.
In the game there are two basic types of cards, minion and spell, with the former being the equivalent of units in a strategy game and the latter one-shot actions that could result in any number of things. Hero units in the game represent each of the more well-known Warcraft and RPG classes from Mages to Priests to Warriors, who each come equipped with their own class-specific cards, meaning that a player’s deck of cards will be made up of class specific cards as well as regular err, ‘everybody can use them’ cards. As there are hundreds of cards to unlock, including the rarer and more powerful cards, players can choose to play with a starter deck for their hero’s class, put together and balanced by Blizzard themselves, or spend the time in creating their own deck.
Choosing what cards you can play is also pretty straight forward, and as the battle begins both players are given a selection of random cards from a deck of 30, and each turn after that, draw a new random card from their deck. You also begin with a single crystal which increases by one each turn that ties directly to the number seen at the top of each playable card – which effectively equates to their cost. This means that early on in a battle you’ll only be able to play weaker minion and spell cards whereas later on in the battle you’ll be able to play the more powerful cards. This helps in shaping the overall pace of each battle, as the momentum continuously builds after each turn, resulting in a bombastic crescendo of spells and minion attacks.
It’s virtually impossible to describe how it all works without delving into some primary school level mathematics – whilst still sounding incredibly nerdy. Let’s say you’ve got a minion, a very basic Murlock Raider with 1/1 stats, meaning both its attack and life points are 1 each. Your opponent just played a Magma Raider card during their turn with 5/1 stats, meaning it can pack a hell of a punch but is also fairly weak. This means that during your opponent’s next turn they could use the Magma Raider to attack your hero and take out a pretty hefty 5 points from your total life. A sound and fairly obvious strategy here would be to sacrifice your Murlock Raider who although will only do a single point of damage (whilst taking 5), that’ll be enough to destroy the Magma Raider and save your hero from having to endure one of its direct hits.
Now this is a fairly simple and straightforward example because most minion cards come equipped with special abilities that are used either as soon as they’re played, when they are destroyed, or continuously, in a passive ability RPG-like fashion. Some of these abilities include Whirlwind which enable a minion to attack twice within the same turn, Stealth which makes the card invisible and therefore impervious to any attacks until it itself makes a move, and Taunt which turns a minion into a defensive unit forcing every attack unto itself until it’s destroyed. Coupled with spells and class specific cards this adds a layer of strategy that is incredibly deep, which is quite remarkable considering the game really only takes a few minutes to get the hang of.
As a free to play title you may be wondering if one could simply spend the money, buy new card packs and simply get all the best rare cards and in turn ensure victory round after round. The answer is, probably not, but maybe. As the ranking system works well in matching you against a similar skilled opponent no amount of rare cards in their possession would substitute for learned strategy on behalf of the player. Experience and the ability to change strategies is key in Hearthstone, and one of the great things about the model employed by Blizzard is that most people would only spend money to buy new packs once they’ve invested enough time into the game as to become familiar with the already many, many cards already at their disposal. It works in the same way as real life card gaming with the amount of money spent correlating to how much time you’re actually spending in the game and actually feel the need for new cards.
The amount of content in Hearthstone is quite impressive for a free to play title, and it would take a pretty long time to actually learn the ins and outs of each of the nine playable classes. Apart from casual and ranked matches there’s also the arena, a place where player’s choose their hero but are then assigned cards randomly by the system, where they then keep playing to see how long they can last. It’s a fantastic mode for experienced players, but entry will cost you some gold. Earned throughout the course of play and also used to purchase new decks of cards in lieu or real-world money, gold serves as the currency in Hearthstone. The fact that Blizzard only allows you to buy card packs and arena entrance separately, and not gold, speaks to their commitment to utilising the free to play model in a logical way, and not as a way to fleece gamers at every possible turn.
The level of detail and polish is also commendable for something as static as a card game. Playing a minion will usually result in a battle cry style sound effect specific to that unit, and when cards attack each other they’ll literally do so via bumping into each other in a charmingly animated fashion. Even the environments themselves come alive, where if you see a game board with a little house on it you can bet that clicking on one of the windows will eventually cause it to break. The little touches are everywhere too, including a neat little timeline on the left hand side of the screen that keeps track of every move made. It’s this level of polish and accessibility that Blizzard have infused into Hearthstone that make it a great success, no matter how you feel about card games. If Hearthstone looks too static and boring or even too simplified and limited, you’ll be hard pressed after playing the game to not want to spend more time in this wonderful off-shoot of the Warcraft universe.