Hearthstone review

Simon checks out the new Warcraft-adjacent game from Blizzard: Hearthstone...

‘Ho, ho, ho it’s good to see ya again’ is a typical opening parlance from a jolly, welcoming dwarf who ushers you into the world of Warcraft, and the game of Hearthstone. The moment you’re in a Celtic band strikes up a jolly melody and the tone is set for a slice of light hearted entertainment that could potentially lead to a lengthy course of addiction therapy. This particular venture from Blizzard is somewhat different to their usual releases for 2 reasons: 1) in terms of development it’s on a much smaller scale than we’re used to seeing, and 2) it’s free. And that’s not a typo. It’s freer than a run through a meadow with your birthday suit on.

Hearthstone is an online Trading Card Game (TCG) that anyone who plays either WOW, Diablo or Starcraft will know about, as it is available on Battle.net – the platform through which Blizzard connects players and online content (Battle.net is almost 2 decades old, a fact that will most certainly bring the reality of mortality vociferously crashing into at least one reader’s brain.) TCGs have been about for many, many years, with Magic The Gathering being probably the most famous of the lot, but Blizzard do already have their own TCG which was released in 2006. They’re not the first to branch out into the electronic world though; MTG have been online since 2002 and there are plenty of fantasy TCGs online and on the app stores, so even the legion of fans Blizzard command don’t make this a shoo-in success. Let’s investigate.

Geeking out

A game of Hearthstone involves two players and a board upon which cards are placed. Each player has a general with 30 hit points and the aim of the game is to kill that general before the opposition kills yours. This is done by playing cards from your hand that allow you to either lay minions on the board or cast effects and abilities on characters in play.

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It is a deceptively simple set up, and the cards themselves are deceptively simple. Each has a cost to play, an attack value, a health value and sometimes a text on the card which grants an additional ability. Once placed on the board they cannot be used to attack until the next go, and then only once per turn. You are free to use your cards to either attack other cards or the general himself. That’s about the crux of it. Except I should probably mention that when I say ‘general’ it’s not an official term by any means.

Although the game mechanics of Hearthstone are relatively simple, the game itself is anything but. There are certain traits minions can possess which alter the rules of the game. A minion with Charge is able to attack in the same turn it was put down in. A minion with Windfury is able to attack twice per turn. A minion with Taunt must be killed before the opposition player can target any of your other minions, or your general. Taunt can really ruin your day.

Mana Crystals are the currency you use to pay for your actions. You start with one crystal to spend on the first turn and an additional crystal to spend with each subsequent turn, up to the maximum of ten. Generally speaking the better abilities your cards have the more they cost to put into play, so by the time you’re on the eighth round there’s a real danger of an absolute beast being unleashed into the playing field. Like Deathwing. I was so certain I was on for the victory, my 5 card army dominating the board after some careful planning. Then my adversary did the monopoly equivalent of slapping the board into the air and punching me in the unmentionables.

You have a choice of nine character classes (Warlock, Paladin, Hunter, etc ) to assign as your general for each game, and each class has a selection of cards which are not available to any other classes. But there are also cards that belong to no class, and they can be used by anyone. At the beginning of a game you start with your own deck of 30 cards, randomly assorted, which is placed off to the side. You draw cards from this pack as the game progresses and although you may know which cards you put in the deck, you have no clue as to what order they’re coming out in.

Build me an army worthy of Murd Doc

Now if that sounds all a bit complicated let me assure you that it isn’t. The premise of the game is very simple and easy to understand. There are basically three aspects to the game which will contribute to your victory; deck building, card playing, and sheer blind luck. You start off with a collection of generic cards with which to build decks, and you add to this collection the more you play. You can only put 2 copies of any one card into a deck, but otherwise the deck building is up to you and it is vital to get this as right as possible. You will have to play a few games before you understand the types of approach possible and which cards work best together, but if you play ranked play then you never know which class you will be facing so you also need to make provisions. Certain classes do seem to have an edge over other classes when using certain approaches and sometimes you will find yourself utterly decimated in a very short period of time. It doesn’t feel quite so bad when you’re dishing it out though. 

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Once you’ve constructed your deck you are ready for battle. This is where phase two of your master plan comes in – deployment. If you play your cards too quickly you’ll soon find yourself in a position where you are only able to play one card per turn. Play your cards too slowly and your opponent could grab a foot hold on the board from which you cannot dislodge them. That’s just the start though, there are many possibilities to take into account when battling your enemy. 

Lastly there is an element of luck involved in how the cards are dealt to you. Both players are dealt three or four cards before the game kicks off and they are allowed one chance to replace any of them with a random card picked from the deck. But if it just so happens you get dealt the higher level cards at the beginning of the game, even after swapping, then you’re going to be in for a struggle. It’s roughly equivalent to the amount of luck you rely on in Poker and both players need to adapt their play according to what’s dealt, lucky or not.

Yeah! It’s a shiny!

Just like any TCG you buy small packs of cards to add to your collection. The way this is done in Hearthstone is through the shop and you spend either the points you have gained through completing daily/win tasks, or your actual real world money. You can also choose to fight in the arena for prizes, if you have the points to pay for your entrance.

‘But you said it was free?!’ I hear you lament. Worry ye not. At this moment in time there is only one type of pack you can buy and it comes with five random cards. There are no special ‘guaranteed a rare legendary card in every pack’ packs to be bought with real money so it doesn’t necessarily mean you can just buy your way to greatness. I personally feel any game which allows you an advantage through spending more money on it will forfeit its status as a game, becoming simply a window through which you can see just how much money other people have to burn. Yes I am talking to you Marvel: War of Heroes. None of that with Hearthstone – a player spending points they’ve earned in-game on a single pack may find a card in there more valuable than another player who has spent £7 on seven packs, and even then the very nature of the game doesn’t mean you’ll get to play that special card during a battle. So it makes no demands on you to spend any money at all and I take my hat off to Blizzard for that.

Player Daze

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Having said all that, I have spent a couple of my hard earned groats on packs. I currently have just over 300 real world WOW-TCG cards sat in my cupboard. I have never played that game. Not once. I’ve just always been spellbound by the art of Blizzard. The aesthetic they create hits the fantasy lobe in my brain so sweetly, and the artists they employ are absolutely brilliant. They also excel in game and interface design, making interaction a real pleasure. Hearthstone is a great example of all these traits coming together; the interface is simple, the cards and packs are almost palpable, the pictures are fantastic, the animated pictures are ‘dude! Check out my rare card!’ special.

It’s been a long time since I played WOW on my PC, but whilst I was there I was enchanted. Well, while I wasn’t having to interact with other real world players. Then it was more insulted. It wasn’t just the gameplay that kept me there for a long time, it was the wonderful and absolutely congruent art and design. Playing Hearthstone put me straight back in that world with a big hug and a cup of hot cocoa. It is really well executed, in my opinion, and I’m very much looking forward to the single player campaign that’s on the way.

Hold your spectral mount

Just to clarify: I was horrified with Diablo III, and the development of a real world money auction caused bile to rise in my throat every time I thought of it. Exponentially. Blizzard had recently fallen somewhat from grace in my mind, so I didn’t have my rose tinted glasses on when I loaded Hearthstone.

This time though, I am well and truly trumpeting their name. Hearthstone is a great little game, easily accessible and yet endlessly engaging. Were we face to face I would be wildly and erratically gesticulating at you with sheer beaming enthusiasm. There are 9 classes to play and it takes a while to work out the best decks for each, so you’ve already got hours of guaranteed gaming ahead of you. All for free. Ruddy marvellous!

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4 out of 5