Hearthstone, the trading-card game tie-in to World of Warcraft, would work as well played face-to-face with physical cards as it does online. This is a good thing – it shows that the mechanics are designed well from a board-gaming perspective, and thus that it succeeds at its core design principle. On the other hand, it also creates a sense of safety – digital recreations of board-games have a much wider design space for managing variables and information availability without the need for complicated and unwieldy arrays of tokens, and Hearthstone does not explore this to any great degree. That the designers try to maintain a balace between over-simplicity and intuitivity is always in mind when playing, and much of the time this creates a game equally suitable for card game veterans and players who may not be aware of the broad board-games industry.
Comparisons to Magic the Gathering, perhaps the grandfather of combat-focused card games, are inevitable both via the theming of fantasy heroes summoning armies and casting spells on each other, and the fundamental mechanics. Players gather resources to pay card costs, creatures may not attack on the turn they are played unless keyworded to permit this, and so on. Yet comparing it too closely to Magic lessens it because the points of difference seem to be features removed. The concept of reactive abilities and “instant” and “paid-speed” abilities (those which permit use at any time, even in cases between individual rules clauses) is gone, as are large numbers of potential keywords. There is no resource-managment aspect in deckbuilding in the way Magic handles this; instead of playing resource cards, the players receive resources at a fixed rate. Yet it is worth noting that Hearthstone is a young game, still in pre-release form; comparing it to a well-established card game which has had a long time to innovate is somewhat pointless. Considered on its own as a fast-playing, straightforward card game that can be easily understood by players (when one of the common criticisms of Magic is that its rules interactions make it unintuitive to learn), it works well. There is plenty of space for new keywords, card sets and so on in the future.
Now that the elephant in the room of Hearthstone‘s inevitable point of comparison has been addressed, it is time to consider the game in its own right. The emphasis is on speed of play; decks are thirty cards rather than the usual sixty in similar games, and a maximum of two copies of a card in a deck are permitted. Immediately this makes deckbuilding quite a challenging prospect, and has been reflected in the card designs. Utility creatures (those with useful passive effects like “+1 spell damage” or “creatures gain +1/+1”) exist in multiple forms at different resource costs, creating a simple way of theming decks; one can build a deck designed solely to boost spell power by taking multiple different creatures with the same passive effect, which will all sit at different raw power levels and costs. It makes “curving” a deck – ensuring it is statistically likely to have a useful card to be played every turn and avoiding redundancy or dead turns – significantly easier, and ties into the simplified resource mechanic. Players have a linear progression of resources – they gain one crystal to their resource pool each turn, thus in turn 1 they have one, turn 2 two and so on. Given there are no paid abilities or reactive cards, the emphasis is on creating a deck that can as efficiently as possible spend all its crystals each turn. In essence, a thirty-card Hearthstone deck is the equivalent to a larger deck which has been constructed with the optimal distribution of resource cards.
While this does under the current card pool remove a swathe of deck archetypes – resource acceleration and denial decks, particularly – it places the players on an even footing from the start and thus makes deck-construction and card management the most important features. A common criticism of games with a design element – from wargames to trading-card games – is that some match-ups are unwinnable for one side and thus list or deck construction is the most powerful factor in determining victory. Similarly the lack of reactive abilities or counter-cards in some ways removes interactivity but also forces players to construct decks which can respond to threats rather than obviate them. A successful deck must assume any creature will be played against it and be able to remove that threat.
The actual turn-by-turn play of Hearthstone is simple; cards have a crystal cost, and are either “spells”, which have a one-use effect, or the creature cards called “minions”. Players may play cards and attack with minions in any order, allowing a level of strategy in using mass-damage effects to weaken enemy minions before finishing them off with some other effect. When minions attack each other, each deals full damage to its counterpart, removed from its health total. If the minion has any health remaining, it survives until the next turn, otherwise it is removed. Some effects allow the healing of damaged minions, adding a level of strategy to managing powerful opponents. Attacks may also be declared against the opponent directly, damaging their life pool and bringing victory closer. This in itself is a fundamental change from most games – the attack may choose to ignore blocking creatures and attack their opponent directly at almost all times. The only way to avoid this is to field minions with “taunt”, which then forces the attacker to target them in favour of their opponent. Combat thus has much more back-and-forth, with cards sticking around for multiple turns, being repaired and damaged. It is simple, but at the same time the small but straightforward pool of card abilities and types adds significant depth in decision-making both at a deckbuilding level and at a turn-by-turn one.
The final main feature of Hearthstone is its system of “heroes,” which determine the archetype of deck played and provide a special ability. The card-pool is divided between neutral cards, which are bread-and-butter cards used in every deck, and hero-specific ones which define the playstyle of that hero. The Mage gets an ability to deal a single point of damage to any target, potentially removing a threat, and a card-pool based around spell cards, for example. Heroes are unlocked through gameplay, and “levelled up”, increasing the size of their card-pool for deckbuilding purposes. Generally it is possible to build multiple deck types within each hero based on card selection, while the pool of neutral cards also offers a small number of “tribal” or themed deck archetypes. Cards may also be unlocked by purchasing booster packs, in the traditional trading-card game way. These are either purchased with gold earned from playing online and completing challenges, or paying directly to an in-game shop; £1.99 purchases one pack, and bulk purchases come at a discount. Trading-cards are one of the few game types where this random-pick microtransaction model is widely accepted, and the random element can encourage a player to try a new deck archetype. At this stage it is too early to see if Hearthstone‘s model of pack purchasing works; it seems very possible to earn packs through simple play rather than paying out (a practice similar to building up a card-pool via “drafting” or events in physical games).
Much may still change in terms of balance in Hearthstone, but at the moment it has the signs of being an entertaining trading-card game. Players of longer-running alternatives may find its card-pool and deck-construction limitations too constricting, but as it stands, in pre-release form, it is quite playable and offers a good variety of strategies.