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Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands

Review of Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands

Tiny Tina’s WonderlandsIf you’re a fan of Borderlands, or just looking for a good dungeon crawler to play, then Tiny Tina’s Wonderland is the game for you.

Although it may seem like a simple reskin of Borderlands 3, there are plenty of new features and improvements that make this game worth playing. The shooting and looting loop is as fun as ever, and the humor is much more consistent than in the previous game.

However, if you’re getting bored of Borderlands’ formula, then I wouldn’t recommend picking up Wonderlands. The structure of the game has barely changed since the original Borderlands, so it might not be what you’re looking for.

If the notion of a “What if Borderlands, but with D&D rules!” sounds strangely familiar, that’s because it does. Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep was a DLC expansion for Borderlands 2 based around the same concept, and this is a near-direct follow-up set after. In fact, Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep: A Wonderland’s One-Shot Adventure has just been re-released as a standalone title. It doesn’t matter whether you play it or not; you’ll know what’s going on without playing it.

Of course, let’s start with the basics; Tiny Tina, along with two of her friends named Valentine and Frett, has crash-landed on a planet while waiting for rescue. Tina decides to bring out Bunkers & Badasses, a role-playing game with a lot of weapons that just happens to be set in the Wild West. Tina creates her own campaign in which you must fight the malevolent Dragon Lord, as voiced by Arnett, the voice of Batman from the Lego Batman movie, as a nameless rookie. How do we know he’s bad? He chops off the magnificent, most amazing, and prettiest pony’s head in all of existence: Queen Butt Stallion. The bad guy has to die clearly.

I had hoped that Wonderlands would be more edgy and dark in its humor, avoiding the subjects that the Borderlands series is known for. There’s always been a dark comedy lurking behind the fart jokes and insanity in Borderlands. Tiny Tina, for example, is a hilarious illustration of this; she’s a completely broken kid who had undergone an immense amount of trauma and wound up dealing with it by adopting a mad persona.

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Over time, the more tragic aspect of Tiny Tina has been pushed into the background, and in Wonderlands, it’s barely even addressed; nevertheless, despite the coarse humor, there are no curse words. That’s because, unlike all previous Borderlands games that have received an M rating, Wonderlands gets a Teen rating.

Let’s be honest here: an age rating on a video game doesn’t immediately improve the writing and humor. The idea of Wonderlands being rated Mature doesn’t make it any more funny, but it does limit the jokes somewhat. The writers themselves poke fun at it several times, noting that the hundreds of Pirates you encounter drink Soda, not rum. In my opinion, the game does not feel as much like a full-fledged Borderlands game as it does previous entries in the series. It also lacks some of the same trademark humor that has been characteristic of this franchise since its inception. With more cooperative play and less focus on exploring, Tiny Tina’s Wasted Potential is a far better fit for younger gamers than its predecessors were. As a long-time Borderlands fan, I did miss the black comedy and adult jokes in this release. The game is rude and crass, which was where much of my enthusiasm for it stems from.

But the good news is that despite the ESRB’s rating, the writing is far superior to Borderlands 3’s cringe-inducing efforts, although it still falls short of the highs set by its predecessors. The tone is lighthearted and enjoyable, and most of the jokes land favorably, however, there’s a feeling that the writers are just flinging joke after joke at you without giving you any rest. The story is also a little on the self-referential side, cramming in subtle and not-so-subtle references to just about everything from the Monkey Island games to role-playing clichés. It relies on it a little too much, though, forgetting that referring to anything isn’t humorous in and of itself.

Tiny Tina is in top form as the insane, erratic, and loud Bunker Master. Ashley Birch provides the voice of Tina once again, and her role as Aloy in Horizon: Forbidden West was somewhat flat. She puts everything into voicing Tina and would have fooled me if I hadn’t known beforehand that she was playing both parts.

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Tina is likely to be as divisive as ever. Her wild behavior, loudness, and tendency to end every statement with a YELL can be quite charming and amusing, or totally irritating. Her voice plays a crucial role in the Bunker Master’s job of narrating activities and even altering the planet in front of your eyes. If you found her annoying in the past games, you may wish to skip Wonderlands entirely or just lower the volume. However, if you’re one of the many people who find her distinct brand of insanity charming, this game is for you.

Valentine and Frett are secondary characters who appear in and out, parodies of D&D players. Although Valentine isn’t the brightest knife in the drawer, he is a fan of the idea of being a hero, and he is more guided by his emotions than Frett, the Robot. These two reconciling their two very different approaches provides a great lesson for all D&D players: there’s a time for rules and a time for winging it.

Overall, I had a lot of fun with Wonderland’s narrative, and I especially liked the Dragon Lord, who gets a lot of words and backstory. Arnett seems to be having a blast voicing the character, and it shines through in all of his lines. What I’m trying to say here is that the tale accomplishes its purpose; it provides a bare minimum of plot explanation for everything while also eliciting a chuckle or two, such as when Torgue violently destroys the entire ocean.

The artists and animators who have stretched their abilities and raided the color box appear to have benefitted from the D&D concept. The settings are vibrant, colorful, and full of fascinating views of ransacked pirate ships or villages that have been lifted into the air by a magic beanstalk. There are several interesting elements in the levels, as well as some enjoyable opponents. Enemy variety is insufficient for the game’s scope; basic skeletons make up the majority of it.

The game surprisingly ran well on my Ryzen 4800 and the aged but still kick-ass GTX 1080. I had everything turned up to maximum, and I didn’t notice any significant framerate drops. The only problem I encountered was stuttering in windowed mode, which the game would occasionally switch to when first starting it up.

This is a Borderlands game through and through, with all the same drawbacks and strengths as its predecessors. This ends up being just as much of a liability as it is a benefit because, on the one hand, the shooting is still lots of fun and the weapons feel fantastic to use. After that, you’re probably going to die a few thousand times over. It is highly unlikely that you will survive the entire campaign on your first try (or even attempt). But hey! You may still have fun with a game like this if you put in the effort, and I’ll show you how further on. What awaits during your journey through Unholy Heights? There are thousands of skeletons and pirates and other cannon fodder who will happily charge at you with all the intellect of a goldfish attempting to solve a math problem, eager to be shot down amid a barrage of colors, explosions, and special abilities. There are still mountains of guns to loot and analyze. There are still heaps of pop-culture nods, dumb jokes, and nonsense for you to read and chuckle with.

Given the plethora of fantasy cliches, I was a little disappointed that Gearbox stayed true to their guns. In fact. You could be fighting goblins, climbing beanstalks, and battling an evil Dragon Lord while wielding an assault rifle or a shotgun, in general. A few weapons get a little more glamorized, such as pistols with crossbow parts or a shotgun with a bubbling cauldron of crystals, but I believe there was much more space for Gearbox to go creative and embrace the fantasy element rather than sticking to the franchise’s usual style. A handheld trebuchet that shoots flails perhaps?

The guns are still enjoyable to use, and they’re well-balanced. There is no longer a way to improve weapons, so if you find something you like, it will certainly be discarded after an hour or two, but with so many different gun models shot at your face, you’ll undoubtedly discover something else to fill the huge hole in your heart. Then wielding that boomstick to kill stupid opponents is satisfying, stress-relieving fun.

The new spell system adds a little bit of variety to the mix by swapping out grenades for spells. You may loot a wide range of magic abilities, such as meteoric fireballs or intense auras, in this D&D reskin. It’s not like these additions provide much gameplay value; it’s simply another ability with a Cooldown. However, throwing out spells is still enjoyable, and when combined with your class’ specialty, it provides you with lots to do. If you pick the spell-casting class, you can really hurl magical projectiles quickly, and even equip two spells at once.

In terms of class distinction, things have gotten a few improvements, owing to the fact that you no longer pick a predetermined character with a fixed class. When creating your own custom character, you may select from six different classes, but you can also adopt a second class later on. It’s not feasible to max out both skill trees since you only have so many skill points available, but it’s a lot of fun to mix and match your skills. Then, near the end of the game, you may swap out the secondary skill tree at any time to play around with it. I really like this alteration to the system because it allows for a lot more experimenting and varied play styles in terms of whether you want to go after elemental damage or buff spells or concentrate on your companion dishing out more hurt.

There has also been an effort to improve the melee combat. You may now obtain new swords, hammers, and axes with their own characteristics and special perks, and the fighting skills have a slew of bonuses for hitting people in the face. Actually, I believe that constructing a totally melee build is feasible. However, that would be a pretty boring way to play because there’s just one button for striking things, so doing so for 15+ hours is probably going to get monotonous. Plus, in a series about stockpiling weapons like some sort of military dragon, why would you want to?

The strict adherence to the Borderlands game template is perhaps the most significant problem with this, as we saw in the first game and which has barely changed in the years since. It’s a little vexing that Gearbox hasn’t advanced their quest-making methods for decades, despite the fact that so many games have come and gone. The story’s writing team does a fantastic job of disguising the tasks with interesting themes or concepts, such as when Tiny Tina is attempting to complete a quest while Valentine and Frett are distracted by an unimportant NPC. These portions are fantastic, and most of the side missions are good, but I found myself growing bored with the same basic structure over and over again. There aren’t any. It would have been nice to include a few surprising pieces or turns to make things seem new and exciting, but there aren’t any. I get the impression that I had a good time playing Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands, yet I can’t recall anything in particular.

The new overworld, like the previous games, is constructed similarly to that of classic D&D campaigns. It acts as a connecting link between all of the objectives and is full with ruins and dungeons to explore. Your character’s head becomes a bobblehead; there are shortcuts to discover and even a few abilities that allow you to return and access previously inaccessible locations or collect special loot dice that boost your chances of finding valuable gear. The new Combat Encounters are self-contained arenas full of monsters to fight, essentially condensing the whole Borderlands concept into a few rounds of combat. I enjoy some of the smaller overworld elements, such as fallen Cheetos serving as barriers or soda rivers that neatly convey the idea that the overworld is a genuine D&D map. It can’t be denied that the overworld adds nothing to the game in and of itself; after all, it’s just a hub world with a different camera angle – but I still appreciated its inclusion for what it was.

The shooting and looting in Borderlands have always been its two major pillars. The first game was advertised as containing “millions” of weapons, and that number has only increased thanks to the game’s ability to combine distinct parts to create new bullet-spewing equipment. Most of the time, this implies minor statistical variances and elemental properties, but it’s not uncommon for it to produce interesting results. There are also the new legendary items, such as a screaming Banshee blade or the Queen’s Crey, which can call frost meteors. Hunting down valuable loot, obtaining slightly superior gear that fits your build, and the thrill of a Legendary emerging from a chest are all as pleasurable, gratifying, and addicting as they’ve ever been.

However, when it comes to the rainbow showers of weapons, armors, abilities, and trinkets, I must confess that Borderlands has gone a bit too far. With the introduction of lootable spells, armor, and cosmetics there’s now more gear than ever before coming from foes and chests alike; all offering minute changes in stats. I soon found myself ignoring almost all of it, only pausing to investigate the purples and legendaries, and maybe the odd blue. The rest remained on the floor, like a carelessly discarded handful of Skittles destined to be thrown away. I don’t believe there will be that many die-hard fans who will go through every single drop, but I feel like the typical person would be similar to me and overlook the bulk of it, in order to save hundreds of hours of their life. Perhaps I’ll be alone with this viewpoint, but I think Gearbox needs to reel down the loot a little so that it starts to seem valuable again.

I’m really not a fan of how the game manages cosmetics. It’s nice that bad guys constantly drop new tattoo designs and colors for your custom character to use. However, it is aggravating to have them take up room in your inventory if you do not remember to go in and open them.  All this in mind, cosmetic collections are a waste of time and money. When you have hundreds or thousands of cosmetics, they take up a lot of room until you finally toss them out. It’s an ill-advised game design that takes away essential inventory space in a game all about hoarding things like a rampaging vacuum cleaner. The obvious answer is that cosmetics should be added straight to your collection. Simple, right?

It’ll take you 10-15 hours to finish the game, and if you want to complete the numerous side-quests and challenges that dot the overworld and major areas, it’s certainly going to be double that. There’s a decent amount of end-game content after that, in which you may participate in the Chaos Chamber fights. These are a sequence of arena fights against a variety of foes, with curses and blessings being picked up between rounds. A currency is gained during the journey that may be used to obtain loot, with new kinds of gear not seen in the rest of the game appearing along the way. It’s a fantastic method to extend gameplay time without detracting from the overall experience.

Conclusion

Borderlands 3 is a fantastic addition to the series, with more shooting and looting than ever before. Although there may be too much loot for some players, the game still offers an enjoyable experience that can last for dozens of hours. The end-game content is also well-done, providing extra challenges and rewards for players who want to keep playing after finishing the story. Whether you’re a fan of Borderlands or not, this game is sure to please.

Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands
Overall rating: 3.5 star
Available On: PC, Playstation & Xbox
Developed By: Gearbox

Bolt Thrower : StarCraft, Civilization, X-Wing, Hard West, Journey

It’s been a while since I steered anyone toward my series on tabletop versions of video games over at Gamerati. But since I did one on the StarCraft board game to coincide with the final digital game in that series, Legacy of the Void, I figured it was time for a reminder.

However great the StarCraft board game was, I think it would have been better with looser ties to the source material. It would almost certainly have resulted in a similar game but one which was a lot less complex to digest. In that respect it’s almost the opposite of the Civilization board game which, as I argued in another column, is a quite brilliant reduction of the digital essentials to tabletop format.

The other thing I wanted to talk about this week is lasers. I was playing X-Wing a couple of weeks ago when my opponent pulled out a laser line for checking up on some the firing arcs. It’s a brilliant idea: X-Wing models are so top-heavy, it’s hard to get a ruler in to measure the angles properly without knocking them all over. The laser is more accurate, less clumsy and, best of all, looks awesome in the middle of what’s supposed to be a laser dogfight.

I was so impressed that I wrote a piece about using the device in X-Wing and Armada for the manufacturer. It’s called a Target Lock and, while they’re made in Denmark, you can get them from specialist shops all over the place. So stick one on your Christmas list. I can see it being useful in pretty much any and every miniatures gaming system.

Speaking of Christmas, what I’d like most in the whole world is some more Patreon supporters. But it’s not something I can really put on my Christmas list so I’m putting it here instead.

My video game time recently has been all about Hard West. This has been trailered around as being a “cowboy XCOM”, which it kind of is. But the essential mechanics of XCOM remain easily good enough to power a game. And on top of that, what makes Hard West special is the excellent and imaginative atmosphere and storytelling.

It’s more weird west than wild west, but the supernatural elements are done with subtlety and flair. You do get to flat-out demons in the end, but the narrative along the way is excellent. There are eight campaigns, each of which, in a neat twist, ties in with events or characters from one of the previous stories to make a satisfying whole.

It hasn’t got massive critical acclaim, but I think it’s one of the best things I’ve played this year. Worth the entry price for the experience alone.

I’m also contributing to Pocket Tactics now, which is great as I can’t think of a much better place to explore my crossover of interests. My first piece there was a review of Steam: Rails to Riches, a title I wholly recommend to deep strategy masochists who don’t want to deal with other human beings, even over the internet.

The other big event in gaming is that I finally got to play Journey. It was worth the wait. I feel like I could write essay upon essay about this game. About all the tiny clever design choices that go in conveying emotion to the player. About how you naturally find ways of communicating with your fellow players using only musical notes. About how freedom of movement, or lack thereof, is central to the game’s message and appeal.

But I won’t. I’ll just settle for saying if you haven’t played it, play it. It’s one of the best games of the last decade.

Euclidean Review

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Falling is the primordial nightmare. Plunging into the abyss, then wakening with a jolt just before the impact is a fear we’re all familiar with. Yet Euclidean is the first horror game I’ve played which taps that shared terror. Then amplifies it with deliberately clumsy controls and freakish environments beneath your sinking feet.

Its in the design of these other worlds that Euclidean reaches its apogee. Lovecraft’s old saw about impossible geometries is, obviously, impossible to visualise. Yet Euclidean does a fine job of putting you into some truly bizarre places.

It’s unclear if you’re under water or in outer space, or possibly both. Strange patterns and bits of Escher-esque scenery flash in and out of view through the murk. One level sees you descending an enormous spiral staircase. Another is almost completely obscured in blood-red mist. The visual design is fantastic and disorientating in equal measure.

The confusing environments are very much part of the play. Touching anything as you fall will kill you, instantly. So will missing one of the soft blue portals you’re aiming for and ending up on the level floor. The are monsters wriggling round the levels too, and they’re equally deadly and harder to avoid.

Your defences against absolutely everything are some sluggish WASD controls. Plus the ability to phase out which makes you briefly invulnerable to monsters but lasts for less time and takes longer to recharge on each use. You fall at a steady rate, and use the controls to avoid bumping in to things. That’s it. Euclidean might qualify as the world’s first falling simulator.

The limitations on what you can do in-game are at once both essential to its atmosphere and its biggest issue. The scenery and the monsters move in predictable ways but the sheer oddness of the environments and the unresponsive controls makes them hard to avoid. You don’t have much agency in the game, and many of the very many deaths you’ll suffer won’t really be your fault.

Euclidean is not a great game. It might take you a couple of hours to complete. Then, if you’re not fed up of the limitations and fancy a bit of maschoism you can try the permadeath mode. But it is a very imaginative, unique and fairly cheap game. That might be enough to make it worth dipping your toe into whatever otherwordly goo fills Euclidean’s levels.

Bolt Thrower: Gears of War, Bloodborne, Witcher 3

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Welcome to Bolt Thrower, the gaming column that blows your head off. If you’re new to the format, here’s the deal: I link something I’ve written elsewhere and then pontificate a bit on what I’m playing right now that’s not in the review queue.

My link this time round is the first of a new series I’m doing for Gamerati. The column’s called Bytes and Pieces and it’s about dissecting tabletop versions of video game franchises. First under the knife is Gears of War: The Board Game.

It’s great title in spite of my well-known dislike of co-operative games. That’s partly because the setup feels right for a game that made its fame on the back of co-op online play. Indeed, feel is much of what makes the game special. The fast play feels right for a tactical shooter, as does the balance of excitement and strategy, and the weapons and enemies behave as you expect.

Ultimately it has moments where it fails. The biggest being the way pieces can move around irrespective of where enemy figures are on the map. These are so ludicrious that the suspension of disbelief collapses, although it quickly builds again. If you want more detail go read the article.

The big gaming news in my life right now is finally having gotten hold of a PS4. I’m loving my introduction to Sony’s gaming world. It seems so much softer, more flexible, more alluring than the hard black and green squares of Microsoft’s world. And the controller is lovely, aside from the symmetric joysticks. You can find me on PSN as mattthr.

The console came bundled with action RPGs Bloodborne and The Witcher 3. I dived straight into the former and, I have to say, I was a tiny bit disappointed.

Partially that’s because I’ve just come out of a long period of playing little but Dark Souls. I don’t think I was just mentally ready for yet more of that punishment. Especially when Bloodborne is built so you can’t grind through the early areas: you’re prevented from levelling up until you’ve met the first boss.

But even allowing for that, the mechanics felt over-familiar. Sure, you’ve now got a ranged weapon and the ability to make weapon mode switches. Sure, there’s no shield and a health-back mechanic that encourages aggressive play. However, it turns out that one key use of that firearm is to stun enemies mid-attack so you can counter. In reality, that plays a whole lot like raising a shield to block and counter in the Souls games.

The graphics were also a bit disappointing for a new console. It has the same poor ragdoll effects and animation glitches that plagued Souls. And I was surprised by how cluttered and busy the environments looked. Almost like the designers had decided to use all that extra graphics power just to pack as many polygons on the screen as they could, regardless of what they looked like.

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Contrast that to The Witcher 3 which looks absolutely gorgeous. It also has a sense about it like a designer finally got an open world game just right. There’s no fake balancing: if you wander into danger you’ll get a warning and the you’d better run or you’re dead. And a great combination of foot, transport and fast travel means there’s no wandering around for hours just for the sake of it.

The result is a real feeling of wonder and the itch for exploration. The world is rich and believable. It’s easy to follow the main quest if you want. And if you don’t, well, side-quests and mini games are plentiful and mostly short. And if even that’s too much stricture for you there’s a lot of fun to be had looking for bandit camps and monster nests and taking them out.

I’m playing on the second-hardest difficulty and it feels just right. To win battles, you need to scout an area and prepare well with the right potions, spells and equipment. Then make use of your move set and the terrain and good twitch skills. If you lose, you re-load and try again. Often several times. That’s frustrating enough to make it exciting without it feeling brutal.

Having spent so long playing Souls games I can’t help but contrast this approach with the unforgiving nature of their limited save system. The Witcher 3 feels so much more approachable. So much more … fun.

And yet.

And yet, for all the frustration factor of failing battles in The Witcher, it doesn’t make me afraid. Souls and Bloodborne gave me moments of genuine buttock-clenching terror under the pressure of having to get things right, or lose an hour of progress. It’s a terror that felt right at home in Bloodborne’s beautifully realised horror theme. Those moments were unforgettable. The moments of pleasure that came from getting them right were even more so.

So I’ll be back to Bloodborne. But for now, contradictory though it sounds, The Witcher 3 is offering me a well-earned rest.

Cracked LCD- Hearthstone in Review (again)

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OK, so for most folks this is a way, way late review since Hearthstone has been out now for over a year, not including time in Beta. It’s also a review that might stir up an obnoxious debate as to whether the digital CCG should be regarded as a video game instead of a tabletop game. And almost certainly, lamentations about it being free-to-play and supported by IAPs – let alone that it is a collectible card game that requires that you actually pay for it if you want to be competitive- will certainly follow. And this is also the second time I’ve reviewed Hearthstone. Last time was just over a year ago here on No High Scores.

But here’s the deal. Hearthstone recently released its long-awaited iPhone-friendly update and I’ve been playing it almost non-stop since. I had played the IOS edition briefly when it first came out as an iPad-only release, but because that device is almost always covered in the sticky remnants of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and clogged up with countless Lego, Disney and Angry Birds apps for the kids I didn’t really dig in for the long haul. Now that it’s in my pocket, I can play it all day long. So now it’s time for me to issue forth (again) on what I think is one of the most significant games to date that has married the strands of tabletop and video game design.

Even though Hearthstone takes place on a touchscreen (or a PC monitor), it is 100% a tabletop game design and the designers at Blizzard went to great pains to make this game look and feel tactile. You don’t have to have a little deck-holder built into the onscreen game table, but seeing your cards fly out of it and then manipulating them by touching and dragging gives the game a genuine sense of being physically real. The UI makes those employed by also-ran digital CCGs like Shadow Era look prehistoric by comparison. Blizzard always makes an extremely polished, highly refined product and this game is no exception.

Refinement extends to the actual design, which at first blush is a standard Magic: The Gathering-descended game. Mana, attack/defense stats, keyword abilities and so forth. You can even use a lot of the same terminology to discuss it. But dig in and what you will find is a game whose designers have likely spent 20 years studying Garfield’s design and what made it so successful and then applying some judicious revisions to make it more accessible, more stable and quite possibly more fun.

One difference at the outset is that you pick from one of nine character classes. That class has a special ability and it represents your in-game ego- no vague “Planeswalker” conceit, no grouping everything into colors here. But more than that, your chosen class determines a base set of specific cards that you can use to build your deck to pummel another player into submission by reducing their life with minion attacks, spells and card effects. Each class has specific foci, strengths, weaknesses and unique strategies. On top of those class-specific cards, you also build from a pool of neutral minions to fill out your 30 card deck.

That’s right, 30 cards. That’s a very short stack for most CCGs, and in fact it’s well below the minimum in most other games. But that’s because Hearthstone runs tighter with typically shorter games and an automated mana development curve. There’s no need to figure out which ratios of which colors of which resources to load your deck up with, you automatically get one mana crystal a turn. So by turn ten (if it goes that long), both players are even stevens at ten mana. Of course, discounts and other card effects can shift that balance but the point is that you’ll never be “mana screwed” or find yourself top-decking a Plains card at a do-or-die late game moment.

But like any card game, luck of the draw plays a significant factor in any game regardless of how stacked your deck is with great cards. Both players get a turn one mulligan if they choose, and I’ve played many games where I felt like that choice almost decided the game. Visit any Hearthstone forum or discussion group and you’ll hear plenty of grousing about the RNG (random number generator) and I’ve cursed it myself from time to time. But the truth of it is that Hearthstone embraces the fact that luck is the great leveler in an environment where you might have a novice player that hasn’t spent a dime on the game competing with another who’s spent hundreds of dollars on booster packs and is coming to the table with a deck full of Legendary or Epic cards.

Which leads to the big, nasty discussion that is required about how Hearthstone is monetized. Yes, it is free-to-play and monetized via the purchase of booster packs, Arena entry fees and adventure packs. Yet there are no timers, paywalls or anything like that. When you break down a card you don’t want to generate Arcane Dust to build one you do want, you don’t have to wait three days or pay $5 or whatever to speed it up. You can literally play the game and never spend a single dollar, and I think you could do so and enjoy it at a casual level without a doubt- especially playing with like-minded friends. You can still earn boosters, arena tickets and other rewards just by playing the game. But yes, if you want to get the most out of the deckbuilding and really get involved with the game, you’re going to need to spend money. It is completely transparent, and it is completely respectful to both players that want to spend and players that do not.

For my part, I’ve purchased the adventure packs (Naxxramas and Blackstone Mountain) and have absolutely enjoyed playing these single-player options. They seemed expensive, but the series of challenging, puzzle-like bosses and the ample card rewards turned out to be well worth it and I’m looking forward to what’s next in that area. I’ve bought a handful of boosters, but most of my extra cards have come through earning gold by completing daily quests that challenge you to win a certain number of games as a particular class, cast X number of spells, kill X number of minions- those kinds of things. You can get a booster for 100 gold (normally two packs is $2.99) or you can get an arena ticket for 150 gold, which always gets you at least one booster and other rewards. It’s well worth it.

Arena is a draft mode, and it’s brilliant even though I’m absolutely awful at it. You get 30 choices of three cards each to build your deck and then you play against matchmade players until you lose three times. Then you get your reward. Do well enough and you can cover your fee to get back in there with a new deck. The game does a tremendous job of incentivizing playing it.

The Ranked mode is where most play occurs, and it’s a random ladder where you are matched up with similarly-ranked players. It can be frustrating if you’re paired up against someone who is running a class or deck type that just destroys what you are using, but them’s the breaks. You ain’t gonna win ‘em all. But the idea is to keep winning more than you’re losing to advance in rank.

But there again, I’m not very good myself so a lot of times I feel like I’m just beating my head against a wall. I’ll tweak a deck, maybe stick in a couple of new cards and try it again. This is fun to me, but I’m also not ultra-competitive and I’m not keyed into whatever is going on in the meta or whatever. All that is definitely if you want it, and Hearthstone can become a very serious hobby occupation if you so choose. There’s virtually infinite depth and variety, as is usual for a well-developed CCG, and there are always more cards to pursue to fill out a deck or to realize a certain strategy. Heck, maybe you want to have a completely gold-card deck- those are kind of like foils. God help you. I fall somewhere in between the causal and the hardcore and I’ve got my limits and expectations set. Much like most players, I suspect, in a game that has literally millions of them at this point. It’s really up to you how deep you want the rabbit hole to go.

Beyond all the debate over whether the game is “pay to win” or whatever, beyond whether certain cards or builds are broken, beyond whatever grief the RNG is giving a player what remains is that Hearthstone is a simply staggering piece of game design. Every time I play, I marvel at some subtle aspect of it or some unexpected combination of mechanic and situation. Quite frankly, I think it blows every other CCG that has come since Magic out of the water and not only because there are certain elements of it that could only happen in the digital space, but also because it is as close as any game has gotten to matching the genius of Garfield’s original design. It’s so clean, so unfettered by complication that it almost comes across as simplistic. But what you are really seeing there is the designers of the game acknowledging that a great design needs to be accessible, approachable and inviting.

I think it’s very symbolic that the game is visually and audibly framed as if you were walking into a tavern to play a game on a table with a real player. That’s another fine point that the creators of this game didn’t miss- that one of the things that made Magic great was that face-to-face interaction, even if here it is reduced to canned emotes. The community is huge, the meta intimidating but just as alluring as it is in real-world CCG play. But then I think of all the things that Hearthstone eliminates- even things like having to sort, store and manage a large card collection, having to find time to go to a CCG hall to play against real players who may or may not proper hygiene- and I realize that this is very much what the future of tabletop gaming could be, regardless of the luddism of the whole “gaming unplugged” set.

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