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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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Thrower’s Tallies: Games of the Year 2014

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Another year, another end of year wrap piece. Time to reflect on the past 365 days as you force down another sweetmeat and another glass of cheap sherry and then to wonder what the future holds.

This has not been the best gaming year for me, personally. Not just in terms of titles released but in terms of finding opportunities to play. For one reason and another, I just haven’t spent the time at the gaming table I’d have liked.

That makes me sad. Real life is important, of course, but you only get one shot at it, a thing I’ve become increasingly aware of as the years slip past. Since gaming is one of my favourite things to do, I ought to be able to find more space for it. Other things just always seem to intervene.

So I look at my collection, much of which is gathering dust in the attic, and wonder if I’ll ever play most of them as many times as they deserve. Or that one day I might look back and regrest not making more time for my favourite things, which so often get lost in the push and shove of family life.

I guess that’s a game in and of itself.

Anyway, enough of the melodrama. This long preamble is setting up the point that a lot of the games I’ve played this year just haven’t lasted beyond the required review plays. Not because they’re bad games, just because they weren’t quite good enough to elbow their way in to a very crowded itenerary.

But when I looked back on what I’d played this year, I conveniently found that there were exactly three games that had broken that trend. Three games that had forced themselves back onto the table after I thought I was done with them by virtue of their brilliance. I was also exceptionally surprised by what they were. Can you guess?

Before I reveal all, I wanted to mention something that’s been bothering me more and more in recent years. I’m just not seeing as much fun in new titles as I used to. I still want to game as much as I ever do, but that itch of excitement when you read a preview or tear the shrinkwrap has gone.

The problem, I think, is that game design has become a process of iterative improvement rather than fizzing creativity. When I got back into board gaming at the turn of the millenium, the design community was still buzzing with the influx of ideas from Germany. Over the next few years, recombining this new paradigm with the traditional American model of gaming proved a fertile furrow.

Now, those ideas seem to have run dry. Genre-breaking games seem to be few and far between. I think this is because, with the market glutted by kickstarter titles, we’re near the limits of what can be done with mere card, wood and plastic. Newer titles are, for the most part, still a step up on older ones. But the improvements are so small, it’s not worth the money or the effort to acquire and learn them over existing games.

We’re done with the misery. On to the awards.

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#3 Band of Brothers: Ghost Panzer

Don’t judge games by their boxes. I was put off the original game in this series, Screaming Eagles, by the small publisher and the bad art. Then, while it had its supporters, it didn’t seem to gain much fan traction either, so I wrote it off.

That was a serious mistake. I enjoyed its perfect blend of realism, accessibility, tactics and excitement so much that I played it solo, something I never do. I enjoyed it so much that I went right out and bought Screaming Eagles second hand in case it never got reprinted. The components still suck, but these may be the best tactical wargame rules ever made.

#2 Splendor

This was the real shocker. In many respects, Splendor represents a lot of what I dislike about modern game design. But it keeps coming off the shelf, again and again. And it keeps finding its way into friends collections, again and again. It’s a keeper and, on reflection, one of the best Eurogames I’ve played.

While everyone was mistakenly raving about the way Five Tribes had cross-hobby appeal, Splendor was quietly doing just that in the background. It has one page of rules, can be played competently by my 8-year old, yet is challenging to win at consistently. It’s got gorgeous pieces, a smidgen of interaction and can be completed in 30 minutes. When you step back, what’s not to love?

#1 Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition

Ok, so I’m cheating slightly. But in terms of table time, this is the undoubted winner this year. I thought I was done with role-playing games. I thought over-heavy rules and anti-social players had ruined the genre for me forever. Then fifth edition came along and reminded me of just how amazing, how limitless and soaring, role-playing can be when it gets things right.

I have never seen a rules system which achieves so much with so little. Yes, there’s still lots of spells and magic items and stats to remember. But the actual play mechanics are lean and mean, yet manage to cover almost any situation, allowing groups to mine whatever rich seam of fantasy they choose. I’m so looking forward to where this system is going to go next year. More so than any board game in the pipeline.

Well, except XCOM, perhaps.

Speaking of which, I guess I spend enough time iOS gaming nowadays to make a best of year list for that platform too. I have an odd love-hate relationship with my iPad. Part of me longs for the hours and hours of total engrossment that only a AAA PC or console game can provide. On the other hand, in a busy life I’m grateful that I can now enjoy such excellent bite sized gaming.

It feels like 2014 is the year mobile gaming came of age with meaty franchises and big studios finding their way to the app store. But these are the top of the pile for me, staying installed long after their peers have been deleted.

#3 Hoplite

I’m a big fan of rogue-like games but the classic model doesn’t tend to port well to tablets. It’s too involved, too stat-heavy. Hoplite hit the nail on the head by reducing the genre to a kind of puzzle game, with role-playing elements. It sounds dull, but isn’t, because the procedural generation ensures every puzzle is unique.

#2 FTL

FTL may be the most perfect game in the most perfect genre ever devised, an endless story generator with strategy and role playing thrown in for free. I’ve yet to beat it, even after about twenty hours of play time. And I’m still trying, even after about twenty hours of plat time. This might be number one, were it not marginally better on PC than tablet.

#1 Hearthstone

FATtie Erik Twice has asked me several times why I complain about it all the time on social media, when I profess to love it. The answer is simple: it’s the same reason drug addicts complain about crack. Addiction is a terrible thing, but it doesn’t make the high point of the trip any the less sweet.

Cracked LCD- Hearthstone (IOS) in Review

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After a lengthy public beta, a general release on PC and Mac and then an agonizingly long one week delay following a “soft launch”, Blizzard’s much-ballyhooed Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft has finally hit the platform that could potentially make this free-to-play collectible card game a phenomenon. Hearthstone on iPad is a masterful implementation of a masterfully designed game rich with the kind of polish, refinement and attention to detail that has qualified Blizzard’s best work reaching back to the very first Warcraft. Bar none, Hearthstone is the best card game available on IOS and it may just be one of the most significant examples of video games finally repaying all of that debt they’ve had to tabletop games for all of these years.

Like most of Blizzard’s work, Hearthstone is built on a rock-solid design that is immediately approachable by the noobest of the noob, yet the myriad fine points of the design open the doors to tremendous depth and avenues for thoughtful gameplay. The rules are so simple and straightforward that many naysayers and hardline tabletoppers might decry it as a “dumbed down” version of Magic: The Gathering. However, as I always say, those who declare designs that are streamlined and accessible as “dumbed down” are the dumb ones.

There is virtually nothing mechanically fussy or procedurally complicated about the game from the deckbuilding to the highest level of online play. You either take out a stock deck or build a deck of 30 cards from your collection. Each deck corresponds to one of nine Warcraft character types, and each has a unique special ability. Because the deckbuilding limits you to 30 cards, you’re forced to keep decks lean and focused, selecting from class-specific cards as well as neutral options available to all. Those intimidated by selecting cards have some help on hand via a suggestion tool. With deck in hand, you can head out to practice games against fairly competent AI opponents, online casual or ranked games , or an Arena mode that is effectively a sort of sealed deck endurance mode.

Once you’re in a game, it’s about as cut and dried as CCGs get. Every turn you add a mana crystal to your supply- there are no resource cards, no “mana curve”, and you will never be screwed because you didn’t draw the right card. This mechanic keeps players on an even footing in terms of resources while also setting an escalating tempo for the game. Each card, of course, has a mana cost and you’ll be playing Minions, various spells that buff or debuff other cards, direct effect spells and Secrets that remain hidden until the opponent does something that triggers its effect, like immediately killing a summoned Minion.

Creatures have an attack and a defense value, can’t attack on the turn they were summoned, et cetera et cetera. The goal of the game is to reduce your opponent’s life from 30 to zero with Minion attacks or direct damage, blah blah blah. This is all very basic stuff, really, and anyone who has ever played a CCG will feel like they’re putting on a favorite pair of sneakers. Anyone who hasn’t will be playing with some degree of competency within an hour, even though they may not quite yet grasp the subtleties of when to play or not play a card, when to trigger an effect or when to use the extra Mana Crystal card the second player gets as a balancing handicap. Regardless of a small handful of keywords and the inherent intricacies of limitless card interactions, it ain’t rocket science.

But let’s be clear about it- Hearthstone, as a design, is not particularly innovative. It doesn’t break the CCG mold and it will not forever change the way we look at card games. It’s not a quantum shift like Magic: The Gathering was, at least in terms of its white papers. Hearthstone’s greatness doesn’t like in that direction. Where Hearthstone earns its greatness is in how Blizzard’s developers have dismantled the core CCG model and thrown out all of those rocket science elements that sometimes put off game players from more hobby-oriented tabletop games or “hardcore” video games. Blizzard has stripped everything down, wrapping it in a package that looks expensive, complete and inviting with completely intuitive controls and gameplay that is perfectly positioned for all audiences. Ease of play counts for a lot. Ease of play plus a virtually flawless, immaculately balanced and meticulously crafted game design that welcomes players of all skill levels counts for everything.

This game could be huge, as if it didn’t already have a enormous player base. Everyone with an iPad now has free access to one of the best card games in recent years, and it’s absolutely free-to-play so there’s no excuse to not at least check it out if you are at all interested in using your iPad as a gaming device. Hold on, I just hit the brakes there with “free-to-play”, didn’t I?

We’ve all seen abusive, exploitative and utterly repulsive free-to-play schemes in digital CCGs and everything from match-3s to AAA disasters like Dungeon Keeper. We’ve seen games that use “free-to-play” as a leverage point for psychological shenanigans like making players wait hours or even days to build something unless you pay some kind of scrip currency bought with real money. We’ve seen games where you are actually locked out of playing because you’ve run out of “energy”- but oh look, you can buy energy gems with your credit card! Hearthstone has none of that kind of nonsense, and it should serve as a shining example of how to monetize a free-to-play game in a way that respects the consumer and encourages players to spend money because the game is actually worth it.

I’ve spent about ten dollars total on the game, playing it on the PC since February (don’t worry, all of your progress from the PC/Mac version ports right over). And I’ve spent that money not because Blizzard has bamboozled me into paying for wilfully excluded content, features or any kind of “pay to win” con game- but because I love the game and I’ve ­wanted to spend a couple of bucks on it just for the spur-of-the-moment fun of opening a couple of booster packs. The incentive to spend money in this game is primarily because it is a quality product that earned my money, not because of pernicious design decisions.

A booster pack (five cards) costs 100 in-game gold, earned fairly easily by just playing online games. You can also buy two for $2.99, seven for $9.99 and so forth. In true CCG fashion, what you get is random so you might spend your way into the poor house and never get a particular card. So you can grind these cards into crafting dust if you’d like and use it to buy that card (and somehow validate your poor life decision). These boosters are the only real cost of the game, and it’s pretty easy even playing casually to earn enough gold to get a booster a day- particularly if you play the daily quests that give bonus gold for completing certain objectives. The sealed deck-style Arena mode has a 150 gold/$1.99 entry fee, but the rewards for surviving are the best payout in the game.

So yes, you can literally play Hearthstone for free, no strings attached. The core decks are great and if you prune your collection carefully you can make them very competitive. Sure, the “Johnny Suitcase” mentality is there and folks that spend hundreds of dollars on boosters will have a much larger card pool to draw from but it really doesn’t matter- if you’re playing casually or even in the ranked games, the likelihood that you’ll feel outspent rather than outplayed is extremely low. You might never even encounter someone that’s spent more than any reasonable person should on electronic cards.

If there’s anything to complain about regarding Hearthstone at this stage, it’s that it feels like there could have been another round of optimization before the general release. On my iPad 2, it plays fine but with a few seconds here and there of sluggishness. At first, it was very noticeable coming from the PC version but after a day of playing it whenever I had ten minutes (or three hours) to catch a game it doesn’t really bother me. The good news is that this is a game that will be broadly supported with technical fixes and additional content- it literally has nowhere to go but up, especially with an iPhone port coming later this year.

In the meantime, if anybody wants to take on my bad ass Hunter deck, I’m Zurenarrh on Battle.net.

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