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Cracked LCD- Hearthstone in Review (again)


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.


This War of Mine Review


They say that civilization is only three meals away from barbarism, but I managed six. After two days without food, I stabbed an elderly priest in a fight over carrot and then fled in terror from his avenging friends. As if I didn’t feel bad enough after that, This War of Mine informed me that the carrot did nothing to assuage my gnawing hunger.

It’s very much that kind of game, where you’re damned whatever you do. It loses no opportunity to ram home the bleakness of its setting, the trials of three civilians trying to survive in a war-torn city. Sometimes, its solemnity tips over the edge into parody. But mostly it traps you in a vice between compelling gameplay and the tragic consequences of your decisions.

You spend the game in a variety of buildings. During the day, it’s your hideout in a ruined house. The first job is to strip the building of accessible raw materials. Then you c

an use what you’ve found to build things like shovels and crowbars to get to other parts of the house to ransack. When you’ve stripped the place clean, you can start to construct the rudiments of living. Furniture, water stills, stoves, heaters, basic medicine and so on. There’s a substantial technology tree to explore, and a diverse range of threats that need to be headed off.

Doing anything in the game requires clicking on an interaction point, then waiting while a brief timer ticks down as you complete the task. It’s obvious enough where you can click, although the icons used to denote what you can do there take a bit of getting used to. With such simplistic core gameplay mechanics, things are in danger of getting a bit repetitive. And during that day, it can feel that way, although you’ll sometimes be interrupted by strangers wanting to barter, or looking for help. The night, however, is a different matter.

After emptying your shelter of resources, the only way to gain more is to scavenging in the surrounding locations. You can only do this at night: it’s too dangerous during the day. The side on view is transformed into a two-dimensional stealth game with passing similarities to Mark of the Ninja. You must creep through your target building, looking for loot and hoping you don’t encounter hostile inhabitants. Sounds in the darkness are represented with expanding circles. It could be a rat. It could be a fellow scavenger. It could be an aggressive bandit with a gun.

These forays out into the ruined city thrum with tension, because you never know what’s out there. That abandoned garage you’ve chosen to loot could be empty, or crawling with dangerous inhabitants. You’ve no way of knowing when you set out. I once arrived at a school, desperate for supplies, and was horrified to find others already picking it over. I waited outside in the cold for the chance to sneak in unseen and grab a few meagre scraps, when an armed man came out to stand guard. “Hey you!” he shouted, and my heart was in my mouth. “There’s plenty for everyone,” he continued, and I don’t think I’ve ever felt more pathetically grateful to a bunch of pixels.

It’s imperative that you have a successful night because the game doesn’t hold any fake concepts of balance. Life in This War of Mine is nasty, brutish and short, and the game is designed to teach you the grim reality in short order. If you want to build tools or repair your walls, the raw materials can be pulled from piles of rubble everywhere. But daily essentials such as food and medicine are like gold dust. Their rarity doesn’t stop your characters getting sick, or hungry. So sick and hungry they go, their despair showing in lethargic animations with heavy limbs, until they die, or you’re able to find or trade for what you need. Having to trade a whole stash of jewellery for a single tin of food is a painful demonstration of what’s really valuable in life.

This is the opposite of how a strategy game should work. You should have hints about the outcome of your actions, be able to make plans, organise things to gain advantage over the game. This War of Mine gives you little beyond the obvious, like knowing an empty, ruined shop is a safer and more productive scavenging location than an occupied church. But nothing is certain. And as you charges become exhausted and famished, you become desperate enough to risk anything in the quest for sustenance.

Sometimes, scavenging offers horrible vignettes of life under occupation. Once, while looting a burned-out supermarket I had to hide behind shelves and watch as some soldiers dragged off a defenseless woman. They had guns and I had nothing. What else could I do? But just like the lack of food, the game punished me anyway, infecting my protagonists with despair about their inability to help others in need. If they get too morose, they’ll commit suicide. This is not a game to play for laughs.

The sombre tone is reflected in the excellent artwork. While not a graphical powerhouse, the muted palette and distinctive pencil-drawn style suits the mood. The sound design is spartan with little more than the odd sound effect over the music. But it works. The sudden warm crackle as you turn on the radio offers a little glimmer of hope in the ruin of normality.

As a veteran strategy gamer, I have burned a thousand cities in my time with never a thought for the suffering of the inhabitants. After playing This War of Mine, I doubt I’ll ever play a wargame again without wondering about their fate. Mechanically it’s perhaps a little too bare bones and repetitive. But in terms of theme and narrative, it’s an absolute triumph.

Originally published in The Average Gamer. Reproduced here with kind permission.

Democracy 3 Review


Everybody Wants to Rule the World, according to a well-known song from a band hailing from my home town. Well now you can experience ruling a small part of it, at least, with Democracy 3.

The new game screen gives you a choice of western nations to choose from, but it’s deceptive: your pick has very little impact on the game. Curiously for a game with this title, the actual different models of democracy like first past the post and proportional representation aren’t modeled at all. Rather, this is a game about the act of governance itself, of raising and spending revenue for the good (or otherwise) of your citizens.

Naturally, a realistic simulation of such a thing would be impossible, and even coming close would require a gargantuan quantity of inter-relating factors to influence and track. This is what Democracy does, and it could easy have been totally overwhelming were it not for a lot of clever interface design.

Most of the game takes place on a screen of circles, each with a colour and an icon describing what it is: blue for statistics (like GDP), red for serious problems (like an asthma epidemic) but mostly white for policies that you put in place (like maternity leave). However over one and arrows will magically appear showing what other things influence it, positively or negatively and how strongly.

It is overwhelming at first, but it very quickly becomes second nature to hover over a problem spot, pick out the most important related policies and tweak them to your liking.

Of course you’re not limited to simply changing spending levels for things already on the mind-map, you can add your own too from an impressive palette of policy from the mundane, like a mansion tax, to the blue-sky such as a new space program. The selection is expanded considerably by a new DLC pack called Social Engineering, which gives you a whole new raft of ideas to play with.

For those masochists who want to engage with the hard numbers instead of this super-whizzy graphical interface then there’s a staggering array of bar charts, pie graphs, numeric breakdowns and the like to keep you happy. You can even delve into the murky world of political focus groups and voting intentions if you want, although most of us can make do with the vague voting intention percentage you get each turn.

Even with the benefits of such a well designed overlay, this remains a colossal exercise in number crunching and could quite easily have been an awful, boring snoozefest. Thankfully, it isn’t.


It must be understood that, like the SimCity games of yore, this isn’t really a game with a goal. You can aim to bring peace and happiness to your population and get voted in over and over again. But it’s not actually that difficult: build the basis of a strong economy without putting too many noises out of joint and your approval ratings will quickly go through the roof. But happiness is overrated. The appeal of popularity quickly wears thin.

Rather, the draw of the experience is simply to experiment, and this is where the game reveals its depth.

Whatever your political sympathies, Democracy 3 quickly demonstrates how high-flying ideology is rapidly pinned to the earth by the tedious tethers of reality. Raise excessive taxes on the rich and your economy will become hugely noncompetitive, leaving you with a soaring deficit and vicious interest repayments. Slash welfare to the bone and you’ll find crime and civil unrest running rampant, with similarly disastrous economic results.

The fun in the game, for me, was working it as close to the bone as possible, tinkering with the engines of government to deliberately create oddball or extreme mix of policies to see what situations develop in the country and still try and keep things on the rails enough to keep you in office. The game conspired with me in my efforts to create democratically acceptable socialist paradise by throwing curveballs in the shape of various random events like terrorist attacks to deal with. When my policies forced disgruntled capitalists into trying to bomb me out of Downing Street, I knew I was pursuing the right policies.

You see, one of the most striking, and true to life things about the game is that there are things voters care about more than the cost of living. You can succeed in improving life by almost every conceivable statistic and still get voted out because you ignored voters’ ingrained moral and political beliefs. So long as you keep various core demographics happy enough to keep voting for you, you can run things close to the edge and still return a majority at election time.

Democracy 3 might not be a particularly accurate simulation of a modern nation state but it is a fascinating experiment in sandbox gaming, an open world for you to explore shorn of its geography and culture and reduced almost entirely to numbers, yet enthralling for all that.

Shelter Review


It was the blind cruelty of mathematics that got me in the end.

Shelter is a game which aims unapologetically for your hearstrings. From the outset where you, a badger mother in charge of five cubs, must help a sick cub before you can leave your flooding burrow, it tries to make you fraught with the responsibility of caring for these helpless little bundles of fur.

But I’m a hardened gamer, used to laying waste to battlefields with overwhelming firepower, not babysitting badger cubs, and I approached Shelter in the standard mindset. Two cubs lost when they strayed from my protection and into the dark night, lost forever in the gloaming. Another swept away during a badly-timed crossing of a raging torrent. But they were collateral damage sustained on the way to game end and a nice achievement. Nothing to worry about.

It was on the last level, with two cubs left to feed that realisation dawned. A big part of Shelter is providing food for your cubs: spotting edible roots and grubbing them up, or the surprisingly engrossing process of stalking and hunting frogs and foxes. They get gradually paler as they hunger, a apt visual metaphor for slow starvation, and it’s part of your job to make sure the weakest get their fair share, no simple task in a mass of squeaking, squabbling offspring.

But with just two left, the task become immeasurably easier. Food, which once felt scarce, was now stupidly bountiful. With only two to sort out, feeding the hungrier of them was absurdly simple. And with this came the gut punch of nature’s iron laws: you make your own life easier by sacrificing that of others.

I’m a biologist by education. I learned about this stuff, about ecosystems, food chains, inverse predator-prey relationships. I can watch the most mawkishly fetishised nature documentaries without flinching. But this sudden, simple demonstration of those abstract concepts in action broke through my scientific detachment. I’d failed: I was a bad player and, far worse, a bad parent.

When the slightly confusing, scripted end came, reinforcing the game’s message of cyclical, unfeeling nature, it seemed both fair, and just.

So I started again. It’s a short game, taking maybe 90 minutes from beginning to end. And the art is quite wonderful, a variety of expressionist landscape paintings bought vividly to life on your screen. I was more than happy to see it all over for a second time.

This time I took more care of the cubs. I learned the variable stripe patterns on their backs so I could tell them apart, worked hard to shepherd them in the right directions and to always feed those most in need. I kept them close in the dark, hid with them from eagles in the long grass, bit my lip with worry as they struggled to catch up through foaming rivers and blazing scrub.

It felt a bit repetitive. For all the visual glory in the game, mechanically it’s pretty much all a variation on the theme of timing things right so that your always-following cubs make it through the window of safety you’ve chosen before the dangerous environments close in. Once you understand that, it’s plain sailing.

But the feeling of vindication when I made it through with all of them alive was exhilarating. Two or three runs is probably enough to glean all you can from the game: whether you think that represents good value depends on how much you’ll enjoy subtle emotional manipulation. There’s a day-by-day nurture mode that drip-feeds you sentimentality, but it’s little more than a curious distraction.

If it gets through to you, it pushes some extraordinarily primal parenting buttons in the psyche. If it doesn’t, it’s a short and overly-easy badger simulator. For me, Shelter taught me to care about pixels, and it paid off.

Knock-Knock Review


Knock-Knock is the latest game from Russian developer Ice Pick Lodge. That may mean nothing to you: it meant nothing to me when I first downloaded the game. Some of their previous titles did chime a little as names I’d heard now and again – Pathologic or The Void. However I soon came to understand that for those more familiar with this studio and its titles, the name presages a unique combination of inventive gameplay and jarring oddness.

Almost everything you need to know about Knock-Knock can be gleaned from one brief anecdote. About halfway through the game I spent one level wandering aimlessly around a darkened house, turning on lights and began to grow pretty bored. Then I opened a door, walked through and found myself in a dank corridor which I had to wander up and down through a series of more doors before discovering I was back at the start of the tedious level again. Infuriated, I wanted to stop. But I kept on playing.

You’ll spend a lot of time doing nothing in Knock-Knock. Pretty much every other level consists of you walking through a series of perfectly safe rooms to a clock, starting the mechanism and then wandering out into a perfectly safe forest where you’ll perambulate aimlessly until you find yourself back at the same house again. On the alternate levels where a little more is demanded of you, play involves walking into rooms, holding space to fix the lights and occasionally coweing behind furniture while ghoulish haunts drift by in a freakish parody of hide and seek.

The game tells you virtually none of this. You’re left to find out almost all all the mechanics for yourself by guess and by trial and error: what I’ve revealed is the obvious stuff that will become clear after a level or two. And there is more to it than I’ve described. Indeed it’s entirely possible given the way the game offers you absolutely nothing on a plate at all that there are vast abysses of labyrinthine mechanical complexity hidden beneath this simplistic surface.

But I doubt it. I think that play wise, it’s often grindingly repetitive and frustrating, occasionally bordering on the tedious. So why was I compelled to play through to the end?


Your avatar in Knock-Knock is some sort of hermetic insomniac who clearly seems himself as a scientist or academic of some kind. What he actually is, it rapidly becomes apparent, is completely deranged. As he makes his nightly rounds through his randomized and ever-shifting house, he whispers to you in an unsettling soprano gibberish about his past and his current predicament. But it’s never clear what, if anything, is reality and what is the creation of a mind badly unhinged by lack of sleep and the suppression of guilty secrets.

You can play through to the end and you won’t get all the answers to the questions that plague the game. You can play through to the end more than once – there are different endings – and you’ll still be wondering what the hell it’s all about. About why there’s a freakish ghost who drags a wheeled leg behind her as she shuffles through the rooms searching for you, or the pitiful apparition of a crying child whose sobs follow you through every level where she appears. About the unsettling inferences to authoritarian dystopias, or the bizarre “fragment of reality” cut scenes you’ll stumble onto occasionally. There are never concrete answers. It isn’t that sort of game.

What it does give you is a lot of intrigue puzzling over the narrative scraps that you’ve been fed and also in marveling over the creative manner in which they’re delivered. It’s kind of hard to describe the way in which the game uses its unreliable narrator and the fourth wall to really communicate the idea of a mind in turmoil. But here’s one example: a missing diary is a crucial component of the plot, and sometimes the game will interrupt the narrator’s ramblings with flashes of diary pages that actually make sense in the context of the conversation. You feel like you’re talking to yourself for no good reason.

While the plot does most of the grunt work in terms of pulling you on through the more turgid bits of gameplay, it’s aided and abetted by the visual and sound design. Don’t let the cartoon graphics fool you: when the lights fizz and go out and eyeballs start coming through the walls you’ll still jump like a five-year old. And the disembodied voices of the phantoms that stalk your home, searching for you, whisper messages you may prefer to forget.

There was more than one occasion in Knock-Knock when I wished that ephemeral things like the narrative and the sound weren’t quite so compelling and I could abandon the game over the poor mechanics. But they are, and I couldn’t. Whether this can really be recommended, especially at launch price, depends strongly on how patient you are with repetitive play. Sadly there’s no demo version to try and find out. But perhaps that’s all part of the mysterious and alienating themes that pervade the game from the outset.