Easy to pick up, engaging for all
Being a huge Magic: The Gathering fan, I was super excited for Blizzard's Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft announcement on Friday. However, I was a bit wary on how they would approach the game.
Collectible card games seem simple on the outside but require a lot of fine-tuning, complexity, and fans to make them enjoyable. Blizzard should be in a good position for the latter, but I wanted to get a first-hand (no pun intended) look at the mechanics of the game. Hearthstone has also been in development for a few years under 15 engineers ("Team 5"), so my hope was that the game is not only solid but fun to play.
The first thing I noticed when starting a game of Hearthstone was the simplicity. This certainly isn't a bad trait -- in fact, it's very inviting. I feel like even if I wasn't into collectible card games I'd still be able to grasp the concepts fairly quickly.
After selecting a hero, players start out with five cards in their hand and are able to switch out one card of their choosing for a random card in the deck (aka the traditional "mulligan" stage). I found this to be a really neat concept that puts the power into the player's hand vs leaving it up to chance. Each card is colorful, easy to read, and contains a simple definition of their trait (if they happen to have one).
On the flip side, the same simplicity that makes the game so accessible could potentially alienate hardcore card game players. The cards don't seem to have a lot of depth to them, and the ones that do happen to have traits are fairly elementary (like healing, haste, and taunt).
However, I learned that players have the ability to craft or unlock "expert" cards which are distinguished by their rarity (common, rare, epic, legendary). I don't believe Blizzard had expert or rares in its demo, so it's hard to say how these cards affect gameplay. Hearthstone is launching with 300 cards and the plan is to release more over time, so my guess is that they'll also add advanced traits as they tweak the game.
That being said, the complex parts of the game shine through in minion and hero strategies. Players can choose to use their cards to buff heroes or their minions in play, making attack strategies in the game a bit more complicated. To add to the complexity, players have the choice of which minions or hero they want to attack (unless a minion has the "taunt" ability).
This not only puts the power back into the attacking player's hand, but makes room for strategies around defending against said attacks. For those players used to Magic: The Gathering, you'll need to temporarily forget about the rules you're used to and start thinking a bit backwards.
One of my favorite things about the game is the ability to modify decks. Players can not only pick and choose the cards they want, they also have the option to have the computer pick a deck for them. Alternatively, players can hand pick a few favorites and have the computer fill out the rest of the cards in their deck. The Forge mode allows players to trade in earned card packs for the chance to play and win drafted cards, with the winner having the chance to receive more.
Speaking of competition, I was very curious if Blizzard would be supporting tournament play -- if the team planned on adding content for more serious players. Blizzard's plan is to gather player's thoughts throughout the beta as well as when the game launches to see if there's a need an an audience for tournament play.
I was told that they held an internal tournament to test it out, which seemed to go well, but again it's really up to the players to drive whether or not Blizzard will support tournament-based systems. As for cross-play, unfortunately at this time they have not been able to find a solution for iPad players to play with PC/Mac players, but those playing on the computer will be able to connect with friends via Battle.net.
Hearthstone is free to play, and the developers assured me that players don't have to pony up the cash to have a good time. They insinuated that all cards could be unlocked using traditional methods, but if players wanted to collect cards faster they can choose to pay for packs.
Since the online matching system pairs players based on skill, I doubt that it'll be a problem if players choose not to pay. The only downside to this is that players may end up with a much simpler game experience depending on how long it takes to unlock card packs. I was also a bit disappointed to hear that card trading is not a supported feature in Hearthstone.
Overall I was impressed with my Hearthstone experience and can definitely see myself playing when it comes out later this year. I appreciated the little things that the developers spent time on -- for example, the game board is not only animated, but it's intended to be played with. Clicking on a griffin's nest spurs up hay, tapping on windows can break them, and clicking on a light turns it on and off. It's the simple things that please me! In any case, this attention to detail tells me that Blizzard is set on engaging the player in Hearthstone, and that surely can't be a bad thing.