I’ve come to find, as my gaming tastes have evolved over the years, that my favorite types of games come from the “Easy to learn, tough to master” genre. It’s a genre that Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft arguably perfects.
Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft is a collectible card game similar to Magic the Gathering, Yu-Gi-Oh, or the Pokemon Trading Card Game. In it, you build a deck of 30 cards comprised of minions, spells and weapons. You then pit your deck (and chosen hero, which come with unique powers and cards) against a world of opponents as you battle to take their life from 30 to zero, before they do the same. This is done in either the game’s casual mode (a place where games are played free of consequence), ranked mode (where games contribute or take away from your ranking based on wins and losses) and Arena (where you draft a set of 30 random cards and do battle against people in the same situation for prizes and glory).
Now obviously, there are many more details to the game than that, but Hearthstone never bothers to bog you down with the details at once, so neither will I. It’s a game that maximizes it’s tutorial modes and interface in a way that allows even the most novice players to jump in and right away feel like they have some grasp of what’s going on, even if it means just being able to join a game without completely embarrassing yourself.
And that one seemingly insignificant quality is what separates Hearthstone from the legions of other digital CCG experiences. It’s a game designed from the ground-up specifically for this format, rather than trying to convert from a native physical format, and as such allows players with no experience in this type of game to join without the fear of having no idea what is going on.
Once they do join, what they will find is a game that is simply addictive. Hearthstone is one part satisfying because of skill, and one part due to luck (commonly referred to as RNG). For the most part, your victories will come through knowing how to build the proper deck, and being able to really analyze a situation and knowing exactly what play to make.
On the other hand, there will always come a moment where pure luck will dictate the pace of a game. Maybe it’s through luck of the draw, or a random effect card going your way, but you will lose and win games from time to time based on aspects of pure luck. Not more than you will through good plays perhaps, though the sting these losses carry with them can sometimes make it seem like that, but it is a big part of the game.
It’s akin to gambling in a game of skill. You can hone your abilities to a point where you are a pro, but you’re still praying to lady luck at night.
Luckily, even if you do find yourself taking your lumps more often than not, it’s still easy to appreciate the game for its fantastic card art and hidden sense of humor. That and being able to find a game at any time (a huge upgrade over physical card games where finding a game is anything but instant), in any mode and having it never play out the exact same way twice. Or the joy of just getting a new card you’ve been dying to use.
Yes, when you first start Hearthstone it’s a true journey filled with discovery and wonder. It’s a very easy game to learn to love.
But where the game truly becomes brilliant is when you choose to master it.
This is where Hearthstone’s “meta game” reveals itself. The meta is the pulse of Hearthstone’s competitive scene, and is based largely around what the most popular decks are at the moment. It’s similar to the stock market. One day a particular deck or card is king of the world, and the next day it’s borderline unplayable (see the story of the Starving Buzzard card for proof). Changes happen in a second, and you need to be able to keep up if you want to stand a chance to making it to the game’s Legendary ranking (of which less than a percent of Hearthstone’s millions of players occupy). For that matter, even getting past the lower ranks requires some knowledge of what’s happening in Hearthstone’s world at large.
It all combines to make Hearthstone the rare kind of mobile game that is worth spending thousands of hours on, even if it is only played in 15 minute spurts of free time.
Thankfully then the Android version of this game stands quite well. Hearthstone isn’t elaborate from an interface or technological standpoint, making its mobile transition a fairly easy one in terms of recreating the experience. You will find the touch controls lead to the occasional accidental play or two, and you do need to be connected to the internet to play (not to mention it’s tablet only for the moment, barring certain backchannel set-ups), but otherwise this is an ideal mobile experience.
So what’s the catch with Hearthstone? Well, it’s the pay system. Hearthstone is free to play, and some pros at the game have proven it is possible to get to the game’s highest ranks, without spending a dime. However, with every new expansion of the game, and as it grows and grows, it becomes harder to truly make real progress in the game without spending a little cash.
There is an in-game currency system, that allows you to purchase cards and arena runs (which in turn yield cards and more) but those with ambition to reach the top of the game (or even stay consistently competitive with anything out there), are going to have to face the prospect of ponying up some dough at some point. This has only become truer as the game’s expansions are released.
But should you let that bother you? I don’t think so.
Hearthstone is a game that can rob you of your spending cash as quickly as it can your free time, but it doesn’t require you to until you decide you are willing to do so. Whether or not you will is entirely up to each player, but there is enough replay value, pure content and unadulterated gaming goodness in Hearthstone to justify it being the only game you play for months on end. You’re unlikely to ever spend more than the value you get out of the game, making it a case of free to play done right, if not always cheap.
Hearthstone has not stopped generating buzz since its limited release alpha version, and it doesn’t appear to be losing momentum anytime soon. It stands shoulder to shoulder with anything Blizzard has ever developed, and may just well end up being their biggest game to date. It sucks you in and never gives you a reason to leave.
If you’ve just happened on a new Android tablet, the very first thing you should do with it is install Hearthstone.
Summary: Addictive, evolving and constantly enjoyable, Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft is in every way a masterpiece of modern gaming.