Before discovering the immersive creativity of tabletop games, I was admittedly a bit of a screen junkie. That’s what fuels these confessions – my pursuit of unplugged entertainment. Not only because it is new to me, but because my eyes have grown tired of being bombarded by pixels.
When I do get the itch to mash some buttons, Blizzard is the best scratch out there. Old habits, I guess. Little did I know that I could turn to this esteemed developer for a digitized tabletop experience. A little over a year ago they released Hearthstone, a free-to-play CCG (collectable card game) that has been gaining traction in competitive videogaming circles.
The game was even released as a mobile app this year, back in April, ensuring that this digital CCG could be as portable as a deck of Magic the Gathering (MtG), Android: Netrunner, and their ilk. The difference being that Hearthstone won’t squeeze the life out of your wallet. Yes, like most f2p games it has a cash shop, though diligent players can acquire much of the same rewards by earning in-game currency (albeit a little more slowly).
I’m usually late to the party on these things. Case in point: every other game I’ve delved into thus far. It’s why I like to focus on the playing experience rather than attempt to quantify a qualitative assessment with some sort of subjective ranking system – at this point there’s plenty of that out there; Metascores are readily available, though often without context. I like to think of Tabletop Confessions as that context.
Each player adopts the guise of a particular hero from Blizzard’s World of Warcraft universe, the fantasy setting that lends itself thematically to the game. The heroes all have their own signature ability as well as a set of unique cards designed to simulate the feel of each character’s class/ archetype. The priest, for instance, has a slew of cards that synergize with its ability to heal both itself and minion cards.
Gameplay unfolds much like any other CCG. Players are encouraged to construct customized decks, pulling from a short list of class-specific cards as well as a multitude of neutral ones. Matches last for as long as it takes to reduce your opponent’s health from 30 to 0 by attacking them with monsters, minions and spells. Tension in the game is created by the need to balance offensive gambits with defensive countermeasures.
Perhaps the biggest improvement to the MtG formula is how Hearthstone handles mana, the ethereal currency upon which both games hinge. It is accrued automatically now, incrementing by one each turn, instead of needing to be drawn from each player’s pool of cards. This focuses up the deck-building aspect the game so that it can concentrate on functional strategy over resource management.
The innovations made to an already-successful formula ensure that this system is approachable yet deep. There are a series of tutorial matches players must endure before gaining access to the game itself. These levels gradually introduce core mechanics, so that an understanding of how to play is all-but guaranteed once they are completed. Blizzard has also developed single-player campaigns where you can test your might against AI instead of playing against other people.
These training missions make for its greatest selling point. In the spirit of simulating a genuine card-dueling experience, Jessie bravely volunteered to step into the fray. While we’ve been exploring all that is tabletop together since February, Hearthstone marks the first time she’s gone digital.
Whenever a videogame incorporates mandatory tutorials into its introduction, I worry. For my own patience, for the optimistic developers who thought this was worth everybody’s time, for the players expecting yet another uninspired series of how-to missions. Hearthstone’s introduction avoids these pitfalls rather handedly. It is charming, even for hand-holding exercise, establishing the game’s casual tone right out the gate.
The greatest appeal is that it doesn’t take itself seriously at first. Jessie is admittedly the last person I’d suggest play a videogame, but Hearthstone really doesn’t feel like one. It plays indistinguishably from the CCGs it aims to emulate. There are certainly more-serious circles for players looking to powergame, including a burgeoning pro-gaming circuit, though the game manages to compartmentalize casual and competitive play through their inclusion of multiple game modes: ranked, unranked, arena, tavern and solo.
Once you’ve succeeded at indoctrinating your loved ones, Blizzard’s Battle.net matchmaking system lets you play head-to-head with your friends just as you would with any other one-on-one card game. Its digital format takes advantage of an interactive explanation of the rules, which is a luxury most analog products cannot accommodate. Hearthstone is a very accessible gateway into both Blizzard’s engaging game design and competitive CCGs as a whole.