Hearthstone Logo
I’m getting older. My free time is dwindling. I still love gaming in all forms (There’s even some decent no-limit holdem available 24×7 within 30 minutes of my house), but many of the old games I used to enjoy are looking a little weak to my older, wiser (?) eyes.

The games I’m enjoying the most these days have a few things in common:

  1. Bite-sized satisfaction
  2. A system that doesn’t get in the way of my enjoyment
  3. Tightly focused design

I find myself playing a lot more indie games these days (FTL, Prison Architect, Out There, Papers Please, and Goat Simulator among them). I play mostly on the PC and am only mildly frustrated that many of them don’t tax my gaming rig too heavily. So imagine my surprise that a free to play Collectible Card Game title from a AAA studio has me positively embarrassed at the amount of time it’s eating up.

That’s right, I’ve been bitten by Hearthstone. And I haven’t played World of Warcraft. Never-ever. Seriously.

I will confess to a strong Magic: The Gathering addiction in my past. I left it behind along with some other destructive habits in the mid-90’s while I was cleaning up my act and becoming a reasonably productive member of society. I sold a single card for like $190 back then thinking I got a great deal and get a little sad whenever I see the value of that Unlimited Time Walk these days. I will always, however, have a soft spot in my heart for the game. It’s a fun, deep game after all. In fact, when I tried Duels of the Planeswalkers some years back at E3 I went and bought it immediately for my Xbox 360. Unfortunately, Duels helped me remember a few of the things that annoyed me about M:TG.

Blizzard, true to form, took a reasonably mature game genre and polished their entry to a mirror sheen. They polished the S- out of that M-er F-er. Here are the two main things they did that are awesome:

  1. Eliminated Blocking and Instants/Interrupts. Here’s the first in a pair of good posts by Luke Laurie on designing to reduce analysis paralysis. Analysis paralysis drives me nuts and ruins games for me these days, whether its mine or someone else’s. There are a couple of systems in M:TG that increase the time required to take a turn, mostly because it’s forcing you to make real-time decisions about actions you need to take during the other person’s turn. I’m speaking of Instants (used to be Instants and Interrupts, if I’m not mistaken), and Blocking. Hearthstone takes care of both of these problems using Secrets and special Minion powers. Secrets trigger on certain conditions (for example, Counterspell), many of which happen during an opponent’s turn (Like when they cast a spell, or attack with Minions). Special Minion powers such as Taunt make them work as Blockers, since Taunt Minions have to be destroyed before you can target other things with your Minions.

    Ain't nobody got time for Instants and choosing Blockers

  2. Eliminated Lands. Lands were a huge random factor in M:TG that often determined success or failure. Nevermind the complexity of deck building they introduce (which is significant), but the luck factor in a multicolor deck (the fun ones) just goes up with each color you add. It was possible to have a run of turns where you failed to draw lands due to the shuffle. This all contributed to uneven power escalation and could leave you on the wrong side of a beat down. Hearthstone shuns Lands, Mana Colors, and all that noise and just gives you one new Mana Crystal each turn, along with some neat cards that can raise your mana temporarily (for free) or permanently (at a cost). So, not only do you lose the need to balance colors in a multicolor deck, you reduce the possibility space when guessing at your opponent’s possible moves. So how do they get the deck variety? CHARACTERS. Each Character can draw from a Common pool of cards, as well as a Character-specific pool, which adds all the personality you’d want or need in a game like this. There seems to be more than one way to play each Character, too.

There are some other things that I enjoy that have less to do with game design and more to do with ecosystem.

When I was originally playing M:TG, I’d have killed for a deckbuilder application, let alone a whole damned website with comments and upvotes and downvotes. In fact, there’s more than one of these, and they’re great. I can use the popular upvoted builds as a base and tweak, rather than spending my time experimenting with unsuccessful scratch builds, then questioning my results because my sample size might have been to small.

The sounds, art, and animation are really entertaining. The game board reminds of Warcraft III, constantly. I don’t really care about the Warcraft world lore much, but it definitely contributes to my enjoyment.

The fact that I could play this on an iPad if I had a new enough one is also appealing. I don’t have one, but if someone wanted to give me one for free like all my other Apple stuff I’d be glad to try it out!

Finally, the Arena, the thing they apparently make all their money off of, involves random draft (cards AND characters), random opponents and escalating prizes based on how many wins you get before being eliminated.
Don't get eliminated!

And you’re filling bars along the way to get more cards, and gold, and AAARGH they’re going straight to hell for releasing this wonderful, awful game.

In the end, Hearthstone delivers on my needs, with bite-sized (10 minutes per game), tightly focused design that doesn’t get in the way of my enjoying it. Sometimes, I’ll encounter a deck or even a single card that makes me roll my eyes and smile sadly, but I keep clicking the Play button and filling my bars and tweaking my decks.