Prior to Penny Arcade Expo in March of 2013, Blizzard Entertainment, the game company behind the phenomenally successful Warcraft, Starcraft and Diablo series announced that they had been working on a secret project and were ready to announce it soon. They cautioned against getting too excited as it was a small project from a small team. Come Penny Arcade Expo 2013 the announcement was made, Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft was Blizzard’s next game.
Starting from humble beginnings, Blizzard Entertainment has grown from a small company into the behemoth it is today. After the financially successful but controversial Diablo 3 in 2012, gamers were left wondering what Blizzard would do next. Although attached to an establish property, Hearthstone is representing a genre Blizzard has not yet explored. It is a collectable card game. After the debacle that was Diablo 3′s Real Money Auction House, Blizzard opted to not support trading cards between players. Furthermore the game is free to play, a first for Blizzard. I feel that given the nature of the game’s development, a small team (by Blizzard’s standards) of around 20 people, the employment of the easy to use Unity for development and the lack of expectations that are associated with sequels, the developers were able to make a game much more akin to the work of early Blizzard both in gameplay and spirit.
Diablo 3 is a streamlined mess of oversimplification of game mechanics with the intent of broadening its audience and greedy monetization tactics. Refreshingly, Hearthstone’s monetization is completely avoidable, but at the same time tantalizing enough to draw players into it. I love it. I’ve spent ten dollars and feel like I’ve supported something I enjoy, completely in contrast to the 60 I spent on Diablo and quickly felt like I’d been tricked into parting with.
The game is easy to learn, but I’m constantly learning new tactics while I play. I’ve played since closed beta and the developers have been careful about their nerfs and buffs, adjusting values slightly and seemingly following a much more careful style of balance than Blizzard has been known for in World of Warcraft and Starcraft 2. Most of the time the developers are able to nerf a card not by nerfing what was excellent about it, but by tweaking a stat that was seemingly unrelated to what was overpowered. In doing so the nerf doesn’t break a strategy outright, but rather actually balances it.
Examples of the careful balance are as follows. These are analysis of specific game mechanics and without playing the game may be hard to follow. A card, Shattered Sun Cleric, allowed you to play it and give +1 attack +1 health to another minion you have in play and get a 3 attack, 3 health minion, the Shattered Sun Cleric herself. At only 3 mana this card was considered extremely powerful. It was powerful because it could instantly make a minion you have in play stronger, extremely useful when you have to wait a turn before attacking, so buffing a character on their turn to attack is very valuable. Also at low mana play 1 of each stat can make a huge difference. So a huge part of this card was its ability to buff another minion, but rather than nerfing that the developers simply took one of her health points away, simply making her a little easier to clear from the board, but allowing the card to retain a lot of its power.
An example of a severe nerf that was actually justified was the Warrior/Molten Giant nerf. Using a Warrior exclusive card that would give other minions charge, a player could use another card, the Molten Giant, a zero mana cost card when the player is at 10 or lower health that delivers a 10 attack, 10 health minion, hit for 10, use a Youthful Brewmaster to recall it, play it again, do 10 damage, recall it again and do 10 more damage if anything is still alive. This was basically uncounterable and completely ruined the game for many players. Ultimately the developers completely removed this tactic from the game. It wasn’t part of fun play, it was rather just an oversight in design and needed to be removed. I appreciated the removal of it, but I still felt like they carefully judged the situation and probably wondered if there was some way to retain the tactic but bring its power into balance. In the end it had to go and I’m glad it did.
The game is a fun, free, interesting distraction, and more importantly, it feels like its in the hands of a development team I can trust. After playing years of games where nerf-hammers come hard and fast, its refreshing to play a game where I feel like the developers have my having kooky fun as a priority. Even the description of the development group makes me all warm and fuzzy. One of the developers, Eric Dodds told Gamasutra, “We’re all in the same design pit, and so when I’m arguing with someone about a point of design, pretty much everyone else on the team can hear it. And if someone has an opinion, they come right over and get involved.” That sounds like an exciting and inclusive way to work.
In conclusion, its free, its slow enough paced to do in the background when you’re bored and I feel like I can trust the designers with not ruining my favorite deck for no reason. I never played Magic The Gathering so I can’t really state how its complexity (or lack thereof) compares, but I can say that although there is a fair amount of luck involved in playing the game, good players can do a lot with their deck builds and strategies to minimize bad luck and maximize upon their good. Its easy enough to pick up and play with no card game experience and hey, its free! It’ll also be out later this year for phones too, so you can be distracted by it all the time!