Before the end of the year 2013, I have finally got a chance to play the last of the 2013 Big 3 dTCG/dCCG. Here is my first impression.
What is Hearthstone?
It is a digital collectible card game (dCCG) designed by Blizaard. The game is based on the World of Warcraft, but you don’t have to know anything about the game to play this, as it is indepent.
The game is currently in closed beta. There has been official announcement that this game is coming to mobile platform in the future.
Will set a new standard
New digital TCG or CCG are constantly coming, and existing ones are evolving. So why are there are so many, and why are we still continue to see new one coming out? The one potential answer is from following common phase you see on pretty much all dTCG/dCCG.
“Simple (to learn, to play) yet with deep strategy”
The depth of strategy and simplicity of the game have some inverse relationship. This is why finding a right balance is difficult, and perhaps no one single correct answer to it.
In the past, many mobile platform dTCG/dCCG were focused on the simplicity, which included fast paced game play, easy to learn even for beginners of strategy card games. Soon, either players or developers realized there should be more depth to the game play. Hence, the general trend has been adding more depth on the simple mobile dTCG/dCCG. The game like Shadow Era, Infinity Wars, Forgotten Myths to name a few are taking this approach.
On the contrary is HEX. It is rather an innovative approach in my opinion, and hence, it emergence will change the dTCG/dCCG world to new generation. HEX is starting more of the opposite end. By this I mean, it started as “depth first” then attempting to make the game easy to learn even for beginners. The second part has not been implemented yet, so hard to assess if it would be a success. But a while back, I had suggested such approach should be taken for dTCG/dCCG, and I am sure it is possible.
Now going back to the topic of this article, the Hearthstone. Which approach is this game taking? It is more conventional mobile dTCG/dCCG approach (though initially the game was not announced on the platform). But I believe this game is also an innovation in regards to its approach because rather than adding depth to the simplicity, I see this game is more like “Let’s make the simple game, and take out all the potential stress component even for beginners. Then add as much depth as possible.” So in essence, Hearthstone is an opposite spectrum to the HEX. It really valued simplicity, and depth of the game play seemed to be placed on top to the point where the simplicity is not compromised.
Since many dTCG/dCCG that will be coming out are undoubtedly focusing on the mobile platform support, it is now the Hearthstone that they have compare, and ask “how is our game? Is it deeper than Hearthstone? ” I don’t see the point of game becoming more simplier than the Hearthstone, which essentially makes the game no longer in dTCG/dCCG category. But Hearthstone has good amount of depth that many other dTCG/dCCG out there have, and beating the simplicity of the game provide is really difficult i.e. as long as the Hearthstone has enough balance among cards, it is now a standard that any future dTCG/dCCG has to beat if they decide to go with an approach of “simple yet deep strategy.”
PTB vs. DIP
When game focuses on the simplicity, it is automatic design decision the game should be going with purely turn based system. There is no surprise here.
If you are interested in general discussion about PTB vs. DIP design decision, here is the article.
Again, when a game is focusing on the simplicity, it should be using either automatic resource system (ARS) or non-resource system (NRS). Hearthstone has decided to use ARS, which is not a surprise and there is no innovation here.
Each turn the maximal resource point will increase by 1 up to 10 i.e. turn 2 you have 2, turn 3 you have 3. Then up on start of your turn, all the spent resources will replenish.
This system is in fact identical to that of Infinity Wars.
*If you want to know different types of resource systems that dTCG/dCCG can use, here is the article I had written for Utopian Chaos, now digitaltcg.com.
What types of card are there? There are 3 basic card types. Spell, Minion (creature cards), and Equipment.
Spell and minion are standard for pretty much any dTCG/dCCG at this point. The Hearthstone has hero i.e. the player himself represented as a special ability possessing character. This is analogous to World of Warcraft TCG, Shadow Era or HEX. Unlike the HEX, Hearthstone has a special card type that can be equipped to the hero and the hero himself can participate on attacking, or perhaps wearing armors to reduce damage.
Now I would just add another card type called secret, which is technically a subtype of spell card but it is worth mentioning because this is a way Purely turn based system implement counter mechanics. Basically, it’s a trap card.
This is the only way in Hearthstone, the defending player (player who is not taking his own turn) has potential way to change the board situation i.e. surprise opponent. It is never the same as instant (in Magic), or quick action (in HEX) but again Hearthstone’s main design theme appears as “simplest as can be”.
In strategy card game, “variation” is afterall the most important part of the game. Because this is what makes the strategy card game different from other strategy games like Chess or Go.
Hearthstone uses the class system, which is the same as the World of Warcraft TCG or Shadow Era. Basically, the hero of your choice determines what class cards can be included in your deck i.e. if you chose Shaman as your hero, you cannot include Warrior or any other class specific cards.
This way by simply selecting a hero, each player will be automatically directed into a play certain style of game that is intentionally set by designers. It certainly takes away the significant flexibility that is offered by games that allows players to make any combination of cards into the deck; however, sometimes the flexibility may be too much to beginners. It’s like some people prefers story based JRPG over the open world WRPG.
The balance of cards plays a critical role in the game variation because if one deck type (in this case hero) is dominating, eventually everyone will end up using that deck type as a result in you see same hero one after another in the PvP mode; hence, no real variation. I have not played enough to comment about this aspect.
But at least at the design level, the Hearthstone is ensuring the play variation based on class by making all spell card in the regular game class specific.
Stress free environment
The reason why “simple” game is believed to be the best fit on the mobile platform are believed to have two major reasons. Generally, speaking people tends to look for quick to play game on mobile platform though this has started to change, and there are many now looking for mobile platform as the real gaming environment. But with this type of thinking in mind, some of the classic TCG/CCG features can interfere the theme. One such example most may be familier is “resource screw’. Given the use of ARS, the “resource” screw is essentially eliminated. However, the game is now relatively resource independent i.e. the appropriate drop for each turn becomes more important especially the game is rapid, and even a one or two turns of lagging behind can totally ruin the game.
Blizazrd has taken this and others into consideration to really try making this game stress free environment. Followings are some uncommon design decisions that Hearthstone has. Though these seems not significant at the glance, we can readily appreciate the Blizzard attempt here.
Partial Paris Mulligan
Mulligan is a familiar system in many dTCG/dCCG. Some game offers free mulligan, which means there is nothing to lose by doing the first mulligan. But Hearthstone takes it a step further. It allows partial Paris mulligan. One can just pick cards that he/she does not like and mulligan only those card.
Frequently raised topic on many new dTCG/dCCG is “going first vs. second.” Many games offer extra card for second person to try compensate for going second, but Hearthstone takes it a step further, and offers a special free card.
Even looking at the hero’s ability shows the design decision of Blizzard appears to be following i.e. “simple, stress-free, easy to learn” dCCG. There is no separate resource point for Hero’s special ability. You will use the single resource points for using any cards, and also hero’s special ability. This means you can basically use hero’s ability every turn. So even in a case where you have no card to play, you can always play at least hero’s ability.
Blizzard sets the standard for dTCG/dCCG UI
Blizzard is a video game company. Wizard of the Coast, Cryptozoic are not. I am truly impressed by the UI of the Hearthstone. The animation is cool, but not ground breaking. Yes. it is relatively bug free, and stable but those are just expected when any games officially comes out, so again not the reason why I am impressed.
It is how easy to interact with the game itself. For example, you can single tap the card and the card is selected AND zoomed in. I can tap the target or field to use the card, or I can click the card again to deselect. Of course, I can drag the card as well, but the former seems nothing ground breaking but that’s how the game UI should be. It should be intuitive, and player should feel natural from the first second of the game play. It’s just amazing how well UI is on Hearthstone, and hope all other dTCG/dCCG learn from it.
Hearthstone is likely to set a new and perhaps the first real standard for dTCG/dCCG for two reasons. One is the brand name of Blizzard from the World of Warcraft TCG. The second is that the game has truly followed the “simple first, strategy to follow” approach.
It is possible to create a game that is deeper than the Hearthstone. In fact, its not hard to do so; however, with such approach the developer needs to make sure to include a system that the beginners can learn the game without feeling the real complexity of the game. Especially, when the added depth is only so subtly different from that of the Hearthstone.
Alternatively, one can go for “depth first, and help beginners to learn” approach. I believe, currently, HEX is the game taking this approach to its true extend; therefore, once the game is out HEX may set the other end of gold standard. I really like 2013, and therefore 2014. These two games will take whole dTCG/dCCG into the next generation. Those cannot keep up with the new generation of the dTCG/dCCG will likely to lose their players.
If you are looking for simple dTCG/dCCG with relative depth, Hearthstone could well be the choice and perhaps the only choice you need. The things I have not had a chance to look into are the price points, and the card balance. Both of which can influence overall game experience significantly; hence, this is not a final review by any means.