I don’t play enough video games to do a “best of the decade” list, but if I ranked all the ones I have played in order of most time spent, “Hearthstone” would undoubtedly top the list. Debuting in 2014, the free-to-play online customizable card game is like most things produced by Blizzard Entertainment, creators of games like “World of Warcraft” and “Overwatch”: an addictive morsel of unlimited gameplay, one that challenges players to return again and again to fully understand the underlying mechanics.
Built for PCs, tablets and phones, “Hearthstone” is set in the same milieu as mega hit “World of Warcraft,” though you don’t have to be familiar with that game outside of its basic fantasy trappings in order to play. Once you log in, you can play a basic game by picking one of nine fantasy professions and crafting a deck of 30 themed digital cards that will be pitted against an opponent. You and your opponent will then take turns playing cards from your decks, pitting “minion” cards against each other until one player is able to score 30 points of damage against the other.
On the surface, this won’t sound much different than a typical tabletop game you could play without a digital aid – “Magic: The Gathering” or the “Pokemon Trading Card Game” come to mind. The difference, however, is that “Hearthstone” is explicitly designed to play with concepts that would be impossible to incorporate into a physical game.
Though there are a number of permutations of this idea, the most basic is the player’s ability to transform a card multiple times over the course of play. If you’re playing a card in a physical game, most of the time, what you see is what you get. The card has text, perhaps instructions, maybe an image, and that will remain constant for the entire time you play the game.
In Hearthstone, your “card” can change dramatically over the course of several turns. Say you have a small woodland creature card in your hand – for this example, we’ll invent a card called a “Morphing Squirrel.” The text on the card states that when you play the squirrel, you can choose to add two points to its attack or its health value. You pick health, so your Morphing Squirrel comes out with one attack and three health. Your opponent already had a one-attack minion on the board, and he chooses to attack your minion with his, knocking your squirrel down to two health.
But wait! Your squirrel is categorized as a beast, and on your next turn, you play a card that gives all beasts an additional two attack and two health. Now, the Morphing Squirrel has three attack and four health. You play two more cards; one is a secret card that your opponent can’t see, while the other is a knight that gives adjacent minions the “Taunt” skill, which means that minions can’t attack the opposing player until the squirrel is destroyed. A metal shield appears around your squirrel to convey its new ability.
On your opponent’s turn, he targets your squirrel with a rampaging orc to finish him off, but wait! Your secret card is now revealed, which gives a defending minion a divine shield (a skill that prevents damage from the first attack leveled at it). A glowing aura surrounds your squirrel as the orc’s assault bounces off harmlessly.
With such malleable base ingredients, the fun of Hearthstone is less about winning and more about figuring out the most impressive synchronicities. One of my favorite decks is for the druid profession, which I have crafted to revolve around the swift deployment of “treants,” which are small, weak, sentient tree-beings. Treants are easy to deploy and thus remain a constant annoyance for my opponent, but I also have two high attack and high defense cards that get cheaper to put on the table every time a treant dies. I’m gaining power even as my minions are being struck down.
While the intellectual satisfaction of this kind of play would be a considerable inducement with just the main game mode – after all, there are nine different professions to pick from, and you can redesign your deck whenever you want – the thing that gives Hearthstone its near-infinite gameplay is its variety of alternative play modes. Sure, you can play a regular match with your own deck, or you hop over to the tavern brawl, which regularly adds or changes rules to create unique matches with their own brain-twisting requirements. You could also try your hand in the arena, where you draft cards for your deck as you go rather than creating a whole deck from your own collection. There are even modes that change up the objectives or number of players, like a variety of single-player challenges and a new battleground mode that pitches you against seven other players in a round-robin minion death match. Each of these modes comes with its own set of considerations and strategies.
Perhaps best of all, the games don’t take long, usually lasting anywhere from five to 20 minutes. It’s just the kind of bite-sized entertainment that will keep you awake long into the night, mumbling, “Just one more game …”