The game of the weekend has been Hearthstone. I had never played before, but I was lured by the advertisement of the latest update and the surety that I had a bunch of free bonuses from various Blizzard promos. The new content is Hearthstone’s take on rogue-likes. It is a series of eight battles against increasingly powerful NPC decks, where the player accumulates cards and upgrades as he progresses. Rogue-like elements include facing a variable cast of foes from a set list, variable foe stats based on which “level” you find them, picks from randomized loot bags, and picks from themed, randomly selected pools of cards.
The good is that the design addresses many of the issues seen in rogue-likes. Each upgrade is a pick from three upgrades, and while you may not have the best upgrades on the list, you do get a chance to customize your deck around your preferences or a common theme. The theming of the content is good, a mix of kobolds, adventurers, and monsters.
The bad is that it combines the low-skill play Hearthstone is known for, minus most of the deckbuilding aspect, plus the randomness and degree of fairness you have come to expect from rogue-likes. Some of the NPC decks are vastly harder than others, or vastly harder for some classes or decks. Draw one of those and you will probably lose. Sometimes you will get several upgrade options in a row that build on one another, or maybe none of your three picks fits well with what you have. You may get the perfect options to go with your passive upgrade or few to none that work with it. And then there is the usual trust in the Heart of the Cards that comes with CCGs. The new mode claims massive replayability, which is to say there are many random variations (of varying degrees of difficulty) when you have several layers of randomization.
This leads to unproductive forum discussions where some people got through on their first try and others are hitting walls, or someone tried twice in a row and lost early then got really far without any real change. When the game stacks random enemies that can appear at different levels against several classes that get random items and seven picks from random card sets, plus randomization in the cards and some cards with random effects, the results can be explained at best statistically. All that randomization can even out to the expected experience or something radically off the rails. It needs to work out eight times in a row for the player to clear the dungeon run; the first two or three are free, the last two or three are a bit of a roll of the dice even under perfect play, just from the way some NPC decks are hard counters to player decks.
The dungeon runs are not dependent on which cards you own. The cards are provided along the way (and not kept). This makes it a good way for new players to see the game and be on even footing with veterans, and to unlock the basic cards for each class. To the extent that Hearthstone can be skill-based, this is more skill-based than standard CCG play, minus most of the deck-building aspects. As someone new to the game, it seems more compelling than entertaining. It is very slick and nicely done, with the sort of predictably mediocre gameplay we have come to expect from MMO PvE. It seems like a fine game for decompressing after work or to play absently on a bus. I feel like I have already experienced most of what Hearthstone has to offer after a mix of dungeon runs and normal games over a weekend. I do not suspect it is meant to have deep gameplay for me to discover.