After completing my set of Hearthstone dungeon runs, I have kept on for more completions and many more attempts. The more I play, the more I see a common problem: overuse of the features that online card games allow.
For folks who did not click through for those old posts, let me summarize. When you take a card game online, you get exciting new options that are difficult or impossible in physical card games, like cloning cards, altering them in a variety of ways, and bringing random cards into the game. Hearthstone has many of this last, especially in the dungeon runs: many cards summon other random cards. And we find that once you can do something, you find lots of reasons and opportunities to do it. A narrow option can take a slippery slope to become a central feature.
In one sense, it is pretty cool to spin the wheel and get a random card. So very much of game monetization plays on our desire to open the box and see what’s inside. That is awesome, especially when it works out for you. And then it keeps happening and becomes the deciding factor of the game. To the extent that your decisions are not deciding the outcome of the game, you are watching it happen rather than playing.
This is bad game design. A bit of randomness adds spice, prevents the game from falling into a single solvable state, and rewards flexibility. A lot of randomness makes the player irrelevant.
Hearthstone does that a lot, and the dungeon run seems built around it. The NPC decks are chock full of cards with “summon a random X” effects. Blackseed upgrades minions randomly. Whompwhisker recruits random minions from each deck. King Togwaggle gets random treasures. Xol gets cards from a small random set of beams. Pathmaker Hamm damages random minions, then plays more minions that damage random characters, and kills himself roughly half the time I encounter him. Several bosses multiply the effects of randomness by multiplying cards: doubled battlecries, deathrattles, or minions in a mode with lots of ‘cries and ‘rattles that summon random minions.
Luck can dominate these fights, and you need only one bad run of luck to end your dungeon run. Sometimes you will crush Whompwhisker quickly because he will recruit your biggest minions or ones with interesting deathrattles; other times, he recruits his biggest minions along with your cheapest or your minions that are only worthwhile for their battlecries (recruiting ignores battlecries). Blackseed’s upgrades might create a minion that hurts him, or maybe something really powerful that is normally balanced by a costly battlecry.
Hearthstone seems to recognize this problem and attempt to mitigate it sometimes with discover and choice effects. Those combine randomness with player choice: pick one of three options. They may all be great or lousy or not fit with your deck, but you get a choice. (That is the current tavern brawl: every card in your deck is “discover a spell or minion.”) The same applies to the deckbuilding aspect of dungeon runs: you pick one of three options, like a permanent “discover” effect. You might pick up a quest and then never get options that complete it, or you might start with doubled battlecries and get jade golem cards every time you pick.
When Hearthstone launched, it quickly developed a reputation for low skill gameplay. There were few interesting choices to make and not a lot to decide on any given turn. Expansions have added more options, but also more randomness. “More” is both more options to introduce randomness and a broader range to draw from when rolling that die. For example, a card that summons a 1-cost minion had a limited number of options when the game launched, and now there are pages of 1-cost minions. Randomness stacked on randomness.
These are not bad features! They can be used well! Half a decade ago, when CCGs were going online and just starting to experiment with these kinds of features, it was a wonderful use of a new medium. But the dose makes the poison, and something that is medicine in small amounts can kill you if you have too much.