I love board games and card games, but precious few mobile games manage to capture the fun of slapping down cards or rolling dice with friends. Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft is a rare and astonishing surprise; not only is it hours of monster-battling, wizard-blasting fun, but it's also a brilliantly designed card game, despite being one that has no physical equivalent. It successfully melds traditional and digital gaming in a way I've never seen. After several years as one of the best Android games, Hearthstone has been updated to make sure it continues to be compelling for years to come.
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The Heart of the Cards
To play Hearthstone, you need a Battle.net account. Fortunately, if you've played a Blizzard game like Diablo III, StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void, or even good old World of Warcraft, odds are that you already have one. New players will have to create an account with Blizzard before proceeding. Log in and you'll be treated to a highly informative, if somewhat long, tutorial.
Note that Hearthstone is a hefty download from Google Play, so installing it might take a while. Even major updates to the game can take 10 minutes to install. You'll definitely want to use a Wi-Fi connection, which you'll need anyway, because even starting up the game requires an Internet connection. There's no offline play.
I started playing at home on a desktop computer and various iOS devices before I finally moved to Android. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the experience was excellent, even on smaller screens. But be careful if you're using a device without physical buttons, as it's easy to accidentally swipe up and open the on-screen controls.
You begin each game by selecting one of the Warcraft heroes, each with its own powers, strategies, and unique cards. Your hero defines the types of cards (and therefore, strategies) you have available, but also serves as your avatar during battle. Hearthstone launched with only a handful of Heroes, but the pool of legendary warriors has expanded dramatically and now includes custom card backs for some heroes. Unfortunately, you'll have to pay for many of the new ones, leading to a shameful situation where players are charged $9.99 if they don't want to play the game as a male character. The game still doesn't do a good job in terms of diversity, either. Scrolls, the online collectible card game from Minecraft developer Mojang, also overlooked people of color in their more nuanced character creation feature.
That's a steep price for avatars, but still a far cry from the absolutely insane Angry Birds Go!, where a go-kart could cost as much as $50. Still, it's a missed opportunity for Blizzard to neatly solve a glaring problem with the game.
The goal of the game is simple: Defeat your opponent by depleting his or her supply of 30 life points. You do that by attacking with a variety of creatures—called Minions—and spells. Every action in the game has a cost associated with it, measured in mana crystals. You start with one mana crystal and gain an additional crystal to spend each turn. All the crystals you spend in a turn refresh the next turn, so choose your cards carefully. If you've ever played Magic: The Gathering, this should all sound pretty familiar. There's even a version of MTG's summoning sickness, which prevents (most) Minions from attacking on their first turn.
The basic format of using spells and Minions to trade blows is augmented by other effects. Some minions have the Charge ability, which allows them to attack the same turn they enter combat. Heroes who equip weapons can directly attack their opponents. Each hero also has a unique ability that he or she can use at a cost of two mana crystals. The Hunter, for instance, can shoot an arrow at an opposing hero for two damage points. The hero's ability, along with its specific cards, help form the strategies for each deck, but more on that later.
Since its launch, Hearthstone has rolled out new expansions on a regular basis. Each has a specific theme, with new cards, card backs, and unique abilities. As the game has grown, Blizzard has tweaked the abilities of some cards to make them more fair. While it is surely frustrating for some players to have their cards modified after using them for a long time, it is a major advantage digital card games have over their physical counterparts. These universal changes also keep the game fresh and challenging, giving the game's developers an unprecedented level of control.
Hearthstone games are made to be quick and fun, but that doesn't mean they can't be strategic. Mojang's Scrolls, by comparison, has more elements—including a game board—that provide more avenues for inventive play. But Hearthstone's strength is the growing collection of available cards and abilities. Whatever your style of play, you'll probably be able to create a deck to match. Whether that strategy and the resulting deck can actually beat your opponents is another question, of course.
There's a physicality to Hearthstone that I really appreciate. Each card is played as though it were a physical object, and is covered with stylistic 3D flourishes. In the Arena or in Adventures, you receive keys that unlock hidden drawers and rewards. Even the game board is interactive and filled with tappable Easter eggs. It reminds me of Star Realms, but where Star Realms struggled with convincingly mimicking real objects, Hearthstone handily succeeds. Even Small World 2, one of the best digital board games for Android, has nothing on the polish you see in Hearthstone.
Cards and Crafting
Your collection of cards is safely tucked away in an enormous tome within the My Collection section. Building a new deck is as easy as tapping and dragging, and a text search feature makes finding the right card a heck of a lot easier than sorting through three-ring binders filled with cards.
That said, you'll eventually face off against a player whose cards and strategy will obliterate you. That's no problem in Hearthstone multiplayer; losing a game and starting a new one just takes a few minutes. But designing and managing decks is still my least favorite part of Hearthstone, as it is with all collectible card games. However, things have improved in Hearthstone. The game now includes pre-built decks, much as Magic: The Gathering does. The difference is that instead of charging you for these prebuilt decks, Hearthstone matches the list against cards you already have, and then lets you pick replacement cards from your collection to fill in any gaps. A handy helper suggests improvements to any deck, too. My only complaint is that there aren't more ready-made decks to chose from.
In addition to tweaking some card abilities, Blizzard recently divided the game into two formats. In Wild, you can use any card ever released. In Standard, only Basic cards, Classic cards, and cards issued in the last two years can be used. There's no penalty to playing a Wild game, but official Hearthstone events will be in the Standard format. Some players will surely be angry about this new rule and, yes, it certainly will entice players to work harder (or spend money) toward new decks to participate. But one of the best features of Hearthstone at launch was its curated experience, and I hope Blizzard can bring that same tightly constructed play back with the Standard format.
You get more cards by purchasing packs for in-game gold or real money. A single pack of five cards goes for 100 gold, two packs for $2.99, seven packs for $9.99, all the way up to 40 packs for $49.99. Unfortunately, you can only use gold to purchase single packs, locking you out of the prorated pricing structure for anything but real-money purchases. You can also earn additional packs for unlocking achievements or as part of in-game promotions. New cards are released as part of special events, or as expansions.
If purchasing cards blind isn't your style, you can also destroy cards from your collection in exchange for Arcane Dust, which can be used to craft specific cards. It's not an efficient exchange, but it neatly sidesteps the most irritating aspect of the physical versions collectible card games—the other collectors with whom you have to trade to acquire specific cards. It also lets you go after coveted cards without spending cash on blind decks.
I normally despise multiplayer gaming, but I highly recommend trying out your skills against other players in Hearthstone. You can either play a casual game or a ranked game that can earn you status in Hearthstone's monthly seasons. You can also pay 150 gold (or $1.99) to build a new deck from randomly selected cards in the Arena, for fans of draft-style games.
I also really appreciate that Hearthstone has no chat system, just a selection of canned emote phrases you can deploy. It keeps interactions civil, which is a rarity online. Only your Battle.net friends can send you unscripted messages through Blizzard's in-game chat. You can also challenge those friends to Hearthstone games through the same system. This is feature that convinced me to try Hearthstone in the first place.
Recently, Blizzard introduced Solo Adventures. These are truly challenging campaigns consisting of five Wings, with each Wing having several battles. Each Adventure has bosses you battle in order to advance, along with special cards and other goodies you can pick up along the way. That said, the new Adventures aren't cheap: each Wing costs 700 gold, or $6.99. The entire adventure can be purchased for $24.99. That's a steep price, but the sticker shock should be tempered by the fact that the core game is still free. Seek these Wings out if you're itching for new challenges and new cards. Note, however, that although Adventures are single player games, you still need an Internet connection to play them.
Hearthstone also now features a weekly event called the Tavern Brawl. These are special matches in which qualifying players face off while using special restrictions. Combatants may be required to use premade decks, or forbidden from using specific types of cards. Best of all, they're free, unlike Arena matches. These are challenging games, but also fairly silly. A recent event filled my deck with spiders, for example. You will, however, have to get one of your Heroes to level 20 before unlocking Tavern Brawl.
On Every Device
Hearthstone initially launched as a desktop and iPad exclusive title. That didn't last long, and the game can now be played on iPhone, Android, and Amazon Kindle devices. Years after Hearthstone's launch, Windows Phones are still left out of the fun.
I played Hearthstone on a Nexus 5x and a Nexus 9, and was impressed with the experience across the board. I was especially taken with the subtle real-estate saving strategies Blizzard employs to bring this game to mobile handsets. Your hand, for example, is minimized down at the bottom of the screen until you need to take a peek at your cards. Other menus are artfully compressed, and you never feel like your experience is reduced because you're playing it on a smaller screen.
Deal Me In!
The biggest challenge Blizzard faced with Hearthstone was keeping the game fun while expanding it with more cards and more challenges. We're just starting to how Blizzard plans to keep the game fresh without losing its tightly constructed feel, and so far it's an impressive effort. Of course, I'd love more (and more diverse) Heroes and the ability to play offline, but Hearthstone is still a winner in my eyes. It's an easy Editors' Choice for Android games.