The Comedy Of Maths: Just Why Is HearthStone So Good?
- by Leo Stableford, 19 November 2015
Around a week ago now Blizzard released a new solo adventure for their electronic CCG Hearthstone. If you are already acquainted with the game then this will mean one of a number of different things for you. The range appears to run from “Meh” to “So tell me, how does this change the meta?” The second response doesn’t require you to stroke your beard after you ask the question, but it might help.
For anyone else the whole thing probably sounds more tedious than words could express. This is a shame because there is a laundry list of reasons why more people should be dipping their toe into Blizzard’s unexpected success story.
The first, of course, is the fact that it is both a success story and one that appears to have caught everyone by surprise. I don’t know for certain but I get the distinct impression that Blizzard, whose other products are a lot more, um, technically complex, believed that Hearthstone was going to be a bit of a laugh. As in, it might be something people did for a break when they weren’t partying up in World of Warcraft or tactically battling in Heroes of the Storm.
To a certain extent they were probably correct in this. In some ways Hearthstone has all the things that make it a decent pick up game to engage in while you’re waiting for your guild to feed the cat or finish talking with their work friend on the phone. However, it’s just those features of Hearthstone that also make it appealing to people who would never consider playing a MMORPG in a million years, and might like to have a go at a MOBA but really doesn’t have the time.
(At this point I go and find a mirror, so I can catch my own eye in it meaningfully.)
Since I’ve admitted to my Hearthstone habit to many of my gamer friends I have received one of three responses to my admission. The first is: “I played that for a bit when it first came out, but I wasn’t very good at it, so I stopped.” I’ll come back to that later. The second is: “Oh, no, I saw that and thought ‘I am not getting involved in that because it will take over my life.’” More on that later too. The final response is “What the hell’s Hearthstone?” so I tell these last people what it is.
Once I have told them that it’s an online CCG by the people who make World of Warcraft they tend to look at me a bit funny. In fact they look at me the same way that I look at people who play Magic: Tha Gathering. Now, don’t get me wrong, I have nothing particularly against Magic, I think there are a couple of friends who work in the board-gaming/comic industry who have been rescued from destitution by Magic addicts.
Therein lies the Magic problem. Magic… can become a problem. Wizards of the Coast found a way to turn fantasy art into an addictive substance. People used to drop into my friend’s comic book store and drop £100 a week into a Magic addiction. That’s why people look at other people funny when they admit to liking a CCG. It’s because it’s a step away from casually mentioning you’re about to go into the bathroom to shoot up.
Here is a great feature of Hearthstone. It’s free to play. Yes, as in Free-To-Play, as in optional micro-transactions. A number of people can also be found to tell you that Hearthstone is most definitely “Pay-To-Win”. These people have a lax understanding of basic mathematics. I haven’t paid anything to play Hearthstone to date, yet I have won on occasion.
The “on occasion” part is probably what’s making these people salty. I know a few ultra-competitive people and, okay, Hearthstone is not for them. You lose in Hearthstone, a lot. Probably far more often than most other games. Even the best players lose a lot, the maths suggests this must be true. Hearthstone is a zero-sum game that relies on a large amount of luck. Even the best player can get whomped by an inexperienced player given poor luck on their part and decent luck on the part of the other player.
You remember a while back I mentioned those people who had “played a bit at the beginning but found they weren’t very good at it”? These people were also victims of the weird maths at the heart of Hearthstone. This is one of the things that fascinates me about the game. It’s a game where a win is always meaningful whatever your skill level because it’s frankly pretty unlikely.
The variables in the game are tuned but still a little eccentric. There are many random effects that could swing a game in progress and the field of play tends to change rapidly throughout a game. The only time that’s not really true is on the occasions where one player hammers the other into the ground like a tent peg within the first few turns. This happens rarely because the player who can pull off such a coup has been blessed by the hand of the mysterious deity of Hearthstone. A shadowy spiritual presence who can stack your deck and ensure the Mad Bomber only hits the enemy called “RNGesus”.
Hearthstone is not a game for people who like to dominate, it’s a game for people who like to see interesting situations unfold in play. It’s never nice to lose but there’s no more galling loss in Hearthstone than one where nothing interesting happened to make the win possible. I can’t speak for everyone but when I win on such a basis it always rings a little hollow.
Here’s the key for me, Hearthstone is about the experience of Hearthstone, it’s about seeing weird interactions between the cards. It’s about the comedy of mathematics. That’s a weird thing to build a popular computer game around.
Of course all computer games are built out of maths and use maths to achieve their outputs. I can’t think of another game that makes random number generation and some statistical analysis produce weird outputs with the express aim of producing outrage, delight or despair in the face of equations. It sounds like a strange brew and a tough sell. Hearthstone is the former but not the latter, apparently.
Finally, let’s spare a thought for those who don’t want to have their life stolen by some video game. Here’s the thing, on a heavy day I might have it in me to play for two hours. That’s a real heavy day. Otherwise the average is about twenty minutes. A little Hearthstone goes a long way. It’s not a game that’s designed for marathon play.
Having said that I haven’t tried the Hearthstone Solo Adventures, although word on the street is that I should, particularly the new one the League of Explorers. Those cost real money, at this stage real money I’m happy to pay. I just happen not to have paid it yet. So I’m off to pray to RNGesus one more time, and hope to draft a Chillwind Yeti for my next arena run. I hope that one day some of you will join me.
Have you ever played HearthStone? What do you think of the game? How do you break it to people that you're a HearthStone player? Let us know in the comments!
Tagged: video games.