Hearthstone’s always had a sense of playfulness; Tavern Brawls and wacky solo adventures change the rules and add bizarre new baddies. The game’s new auto-battler mode Battlegrounds follows in that vein, offering chaos and complexity that should appeal to both newbies and hardcore players.
Battlegrounds, which was announced at Blizzcon earlier this month, adds a spin on the auto-battler craze. Auto-battlers like Dota Underlord and Teamfight Tactics do exactly what they say on the tin: you place your units and they automatically battle, smacking each other in the dang face until one side wins. Those games find their roots in MOBAs, which are notoriously complex and intimidating for new players. Blizzard games always bridged the gap between depth and accessibility for me; I started playing Heroes of the Storm earlier this year and found it a good way to grasp the MOBA genre. Could Battlegrounds do the same with me and auto-battlers?
Here’s how it plays out if you’re new: eight players jump into a match, each selecting a hero at the start from a random group of three. These heroes have powers ranging from a passive health boost to active abilities like buffing specific classes of cards. Each round, a random selection of cards falls into your “tavern” where you can draft minions using currency or spend that currency to upgrade to get better cards. Like other auto-battlers, collecting additional copies of a unit gives you the option to upgrade that unit into a better version. Cards can be placed in any order, with the leftmost card always attacking first. Cards attack random targets until one side wins. That’s a tried and true auto-battling set-up but adding hero powers and bonkers card effects makes it feel like anyone can succeed.
“A lot of it is geared towards fun,” game director Ben Lee told me at Blizzcon. “This isn’t something we want to be highly competitive.”
“For players like me, who are not into the hardcore ‘I have to dominate’ mindset, there’s a feeling that the top four is winning,” creative director Ben Thompson added.
It’s felt that way as I’ve played it. It’s possible to play strategically and level up cards so they have ridiculous stats—I’ve seen cards with attack values in the nineties that can crush basically anything in one hit—but Hearthstone’s various card effects also make it possible to find your footing even if you haven’t leveled up equally powerful cards. That Pogo Hopper with obscene stats? Maybe I get a poisonous card that lands a lucky hit, destroying it and winning me the match up.
“When you’re playing standard, it’s me versus another person,” Thompson said. “Eight players opens up a lot of doors. There’s a quality about wondering what will happen.”
That chaos, that sense of not knowing what comes next makes it possible for anyone to win. For my first Battlegrounds victory, I stumbled into picking the boisterous demon dude Jaraxxus, whose hero power can increase demon minions’ stats each turn if you spend some gold. Stat increases remain in place throughout each round, and I went from wide-eyed newbie to unstoppable demonic horde leader over the course of several rounds. Sure, I still needed to understand how cards worked and play properly. I also happened to be in the right place at the right time. It felt awesome.
In spite of recent controversies that rocked Blizzard both externally and internally—Lee told Kotaku that the initial punishment of Hearthstone pro Chung “Blitzchung” Ng Wai was “too harsh”—Hearthstone builds itself around one notion: sit down by the fire, play a few rounds. It’s less of a game you play than a place you go. It takes all sorts to fill a bar. There are regulars dropping by at the end of the day, there’s the hardcore darts league keeping score in the corner. There are also those dudes arm wrestling at the back table, with far too many chips and guac and booze in their system. Battlegrounds has that vibe down pat: loud, silly, and a lot of fun.