Battle royales were the flavour of the month, and now it's auto battlers. Blizzard's digital CCG Hearthstone announced it was jumping on the trend with Hearthstone Battlegrounds, a new game mode dedicated to 8-player round-by-round drafting, and while it's still early days the build on the Blizzcon floor shows that the auto battler format can definitely work with cards.
Battlegrounds is being released as a free mode to all Hearthstone players from November 12 internationally, when the auto battler add-on will go into a public open beta. But while playing is free, there is a strong caveat: you have to buy or acquire 20 in-game card packs from the new set, Descent of Dragons, if you want to get the choice of three bosses instead of two at the start of every match:
Players who acquire Descent of Dragons card packs, including free packs and those purchased using in-game gold or real money, will receive cool Battlegrounds bonuses. At 10 packs, players unlock comprehensive stat-tracking in Hearthstone: Battlegrounds (slated for release following beta testing); at 20 they can choose from three different Bosses instead of two at the start of each match; and at 30, players unlock the ability to taunt or playfully communicate with their opponents using a visual emote system.
That asterisk on the model aside, the raw mechanics of Battlegrounds work well. You start by picking a boss character with an innate hero power: King Mukla gets a banana in their hand every time you sell a minion, while others automatically grant bonuses to certain unit types, and others can spend a certain amount of gold to automatically do damage to random enemy minions at the start of the turn.
When you've picked your hero, you'll kick off with three gold and the choice of three one-star minions. Filling up your board is a two-step process, dragging the minion you want onto your hero, which adds it to your hand, and then onto where you want on the board. The positioning of some cards matters, like any mechs with the Magnetic trait or cards that affect the minions adjacent to them. Most of the interactions will be familiar for any current Hearthstone players, but if you haven't played in a while, the game does a decent enough job of explaining the basics.
Some interactions, however, aren't properly spelled out in the UI. It's not clear at any point while playing that you can upgrade minions the same way you can in other auto-battlers. It's mentioned in the official press release, but it doesn't come up as a tooltip in-game or even with a special coloured border the way some Hearthstone cards do when they can affect or influence other cards on the board. I only discovered this when I bought the card by accident, but that's a UI quirk that can be resolved relatively easily.
Fans of Underlords or TFT might also get a little frustrated at the order of operations. Some basic tenets still apply: Taunt heroes will be attacked first, for instance, but it's never quite clear what order enemies will attack after that. It adds a degree of randomness to later rounds, only because the amount of card interactions, deathrattles and cascading effects quickly becomes difficult to calculate.
That said, Battlegrounds has a huge advantage in that matches are relatively quick. Most of my games finished within 10 or 15 minutes, a much brisker pace than the 20 to 25 minute average length of a decent Underlords match. It makes Battlegrounds perfectly suited for the train commute or just before falling asleep at night.
I'd absolutely see myself downloading Hearthstone again on a phone just to give Battlegrounds a whirl. The lack of clarity in how units will battle each other might frustrate some players towards the end, but if you're after an auto battler experience that has a nice casual flair to it with just enough variety to be entertaining in short spurts, it's gonna be hard to avoid Battlegrounds. It'll be a free mode for all players on all platforms when it rolls into open beta next week, and you won't need any pre-existing cards or decks to jump in. For any lapsed Hearthstone players, that's a solid value proposition.