The most exciting things about new emerging genres like battle royale, digital card games and Souls-inspired action RPGs is that they’re highly contested spaces. The canon and rulebook for what a great version of the above looks like is still actively being written, debated and decided.
It’s usually easy to see the fingerprints of the past in video games. You can see how most modern shooters have been shaped by Call of Duty or DOOM and it’s not hard to identify how manys strategy games have been influenced by decades-long debt to X-COM and Starcraft.
With these younger genres, that’s not necessarily the case. Sure, the popularity of the original DOTA 2 Autochess mod might have inspired a wave of imitators plus a legitimate sequel. But each of these follow-ups has introduced their own spin on things.
The reason why? Nobody quite knows what works about this genre. Everyone has some idea but the big picture remains in dispute. There’s no bag of established conventions to follow here. Just the will to make this style of game your own without cutting away at the things that worked about the original mod.
Riot’s Teamfight Tactics, Valve’s Underlords and everything in-between have all rushed to introduced their own takes on the Autochess genre. Now, Blizzard is looking to carve out a slice for themselves with the new Battlegrounds mode in Hearthstone.
The new mode itself is currently in beta and we jumped in for a couple of games to see how it fared and whether it’s just a novel and noble attempt by the world’s most successful digital card game to recapture your attention.
Right out the gate, the first thing you’ll notice about Battlegrounds is that it doesn’t quite stand on its own in the way that something like Underlords does. However, after some time with it, I’m just as convinced that what seems like it might be the mode’s greatest weakness might actually be its most compelling strength.
If you’re still a regular at the tavern, you’ve probably already got the app for Blizzard’s take on Autochess installed. Hearthstone: Battlegrounds isn’t it’s own thing. As much as mod as a standalone mode, it’s clearly been built on the bones of the core Hearthstone experience. Much of graphics, sound effects and even the units themselves have been recycled from Hearthstone proper.
As a result, Battlegrounds just doesn’t feel as cohesive or considered as some of the other Autochess titles out there. Even when you’re playing it, it’s hard to shake the idea that it’s a makeshift meal made from composites you’ve encountered before. It’s a new game mode that’s all but defined by a lingering sense of familiarity.
However, if you’re able to get beyond that sensation, it doesn’t long to see the meat on the bones - and there’s a surprising amount to chew on here.
The most tangible difference here is that Battlegrounds is based around turn-based combat. One minion attacks, then another, then another until only side is left standing. Minions attack from left to right and choose their target randomly - which allows for unexpected results even if you and your opponent are running very similar rosters.
As a side-effect of this pacing, the action in Battlegrounds sometimes feels a little easier to follow without feeling slower. And, even if they come across as a little too familiar, the animations and sound effects are still incredibly polished. Moment to moment, this helps endow Battlegrounds with the similar sort of confident snappiness found in Hearthstone’s other modes do.
Battlegrounds also features there’s a hero selection mechanic that’s similar to what Underlords recently introduced. At the start of the game, you get a grab-bag of three heroes to choose from.
Each character brings a slightly different flavor to the game, courtesy of a special unique ability that can be cast once per turn. Some of these abilities make certain builds more powerful than others. Others spice up the game by forcing you to skip the first two rounds but then starting the game at a higher level than everyone else.
The other hook here is the absence of gold hoarding. Unlike most other Autochess games, you can’t earn interest on gold. In fact, you can’t have more than 10 gold at any moment and you’re also only able to sell units that you put on the board. Every unit in Battlegrounds is available for the same 3 gold and you can only merge 3 of a kind into an upgraded unit once.
Overall, I found that these changes reduced the slot-machine feeling usually found in the late-game. What’s more, even in beta, it feels like there’s a real depth to bench in Battlegrounds.
Sure, Riot’s autochess game has a ton of heroes in it. Same goes for Underlords and the original Autochess. However, in the five years since it launched, the amount of creatures and characters in Hearthstone that could potentially be redeployed in Battlegrounds is more than a little mind-boggling.
It still feels like early days for Hearthstone: Battlegrounds but it’s not hard to see how this version of the autochess genre - with its ability to cross-pollinate and tap into the sizable audience for Blizzard’s enormously successful card game - could stand on its own even as the genre itself becomes increasingly competitive.
Blizzard’s entry into the autochess arena isn’t just an excuse to reinstall Hearthstone, it’s a great excuse to reinstall Hearthstone.
The pre-release beta for Hearthstone: Battlegrounds is available to those who pre-purchase the new Descent of Dragons expansion for Hearthstone here.