Game Design

hearthstone battlegrounds: a card-based auto battler experiment in game design

2019.  The year before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the world.  In games, this was the year of the auto battler.  Dota’s Auto Chess mod debuted in January, becoming a resounding success.  By June, Riot had jumped on the trend, premiering Teamfight Tactics, its first League of Legends spinoff game located within the LoL client.  So, it wasn’t a surprise when Hearthstone’s first new mode, Battlegrounds, was released in November.

Over the next two years, this would be the first of three distinct game modes to appear in Hearthstone outside of the traditional strategy card game the brand had been known for since its inception in 2014.  This blog post is the first in a series of articles about the three modes: Battlegrounds, Duels and Mercenaries.  Here, I will discuss Hearthstone Battlegrounds based on several game design criteria.

What is Hearthstone Battlegrounds?

  • Similar to: Dota Auto Chess, Teamfight Tactics
  • Made for: Casual gamers
  • Time commitment: ~20 minutes
  • Best at: Quick one-off fun with low commitment
  • Worst at: Onboarding due to confusing gameplay and visuals

1. Hearthstone Battlegrounds: Games as a Service

Battlegrounds biggest efficiency as a Game as a Service is its reliance on multiplayer.  This reduces the cost of game designers constantly coming up with new AIs or new content because players play against each other.  However, it comes with the challenge of ensuring a constant player base for an eight-player game, which leads to longer wait times than the traditional 1v1 Hearthstone mode.  This means that covert AI may need to be implemented if there isn’t enough interest in the game.

While there are new characters released periodically, they have a small impact on the game as a whole, given the initial large pool and randomisation of character choices at the beginning of the game.  There are also changes in the sets of available cards, which impact higher level strategies more than the average player’s.  Because of this, Battlegrounds has started selling skins for the existing characters and boards.

advertisement


It looks like keeping interest from waning and continue monetising Battlegrounds will require more innovation in the gameplay itself.

Image from: Blizzard Entertainment.

2. Hearthstone Battlegrounds: Influences and Innovation

Battlegrounds was Hearthstone’s attempt to capitalise on the auto battler trend of 2019.  While designers did try something new, it turns out that the mix of auto battler with a card game is difficult to execute, and Battlegrounds misses the mark.

First, the lure of auto battlers is to build a really awesome army.  Battlegrounds, being set on Hearthstone’s regular playing board, has only space for up to seven cards, and managing this resource is an annoyingly central part of the game.  Additionally, the low health totals mean that you’re out quickly and don’t have a chance for a change of strategy or comeback, which can be a blessing or a curse.

advertisement


The cost of selling and buying new units is prohibitive as well, as the player has to buy for three gold and only sell for one, no matter the level of the unit.  This means that changing your mind about the type of unit you are collecting for synergy or combos is very costly, even early on.  This truncates some of the strategic gameplay of typical auto battlers, because you’re locked in to your first strategy almost from the very beginning.

Image from: Blizzard Entertainment.
Image from: Blizzard Entertainment.

Compared to Riot’s Teamfight Tactics, which allows units to be upgraded twice, Battlegrounds cards can only be upgraded to a “triple” once, by collecting three of the same card.  This two-tiered system cuts off feelings of progress and achievement.

There is also the visual loss of the “battle” part of auto battlers.  Instead of units duking it out on a battlefield, Hearthstone displays its usual card combat, where cards slam against each other as their stats change.  This is less engaging and harder to understand when watching.

While innovation may be there in merging an auto battler with a card game, I don’t think the experiment worked out very well.

advertisement


3. Hearthstone Battlegrounds: Target Audience

With Battlegrounds, it was likely that Hearthstone was trying for the first time to draw in a new crowd, one of more “casual” gamers who were also hopping on to the auto battler trend.  However, being the third major auto chess game out the gate, and also the hardest to understand, was not in Battlegrounds’ favour.  While players might try out Battlegrounds, it’s difficult to see them sticking around as much as they did with Dota Auto Chess and Teamfight Tactics.

Hearthstone Battlegrounds combat phase gameplay. Image from: Hearthstone Wiki.

4. Hearthstone Battlegrounds: Engagement and Replayability

In Battlegrounds’ favour for replayability is a large pool of available characters, each with their own special power or buff.  At the beginning of each game, players have the choice of one of two (for free) or one of four (with a “Battlegrounds Perks” purchase) characters to play as.  However, there is a vast discrepancy in effectiveness and play style of each character, so it is common to quit the game if you get characters you do not like as the options.  This put hurdles in front of even getting into a game, much less playing it again.

I’ve written before that it’s difficult for me to enjoy auto battlers because I feel like there’s an optimal solution.  Likewise, while trying out Battlegrounds is fun, the game quickly gets old for me, especially once I’ve played as the same character multiple times.

Releasing new heroes is one of the only ways to keep Battlegrounds fresh, but the effectiveness of each Hero Power greatly varies. New Battlegrounds hero Tamsin Roame was released in November 2021. Image from: Blizzard Entertainment.

Overall Evaluation of Hearthstone Battlegrounds

Battlegrounds’ draw is its low commitment, taking the place of Hearthstone’s traditional mode for having the shortest single game length.  It’s easily time-boxed to a quick twenty minutes, but doesn’t provide much return playability because each match feels same-y after a few rounds.

Battlegrounds is the hardest of the three game modes to understand because it’s a confusing hybrid of an auto battler and a card game.  This in turn is tricky because the game appears to be targeted to more casual players than the Hearthstone core audience.  It is, however, the choice for someone who understands it if they have a short pocket of time for a quick bit of fun.

*

This is the first of my series of deep dives on Hearthstone’s game modes.  The next installment will be on Hearthstone Duels, followed by Hearthstone Mercenaries.