The most recent new mode to arrive in Hearthstone was Mercenaries, in October 2021. Another distinct departure from traditional Hearthstone, this also differed from Battlegrounds and Duels in interesting ways.
One notable trait was the procedural generation of maps of battles to complete each bounty. Additionally, this was the first Hearthstone game mode outside of traditional to have its own economy system, including Mercenaries card packs you could purchase from its very own, separate store from the main game.
In this final post of my Hearthstone game modes deep dive series, I will write about Mercenaries, covering its game design strengths and weaknesses as the latest addition to the Hearthstone games catalogue.
Summary for Hearthstone Mercenaries
- Similar to: Slay the Spire, a gym battle in Pokémon
- Made for: RPG grinders and completionists
- Time commitment: ~30 minutes (to forever for unlimited grinding)
- Best at: Feelings of progress and accomplishment
- Worst at: Repetitive gameplay
1. Games as a Service
Mercenaries has the most straightforward design in terms of Games as a Service, as it follows most closely the freemium model of many mobile games. It has certain available levels, with a set of cards that determines your available characters. The big advantage is that the levels are replayable and procedurally generated, with order and paths of discrete encounters changing for each run while the boss remains constant.
This means that any maintenance of Mercenaries is simply the addition of new bosses and encounters, which can be scripted into the game with little overhead. By using this framework, new levels and new character cards can be added relatively easily.
However, this sort of gameplay gets boring very quickly, as boss encounters are identical each round and other encounters will inevitably repeat themselves throughout the various levels. Finishing all the levels is common, so the expectation is replaying the same levels, albeit with different paths and routes due to procedural generation, over and over again.
2. Influences and Innovation
Mercenaries clearly takes inspiration from roguelikes in its expectation of repeated play through procedurally generated levels, while maintaining progress (i.e. levelling up characters and unlocking equipment) outside of the gameplay.
Its encounter layout calls to mind the pathways in Slay the Spire, but instead of building a deck as you progress through the level, you bring along a party of six mercenary characters who attack and defend against the monsters in the encounters. Despite being able to choose one of three buffs for a mercenary on your team when you successfully pass an encounter, the game lacks the interest of the deck-building aspects of Slay the Spire.
Instead, Mercenaries replicates a Pokémon gym battle more closely. In the party, your six mercenaries’ stats, abilities and weapons reflect how much you have played them in the past, and if all of them die, you have to start over. It’s a strange choice for a card game to focus on levelling rather than deck-building, but presents some unique use of Hearthstone’s battle mechanics.
3. Target Audience
With the focus on levelling up mercenaries and repeating levels to earn more coins to do so, Mercenaries is most appealing to that same audience that would have enjoyed the grind of the first Pokémon games. The feeling of progress and accomplishment of getting not just your party of six to maximum level, but every single Pokémon in your Pokédex, is strong with Mercenaries.
Mercenaries would also appeal to RPG or mobile gamers used to running the same raids or levels and waiting for new one to drop, or those who enjoy collecting things like the numerous available Mercenaries. The catch is that drops of coins that unlock new Mercenaries are mostly random, and take many runs to accumulate to afford certain Mercenaries, which pushes the player ever closer to that in-game currency purchase.
4. Engagement and Replayability
Out of the three, Mercenaries is the easiest to pick up, the easiest to replay, and the most repetitive. While different mercenaries have wildly different abilities, once at a high enough level, any mercenary would work on a team except for certain boss levels that require specialised strategies.
Replayability, while probably the most encouraged in the Mercenaries game mode, is only for players who fit the “grind” archetype. Cleverly, Mercenaries does not put a cap on how much players can grind, allowing for infinite grinding which is fun for players of this ilk, unlike traditional Hearthstone which limits experience/gold after a certain number of minutes played. For these players, the hard work leads to feelings of progress and accomplishment.
There is a ceiling, of course, a point at which all levels are complete and all mercenaries in the catalogue are maxed out. But, that maximum can only be achieved after hundreds of hours of gameplay, enough to probably secure at least some income from all but the most ardent of players.
For these players, the longer they play, the more invested they become, and the harder it is to stop playing. For the rest, Mercenaries will likely only capture their attention for one playthrough.
Overall Evaluation of Hearthstone Mercenaries
Though it implements cool things like procedural levels, Mercenaries is really only good for the grind. Its appeal is collecting all the Mercenaries and levelling them all up, Pokémon style. Mercenaries therefore has a very specific target audience, one who relishes the hard work of investing time for incremental progress as part of the gaming experience.
For all the internal complexity of the individual mercenaries with their separate abilities and items to choose from, Mercenaries doesn’t require much strategy at all. Making it through levels is a breeze once you have attained a certain level. Out of the three, Mercenaries requires the least strategy and thought, and prefers instead to focus on a seemingly endless grind. Great for some, and extremely boring for others.
In the two previous pieces in this series on Hearthstone’s game modes, I’ve evaluated the game design of Hearthstone Battlegrounds and Hearthstone Duels against the same criteria. It will be interesting to see which of these game modes will be supported long-term as Hearthstone continues to evolve.