The main problem I run into, in trying to write entertainingly about Hearthstone for a general audience, is how incomprehensible it is to non-players. This was brought home to me the other night, as my mate Rhu and I were waiting for the third member of our tragic Age Of Empires 2 guild to join us for a game, and I started up a round of Hearthstone’s Battlegrounds mode to pass the time. After a while, Rhu became curious about my constant, guttural cursing, and asked me to pop the game onto Discord’s telly mode so he could watch.
Now, Rhu used to play a lot of Hearthstone. And although he’d stopped before Battlegrounds was launched, I figured he’d be able to intuit what was going on. He was not able, as it turned out. “This is like a vision of hell,” he said quietly, after watching a couple of turns play out. “Hell,” he added, a few moments later, “as perceived by Gimli.” We talk about what a wretched, hapless figure Gimli is quite often, you see, and so invoking him lends an element of pathos to any condemnation.
Rhu was justified to say so, mind. Battlegrounds - or “Gimli’s hell”, as we indeed now call it - is a visually exhausting business. In the later turns of a round, the field of play consists of a dozen or so garish, gurning fantasy monsters, trapped inside gilded ovals and lined up in two rows. As a fight begins, they immediately begin smashing into each other. There is a racket of snarls, shrieks and groans as they die, underscored by discordant, parping war music. It all lasts less than a minute. When it is over, whichever creatures have not burst in the indignity, savage their enemy’s master.
There can be 16 or more fights in a round of Gimli’s Hell. In between them, the inhabitants of this grim Valhalla rematerialise in a trading screen which purports to be a pub, but is for all intents and purposes a slave market. With yet more crashing and yelling, they are bought, sold, and forcefully merged with others of their kind to form brutish conglomerates, all while coins careen desperately around the screen like flies in a bin.
But then a burning fuse hisses, a clock ticks, and - with a final burst of slamming and banging sounds - the action switches back to the combat screen. The tortured monsters must smash into each other all over again, repeating the same garbled roars as they charge, and the same baffled howls as they die, like a load of emotionally broken pokemon.
They are not, however - and this is crucial to point out - controlled by the player. Your job is merely to assemble their ranks before each fight: after that, the chains which bind their will are passed to the game, which orchestrates the massacre as you watch on, powerless. A vision of hell indeed, to which the Sweating Panda is the only sane response.
Now, a new twist to Hearthstone’s greater shape has, somehow, made it even more psychologically difficult to digest. Because now, the game tells you exactly when you will die. And it gift-wraps this revelation with the bleak reminder that you have no free will to escape your fate.
It all stems from the new achievement system, introduced around Christmas. As per the new rules, accomplishing any of the feats on a very long list will award you with… you know what? Let’s not get into all that. It’s an achievement system: you know how they work.
Anyway. There’s a huge pool of different characters you can play as in Battlegrounds’ hadal, eight-player pitfights, and each comes with a pair of achievements - one for getting into the final four players left standing in a round of Gimli’s Hell, and one for being crowned as its Lucifer.
Now. Remember I said that during combat phases, your minions - and those of the enemy - are controlled by the game itself? Well, here’s the kicker. Because, despite all the RNG involved in what attacks what, and in what order, the game controls both sides on the board. As such, it can model exactly what will happen, even before the first hoarse cry of hate sounds from a bulbous pirate’s throat. It knows the outcome of the fight and, consequently, which player will have their health chunked down by the survivors of the opposing team when it’s over.
Sometimes, this is welcome. Say you are playing as Colonel Twiglets, the Battlin’ Beech Tree. You have done well, with your row of seething wolves who burst and release spiders, and you have made it to the point where only six players remain, from the original eight. Now you are up against Gillian Snoozehorn the Narcoleptic Dragon, however, and you don’t fancy your chances.
But as the combat phase starts up, a little pop-up barks “Beech Please!” in the corner of the screen, and you hit the Sweating Panda emote with relief. The game has determined that you will win the confrontation with Gillian, thus making it into the final four, and it has let you know this by awarding you the commensurate achievement, before a wolf can even pop.
"Those growling gits are packed so full of spiders they’re fit to burst. And indeed, that is their sole duty."
This quirk can manifest in less edifying ways. Say that the good Colonel makes it through to the last two players, and ends up in a multiple-combat slugfest against Jeff Snarl, Demon Actuary. You have bought the absolute shit out of every wolf going during the pub phase. Those growling gits are packed so full of spiders they’re fit to burst. And indeed, that is their sole duty.
They’re backed up by a loathsome hyena that gets fatter and fatter as they die, plus a bear that shouts at the spiders in the violent instant of their birth, to make them stronger. You’re as ready as you’ll ever be. And that’s just as well, because this is the deciding match. You and Jeff are both on six hit points, which means that if just one minion survives the fight, it’ll be instant death for the opposing player.
But as the fight kicks off, you notice that there is no jaunty pun in the bottom left of your screen. No “Bark Worse Than Your Bite”, no “Leaf Him, He’s Not Worth It”, no “Time For U To Log Off”. Nothing. The computer knows you’re going to die. And now, thanks to its frosty silence, so do you.
You had your chance to make your own fate. You were John Connor, crashing the wolf market from a cartoon fantasy pub. But it was not enough. Now, all that’s left is to watch the deterministic machine of the Battleground, smashing itself to an inevitable conclusion like something from Descartes’ fever dreams. A Mind-Body Problem, made entirely from bursting wolves.
And as soon as it crushes you in its whimpering, skittering gears, it’s time to smash that Sweating Panda button and jump in the queue for another round. Because it’s still, unfortunately, well good.