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Does Hearthstone work as an autobattler? We try its new Battlegrounds mode

Hearthstone Battlegrounds is an interesting novelty, but its depth in the longer term is uncertain

Hearthstone’s newest game mode pits you against seven other players in an automatic battle. Note, by the way, that Blizzard doesn’t have an auto chess game, like Dota Underlords or Riot’s Teamfight Tactics.

As with those other games, you’ll buy and equip a deck full of minions, then set them loose to wreak automated havoc on your enemies. I worry that it may prove more complex to learn, and less deep to actually play, than standard Hearthstone – but at the very least it’s an interesting novelty.

Battlegrounds’ open beta officially goes live on November 12, but you can play now if you attended BlizzCon or had a Virtual Ticket. You’ll find it in the main menu, on a new bar labeled ‘Modes’, which now includes both Arenas and Battlegrounds. They are free to play, and part of the new Descent of Dragons expansion, which launches December 10. Acquiring ten Descent of Dragons decks will get you access to better stats about your Battlegrounds gameplay; buying 20 lets you choose from three heroes instead of two to start a match; and buying 30 gets you visual as well as text emotes.

You start the match by choosing your hero, one of many overpowered figures you’ve likely fought against during Hearthstone’s single-player content. Become Ragnaros, and your hero power will send two four-damage firebolts toward enemy minions, for example. Choose A.F. Kay, and give up a few early turns – literally – for enormous power late in the round. And so on.

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Your next step is recruitment, and here the ‘opponent’ across the board from you is Bob the Bartender, the friendly NPC from Hearthstone’s single-player content. You can buy minions for three coins each, or pay to upgrade his selection, re-rolling them for another coin. Should you run out of coins at this point, a free ‘freeze’ button allows you to hold the upgraded minions for the next turn so you can purchase them then.

As long as they’re all in your hand or on your side of the board, buying three copies of one minion over any number of turns will ‘triple’ them. This replaces all three copies with a single golden minion with double attack, double health, and double the ‘effects’ (so adding +2/+2 and Taunt will add +4/+4, for example.) You play the new minions you’ve purchased, play your hero power (should you have the coins for it), and rearrange the minions on the board however you like by dragging them around. Then the turn ends, and it’s time to battle.

Your minions will battle left to right, though which opposing minion they attack is not a straight left-to-right progression, so working out exactly what they will target remains a bit confusing. (It’s random, except that Taunt minions will be attacked by one minion each first.)

If you eliminate your opponent’s minions, then the minions which remain on your board will add attack power to your hero, who will then attack the opposing hero. Confusingly, but perhaps necessarily for balance reasons, that attack power is based on what power tier the minions are – denoted by tiny stars on a corner flag – rather than the attack power of the actual minion. Killing the hero knocks that player out of competition, until the last player standing is declared the winner.

On the bright side, the cards are almost all Hearthstone-standard, meaning that all but ten of the minions you’ll choose from will be immediately familiar, while the newcomers are at least fairly straightforward. There are demons, mechs, murlocs and beasts, and plenty of minions that have great synergy with those classes, so you’ll probably want to stick to one type and go with it.

Because of that simplicity, it’s not immediately clear to me that Battlegrounds will have the depth of gameplay that traditional Hearthstone does. There’s a danger that this will be somewhat difficult to learn but relatively trivial to play, instead of the other way around. But there’s something intensely gratifying about coming out on top in an eight-player match, and the intermittent need to actually take control of the game makes it a much better choice for chilled play, while you’re doing something else and only partially paying attention.

If you’re playing Hearthstone on mobile, beware; Battlegrounds requires two gigabytes of RAM, so older devices and those running a pile of other apps are going to run into trouble quickly. Given how suited Auto Chess-style games are to mobile platforms, that’s a bit disappointing, but likely unavoidable given the large number of players. Expect a chunky download, as well.

Hearthstone’s Battlegrounds are a fun new mode to try, and free to play for BlizzCon viewers now and everyone this weekend, so it’s worth giving it a shot. Only time will tell if the gameplay will offer enough complexity to keep our interest for the long haul.