I know just enough about card games to know that Hex is as involved as it gets. It renders my experiences with The Witcher 3’s TCG gateway drug, Gwent, akin to a toddler pushing blocks through holes of their corresponding shape. Its thousand-strong deck, deep RPG elements and formidable campaign place it in entirely different territory to monolithic CCG Hearthstone, and its clever subversion Chronicle: Runescape Legends. I’m a bit scared of it, actually.
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Witnessing some Gameforge developers play their own game and become deeply entrenched in complex stratagems and theorycrafting, I get an insight into the complexity of Hex. They’re attempting one of the game’s tougher campaign battles with a deck of 120 cards, 60 of which are Lost Gnomes. 1 attack, 2 defence, 0 special abilities.
They’re able to eke out an early advantage with said Gnomes while their opponent buries some powerful worms into the new Canyon battle board (one of four new boards, each with their own soundtracks and game modifiers) for later use. There’s a flurry of early shard and character cards before their deck gains more Gnomes with each draw.
Soon Gnomes are all they have. Then the worms emerge, with 5 attack, 5 defend, and crush damage that sends any attack points not that aren’t blocked by other cards straight to the opposing champion. In this manner, the round is swiftly resolved.
Were it not for the fact that I now have to play that remarkably complex game in front of the people who made it, I’d be profoundly relieved to hear about Hex’s PvE mode. As Gameforge’s senior PR manager Jörn Karl Fahrbach tells me, it’s intended as a means of entry to the game for people just like me, the TCG agnostic. Within its enormous campaign are lessons and pointers that explain the myriad number-crunching mechanisms at play, one by one.
The whole thing begins with a five-battle tutorial intended to give me a foot in the door. Having tentatively clicked through it, I’d say it succeeds in doing that, though perhaps not in the intended manner. By that I mean: yes, I did get at least some grasp of what I was expected to do each turn and why, but that wasn’t the interesting part. Far more engaging are the peeks into the many, many things I’m not being taught about yet.
I choose to create a Vennen Cleric as my champion, for example, thinking his various defensive bonuses would offer a kind of crumple zone for my ineptitude. What I quickly learned is that to make the best use of this, and any, champion build, you need to play in a very specific way. In my case, by filling the opponent’s deck with spider eggs to minimise their chances of drawing useful or powerful cards. Then, by playing cards with special abilities that affect the spiderlings that hatch from those eggs so that i can draw more of my own cards and minimise the opponents options. Coming to the world of TCGs basically afresh, that’s a very esoteric mindset to get into, and it tells of the numerous other specific tactics I have no idea about yet. And that’s exciting.
There's also the talent tree to consider, this being one of the most obvious traditional RPG elements in Hex's melange of role-playing and TCG. Ascending the talent tree unlocks the ability to bring more rare cards to each battle and buffs your champion's special ability.
Then there's the loot angle, doubling down on Hex's RPG leanings. Card drops in the game's PvE mode include cards that can't be found elsewhere in PvP mode, allowing you to build a deck that might otherwise be considered OP'ed and using it to best the campaign's dungeons. You'll need to decide on a deck that'll get you through each fight in a particular dungeon though (sometimes up to five), so analysis of the battle board and enemy types is required to take the right cards along with you. Cards themselves can be bejeweled to buff certain attributes, and although the total deck size exceeds 1,000, as you build yours up you'll gain cards that are extremely useful in certain scenarios and next to useless in others. 60 Lost Gnomes, I've learned, is very rarely the optimum deck.
PvE mode's dungeons are "enclosed instances," which means you're locked into a string of battles with a particular deck once you enter them. You can forfeit the whole string of fights to reset that dungeon of it becomes clear you brought the proverbial knife to a gunfight though. A particularly challenging boss fight awaits in each dungeon, usually at the end. Some dungeons aren't linear though, which means you can take on the battles in any order.
There's also a big effort to build the lore of Hex in the new PvE campaign, expanded primarily though dialogue with NPCs in the campaign map. They'll explain to you what it means to be a grotesque half-orc-half spider (Vennen), they'll call you brother, and if you concentrate they'll start to make your race and class-specific tactics start to make sense. Of course the Vennen use spider eggs to overwhelm their enemies, I eventually think.
Quests vary for each race and faction, to that end, so you're given gameplay examples of your unique traits in addition to idle chit-chat. If you want to take the latter seriously though, there are mutliple responses to NPC conversations, and your choices impact further quests and nodes (those coloured dots on the campaign map) becoming unlocked.
Afer a few hours with Hex's PvE content, I've learned a lot. I still don't have a confident grasp of everything that happens round-to-round, but I've learned there's no shame in defeat here. It's a TCG bot match, with old school RPG bells and whistles, and I'm okay with that.
Will I put in the next few hours required to get a proper grasp of deckbuilding, and the several dozen after that which might lead me to PvP battles? Well, I'm thinking about it. It's a daunting prospect, but not an insurmountable one.