Imagine if World of Warcraft were a card game. Not Hearthstone. That’s a Warcraft-themed card game. Totally different thing. I’m talking about something much more ambitious. A card game with heroes, epic loot, dungeons, guilds, crafting, an auction house, and tournaments. An MMO that was also a card game.
That game is Hex. And if it gets its claws into you, you will not be seeing the light of day for a long, long time.
Hex is already a success for developer Cryptozoic: it raised $2.2 million from 17,765 backers in a Kickstarter campaign last year. You might remember it. It was the one where Cryptozoic’s founder, Cory Jones, shot a clown in the pitch video.
It flew, because Cryptozoic have form. They are the guys you turn to if you want to play a collectible card game. They’re all veteran developers, and they all have history with CCGs.
“Without Magic: The Gathering, I’d never have made it into the games industry,” says Cory. “I got in by playing Magic competitively and meeting people in the video game industry.”
“All of our guys working on the Trading Card Game part of the game, we’ve all been living and breathing TCGs for at least a decade,” says Ben Stoll, Hex’s lead designer. “That’s what our background is. We all played in tournaments and played the Christ out of TCGs, even before we got into the industry.”
They’re not solely card game designers, though. “My first project was World of Warcraft,” Hex’s lead systems designer, Kevin Jordan, tells me. He was one of the first three designers on Blizzard’s fantasy MMO. “It turned out pretty well.”
The idea for Hex has been stewing for close to a decade
“It originally came from when I pitched the World of Warcraft TCG at Upper Deck. A virtual world like an MMO that has so much available content’ - because TCGs churn through content very quickly - ‘but also has a community at its backbone, I think that could be a very good marriage of video game meets trading card game.’
“Pitching that concept in interview was where I married the idea of MMO to TCG, but it was coming from the other angle, we would make a physical game about a digital game.”
Hex is entirely digital.
So how does it play?
A standard game of Hex starts with two players, both with 20 health and 7 cards in their hand. The winner is the one who gets their opponent’s health to zero first. As the attacker you target your opponent, not their minions. It’s for the defender to decide which of their foe’s minions they’ll block with their own and which to let hit their precious health points.
It's a neat change from Hearthstone, where the attacker is largely in control and defence is handled automatically. It makes attacking a more nerve racking experience. You can’t be sure of the outcome - will they block you? Let you through? Will they counter by casting a spell? And that’s the other key difference between Hex and Hearthstone, Pass Priority.
In Hex, most actions can be countered. When I play a card and summon a minion to the battlefield my opponent can play a card before my creature comes into play. That card could do anything from sending it back into my hand, take half its health, or turn it traitor and put it under my opponent’s command. When I launch an attack the defender, again, can play counter cards - buffing her blocking minions or straight up lobbing a fireball at my creatures. It adds a great deal of tactical depth to the game.
If you’ve played TCGs before you might recognise these concepts from Magic: The Gathering. There are similarities in Magic and Hex’s rule sets, from pass priority, 20 health, to the seven card hand. Plus, there’s already a digital version of Magic. So what exactly is the fuss about?
It’s because Hex is designed first for computers. And the freedom that gives its designers is extraordinary.
“A lot of conventional TCGs are painting on a canvas which is 10 inches by 10 inches,” Cory enthuses. “We have a whole roll of canvas. The amount of innovation and design space available because of the digital piece, it’s not like ten times the space, it’s 1,000 times the space.” He pauses. “It’s crazy.”
Let’s look at some cards. Take Replicator’s Gambit. This card lets you buff one of your troops so that the next time it’s played it spawns six copies of itself. You can find a piece of loot, The Mirrorblade, which triples the power of this card. You could end up with 18 separate copies of your minion all in play at once, all with their individual health counters. They can be separately buffed, too, making for mayhem on the battlefield.
Other cards can evolve mid-game into a completely different kind of minion. That minion could then change into something else, and on and on - such as the Ascetic Aspirant who becomes the Enlightened Seeker and, in turn The Transcended. Or, if you’ve the Vampire King in play, every enemy troop you kill is transformed into a Vampire under your control. Cards can gain a permanent buff through a game, meaning if they are shuffled back into the deck the computer remembers for when it’s played again.
This new flexibility offers more than just clever mechanics. Cards can level up, unlocking new artwork and foil status as they go. They can be fitted with loot and gems which enhance their basic abilities. I particularly like that each card’s history is inscribed on its back. Cards in Hex have three sides. The front, the back, and the reality defying double back. On this weird third side all the card’s legacy details are stored. If you used one in a winning hand during a tournament then that card will gain a trophy, marking its part in your success.
Put mechanical possibilities and physics-bending card properties to the back of your mind for a moment, from what I’ve played so far, it all just works. The deck I’m playing with at the moment is made up of Shin’hare, psychotic rabbits that find strength in numbers. I’ve cards like the Runts of the Litter and Uzume, Grand Cuncubunny which regularly spawn in new bunnies. The rabbits themselves begin as fluffy little nothings, but with cards like Bucktooth Commander and Evolve I can give them all buffs. Even my champion, Monika’shin, let’s me spawn a Battle Hopper every third resource token I play. My opponents find they simply can’t block the number of troops I have to throw at their health points.
The game’s still in alpha so I’ve niggles with bits of the interface, occasional lag, and such, but the card game at the core of Hex is excellent fun. Compared to Hearthstone, Hex is simply tactically richer and more rewarding.