Hearthstone is fantastic as a quick, anonymous multiplayer game, where you can always find a never-ending line-up of worthy opponents ready to do battle, but strangely for a game set in a bustling Warcraft tavern - not to mention one of the most popular attractions on Twitch - it's not actually that social. You can't really talk to other players that much, and the system of canned emotes - conceived to limit griefing - has already been subverted by sarcasm. Take too long to act and you generally get a "Greetings!" to hurry you along, while the intent behind "Sorry" and "Thanks" is nakedly hostile.
Blizzard has obviously noticed this, because it has started to encourage real-world meet-ups. Called Fireside Gatherings, these Hearthstone socials bring people together in coffee shops or public spaces where multiple players can connect using the same wireless network, and they are officially sanctioned. There's even a small in-game reward - a unique card back design for those who take part, a token from Blizzard for taking your hobby out on the road.
If I'm being cynical, Fireside Gatherings and the card back are also blunt tools to boost word-of-mouth, but I don't need much encouragement to tell people how much I like Hearthstone at the best of times, so I'll let it go. I certainly didn't feel manipulated when I went to a Fireside Gathering in London last week - and I wasn't just there for the card back, either. I was curious to talk to other people who were playing one of my recent gaming obsessions, fans who didn't come from my usual group of friends playing at lunchtimes in the office. What tactics did other people use? How much real-world money had they spent on the game? Did everyone else hate Priests as much as me? (Yes, thankfully they did.)
Meeting at the South Bank's Royal Festival Hall meant our group had the space and free WiFi to log on fairly easily. Everyone there - a good mix of ages and occupations, considering - got to take on everyone else, but Blizzard's addition of the card back reward meant that play was always light-hearted, as people helped each other to unlock the design in their own game.
Between drops in the public WiFi, we swapped stories of playing online at home, particularly the games we almost won and the times we unexpectedly stole victory. Like when someone top-decked the legendary 15-health-restoring Alexstraza while both they and their opponent were on one point of health, then won. We also shared (and, let's be honest, acted out) our favourite catchphrases from the game's vast library, the little-spoken soundbites that cards spout when you place them into play. "The gates are open!" "Well met!" "Oooh, if you're sure!" We didn't have a fire to sit beside, but the warmth of camaraderie was unmistakable.
Almost everyone had spent a small amount of real-world cash on the game, with £10 about the average. A couple of people had spent more (and I still have yet to lay down any money at all, as part of an ongoing experiment to see just how far I can get without). Interestingly, the response from several people was the same I'd heard from players elsewhere: they saw the money they had chosen to spend as more of a tip to Blizzard after so many hours of play time, an encouraging sign that free-to-play needn't just be the business model of Dungeon Keeper or Flappy Bird clones.
Apart from swapping stories about playing - and despite the lack of any real competitive edge to the gathering - it was still a thrill to be playing someone sat opposite you, who could emote using more than just the half-dozen preset phrases. And of course it was fun having to remain poker-faced when you drew an exciting card that might affect the character of the encounter.
It was something an opponent did, rather than a win or a crafty move on my part, that sticks with me most. My Warrior class opened the match with his standard turn-one move - The Coin and then Fiery War Axe, a two-mana weapon that is my deck's staple for clearing early-game minions. It allows for me to attack straight away to deal with any early threat that needs to be nipped in the bud (Knife Juggler perhaps, or the Priest's opening healer staple, Northshire Cleric). Alternatively, it can work just as a warning to opponents - that any low-cost minion they play next can be quickly dealt with.
That is, unless your opponent has Acidic Swamp Ooze - a card that instantly destroys any weapon your opponent holds. It is the bane of Warrior and Paladin decks that rely on weapons for board clearance, it can completely disrupt a game's early rhythm, and it can kill any chance of securing an early foothold. It's also simply a strong card for its low mana cost, regardless of its weapon-destroying effect. But most players don't include it - to be honest, I'm surprised how little it does crop up - as many decks seem to favour class-based alternatives (or an endless streams of Murlocs) instead.
My weapon laid, I tapped the "End Turn" button.
"I just hope you don't have Acidic Swamp Ooze," I laughed out loud, a phrase I've said in my head countless times while playing online.
On-screen, I watched my opponent hover over his next card, and then looked up to see his grinning face in real life.
It turns out Hearthstone's a pretty great social game as well.
Come pull up a chair at the next Fireside Gathering, on Saturday, 12th July at the Meltdown gaming bar in London - full details on MeetUp.com.
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