A small team of dedicated developers brings fun-to-watch animations and simple to learn gameplay to a strategy CCG.

The Blizzard behemoth typically makes huge and expansive PC games like World of Warcraft and last year’s Diablo III, but Creative Director Rob Pardo decided it was possible to score big with something smaller. At PAX East this morning, Pardo introduced the gaming world to Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft. It plays like a collectible card game similar to Magic the Gathering, but it runs on your PC or Mac – and soon after the iPad. Based on the many introductory videos showing actual gameplay during the presentation, it definitely is a lot more fun to watch than a pedestrian card game. Blizzard promised a playable beta test this summer, and a release for Hearthstone in 2013.

To build the game, Pardo assembled a lean 15-man team of developers – a stark contrast to the bloated staffs of WoW (135) and even the first Starcraft (30). Imaginatively called “Team 5” at Blizzard, these guys are working on Hearthstone with a few tenets in mind. First, the team is “scrappy and versatile”, consisting of developers that were well-rounded and able to be an expert in art, animation, programming, writing and, oh yeah, game design. Second, Hearthstone follows Blizzard’s “easy to learn, hard to master” philosophy that will get people playing immediately, but allows for deep strategic decisions too. Finally, Pardo really wanted it to be fun and dynamic to watch, and Hearthstone is full of spell effects, animations and WoW‘s trademark voice talent.

Hearthstone lets you choose one of 9 classes from World of Warcraft, such as warlock or rogue, and build a deck of abilities and summonable creatures you’d recognize from Azeroth. Gameplay focuses on 1 vs 1 duels, and players take turns using mana to cast spells and deal damage to your opponent or his creatures. Mana ramps up per turn automatically – no lands to deal with – but there are abilities which can increase your ramp. Another gameplay aspect to note is that damage is permanent over turns, so healing units to keep them alive becomes very important.

You build your deck from opening packs, and Rob Pardo said it was very important to keep the experience of cracking that pack of five cards as satisfying as it is for Magic players. The video Pardo showed displayed each card hovering, and you’re able to pick the one that’s turned over first. One neat touch is a glow effect showing around rare or legendary cards. There’s currently 300 cards in the game, and you’ll recognize fan favorite summonable characters like Ragnaros the Firelord and Hogger, who spawns a 2/2 gnoll every turn.

Hearthstone is free to play, and you can buy decks of cards. The current price is about $1 per 5 card pack, but that’s not set in stone. If you get a run of bad luck in the cards you don’t want, you will be able to disenchant cards in your collection, converting them to arcane dust, and then craft new cards. Pardo showed this process in action, and crafted Deathwing, a 12/12 creature that’s “one of the most powerful cards in the game.”

Rob Pardo said not only does this game change Blizzard’s focus on bigger titles, but it is a departure for them in other ways. “Hearthstone is big experiment for us to announce and release a game on the same year,” he quipped. The plan is for a beta to launch this summer, and a release by the end of 2013 on PC and Mac. The iPad version is playable now, but it will drop a bit after the initial release.

I may be skeptical about the timeline. Blizzard has burned me far too often using the word “soon” but Pardo acknowledged the company’s track record. Still, as a turn-based strategy fan, I’m pretty psyched to see one of the most successful PC development companies devote resources to this kind of game. Hearthstone is playable on the PAX East expo floor, so I’ll hopefully get my hands on the game and let you know what works.

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