Image via Bethesda (CC-BY)
Elder Scrolls: Legends isn’t doing itself a lot of favors. When the game was first announced at E3 2015 it was in the shadow of the unprecedented success and influence of Hearthstone, and it was easy to be a little cynical about Bethesda’s intentions. The video game industry is notorious for its copycat business model, and if something is working, you can bet developers and publishers around the world will try their best to siphon an audience off the trend.
I was a little pessimistic going in, but I like card games and I like the Elder Scrolls, so when I got a beta key I was at least curious to see what they were cooking up. I’ve got good news and bad news.
The good news is that Elder Scrolls: Legends is a solid, fun, well-designed card game. The choices you face are interesting, the mechanics have a few innovative wrinkles, and the decks you can build muster that trusty, engine-building thrill that head-to-head table games are all about. If you decide to put time towards Elder Scrolls: Legends, you will be rewarded for your effort.
Unfortunately, all your fears about this game riding Hearthstone’s coattails are totally true. The central gameplay is similar, in that you’re dropping minions on the board and casting spells, but that’s in accordance with plenty of card games (like, say, Magic). However, Elder Scrolls rips off Blizzard’s counterpart in some weirdly specific ways too. Here are just a couple things I’ve noticed.
1) In Elder Scrolls: Legends you start with one “magicka,” which is refilled and increased by one exponentially over the course of the game… just like Hearthstone.
2) Cards come in tiers of rarity, marked white, blue, purple, and gold… again, just like Hearthstone.
3) Some of the core mechanics, like say, “Charge,” are exactly the same. Like, even down to the terminology.
It’s not to say the game is a total carbon copy. Far from it! For one, the Elder Scrolls board is divided up into two lanes, and minions aren’t able to attack each other across the dividing line. Sometimes those lanes carry a specific designation; I played games where minions entering the right side of my board gained one-turn stealth, and that adds some extra complexity you can’t find in Hearthstone.
Beyond that, there’s some other stuff like a “rune” system, where after your hero loses certain thresholds of health you automatically draw a card (and certain cards have a keyword called ‘prophecy’ that lets you play them for free if you’re drawing it off a rune). There are also cards that permanently buff your side of the board, which offer some interesting slow-plays for certain decks. But all in all, those are just added mechanical flourishes on a pretty standard group of fundamentals. It certainly seems like Bethesda wants to make sure that people coming to this game from the world’s most popular digital CCG feel at home.
I understand that philosophy. The idea of booting Elder Scrolls and being forced to learn a new, arcane system aligned with, like, Netrunner or Doomtown probably doesn’t make a lot of business sense. Bethesda obviously thinks it’s going to get a lot of runoff from people who first got interested in card games from Hearthstone, and it pays to make them feel at home.
But for me, someone who’s already a Hearthstone fan, it’s hard to find a reason to stake a claim. CCGs are a huge investment of time and money, and while Elder Scrolls: Legends is a smart design, it’s hard to find the willpower to siphon off more of my paycheck towards another hobby that meets the same needs.
However, I don’t think that means that Legends won’t be a success. Blizzard turned a legion of Warcraft fans who didn’t know they liked Magic: The Gathering into Hearthstone lifers, and there’s enough Elder Scrolls devotees out there who are willing to be converted. If this is your first card game, you’ll absolutely enjoy it. For those of us who already have debilitating hobbies, there’s not quite enough here to obsess over. Maybe that’s for the best.