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The Best Things In Life Are (Mostly) Free

May 5th, 2014 No comments

I’ve previously rhapsodized about my iPad, surely the most wonderful–and certainly most addictive–electronic device I’ve ever owned. The two of us were inseparable. At least, until I finally bought an iPad Air, at which point I broke that piece of outmoded shit over my knee.*

So, now that I have iOS 7, I’m trying out the new generation of apps. And, to my utter surprise, I find myself loving a couple of “free to play” games.

Previously, I’ve largely avoided so-called “freemium” apps, most of which purport to be free yet require frequent “in-app purchases” to provide their full experience. However, soon after acquiring my iPad Air, I sampled Doctor Who Legacy, a game which has been praised as an example of “how to do the ‘free to play’ model correctly.”

After having spent too many hours with it, I can vouch for this assessment: you can play Doctor Who Legacy as much as you want without paying a dime. Yes, you can purchase “time crystals” which can be spent in turn on various characters and perks, but most are easily acquirable in-game. And you’ll earn plenty of crystals just by playing.

Now, I did spend a few dollars on crystals, partially to support the developers and partially to access a special “fan” area which offers previews of upcoming characters and levels. But that was a choice, not a requirement.

The game itself is a Doctor Who-themed riff on the likes of Puzzle Quest, which combines “match 3″ play with role-playing game mechanics. You assemble a team of characters drawn from the TV show, each of which contributes hit points, attacks and special abilities to your mix. Then you pit your TARDIS crew against a large array of enemies with powers of their own.

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It’s got a rudimentary story, something about the warlike Sontarans fracturing the timestream in their attempt to conquer reality, but it’s barely coherent and beside the point anyway. It’s just an excuse to toss in every TV character you’ve heard of–and quite a few you’ve completely forgotten about. It’s the sort of game in which you can pit K-9, Strax, Cleopatra, an Ood and Winston Churchill against the combined might of the Whispermen, the Peg Dolls and the Flesh. And if any of that made sense to you, this game might be right up your time corridor.

The only thing that seemed capable of stopping from matching 3 with the Doctor well into the night was an equally addictive game, and now I’ve found one. Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft is a collectible card game set in the World of Warcraft universe. And while Doctor Who Legacy is fairly dependent upon being versed in the TV show, Hearthstone is perfectly enjoyable without any knowledge of prior Warcraft games.

My first reaction to Hearthstone was “this is a dumbed-down Magic: The Gathering.” And I was dead right. But what I realized after a while was that I was having a load of fun playing a dumbed-down Magic: The Gathering.

Really, the gameplay is extremely similar. Two players square off in a duel of spells and summoned minions, attempting to penetrate the enemy’s defenses and whittle their opponent’s life down to zero.

However, the differences are in the details. Unlike Magic, players are not allowed to interrupt each other’s turns with spells, eliminating the chaos of endless counters and counter-counters. You still have to be savvy in your card play, but you needn’t worry about baroque “timing” issues.

The game takes advantage of its digital-only format by incorporating random effects that would be difficult to effectively model with physical card decks, and by allowing players to set up “secret” traps for each other.

The interface is slick and visually dazzling, with magic missiles whizzing across the battlefield. Special “golden” cards (which are earned through play) feature animated images.

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While the game pretty much demands that you play other people, the designers have eliminated the douchiness that stems from online matchmaking. Opponents may only communicate through a handful of pre-programmed “emotes,” imposing civility and sportsmanship. And a strict, 90-second turn limit keeps things moving.

Even better, they’ve entirely done away with the secondary market that plagues collectible games. You can’t trade or sell cards, you can only acquire them in-game. You earn “gold” which can be used to purchase new “packs” of cards, and if you get too many of a given one, you can scrap them for credit which can in turn be used to acquire the cards you really want.

Of course, you can spend real money, either to buy packs or to enter Arena mode. The latter offers greater rewards each time you win a match, and players in the know suggest that once you get good at Arena play it pretty much supports itself. I am not good at Arena play, but even so, I earn enough “gold” through regular play that I gain a free entry into the Arena every two to three days. And I truly haven’t spent a dime on the game to date.

*A total lie. I have a ton of media stored on the old iPad 1, and intend to use it as my “reading” tablet.

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