HEX: Shards of Fate
Developer Visit Hands-On Preview
John Tucker John Tucker



HEX Entertainment



US Jan 2016

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Part of the PvE campaign map.
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The cleric class talent tree.
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You can be a Shin'hare warrior!
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Or a freaky spider mage!
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My favorite playing field yet, the forest.
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This card has both a random effect and puns.
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This one could be a game-changer.
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The art looks great.
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I might have found some new wallpaper.
"Previews like this are the place for optimism and enthusiasm, and I have those in spades, as do [the developers]."

Author's Note: this article discusses a patch "this week." After publication, the developers announced the official date — HEX will be patched the night of Monday, 1/25.

I'll admit it — when I headed to Irvine to visit HEX Entertainment with a few other journalists this week, I was nervous. I'm fairly inexperienced when it comes to trading card games, and I wasn't sure that a TCG would even fit into our coverage as a site about RPGs. However, now that I've seen the game and talked to the development team, I'm not nervous any more. HEX: Shards of Fate is definitely an RPG based on trading cards, and the updated tutorial that comes out in this week's patch is good enough to help even TCG newbies like me understand the game. Don't let that hold you back if you're a veteran of the genre, though — this game was made by some of the best in the business, and they want you playing it at least as much as they want me.

HEX is fairly unique among video games, so it's worth giving a brief explanation of just what it is. The shortest possible version is "it's an online TCG," but that really misses the point. In fact, the developers call it an MMOTCG, because there's a lot more to it than just buying packs of digital cards and playing matches against faceless strangers. HEX definitely includes PvP matches, but during my visit, we focused on the other side of the game: PvE, which grows in this week's patch from just matches against the computer to an entire campaign. (Spoilers for this entire article: I came away pretty impressed by it.)

So if the short explanation's not sufficient, what's missing? In the developers' minds, it's you. HEX was Kickstarted all the way back in May of 2013 to huge success — over 17,000 backers gave nearly $2.3 million to the campaign, and the devs say that the number of people was just as important as the money was. To them, the sense of community you get when you play a game is crucial. Playing with friends and people who become your friends is fun. Playing with jerks is... well, I'll admit that there are some people who thrive in that atmosphere, but I'm not one of them. (I have to pander to the crowd here a bit and admit that this point really resonated with me because I feel like we look for — and have — that same type of community at RPGFan.)

In an MMO, you have guilds and the like to help you keep that community together, and raids that require you to work as a team to defeat a difficult foe. Those features are still in the future for HEX, but they've been a part of the plan since the beginning, and from what I was told, they appear to be high on the priority list for future patches. For now, the community is maintained via forums and the in-game mechanics that allow you to give, trade, or even sell your cards to other players. Yes, all three of those things. This is a trading card game, after all, and as in physical card games, being able to give cards to other players, with or without an exchange of funds, is an important tool for building your deck and contributing to the community. (As TCG players know, every pack of cards you open will have some common cards that will be of little use to a veteran but could really help a new player get started and fall in love with the game.)

OK, great. But MMOs are already a thing, and so are TCGs. So what makes HEX unique? To me, it's the game's focus on taking advantage of the digital medium to do things that can't be done anywhere else. In fact, many of those things are actually what make HEX a game we cover.

Let's start with the new PvE campaign. Yes, there is PvE content in the game you're probably thinking of as HEX's big competitor online, but I haven't heard people talk about it as a thing that'd draw anyone to that game. With HEX's new patch, it's kind of a big deal. You start the campaign with a level 1 character, for whom you pick a gender, race, and class. Gender is only a cosmetic choice, but race gives you bonuses that tie into the talent tree that you get based on your class. I know a talent tree in a TCG sounds a little crazy, but it works — and it only works because this is a digital game rather than a physical one, where you'd have to keep track of a million different things and trust your opponents, since it would likely be an aspect of a PvP mode in a physical game.

Once created, your character is given a starter deck that makes sense for their race and class, and you're off to the races, mowing down your virtual foes... and getting mowed down by them if you take on an optional enemy who is way above your level. This happened in a hands-off demo, and the developer who was playing got absolutely destroyed. It was hilarious and convinced me to not take on that enemy when I played with my level 1 character later in the day.

If you start the PvE campaign after playing some PvP, you'll retain the cards you already own as well, although PvE characters have certain limits on the cards they can bring into battle — limits that lessen as they level up. The goal is to keep things challenging for even experienced PvP players without making their work (and any money they've spent on cards) irrelevant.

Along the way, you'll have quests, sidequests, dungeons, amusing conversations with NPCs, and all of the other things we've come to look for in RPGs. Players who get into the lore behind the game's world will be happy to know that each race has its own story beats that intersect with the others', so although the campaign looks to be pretty lengthy, you can go back and make more characters to see different points of view.

An element of the battles I found truly fascinating is the fact that HEX's enemies aren't just static AIs that all behave the same way and never change. Instead, they're distinct characters with distinct playstyles based on their personality and mental blind spots. For example, a wild boar might throw everything into offense and try to hit everything it goes after as hard as it can, even if it would be smarter to hold back or attack multiple targets with weaker attacks. Another enemy might have a real hate for any card of a certain race and attack those first even if it'd be smarter to attack other, weaker cards. As players go up against these enemies, they'll learn what strategies work best against those playstyles as well as what mistakes players with those styles make, which should help them when they step into the PvP arena.

But there's something lost in the fun of a strategic game if you can simply go out to a forum somewhere and read instructions on which cards to play each turn to exploit an enemy's weaknesses, and the HEX development team is trying to avoid that as well by having the game watch for the same set of cards repeating itself against a particular AI and from that watching, learn how to deal better with that specific pattern. They don't want the AI to become unbeatable, because that's not fun either; they just don't want the PvE campaign to become a matter of rote repetition. That said, as I mentioned earlier, there are optional battles that are brutally difficult for higher-level players looking for a challenge. The devs even mentioned that there is one battle none of them have found a way to beat yet, because they know that the players are sure to be better at the game than they are.

Figuring out an enemy's weak points and beating them is fun, but we all know that RPG players are looking for a little something else from their battles: loot. HEX provides that too, in another unique twist on the TCG formula that's really only possible because it's a digital game. When you win battles, you get new cards and gold, of course, but you also get gems and equipment. As current players know, some HEX cards have sockets, like weapons in Diablo, where you can attach gems that grant a variety of bonuses, from simply raising attack and defense to allowing faster attacks or even flight, which allows you to bypass ground-based defenders.

Equipment is already in the game as well, but has been expanded for use in the new PvE campaign. As in most RPGs, your character has equipment slots for a helmet, armor, etc. Each piece of equipment you put into those slots will buff a specifically named card — every copy you have of that card in your deck. To use the example on their website, you might find and equip a piece of armor that spawns a random low-level Orc and puts it onto the field every time the card "Xocoy, High Cleric" comes into your hand. Doing that in a physical game would probably require you to dig through your deck, find all of your Orcs of the appropriate level, randomly pick one, and then presumably shuffle your deck. And I noticed that the equipment's effect doesn't say it spawns a random Orc from your deck — that suggests to me that it could be any random Orc, even one you don't own.

I'm not going out on a limb there — that thought occurred to me because I know that HEX includes effects that can spawn cards you don't own. An example in the current version of the tutorial (it's being replaced in the upcoming patch) has you play a ranger-type character to the field, and when you do, a wolf pet is automatically created for her. That card wasn't in your deck before you played the ranger, and it won't be there afterwards. How cool is that!?

Panoramic drawings outside the artists' office.
Panoramic drawings outside the artists' office.

I'll be straight with you — after six hours of talking to the devs, I could write about this game far more than you'd want to read. Previews like this are the place for optimism and enthusiasm, and I have those in spades, as do they. The HEX team really, really cares about what they're doing, and they have as many ideas for what to do in the future as they've got things that are already in the game (or coming out this week). Talking with them reminded me of why I love games and why every kid who grows up loving games wants to make them at some point. As a result, I have pages and pages of notes about cool stuff and no good way to transition from thing to thing. So I'm going to jump from topic to topic for a bit here, and I hope you'll indulge me on that.

Providing new content on a regular basis is key to keeping an MMO or a TCG going, and the folks at HEX Entertainment are keeping that in mind. CEO Cory Jones is one of the minds behind the World of Warcraft TCG, and it was his existing love of TCGs that got him into the business, and the rest of the team is similarly experienced. He told us that the HEX team is among the only people out there who have the know-how to make sure that they can keep releasing new expansions, cards, and gameplay without destroying the game's balance or leaving the original content irrelevant. And while I don't know enough to comment on the "among the only people" portion of that comment, I can confirm that everything I saw indicated the type of planning and work required to follow through on that promise.

The HEX team is concerned about what you might call the "moral imperative" of gaming. How people play, not just that they play. For example, they feel like the end of a PvP match shouldn't be about gloating and feeling humiliated, but about two people feeling like they had fun playing a game together, and they've tried to design the game with that in mind.

They're working to foster a global community that can play together, and part of that comes with their choice of a German publisher, Gameforge. They shopped the game around to a lot of companies, and went with the one who they felt "got it." The economics of a game like this can be counterintuitive, as certain TCG makers have learned the hard way, and the wrong publisher would have tried to get them to build a game that generated unhappy players who feel trapped or addicted to the items that make them spend more money if they want to succeed. In addition, German consumer protection laws are strong — stronger than US laws, from what I've seen in the past — and that helps HEX provide security from fraud to the players. When you lose, they want you to feel like you at least lost fair and square, not like you were cheated.

They've worked with over 1000 artists to create the art for their cards, but have provided those artists with style guides to keep the game's overall look and feel consistent. And although the cards have the standard TCG structure of a picture up top and some text at the bottom, you can unlock the extended art version of any card that hides the text to show off the full art. (Readers who are not into TCGs, trust me, this is a big deal to fans of the genre. I know from even my limited experience that there are people who make good money by painting full art onto physical cards for players.)

I mentioned the talent trees earlier. But I also wanted to mention something that didn't really fit into the flow there — free talents. Like in just about any game with a talent/skill tree, you gain points as you level up, and you use those points to unlock new talents. But HEX's trees also include some free talents that come with both an upside and a downside, like the Traits that we saw back in Fallout 1 and 2. For example, characters in the warrior class have access to a non-card-based attack on their opponent's health that charges up as the battle progresses, and one of their free talents improves that attack in exchange for lower health points. Choosing that talent doesn't cost you a talent point, just an internal debate about whether the trade off is worth it to you.

Visually, a digital TCG could be a pretty boring thing to play, since you're just staring at a playing mat and cards sitting on it, but HEX goes out of its way to avoid that, especially in the PvE campaign. As you move through the world, you'll find yourself in different environments, and the playing mats in each battle reflect that. A battle in a forest will have gently swaying trees and grass, with a river flowing around the center of the board, for example. Having seen it in action, I feel like the team did a really good job of finding the sweet spot between too little and too much and made environments that are interesting without being distracting. The art team walked us through the process of making these environments, and as a non-artist, I was surprised at just how much work it all requires — making one new environment can take up to two months!

Like I said, I could go on for a while longer about what I saw at HEX Entertainment, but I probably shouldn't. This preview is already more than twice as long as many of my reviews of completed games, so I'll wrap it up here. You can download the current version of HEX free at hextcg.com, although please know that if you do so in the week after this article is posted that much of what I've discussed here won't be in the game yet. On the upside, I'm guessing it'll take a while to download the new patch, so you might want to get a head start by getting the game before it releases.

As I said at the beginning, I don't have a lot of experience in this genre yet — I've tried a number of physical TCGs in the past and none has ever made me want to keep playing after the first game or two — but after talking to the team, HEX feels like the one that could finally pull me in and make me want to stick with it. My thanks go to the team for having me out to their offices to check it out.

© 2016 Gameforge, HEX Entertainment. All rights reserved.