PAX West: Hand of the Gods: Smite Tactics Aims To Reinvent the CCG

By Mark Delaney, 2 months ago
On the busy showfloor of PAX West, I met with Hand of the Gods: SMITE Tactics' lead designer, Scott Lussier and the team's PR lead, Gabriel Mughelli, and had them school me on the game I initially found rather daunting. The collectible card genre is very foreign to me as my experience with cards of a digital or physical type pretty much starts and ends with Uno and Phase 10. After a good talk and going hands-on with the game, I came away not only with a better understanding but an appreciation for the genre — or at least their unique interpretation of it.

HOTG

If you're unfamiliar with Hand of the Gods, it's both accurate and incomplete to simply call it a CCG. Deck-building and card collection are core components of the game, but Hi-Rez builds on that by infusing the game with equal parts turn-based strategy mechanics. This may be an entry point to the game for those like me that have deliberately avoided the standard CCGs despite their growing influence in the medium. I drew the comparison to X-COM and Scott also likened it to Final Fantasy Tactics.

Across six pantheons like ancient Romans, Mayans, and Egyptians, players build their decks using cards of four levels: Common, Rare, Legendary, and Epic. From there the CCG elements are meant to draw in players to chase the most powerful decks like Pokemon-obsessed school children at the playground. Using the SMITE name guarantees all the characters from the MOBA will migrate to the CCG "and then some."

The turn-based strategy portions of the game are what sets it apart from huge competitors like Hearthstone. As your cards become available to you — you can play with a hand of five at a time — the action unfolds on the playing field. These playing areas are much smaller than its genre counterparts, but the strategy is still there in full. Knowing your deck and how to use it most effectively is key to attacking the enemy Summoning Stone. Chipping away at its hit points and managing your turn power in the form of mana are moves borrowed from genuine strategy games, making it a true hybrid both aesthetically and practically.

Lead Designer Scott Lussier said any pantheon and character from the original SMITE will migrate to Hand of the Gods — and then some.Lead Designer Scott Lussier said any pantheon and character from the original SMITE will migrate to Hand of the Gods — and then some.

Rather than just animate what your cards say they do, you'll need to seriously consider your maneuvering. Even on the small field, or perhaps moreso because of it, where you move your characters as you play their cards is crucial. It feels as though using melee and ranged enemies smartly will decide victories and defeats just as often as the cards you draw. Hand of the Gods in its current form doesn't feel like it short-changes either genre. Instead it combines the two in an intelligent way that will capture fans from both camps and for anyone who enjoys both genres it may be impossible to ignore.

Knowing the studio's pedigree, I could safely assume the right level of polish even in its early form, but until I put it all in a better context I was afraid I would still feel a bit lost with regard to Hand of the Gods. I worked my way through the tutorial and eventually took on an AI opponent to put my newly acquired skills to the test. The first few turns were probably comical for the tournament players surrounding me, but after I took a beating for a while, my opponent's stranglehold on the match began to loosen. Combining Anubis' abilities with learning how to most effectively play each drawn card ultimately aided in my hard fought victory over the surely otherwise pushover AI. The learning curve, I found, was not as steep as it appeared when I was simply spectating. It's no wonder, in retrospect, as both genres found within Hand of the Gods carry with them that classic easy to learn, hard to master appeal. That's precisely what I found in Hi-Rez's latest game.

Hand of the Gods went into production a little over a year ago and will likely be in its current beta state for a while, much like the studio's Paladins: Champions of the Realm. This is not because it's troubled, but rather because they set a bar for quality and even as the game comes along and it may look great, they aren't ready to remove that label until it clears that bar, said Scott. For console players, it'll debut in closed alpha this fall. Players can expect a revamped UI made more intuitive for the platform and any other major changes that come to the game on PC, although Gabriel added that what I saw at PAX is likely very close to what we'll be getting on consoles in the weeks ahead. The studio is taking sign-ups on their website if you wish you be notified when the alpha becomes available.

Playing fields are smaller, but the strategy elements are very much still involved.Playing fields are smaller, but the strategy elements are very much still involved.

Hand of the Gods marks the third time in as many tries that Hi-Rez has built a game within a genre I largely ignore, and for the third time I've found their take on that genre to be enticing enough to get me to pay attention and come back for more. If you enjoy either genre present in Hand of the Gods, and certainly if you enjoy both, check out the alpha this fall.
Mark Delaney
Written by Mark Delaney
Mark is a Boston native now living in Portland, Oregon. He's the Editorial Manager on TA, loves story-first games, and is one of three voices on the TA Playlist podcast. Outside of games he likes biking, sci-fi, the NFL, and spending time with his fiancée and son. He almost never writes in the third person.