John Williams-ish Indiana Jones-like music welcomes me to Hearthstone: League of Explorers, an “archaeology”-themed expansion to Blizzard Entertainment’s wildly popular, free-to-play online card game. Archaeogaming promise abounds from the first screen:
“Scattered across ancient sites of Azeroth are the pieces of a powerful Titan artifact: the Staff of Origination. Join the League of Explorers to acquire it for the museum, and earn 45 cards unique to this adventure.”
Note that the League of Explorers is not unique to Hearthstone, but is itself part of the lore of its parent game, World of Warcraft. The League consists of non-player characters (NPCs) who scour Azeroth (the world in WoW) for Titan artifacts relating to the beginnings of the Dwarves. The League is headquartered in Ironforge with King Magni Bronzebeard at the helm. Remember that surname: Brann Bronzebeard, renowned explorer and relative to the king, appears in Hearthstone: League of Explorers in the Uldaman wing.
As with Hearthstone’s previous solo adventure expansions, individual areas can be purchased with gold earned by playing the competitive game, or with real-world cash (700 gold or US$6.99 per wing, or US$19.99 to buy the entire adventure outright). After experiencing brutal losses to players who earned special cards from this expansion, it was obvious that I needed each of the following:
Part of archaeogaming is archaeological reception, or studying how archaeologists and archaeology are portrayed and perceived by players and by game developers. World of Warcraft‘s sense of humor is on full display within the expansion, and archaeological tropes abound, mostly drawn from modern media (e.g., Reno Jackson, an “action archaeologist” who draws inspiration from the movie characters Indiana Jones and Remo Williams). The signal tropes are everywhere, from pith helmets to fedoras, utility vests to khaki trousers.
The reward cards that are earned for future use in the main Hearthstone game fetishize these elements, skills and perceived goals of the archaeologist-adventurer. The Explorer’s Hat (a WoW-style fedora), the Forgotten Torch, and the Jeweled Scarab, are a few examples of these. The goal is to collect all of the reward cards, following the trope that archaeologists are collectors, in order to recover the ultimate prize, the Staff of Origination, which becomes a trophy and collectible card back (the decorative reverse of cards in a deck). This follows suit with other World of Warcraft artifacts earned in WoW itself: some assembled artifacts are trophies, while others do something useful for the player.
The wings of the League of Explorers add-on must be done in order. Completing one wing unlocks the next one for purchase and play. I punched my literal ticket for the Temple of Osris, which rewarded me with a loading animation of a dotted arrow of travel made famous by the Indiana Jones films.
I am then informed by legendary librarian Elise Starseeker that Reno Jackson is in trouble and needs my help to retrieve part of the Staff protected by the genii Zinaar who was trapped in a lamp until Reno rubbed it.
We are formally introduced as soon as I arrive at the card table, which is itself designed to elicit the emotion of archaeology, or what most of us feel when we think about what archaeology might be: ruined columns, a pickeaxe, coins, pottery. And there’s Reno, “world renowned archaeologist, explorer, and treasure hunter.”
Throughout the gameplay, Reno regaled me with tales of his exploits, including acquiring the Rod of the Sun, worth “thousands”. This artifact is not present in WoW itself (not to be confused with the epic Rod of the Sun King mace).
Fortunately Elise will have none of it.
Rewards for completing the first third of the Temple of Osris wing are the Djinni of Zephyrs and Jeweled Scarab cards, neither of which do anything archaeological, instead reverting to typical Hearthstone card behavior of buffing minions or discovering other useful cards.
Typical to pop cultural perceptions of the adventure of archaeology, the second third of the Temple of Osris adventure takes me into a vault that contains the holy-of-holies, which we are here to rob. It’s never made explicitly clear why we are actually robbin’-and-stealin’, other than that we need the artifact, and the bosses protecting them don’t and should be killed for it. Which we do straightaway, Phaerix pleading for Osris to save him.
Reno of course reminds me that the rod we’ve just liberated is valuable. Valuable for science. The reward cards include a Summoning Stone (summons a minion) and an Anubisath Sentinel (buffs a minion). Note the Egyptian-y lingo throughout the adventure. This kind of appropriation adds realism to an otherwise pretend space, allowing the player to populate the gamespace and feel with a bit of Egyptian mythology, adding that extra dimension of lore.
WoW lore has been evolving since the game’s launch in 2004 (and before with earlier non-MMO Warcraft games). The NPC Harrison Jones first appeared in Burning Crusade, drawn to look like Harrison Ford/Indiana Jones, an explorer, archaeologist, and quest-giver. Harrison Jones also has a card in the Hearthstone deck. Hearing Reno Jackson invoke Harrison Jones was a welcome surprise and reminded me of the competitive nature of some real-world archaeologists back when the discipline was young.
The final third of the Osris adventure is to of course escape the collapsing temple. Along the way we dodge boulders, avoid a pit of spikes, and encounter bugs (as opposed to Indiana Jones’ snakes).
Rewards are cards for a Rumbling Elemental (minion) and Sacred Trial (destroys a minion). Completing the Temple of Osris yields additional rewards, too, including Reno Jackson himself, which is a devastating card to play in head-to-head Hearthstone.
I also received a card, Ancient Shade, which while powerful, is also cursed, continuing the trope of a cursed tomb. The game is fun because it is familiar, and it merges the unmistakable Blizzard sense of humor with rewarding gameplay. Following the completion of the mission, players can opt to complete two “Class Challenges”, playing as warrior or warlock with a given set of cards.
I was also given the option to face the Temple’s bosses on Heroic mode, and failed miserably. But I did get a kick out of the Excavated Evil card, recalling yet another trope in archaeological fiction: there are unknown, probably bad things, spirits, Old Ones, under the earth. We dig at our peril.
TOMORROW: We continue the archaeogaming of Hearthstone: League of Explorers, by completing the Uldaman wing. The feeling so far is that LoE is more of a reception of pop culture archaeology than archaeology itself, a kind of meta-reception at least two steps removed from the action of actual archaeology.
-Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming
(All images are screengrabs from my playthrough and are hereby employed as fair use for the purposes of scholarship and research. Hearthstone, Hearthstone: League of Explorers, and World of Warcraft are properties of Blizzard Entertainment.)