Somebody tell SynCaine I actually tried a new game. And not just a “new to me” game, but something actually new on the market as well as being new-ish as a genre.
In one of those “plate of shrimp” passages of time, last week the Auto Chess mod for DOTA 2 and the games that have spun off from it started popping up repeatedly for me. Various news stories, mentions on Twitter, an Honest Game Trailers video, and Valve pushing their game at me on Steam all combined so that when my daughter came over to ask if I had heard about this new game she and her friends had been playing, Dota Underlords, the Valve spin on the concept, I could tell her that I had just run through the tutorial.
I don’t understand what the hell is going on half the time in the game, but I’ve been trying to figure it out.
As I noted above, all of this seemed to have spawned from the DOTA 2 mod DOTA Auto Chess. I didn’t even know you could make mods for DOTA 2, but I guess you can for most Valve games, so I shouldn’t be surprised.
The name “Auto Chess” breaks down, so far as I can tell, as:
- Chess – because the game takes place on a 8×8 board, like a chess board
- Auto – because you have no control over the actual battles
My live experience of the genre is made up of a few hours playing Dota Underlords, so your mileage may vary, but this is what I have seen so far.
The basics of the game seem fairly straightforward. I came out of the tutorial knowing the basics, even if I did stumble a bit. The game goes in rounds, at the end of each you gain some coins. You use the coins to buy new units to use in battle or to increase the number of characters you can commit to a battle.
Going into round 1, use your coin to buy one
You start round 1 with a single coin with which to buy a unit. You get a few warm-up rounds against NPCs during which you earn some coins to expand your group as well as collecting a few special items to improve their performance.
The units have levels, so to speak. They start at level one. If you can buy 3 of the same unit, they combine into level two, which makes the stronger. You can also get to level three by combining three level two unit, but that takes some luck.
In fact, luck seems very much in play, akin to some card games like Gin Rummy. You decided you’re going to concentrate on a particular unit, only to never see another one while multiples of another unit appear in the buy options with every round. So you switch, only to have the next round go the way you were originally headed.
After the NPC rounds, the battle begins in earnest. You are grouped up with seven other players and each round has you battling one of them. You all start with 100 points, and with each loss you lose some points based on how badly you lost. There are further NPC rounds at intervals, but the game itself is to be the last one left with points.
Sometimes victory, mostly not
This is where I begin to fall down. In addition to luck there is also… well… more luck… and some knowledge that I do not yet posses.
Each of the units also has a type, and having more of the same type can improve how they play fare in battle. Again, you have to invest in the right units.
And then there is unit abilities. Some counter other types or work well when mixed with certain units. However the tutorial is pretty vague on that and, while you can get some basic information about units, the rounds run on timers so you’re always pressed to pick and move on or wait for the next round.
My battles over the weekend indicate that I am not alone in lacking unit knowledge. I am never the first one knocked out and, as time wore on I was able to get into the final three survivors.
On the flip side though, there are clearly people who have figured out which units work better together and what to concentrate on. In several matches there was that one guy who went undefeated, winning with their 100 points still intact. They clearly have played enough to have figured out the meta, while I am still struggling just to upgrade a few units and hope for some cross-unit bonuses.
The problem for me is figuring out what went wrong in a given match. Sometimes if it easy to figure out, like if I just have unlocked more units on the field or if I have clear superiority in level two units or some such. But sometimes the other person wipes the floor with me despite my having more units on the field or having parity or superiority in units that have been leveled up.
So this week I need to find a wiki or a unit guide of some sort to help me find tune which units I am buying and upgrading and which I am leaving behind. Also, I am not certain how various formations lend themselves to units. You can place them however on your half of the board, but whether being in columns, line abreast, spaced out, or bunched together makes much of a difference I cannot yet tell.
Overall the game seems interesting, though the randomness and hands off battle method makes it feel a bit like Hearthstone to me.
Meanwhile, if the genre appeals to you, there are other options. In addition to the DOTA 2 mod, there are two other major contenders for the Auto Chess (or Auto Battler as the genre may be called) stand-alone rip-off throne.
Riot Games has added a mode called Teamfight Tactics to League of Legends, which is their own take on the Auto Battler idea. Unlike Dota Underlords, this is not a stand alone game, so you have to log into the League of Legends client. (Expect LoL MAUs to go up I guess.) My daughter’s boyfriend likes Teamfight Tactics because he used to play a lot of LoL and it uses the same units as LoL so game knowlegde transfers.
The unit thing may also apply to Dota Underlords, but nobody I know played DOTA 2, so really have no idea on that front.
Then there is the upcoming Autochess Origins, a stand alone game from the team that developed the mod for DOTA 2, which is rolled into a fresh IP, so there is most certainly no pre-knowledge of units giving people any advantage. From what I understand, Autochess Origins will be available from the Epic Store.
Dota Underlords is still in Early Access on Steam, which means whatever it means these days. It is also available as a mobile, which reinforces the Hearthstone comparison for me as well. As of now there is no cash shop or monetization scheme in place for it, though there are plans for a battle pass of some sort and I am sure other things to spend your money on are in the works.
And speaking of Hearthstone, how soon before we see a Blizzard version of this, either as a battle mode for Heroes of the Storm or a spin off with a name like Heroes of the Board or OverChess or some such? It feels like Blizz ought to have all the pieces in place so that they shouldn’t need two years to get something out the door.
Then again, this is Blizzard. BlizzCon 2019 announcement or no?
Anyway, for those interested, Kotaku has a piece up about the emerging genre, and then there is the Honest Games Trailers take on it as well.
Are wee seeing a new genre emerge here, or just a passing flavor of the month?