The subgenre spans PC and mobile currently
The Dota Auto Chess mod kicked off at the beginning of 2019, and started a trend in the process.
After reaching an apex of eight million players over a scant few months, the “auto-battler” genre was born, and man did publishers rush to it like old prospectors. From there Auto Chess morphed into a full standalone game (on mobile now and later slated for the Epic Games Store), and spurred Valve into making it official with Dota Underlords. In turn Riot Games responded with Teamfight Tactics, and Tencent developed Chess Rush.
Yes, just like DOTA, this cottage industry all started with a mod. Here are a few of the biggest current games.
What is Auto Chess?
The nomenclature is mostly accurate, but imagine that you could customize your entire chess piece loadout before a match and the pieces moved themselves. Okay so it’s nothing like real chess, but the characters are on a chess-like board, so there you go. Auto Chess.
Players begin a skirmish in a group of players, and depending on the game, they’ll shuffle around and fight each other, seeking to protect their commander, which sits on the sidelines: once the commander runs out of HP, it’s game over. To score hits you’ll need to be victorious in each battle (which allows your surviving units to pummel a commander) by selecting and upgrading the right units, unleashing them, then letting RNG handle the rest.
While there is definitely a luck-based element to it, choosing the right squad is key and like any good brawler or strategy game, knowing what every unit does is paramount. For instance you can plop an ice mage in the back that will slow down enemy forces, then add in a tank that also stuns, and focus on crowd control. Or you could go full glass cannon and have a ton of damage-dealers in the fray (and choose one that leaps over units to strike unprotected ranged characters), which would shred enemies who don’t have a quick answer to them or methods of crowd control.
In-between rounds (again depending on the game) you have more control, with the power to assign items to individual units, buy new units, place them in different squares, or upgrade them by purchasing multiple versions of the same character. It adds another layer of strategy to it all as you decide how you want to approach each battle, whether it’s with stronger units right now or by playing the long game as you spend cash on upgrades that allow more units out on the board at once.
Variety is the name of the game. Some iterations have rounds where you fight NPCs as sort of breathers, and others have drafting elements that let lower-scoring brawlers jump in to select characters first after a certain number of battles. It also has a lot of nail-biting moments that are perfect for streaming, especially when it gets down to the wire with a 1-on-1 slugfest (or you witness half your army get obliterated by a well-timed ultimate). Matches take roughly 30-40 minutes, but there are exceptions.
Why are people drawn to it? Well why were people in part drawn to MOBAs when they blew up? Just as MOBAs are a streamlined way to experience RTS games by focusing on one unit, Auto Chess or auto-battlers hone in on one fixed conflict. It’s basically the same reason why arena brawlers sprung up around the same time as MOBAs and are still around today. It just goes to show how resilient the strategy genre is.
Although the original “Auto Chess” started as a mod, Drodo Studio split off and decided to do their own thing. The result? A lot of non-Dota characters duking it out in the aforementioned chess-based format. It’s currently in beta form on mobile platforms and will arrive on the Epic Games Store (not Steam, where this whole thing was born) as an exclusive.
Auto Chess‘ standalone app plays out exactly how I described it above, but the actual framework is going through some growing pains. Awkwardly the app requires a Dragonest or Facebook login to save progress, while competitors allow more methods, or more familiar/less-intrusive ones. It’s also very busy, filled to the brim with IAP (microtransaction) prompts with little to no explanation of what each currency does, and has translation issues. This is more of a personal thing, but I also find the original art to be rather garish.
I’d actually recommend any of the other below games at this point until all the kinks are ironed out, but at the end of the day this is the original auto-battler concept in one of its most purest forms.
Teamfight Tactics (PC)
While Drodo was one of the first to market, Riot Games once again capitalized on a trend very quickly and benefited from it.
Riot is a genius company when it comes to self-promotion. They’re giving Teamfight Tactics a ton of attention: so much so that they actually embedded the game in the tens-of-millions-strong League of Legends launcher. Boom. Instantly, droves of League fans will see the tab, click it, and play. It’s even slated to have its own ranked ladder and has weekly missions available in the launcher.
It also benefits from name recognition. Instead of rip-off heroes from other MOBAs, Riot is using legit League characters: so if you play League you will instinctively know what Garen does, for example, with no foresight. It’s for that reason that Teamfight is probably my most-played Auto Chess game right now alongside of Chess Rush. It’s very streamlined without sacrificing a lot of the nuances that made the mod popular in the first place, and it has a baked-in League audience.
It’s also currently a PC-only game devoid of the billion-types-of-currency mobile model, so that’s a plus.
DOTA Underlords, officially ran by Valve, is in Early Access but is still worth checking out.
It’s much more put together than the Auto Chess app thanks to the power of Valve’s infrastructure, with cross-play between PC/mobile devices and offline play. Naturally it’s subject to Valve’s overmonetization strategy (battle passes are coming for this game that was once a mod for a game that was also a mod), but with that pass comes more content.
I’m finding myself playing a few Underlords rounds a week despite the fact that I’m gravitating more toward other games, but the fact remains that DOTA Underlords has plenty of room to grow with Valve money. It could also crash and burn like Artifact, so I prefer not to be too invested at the moment.
This is actually one of my current go-tos, and not necessarily because of the quality; rather, its brevity. Chess Rush from Tencent is very similar to the above games, but it prides itself on “10 minute matches,” which is a mostly accurate assessment (even 20 is still an upgrade). As a mobile-only affair it’s also much more polished than Auto Chess in terms of an English translation, and the app is easier to navigate.
The main reason why I find myself booting up Chess Rush often is its vivid cartoony style. There’s a ton of different memorable, original units here, hailing from different tribes like demons and futuristic samurai. It just has a lot more personality than you’d expect from a mobile auto-battler, and again, the shorter length is really key and may eventually redefine the entire subgenre.
It still has all of that IAP/daily login nonsense, but given that I usually play a few quick matches at a time and log out, it’s not as in your face.