Reviewing these mega-releases always feels like a bit of formality, as if you’ve paid any attention to the mobile gaming scene over the last few months, you probably already followed our guide and have been playing the soft launched version of Clash Royale (Free), if for no reason other than to see what all the fuss is about. Well, the game officially launched worldwide early this morning along side the biggest Apple feature we’ve ever seen in App Store history, and when you combine Supercell’s penchant for huge blown-out advertising campaigns, I’m guessing it won’t be long until they start blasting all available airwaves with celebrity-packed Clash Royale TV commercials. The good news is the game itself is absolutely phenomenal, and much like Clash of Clans (Free), will undoubtedly summon a veritable tsunami of copycats and highly “inspired" spinoffs… Which might not necessarily be the worst thing, as the combination of genres and gameplay mechanics in Clash Royale actually works incredibly well for a mobile game.
For the sake of being thorough here, let’s assume this is somehow the first you’ve heard of Clash Royale. The easiest way to describe it is as a collectable card game where your cards represent real-time strategy game-like units which are dropped onto MOBA-ish multi-lane battlefields with two towers and a base you need to attack while defending your own. That’s quite a mouthful, and it sounds complicated, but the magic of Clash Royale is it’s all presented in a way that I really don’t think you need to know anything about card games, RTS games, MOBAs, or the emergent strategies in any of those genres because everything has been simplified and streamlined to a masterful extent.
Breaking that down further, in Hearthstone (Free) players are faced with amassing collections of hundreds of cards, spread across multiple classes, then used in a thirty card deck. If you’ve never played a game like that before, even as great as the Hearthstone tutorial and onboarding process is, you’re still talking more of a learning wall and less of a learning curve. Thirty cards is substantially easier to manage than Magic’s sixty, but you’ve got to either really know what you’re doing or be a supremely analytical player to be able to make heads or tails over whether running one of a particular card is doing much better or worse than running two of that same card. Just how difficult it is to create a competitive deck for most players leads to just looking up what other players are playing, copying those decks, and never really ever needing to learn how to build a deck of their own.
Comparatively, Clash Royale (as of this writing) features a few dozen cards of which players select eight unique cards to build a deck. Initially, this seems a little too basic- particularly if you’re a veteran of other card games. Once you let it settle in, it’s actually pretty awesome, as with only eight cards to work with, it becomes immediately transparent which cards are and aren’t working in your deck. Additionally, with a card pool measured in the dozens combined with cleverly tiered unlocking of available cards, you quickly learn what everything in the game does without the encyclopedic knowledge required to know every single card in a typical CCG.
The RTS and MOBA elements have also been greatly simplified. In both genres, success comes from not just by how intelligently you utilize your units, but how quickly and accurately you’re able to control them. In the world of popular RTS games like StarCraft, top-tier players are issuing hundreds of commands a minute to their army. Similarly, the split-second decision making you see in top-tier MOBA play is incredible. Clash Royale simplifies and slows all of that down just enough that it’s easy to play, while still invoking a feeling that your decisions matter just as much as the ones you might make in an RTS or MOBA.
This is all accomplished through dragging cards from your hand which seamlessly summon that card’s unit (or units) on to the battlefield. Positioning where you summon these units is important, as instead of micro-managing an army, everything uses a very basic AI similar to attacking a base in Clash of Clans. Each unit behaves slightly differently, and some might prioritize targeting structures while others attack the closest thing to them. Cards have a casting cost associated to them, utilizing the Elixir resource which you may similarly recognize from Clash of Clans. Like most card games, the cost of cards typically escalate with power level, but behind the scenes of the game is a rock-paper-scissors-like system where seemingly powerful expensive cards can be totally countered by cheaper cards played properly and at the right time.
For instance, the Prince is the first epic card most new players will come across. He costs five elixir to play, and after a brief period will quickly charge toward the closest unit or structure and strike with a massive attack. The first time you encounter this card, you’ll inevitably feel like it’s totally overpowered. However, after thinking about a bit and experimenting, you’ll discover that the Tombstone card which not only is rare instead of epic, but also costs three elixir instead of five, will totally shut down the Prince. The catch is, you’ve got to intelligently manage your hand of cards, and have answers to threats like the Prince at the ready. This is just one example, but the entire game is filled with cards which situationally are very strong, but can be easily countered. Even though the card pool and deck size may seem small, the depth of strategy is amazing.
A typical game then involves initially choosing your eight cards which hopefully meld together well in some kind of cohesive strategy with answers to the different types of threats you might come across. From there, you search for an opponent, and are matched up with someone who has a similar trophy level as you (more on this later). From there, you dump out cards, and hopefully manage to knock down one or more of their crown towers while protecting your own, and ultimately destroy your opponent’s main King tower. Games have a hard limit of taking absolutely no longer than four minutes, which is really just another clever wrinkle in the game.
The first two minutes of a Clash Royale game are normal, you slowly gain Elixir and use that Elixir to play your cards. If inside of these two minutes you manage to destroy your opponent’s main King tower, you win. Otherwise, the game advances to an additional minute where Elixir generation is doubled, which is usually where things get real as you and your opponent just rapid-fire throw cards at each other. At the end of that cumulative three minutes, whoever has destroyed more towers wins the game. If things are tied, you’re given another minute of sudden death where the first player to destroy any tower wins. If after sudden death no one manages to do that, the game ends in a tie. Ideally, you want to destroy all of your opponent’s towers, as you collect crowns for each tower destroyed. If you collect ten in a day, you unlock a Crown Chest which usually has a hefty amount of gold and cards. But, wait, “Chests? Gold?"
By now you’re probably thinking, “Alright, all this sounds pretty rad, but what’s the rub?" It is a free to play game after all, so being skeptical of pay walls and other freemium shenanigans is only natural. Here’s the gist- Cards are rewarded through opening chests. Every four hours, you get one free chest and you have two slots for these free chests, so to maximize your freebies you’ll want to be checking in on the game at least once every eight hours. After completing the tutorial, winning battles awards chests of different levels of rarity (rarer chests include more cards and gold) and you can hold a maximum of four of these prize chests. Silver Chests, which are the most common prize chest to come across take three hours to unlock with the Super Magical Chest, currently the best chest in the game, taking an entire day to unlock. Only one chest unlock timer can be rolling at a time, so there’s a bit of strategy involved with what you unlock and when. For instance, if you’ve got a Golden Chest in your inventory, you’ll likely want to hang on to that to unlock it overnight as that’s an eight hour timer you can have counting down while you sleep. If you have four chests in your inventory, you cannot earn more through winning games until you unlock one and thereby open up that inventory slot.
Of course, you can also pay to skip any of these timers, and Clash Royale shares a similar premium currency to Clash of Clans in that they’re using Gems. Like any free to play game with timers, the amount of premium currency it takes to skip a timer scales up significantly with the amount of time remaining. Additionally, like all these games, the premium currency is doled out at regular intervals although it takes a while to accumulate any substantial number. Gems are also used to buy gold and chests from the in-game store. Chests purchased this way are opened immediately and aren’t impacted by you potentially having four chests in your inventory already.
Complicating things a bit further is the persistent leveling-up system that exists both for you as a player as well as individual cards which will lead you to collecting as many cards as possible. Say you get a new card from a chest, you can obviously immediately play with that card in any deck. But what if in your next chest you get duplicates of that same card? Well, you combine two cards and five gold to level that card up one level. When a card gains a level, the health a unit has and the damage it does are both increased by ten percent. The curve for cards gaining levels is significant, and while it only took you two cards and five gold to get a card to level two, it’ll take four cards and twenty gold to get to level three, ten cards and fifty gold to get to level four, and so on. Upgrading a card awards experience which is rolled into your “King level," your overall experience level which also makes your in-game towers more powerful and have more hit points. Buying gold seems like the best way to spend your gems in game, as gold is used not only to upgrade cards, but also buy cards you might not have from the daily rotating in-game card shop.
Another totally optional (but very beneficial) level of complication comes from joining a clan. Much like Clash of Clans, the game has a surprisingly compelling social element to it where up to fifty players can band together to donate cards to each other, which really is the best way to gain both experience and any cards you might be missing. To sweeten the deal further, for every common card you donate you’ll get one experience point and five gold, for rares you’ll get ten experience points and fifty gold. So, typically, it’s advantageous to join a clan and buy rares and commons from your own card shop with gold, as you basically just get that gold back along with experience points as you share cards with your clan members. Clans increase in rank as the members of the clan gain trophies, and trophies also serve as both a persistent progression system as well as how matches are made.
If you’ve played Clash of Clans, this whole setup will be immediately familiar to you. It works great in CoC, so it’s not much of a surprise that Supercell brought that same system over. Your overall rank in the game against opponents is based on how many trophies you have. Winning a game causes you to gain trophies, while, obviously, losing a game does the opposite. At certain trophy thresholds, you advance to entirely new arenas which not only look different, but also unlock additional cards which your chests can potentially contain. It’s a great system that works well for matchmaking, as well as gating content based on skill level. New players only have access to a very small card pool, but as you play and get better, you gain access to more cards which further complicates the game (in a good way) as well as the choices you’ll make when building decks.
There has been a ton of backlash surrounding the chest timers while the game was soft launched, and while timers in game are a generally annoying mechanic, the great part of how all the free to play elements of Clash Royale work is that there’s nothing stopping you from just playing the game all day long if you want to. Looking at the game through the lens of “Well, whatever, I’m not getting cards what’s even the point of playing," is totally disregarding the fact that what you really want is trophies as even if you can’t hold additional chests to unlock because your inventory is full, you can still freely level up to different arenas and in the process, make those chests that you’re opening contain better stuff. Additionally, Clash Royale is very much a skill-based game, and the best way to get better at skill-based stuff is to just keep playing it. A better way to look at the chests is more similar to how Hearthstone has daily quests. Even if you already have completed your Hearthstone quests for the day, you still might play a few more ranked games just to keep ranking up. Playing Clash Royale for a few more trophies is no different.
I’m at the point right now, from playing since the soft launch first went online, where I don’t really even care about the cards that are coming out of my chests. Instead, I’m doing everything I can to grind up to the next arena to unlock the next tier of cards. There’s nothing limiting me in the game from hitting that next unlock aside from my own skill and the time I have to play. Additionally, once you settle in to where gaining trophies gets difficult, the game gets even more exciting as you’re often faced with very even matches, often ending in crazy sudden death wins and loses which are a ton of fun. (Remember, in a game like this you’re not going to win all the time, and anything over a 50% win rate is considered pretty good.) Overall, you’re never ever going to make everyone happy with your free to play monetization in a game, but once you actually get playing Clash Royale and understand that chests aren’t the end-all-be-all of progression, you begin to appreciate just how generous it all is.
If you want to see what top-tier play looks like, the game even has a rotating collection of replays they’re calling “Clash TV“. This serves as a pretty great carrot on a stick as you can see cards in use that you don’t have yet, or even potentially players utilizing strategies you haven’t thought of doing yet for cards that you do have. In Clash TV, you’re likely just watching players who have spent a ton of money on the game, but, that’s fine, and really, totally typical of most things you’d be a spectator of. The things you see can still be super useful to you as a free player.
It’s hard to find many things to complain about when it comes to Clash Royale, as it’s a genuinely very fun game which I’ve been playing for weeks now without spending a cent and I don’t really see that changing. I was a little concerned about the card pool potentially stagnating, but Supercell has already released some new cards, although it’ll be interesting seeing what kind of schedule they keep up with when it comes to new content. Considering these kind of games live and die by how much they’re supported by their developers, it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see a constant drip feed of new stuff slowly funneling into Clash Royale.
I encourage everyone to give this game a try, even if you’re a vigilant hater of free to play. Monetization methods aside, you’ll still be able to see what a clever formula Supercell has stumbled upon to here with this hybrid of card games, strategy games, and MOBAs. Hard limits on session time make it a phenomenal game to play on the go, and it can be played in portrait mode in one hand which only serves to make things easier. In less than a day it’s the top free app, and steadily climbing up the top grossing charts, so if you dig this style of gameplay but don’t particularly like certain things about Clash Royale (like chest timers or whatever else) just wait a while. The sad reality is it won’t be long before there are as many variations of Clash Royale on the App Store as there are Clash of Clans.