You’ve probably heard of Auto Chess, but that’s no guarantee you know what exactly it is. Originally a DOTA 2 custom game mode, the model has branched out on mobile to not a whole lot of fanfare. We actually planned on reviewing the current mobile iteration of Auto Chess a few weeks back but stopped short when we couldn’t be sure the game was genuine. It looked like another cash-grab clone looking to jump onto the next big thing at the time. It’s not the fault of Dragonest, the game’s developer – it’s a reflection on the reputation of mobile app stores these days.
But let it be known that this is the real deal. Auto Chess has broken free of the shackles of Dota 2 to stand on its own two feet on both Android and iOS. It’s technically in beta, but with a (cheap) battle pass and ranked season play already included, it’s clearly ready for player attention.
Sadly, Auto Chess struggles to land a good first impression. On a newcomer like me, anyway. While colorful and inviting on the first load, it took me four taps of the Log In button to actually get anywhere. Doing that in complete silence aside from a button press sound effect doesn’t do much to defend itself from the initial idea that it really could just be another dodgy clone. The translation, while not the worst, certainly doesn’t do it any favors.
Once I was in, I couldn’t help but choose the avatar that best reflected my own expression at the time – tired, bored, and not at all surprised. Sure enough, that preemptive decision came back to haunt me later on when I realized the avatar representing me in anywhere from the main menu to actual matches was a goblin doing the air guitar in its underwear. Consider me had.
If you happen to select that you’re new to Auto Chess, you’ll be thrust right into what is ultimately a lacking tutorial. You’re taught the absolute basics, like how to buy units and place them on the chessboard each round, but things you’d normally consider fundamental to any strategy game – like unit types, roles, counters, and why you’d want to place a unit in one place over another, is completely skipped over. I’m still struggling to understand where the “Chess" moniker came from. Sure, it’s laid out like a chessboard, but you’re free to place units wherever you please, and they’ll happily lunge across to seemingly any other position in an instant to bash an opposing unit. Auto Battle for sure, but Auto Chess? If positioning actually means something here, it could do with explaining why.
Despite the wanting tutorial, Auto Chess isn’t nearly as complicated as I expected. You buy units with a limited number of coins each round and deploy them from your bench onto the field wherever you please. Once the timer ticks down, your opponent’s pieces are revealed and they all spring into action, slapping each other around until one side remains, with the losing team losing health equal to the sum of the rank of their opponent’s remaining units.
This repeats for a maximum of 50 rounds with players purchasing more of the ever-rotating unit shop and spending excess coins on EXP to increase the number of units they can have in play at any one time. It’s a simple concept, but, again, the tutorial does little to teach how strategy comes into play at all. For something taking the name of the biggest strategy game in the world, it’s a bewildering oversight.
Each unit has a class, race, and ability, and synergize with similar units to grant multi-stage buffs, with identical units able to combine with each other to increase their stats. Defeated units aren’t destroyed, giving you a reason to think in advance which ones to watch for and buy to combine later on. As far as I can tell, the strategy is less in unit placement, but team composition. Which would be fine if the game were to ever teach how one type might counter another (or if they ever do).
With the dizzying amount of races and classes rotating in the pool each turn, you’ll rarely get a chance to truly figure them out for yourself. I was able to overpower the other 7 players in my first proper match without any real understanding of the game, yet the AI-controlled mobs tossed in at every 5th round consistently shot me down. I didn’t know why it happened or what I could do about it.
There’s a handy DPS meter keeping track of individual unit damage outputs that can give a rough idea of who’s hurling the hurt, but it means next to nothing without a proper understanding of the game – something even the knowledge base doesn’t truly touch upon. At one point, I had the four healers on the field that their unique buff asked for, yet the counter never went above two. I can’t ever be sure it was my own mistake rather than a bug as there’s no way to test things outside of a decisive match.
Outside of the deceptively simple gameplay, Auto Chess isn’t the worst example of a predominantly PC-based game making its way to mobile. It’s graphically pleasing, mechanically engrossing, and might serve as a brain exercise to experienced players. But it still doesn’t feel like a proper mobile game to me in its current state. My first real match lasted around 40 minutes. It’s not something you can fire up to blow a few minutes – you have to commit to it, at which point it’s difficult to understand why a veteran player of the original PC mod would choose this over familiar territory. There isn’t much to do outside of play the same mode over and over and grind for skins, but I feel like it would only take an option for shorter matches to make this a better release.
It’s a solid enough reason for non-PC players to give it a whirl, but it might struggle to sell itself to players who don’t have time for all the guessing games. Hopefully all this gets ironed out during the course of the beta though, and once Auto Chess is officially ready for prime time we’ll revisit it. For now, if you’re on Android you can check out the beta version yourself over at the official website.