Have you ever played an “auto-chess” game? No? Do you even know what auto-chess or auto-battler games are? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. But those types of video games are taking the gaming world by storm and growing in popularity by the minute.
Simply put, these games ask you to piece together a team of characters, place them down on a chessboard-like field and let them leap into frenzied battle against an opposing team all on their own. You simply sit back and see if your guys have the combined stuff to win or lose. No button-crunching necessary. That may sound pretty mundane. But the fact is there’s much to master and lots of strategies to explore with a game like this.
Oh, and in many cases, these titles are totally free!
OK, now that I’ve got your attention, let’s take a look at one.
Dota Underlords is a free downloadable app, considered by many to be one of the best iterations of the auto-chess formula. And from what I’ve seen, I’d have to agree … with a few caveats.
Let me start by saying that other than its 8×8 square playing field and the fact that the heroes have different moves and abilities, this game has pretty much nothing to do with chess. It’s more like a deck-building game really—where you build, trade out heroes, manage your money, and attempt to outlast your opponents.
Underlords pits you against seven other people who are quickly scurrying to piece together the best combo of battlers they can. I say “quickly” because all stages are played with a ticking clock, a limited economy of gold and a roulette wheel-like random selection of “heroes.” So while the clock ticks down to the next match (whether you’re ready or not), you have to rely on the luck of the draw and think on several different levels about what heroes you’ll place together, where you’ll put them on the field, how much of your precious gold you’ll spend and whether you’ll actually try to win or purposely lose the current round.
You and your fellow online players, for instance, start out with just a few pieces of gold and a set amount of HP. You earn more gold per turn with a streak of winning battles or a streak of losing battles. And you earn interest on the gold you don’t spend. So, you might initially want to spend next to nothing and sacrifice some health points in favor of racking up more gold to spend on better characters that’ll win later on. A loss also affords you an extra spin of that hero roulette wheel, which gives you more battling options to choose from.
Oh, and as for the heroes, each of these scores of fighters has their own alliances, abilities and moves that can make a huge difference in how they work together on the field. Collecting and placing team members with the same alliance (dragons, warlocks, trolls, knights, insects, demons, etc.) can trigger team bonuses and buffs, such as stronger attacks or regenerating lifeforces.
And some of those characters have unique movesets that make a huge difference. An assassin, for example, generally runs to the back of your opponent’s army and attacks the softer rear ranks. Duplicates of characters can be combined to upgrade them to a higher and more powerful levels. And on and on the buffs, powerups and strategic considerations go.
Frankly, when you first jump onto the field with this game, the many, many options and strategic choices can feel much more overwhelming than you’d expect—especially with that ticking clock breathing down your neck and forcing you to make quick, often dumb choices. But with time, your brain begins to wrap itself around which brawny brawler might work well with which troll, what piece of won loot could be an instant life saver, and how best to use your gold, resources and time.
All of the strategy and mechanics that I’ve listed so far are challenging and fun (and in truth, I’ve only addressed a few of the strategic plates you have to keep spinning). But it would be reasonable for you to wonder what that Underlords in the title means. And that’s the fly, or devil, in the ointment here.
There are plenty of human characters in the mix, but the whole world of the game has a dark fantasy sheen about it. There are demonic entities and all sorts of evil-looking magic-casters in the character mix. And loot weapons, shields and talismans often carry hellish names.
Once you earn an Underlord leader unit—a character that offers buffs and bonuses for your whole team—he or she will come packing their own generally demonic veneer. Jull, for instance, is a huge, wine-guzzling walrus; and Anessix is a demon queen. They’ll cry out things such as, “Bring me their souls,” or, “Let their blood fuel us,” or “My Lord is hungry!” in the heat of battles.
All of that is kept fairly cartoonish and without a detailed storyline, but it still paints the game with a dark brush. On top of that, there are points in the birds-eye battles when a particularly aggressive strike or group attack can cause a character to explode with a large, blood balloon-like splash that coats part of the field in red. And lastly, if you’re wondering how a game like this might make its money, it’s potentially through in-app purchases: exchanging real world money for in-game bonuses. There’s nothing built in at this initial juncture (since the game just released), but it’s an expected feature with future seasons—and a feature any parents who greenlight this engaging-but-problematic game will have to navigate as well.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.