When I boot up Steam and click on ‘Dota 2’, the platform tells me it’s been exactly four months since I’ve last played the game. Prior to that, there’s almost a year-long gap until you find my last venture into Valve’s immensely popular game. It’s safe to say it’s not my game. Yet this week I found myself clicking the “install” button again.
Had I finally seen the majestic beauty of the MOBA genre so many other have succumbed to? Not at all. I was looking for a game of chess.
Dota Auto Chess, created by Chinese company Drodostudio, has rapidly gained traction over the past few weeks. Strategy lovers, from Dota 2 to Hearthstone, are flocking towards the mode to find a new challenge to take on. And I was about to take the deep dive too. Though before I share my woes, let’s lay out the game’s basics.
8x8, times eight
Once you’ve found a lobby with seven other players, each are sent to a personal, chess board shaped island. Each player starts with 1 gold, enough to buy a starter hero in the shop, which immediately pops up in the set-up phase. Once bought, you can place the hero anywhere you want on your half of the grid.
When the timer runs out the first wave of creeps spawns, and your hero fights for its life following an automated combat system. The round ends when all other players have defeated the creep, after which you get some gold again, and once more have the opportunity to purchase heroes that fit your strategy: each hero has a race and class, both of which have individual synergies with heroes of the same race or class. If you don’t like what you’re being offered, you can reroll for just two gold.
You’re not 'directly' fighting against other players
You're fighting against copies of their army
After three rounds of creep-only battles, the real test begins. Each player now faces one of the other players’ small army, once more fighting each other until one side has won. It’s important to note that you’re notdirectly fighting against other players. Copies of each player’s lineup are distributed amongst the eight islands at random. If an enemy ‘shadow-army’ defeats your lineup, your courier takes damage.
There are rounds and rounds of battles. Starting round ten, every fifth round is another wave of creeps, which occasionally drop an item upon being killed - those items can further enhance your strongest units. Your courier levels up by defeating enemies, allowing you to place more heroes on the board and purchase more expensive heroes in the shop.
As the game progresses, each players’ health bar drops lower and lower. Needless to say, once your courier’s health reaches 0%, you’re out. Thankfully, you don’t have to wait until there’s only one player left standing. You can just leave, queue once more, and start building your next lineup.
After finishing five matches you’re given a rank based off your performances. In ascending order, the ranks are: Pawn, Knight, Bishop, Castle, King, Queen. Each rank also has tiers, ranging from 1 to 9. Thus, the lowest rank is Pawn-1, while the highest attainable rank is Queen-9.
A dive into the deep
To experience the game in full exploration mode, and with a pinch of masochism, I queued my first game of Dota Auto Chess without most of the information listed above. All I knew was that a shop pops up, you can buy heroes with gold you earn every round, and I knew that three copies of the same hero merge into a bigger version.
That decision blew up in my face right off the bat.
While I was still staring at the ‘tutorial’ - four animated panels giving even more basic information than I’ve provided earlier - the timer for the setup phase ran out, and I didn’t have a hero to defend me against the menacing *achem* level 1 creeps. A quick implementation of the “click all buttons” method finally allowed me to get some valiant warriors on the board in the subsequent warm-up rounds, and I defeated the creeps.
In round 4 I face my first ‘real’ opponent, or at least their shadow army. Although I’d hoped for more, it’s not even close. Relentlessly, I get wiped from the surface of my own board. Bummed, I quickly learn about one of Auto Chess’ charms: I win the next round, and immediately feel the rush again.
I kept buying heroes, kept expanding my little army, and I kept getting absolutely demolished by my opponents. Even the wolves and golems, creep rounds I thought I’d easily defeat, walked all over me. I sank further and further into the quicksand, desperately trying to stay afloat. By the time my courier reaches 0% health, the #1 player on the leaderboard has only lost a handful of percentage points. I didn’t finish eighth, but that’s only because someone else disconnected from the game. Not a huge consolation.
I decided to visit the Auto Chess subreddit so I could enter my second game a bit more prepared. Neat, community-made spreadsheets taught me about the class and race synergies I should’ve been paying attention to. My first three heroes had the race of Troll, Mech and Druid, and although that’s no issue immediately, at some point it’s good to commit to at least one of their synergies.
The adrenaline of combat and the dopamine of victory are
perfectly dispensed in short bursts
Time for round 2. To my great joy, it went significantly better. I committed to a Druid-style lineup, added some Beasts for a damage-boost, and finished fifth, which I found pretty decent at the time. However, I had been rerolling my shop too much, looking for other Druids, and consequently didn’t have a backup strategy for when the game entered its middle stage.
Once I had finished my five games and withstood every rollercoaster of emotions, I received my rank: Pawn-9. Oof.
An infinite gobstopper
By now, I’ll gladly admit Auto Chess has dragged me in. I’ve spent the last week reading up on stats, strats and I’ve been watching streamers, asking them why they performed certain actions. But what is it that makes this game such a breath of fresh air for so many gamers?
Although each player will have an aspect they, as an individual, love particularly, the underlying success of Dota Auto Chess lies in its round-based gameplay. Every round there’s a short strategic setup phase, followed by a short combat period. If you lose one fight, nothing is lost yet. Early into the game, you’re almost guaranteed to notice points you can improve on for the next round.
Furthermore, you can still cling on to the idea that you’ll turn things around in the late game - something that legitimately can happen if you play the cards right. On the flipside, if you win a few rounds, you quickly feel deceptively invincible. Dota Auto Chess perfectly dispenses dopamine and adrenaline over the course of a match.
The round-based system also allows players to explore the incredible depth of the game. There’s something new to discover every round, every game, like you're eating an endless gobstopper. At first you learn the basics, how each unit hops across the board differently: most assassins leap across the board and attack the backline, while warriors lumber towards the frontline. Quickly though, the deeper layers of synergies and strategies are exposed.
Dota Auto Chess caters to tryhards 'and' the casual players
There’s a limited amount of each unit available in the store, and every player is offered pieces in the shop from the same pool. Thus, scouting your opponents can be beneficial. Are they going for Queen of Pain? Adjust your plans accordingly. Maybe you even buy one yourself, to deny them a level 2 unit. Also, what's going to be your win condition? Do you commit to the early game hard, or are you going to save gold, take calculated damage and ramp up to swing things in your favor later on? Everything depends on the hands you're dealt each round.
Lastly, there’s just the right amount of RNG in Dota Auto Chess for players to blame their losses on. As the AI armies battle each other, their automated targeting can make the difference between winning and losing. Even with perfect positioning, there’ll be times when one enemy unit just needs one more hit, and your hero decides to face off against the tankiest enemy on board. Yet what stands after such a nail-biting loss, is the desire to improve, to mitigate that RNG. And Auto Chess offers tools to do just that.
Dota Auto Chess offers players a highly strategic, ever-changing, interactive landscape to find their footing on. Though it’s easy to see where the ‘chess’ in its name comes from, to me the game feels closer to a threeway love child of Dota 2, good old Advance Wars and a pinch of the Battle Royale genre.
It has most of the depth Dota 2 has, save for the mechanical aspects, and can be equally as unforgiving. Yet, by not forcing players to stay engaged the entire match, there’s something in it for casual players as much as there is for the tryhards. You can easily binge through yet another Netflix series on the side, follow your favorite streamer or, if you’re a streamer yourself, interact with chat and explain what’s happening, all while still having a fun time playing.
If Valve’s history with community-made mods is any indication,
Auto Chess' future is very bright
Though still in the rough, it’s undeniable Drodostudio has found a diamond with Auto Chess. There’s no reason to think its popularity will fade anytime soon. The developers regularly patch their game, and have said their goal is to eventually include all of Dota 2’s heroes in Auto Chess - currently ‘just’ 55 of over a hundred heroes are available.
As someone on the Dota 2 subreddit pointed out, there are now Auto Chess players booting up Dota 2 in the same vein veteran gamers booted up Warcraft III to play the original Dota. The cycle never ends. It’s impossible to predict where Auto Chess will end up. But if Valve’s history with community-made mods is any indication, the future is very bright.
Storyteller by heart. If something is competitive, I am interested in it.