Say Hello to Your New Overlord
Valve’s Dota Underlords offers mobile players their first chance to get in on the burgeoning auto chess trend. Sleek, complex and endlessly intriguing, the title holds no hands and rarely attempts to take things easy on an audience that is mostly new to the genre. Each round is a master class in tension, as hundreds of decisions stack upon one another to spell victory or defeat. Well, mostly defeat
Although shooters, fighters and RPGs seem like genres that have always existed, each of them required an introduction that gripped an audience, glueing players of all stripes to their systems for hours on end. Dota Underlords is that game for auto chess.
What, you ask, is auto chess?
A Confluence of Tactics
Auto Chess distills elements of card battlers, RTS, tower defense, MOBA, and well, chess into a format that plays like a thousand games of rock, paper, scissors happening at once.
In Underlords, players can choose one or more characters to square off against opponent’s characters. Players are then awarded more currency to spend on more characters, or crucially, to save and then earn interest, depending on the outcome of the round and their current streak of wins or losses. Duplicates characters combine to form stronger versions. Certain characters strengthen or weaken others. Some characters fight from range while others brawl up close. Like in all great tactical games, a smart balance of units is the best path to a victorious campaign.
Each game, players square off against seven other bots or live opponents in short, violent rounds. Each defeat against an opponent takes a bite out of the starting hit point total, whereas each win moves the opponent closer to being knocked out of the game when their hit points are exhausted. Experienced players will often try to lose their first dozen or so rounds to hoard currency and losing bonuses before making a big swing to go on a winning streak. A winning campaign will often require 40 or more rounds, losing on the other hand will often transpire around round 20.
Time Is the Enemy
If Dota Underlords sounds complicated, that’s because it is. A tutorial does it’s best to explain the broad strokes of the game, but first-time players will lose a lot in their first few hours. Numerous concepts, key to understanding the game inhabit the glossary on the home screen. Those that avoid the glossary can expect punishment early and often by players who understand how to exploit the underlying systems of the game.
While it would be a mistake to characterize the game as generally unfriendly, it clearly never intended to form a great relationship with mobile devices. A clean and purposeful UI design keeps the game from ever feeling cramped on a small screen, but PVP games routinely take more than 30 minutes to complete. Underlords also eats battery power, making competing throughout the day and away from a charger all but impossible.
Though the game hoovers battery, it does so with purpose. Valve, the developer behind the title, polished the look of the game to a mirror sheen. The settings menu even allows for a 60 FPS mode, a rare feature on mobile. Sound is pitch-perfect, never getting in the way of the overall presentation but allowing sword clashes, special moves and gun fire to punctuate skirmishes.
The March Forward
At the time of writing, there are no options to spend real-world money on the game. Valve seems intent on supporting the release and continuing to grow the player base. Updates and patches are constantly released to re-balance the game and keep players from ever growing too comfortable with one strategy.
Much has been made of the new wave of auto chess games. If Dota Underlords is an emissary of forthcoming trends, Android gamers have a lot to look forward to.
For most, Valve’s latest mobile title will feel like an initiation. Underlords is a painful experience at first, but those that push through it will enjoy an overwhelming appreciation for a game that pushes boundaries and thoughtfully rewards players.
Dota Underlords is a new offering from Valve and the first major mobile game to embrace the new genre of auto chess. Each moment of gameplay is filled with tension but never at the expense of player agency. It’s a whole new world for mobile.