More Than a Cash Grab
The Auto Chess genre has exploded within the past two years. Dev teams have done their best to put together solid games within the genre in the shortest time possible. Teamfight Tactics is Riot Games’ (the people behind League of Legends) first foray into the strategy game sub-genre. Despite industry crunch and the rush to release a title, Teamfight Tactics delivers— for the most part. It takes the base created by the original DOTA 2 mod that birthed the genre and adds enough of its own flavor to stand out. Not only that, but there’s no aggressive monetization. I never felt pressured to spend money on cosmetics, despite the game being free. Riot has put a ton of effort into creating the definitive Auto Chess experience, and it shows.
A Near-Perfect Foundation
There’s something about this game that’s so inherently playable. It’s criminally easy to get in the loop of “One more game, one more game”. When each game is a time investment of up to 45 minutes, hours begin to fly by. What makes it so addictive? The secret lies in how games are divided into rounds. Between combat phases, each player gets 30 seconds to arrange their lineup and invest their gold. This gold is useful in many ways, like leveling up. However, there’s more than one type of level in Teamfight Tactics. Player levels grant another space to put a champion on your board, while also granting access to higher tier characters. Every champ is between Tier 1 and 3 early on, tier 4 and 5 champs don’t become common until later in the game.
Champions come five at a time, similar to a hand of cards. There are also a few occasions throughout the game where champions are put on a roulette wheel, and the players with the least overall health get at the champions first. The champions and items these phases give are almost worth being behind in HP, but it’s a delicate balance: when your overall health hits zero, you’re out of the game. Higher tier champions cost more gold, with each tier having a stronger ultimate ability and higher base stats than the last. Tier 1 champs are one gold, Tier 2 are two gold, scaling all the way up to Tier 5. Abilities range from heals and shields to game-changing crowd-control and damaging abilities (and everything in-between), so getting a set of ultimate abilities that synergize well is a good place to start building your composition.
High Risk, High Reward
On top of that, every champion gains a level when enough duplicate cards have been purchased. Champion levels raise each champ’s base stats and enhance their ults, making a level two or level three champion an absolute game-changer. Nine duplicate champions will net a level 3 champion, making that level a huge investment. However, the benefits are massive. Level 3 grants champions three times the health of their level 1 counterpart, along with improving their ultimate abilities. AoEs are bigger, crowd control lasts longer, shields and heals get amplified, and damaging spells turn into nukes. Additionally, every champ has an origin and class that divide them into synergies. There’s simple stuff like gaining additional shields, attack speed, lifesteal and so on. Then there are three characters that fuse together to form a mech with a sword the size of a school bus. Synergies get powerful once they’re up and running.
All of this tempts the player to hit an evil, devious button: reroll. For the low price of two gold, each hand can be rerolled with no limit. However, this very quickly drains gold. There’s a huge payoff if the player obtains duplicate cards while rerolling, but an equally impactful deficit if they come back with nothing. It’s easy to gamble everything away for no gain, leaving the player underleveled and underpowered. This loop illustrates how luck and skill waltz and come out feeling like they’re meant for each other, a feat many other games can’t accomplish. That’s without including unit placement, itemization, loss streaking, stealing champions from the pool, and other challenges. The mind-games present within TFT raise the skill ceiling much higher than it’d first appear. Because initially, the game looks like AI running at AI. It’s one of those things you must play to understand.
All of that might sound like it’s a bit much, and yeah, it can be. Unfortunately, the game does a poor job giving new players the information they need to win. There’s a tutorial covering the basics, but that’s about as far as Riot goes. There’s no practice mode, no index outlining what every champion and item does— nothing. For a game that’s so functionally complex, everything outside of the core game is bare-bones at best. There’s no way to test a composition without investing the time into hitting late game with it, only to find out that it might not work. Why isn’t there a practice mode? It feels like releasing a fighting game without a training mode; the omission renders the game incomplete.
In addition, this is a port of the PC version. It’s an overall decent port, but it has a few performance issues. Fortunately, the fact that Teamfight Tactics isn’t focused on moment-to-moment gameplay keeps performance issues from bogging down the experience. Otherwise, the game’s presentation is solid. Characters’ abilities are clear and visually pleasing, the character models are high-quality, and the game’s presentation is crisp and readable—despite there being a lot of information on-screen. Being able to play with friends playing on PC is fantastic, and, since mechanics aren’t what makes a player good at Teamfight Tactics, the difference between platforms is virtually nonexistent gameplay-wise. However, mobile players aren’t able to mute other players. This is a clear oversight, but one that can and should be corrected.
There’s a lot of work that needs to be done before Teamfight Tactics is a complete package. However, the core gameplay is so engrossing that it’s hard to hold the game’s incomplete state over its head. It’s just so damn satisfying when things come together.
Is it Hardcore?
Almost too hardcore.
TFT is a fantastic competitive game that does well on the mobile platform. However, a poor new player experience and lack of information in-game keep the game away from reaching its full potential. Worth the time investment if you’re willing to give it.