It's been just over a month since the "auto chess" gold rush kicked off. What started as a mod for Dota 2 has skyrocketed in popularity, getting some big developers involved and many more trying to replicate the formula. But now, everything's starting to solidify and the key players are clear.
If you're still unfamiliar, an autobattler or "auto chess" is essentially a mixture of a deck-building card game, tower defense, and poker. You build up gold to spend on units, which you can buy from a rotating random selection, to place on your board each round. Then your board fights another player's—or sometimes, a neutral set of monsters—and the loser takes damage to their health bar. You build up your army's strength by combining identical units and synergizing their passive traits, and repeat until one board is left standing.
There have been a good few games that have entered the space, but today, we're talking about the biggest ones: Riot Games' Teamfight Tactics and Valve's Dota Underlords, as well as touching on Drodo Studios' Auto Chess. You're likely familiar with Riot and Valve for their respective MOBAs, League of Legends and Dota 2. Drodo is the odd duck out, but a notable one; it's the team that created the original Dota Auto Chess mod, who have since moved on and developed a standalone for mobile that it plans to bring to the Epic Games Store. Each autobattler is starting to develop an identity all its own, and what this means for the future of the genre is exciting.
State of the Board
As it stands, Teamfight Tactics is certainly the most popular game. It's not a huge surprise, given a few factors. Teamfight Tactics gets to pull in the install base of League of Legends by living inside its client, rather than a standalone like Auto Chess or Underlords. And considering how many people play League of Legends, that's a not-so-insignificant advantage.
But where the initial releases of Auto Chess and Dota Underlords felt very much like extensions of the mod rather than something original, Teamfight Tactics introduced some really wild new ideas like the unit carousel and a simplified item combining system. And while this might have left some purists turning up their noises, it made Teamfight Tactics stand out that much more in what had already become a vast sea of imitators.
That's not to short-change Underlords. While Drodo's Auto Chess seems the most faithful to the original, Valve's effort has been evolving at a near-breakneck pace with weekly updates. The team seemed to hone in on some of Underlords' defining features—the upgradeable race and class traits, as well as the "item rounds"—to create some room for itself in the crowded auto chess space.
Having Valve and Steam support helps, but there were a lot of developers looking to get in on the initial auto chess craze, especially on mobile. Having a definite identity in the space is just as important as pedigree, and over the last month or so, both Teamfight Tactics and Dota Underlords have done well in that regard.
Teams are now facing a few new, difficult questions. The most apparent one is the rate of updates, and how bulky these updates need to be. Riot just announced a new set of units, complete with their own origin that's unique from the other major autobattlers, to coincide with Teamfight Tactics becoming a permanent fixture in the League client. It's found a somewhat-regular pace as well, lining up with the League of Legends update framework.
Dota Underlords has been evolving at a much faster pace however, with significant changes to its systems made over the last month or so. Units like Tidehunter have changed alliances, overall alliance synergies have changed, the item drop pool has been altered several times, and new units have been added. It's really exciting if you're a constant player of Dota Underlords, because it means there is almost always something new to fiddle with for builds. It also seems, in a world of "forever games," exhausting to keep up.
Both developers are determining where the genre can expand, as well. Teamfight Tactics had new concepts for synergies right off the bat, adding effects like mana burn and summoning an additional unit from the outset. Dota Underlords skewed a bit closer to Dota Auto Chess, though it showed signs of experimentation in the ways it fiddled with some units' abilities like Slark.
Now both are blazing their own path. Underlords has incorporated talents like letting Brawny units get beefier the more enemies they take down, originally a droppable trait add-on that became an innate synergy. In fact, a lot of Underlords' recent updates have been fooling with race traits, from changing their drop chance to eventually just incorporating them into the actual race synergy or getting scrapped entirely.
It may update often, but the Underlords team shows an impressive confidence in its willingness to up-end its own ideas in order to shake up the meta. Riot has meanwhile stayed close to its original vision, mostly just retooling the power of various items and synergies rather than any major overhaul. Auto Chess, meanwhile, has still not strayed too far from the path, which isn't a bad thing. Considering how far these other two are evolving, it probably helps to be able to bill Auto Chess as "the game you know and love."
Who Leads the Pack?
As noted above, Teamfight Tactics is the most popular and tends to rank pretty high on the Twitch charts. But just because it's popular doesn't mean it's the one you should jump into if you're late to the game.
Teamfight Tactics still lacks some quality-of-life features compared to Underlords. Valve's take on the genre has a helpful tutorial, as well as a glossary of units and items you can reference at any time. For Teamfight Tactics, I've had to refer to third-party guides pretty often to remind myself what I'll make when I combine certain items. This is especially apparent in the carousel rounds, where you have to make a split-second decision and may not be familiar with all the units up for grabs or which item of theirs you might want.
But still, I find myself drifting more toward Teamfight Tactics when I get the chance. Personal attachment to the in-game universes of any of these autobattlers is going to play a factor, but despite playing more Dota than League, I find myself gelling more with the League characters in an autobattler setting.
On mobile though, I go to Underlords. There's something alien about playing Drodo's Auto Chess, which feels just familiar enough that I'm often confused when looking for a certain unit or synergy and trying to remember what the "Drodo version" of it is. Valve's Underlords makes the jump to mobile quite smoothly, and in some ways, feels better on my phone than on my desktop. With no mobile option for Teamfight Tactics and cross-platform progression, Underlords dominates my mobile play.
The gold rush may be over, but the next few months might be the most important for the "auto chess" games yet. Wheels are on the ground, and now each take has to determine its own future, all while trying to maintain the current hold it has on players. Despite genres like battle royale and MOBA continuing to survive, they each are much slimmer markets than they once were.
Even from the outset, when we interviewed the Teamfight Tactics developers just before E3 2019, they expressed a little caution. It was clear they understood this was a new frontier.
"We don't even know if it has legs," Richard Henkel, product manager on Teamfight Tactics, said at the time. "It could be in 12 months, maybe it's gone. We think that it has longevity, so we wanted to give it our best shot, especially early on, as this is a new thing."
Autobattlers are here now. It's not a brand-new genre anymore. For Teamfight Tactics, Underlords, and Auto Chess, the next few months will see how this genre will evolve, and whether it really will have legs in the industry.