It’s not often that game makers go to eat against their own fans (with the exception of a few high profile Nintendo cease and desist takedowns), but considering how Valve has a history of making fully-fledged games from mods of other people’s games, perhaps it was only a matter of time.
For those unaware, both Half-life and Team Fortress were spawned from Quake mods, and DotA was, of course, originally a mod for WarCraft 3. It should come as no surprise then that Valve’s latest offering, DotA Underlords is also based on a mod, but in a strangely meta twist, this one’s based on a mod from one of their own properties.
To understand what Underlords is, we need to look at the birth of a whole new genre. Just as DotA (the WarCraft mod) spawned arguably the first MOBA (DotA2), so it is that DotA’s AutoChess mod has been so insanely popular that it has spawned an entirely new genre known variably as AutoChess, “Idle Chess”, or “Autobattler” depending on who you speak to.
The mod’s creators have released their own standalone game called, simply, AutoChess, swapping out any copyright infringing names and likenesses for more generic fare. Valve, naturally (considering that they own the IP) have kept their own assets and names and brought out DotA Underlords, their own version of AutoChess.
Of course, it was only a matter of time before the owners of DotA‘s competitor League of Legends, Riot Games, announced Teamfight Tactics, with mobile gaming giant Tencent releasing information on their offering, Chess Rush, shortly after. That’s not to even mention the smaller indie clones, like Arena of Evolution: Red Tides.
Just like every developer and their coding able dog released a Battle Royale in response to the rampant success of PUBG and Fortnite, we are seeing everyone keen to be amongst the first on the AutoChess train too – nobody wants to risk this one leaving the station without them – and serious amounts of money are already being thrown at it.
In a clear attempt to cement themselves as the premier Idle Chess platform, AutoChess announced a tournament later this year with an eye watering $1million prize pool.
So, with Idle Chess (I prefer genre names to be non-referential) being the latest craze in gaming and esports, it seems a good idea to get familiar with the concept.
The basic premise is several simple concepts interwoven together into a complex mesh of strategy.
Play is broken up over several rounds. Each round starts with a preparation phase where players buy pieces from a shop and arrange them on a game board. After a short time, the preparation phase ends and players face off against each other. The pieces each attack on their own, following set behaviours – simply put, archers or mages will stand still and shoot at their enemies, warriors charge in and start swinging.
Of course, there’s more to it than this. Every piece has two attributes, like “elf”, “mage”, “warrior”, “demon” etc, and having multiple pieces that share an attribute will give buffs and effects to your forces. As an example, having three warriors may grant all your warriors extra armour, and perhaps three elves could give your pieces magic resistance.
Pieces can then be upgraded by purchasing multiples of the same piece. If you own three level one demon mages, you can combine them into a single level 2 demon mage. As you have a limit to the number of pieces you can have on the board, it’s vital to ensure each piece is as effective as it can be.
Add to this item drops that buff or alter individual units, and it’s clear to see why this genre has become so popular so quickly; it’s incredibly simple to play – focus on one or two basic strategies and you can have fun watching your orcs carve up some druids – but the sheer depth of strategy and tactics available is mind boggling and makes the game astonishingly difficult to master, and strangely alluring to watch.
There are already diffetent emerging metas and counter-metas in each of the games, and each is offering something unique over each of the others. What started as a simple war between Valve and the original creators of AutoChess – a simple “whose game will do better” – has inadvertently birthed the latest genre and craze in gaming and esports, and opened the floodgates of various competitors.
I strongly doubt that Autobattlers/Idle Chess/AutoChess-clones are about to unseat the Battle Royale or MOBA at the top of esports, but variety is the spice of life and I, for one, am exceedingly eager to see where this all goes!