So apparently Dota Auto Chess is a Thing now, and what with Dota 2 being free and all I thought I’d give it a go and see what the fuss is about. My main takeaway is that it’s impossible to predict what will or will not become popular, and I resolve never to try.
If it hasn’t crossed your attention yet: it’s a deckbuilder. There are eight players. Each round you get offered a random selection of Dota heroes, which you can buy to add to your team. You can place a number of them on a chess grid, that number increasing as the game goes on, and they fight another player’s team, combat being automatic.
You need to seek out characters of the same race or class; getting certain numbers of say, elves on a team, or mages, gives powerful bonuses. Getting three of the same hero allows you to combine them to level up the hero. Some heroes are more expensive and powerful than others, and you may want them even if they don’t fit the team you’re trying to build. There are lots of decisions to make each round, and you it’s satisfying to see your team come together and win some fights (not that I saw a lot of that, because everyone is understandably better at it than I am).
On the other hand, it’s clunky as heck. Moving your heroes around requires you to select your courier unit, hit the move piece command, select the hero, then select the destination. This is the foundational verb of the game, and it feels pretty bad. Combining requires you move all three out onto the board this way, for example, then move the newly combined unit into place. The 30 second limit to your shopping and deployment makes this worse. The battles are flashy, but it’s not easy to figure out why you win or lose without playing a lot to find what works and what doesn’t. On top of that, matches are long- if you’re doing badly it can still be 15 or 20 minutes before you’re eliminated, and if you’re doing OK it’ll be quite a bit longer.
I can see the depth that players are finding. I just have no idea why this cludgy monster took off over all the other things that might. Apparently the devs are working on a standalone version (and presumably so is every large mobile games company). I’ll look forward to trying a more polished version that can access the core ideas with more clarity.