The race to cash in on the year’s hottest mod, Dota Auto Chess, is well on its way. Last week, Valve announced that it’d be making its own version, and the original creators — Drodo Studio — have also soft-launched a beta version of the game on Android — and just today on iOS.
As a game, in terms of how pieces interact and matches are won, Auto Chess is almost exactly the same on mobile as it is on desktop — although recent piece additions, like the gods Mars and Zeus, aren’t present. So I’m going to be focusing on how the game fits on phone/mobile, rather than how good it is as a game (I think it’s great as a game!).
In theory, mobile should be an ideal fit for the intoxicating mix of tower defense, squad management, battle royale, and deck-building that Auto Chess provides. Player interaction is simple, and it’s more about long-term planning than skills that would require the precision of a mouse. And while mobile Auto Chess succeeds fantastically at interface improvement, some of the transition creates visual confusion.
Touching is believing
The key component to the positive changes in mobile Auto Chess is that the game is no longer a mod, and a lot of the quirks associate with being a mod have been polished out. For example, one of the first hurdles to getting into the Dota Auto Chess mod is that you do not directly move your pieces with your mouse, but instead control one of Dota 2’s courier units, who moves to your bench and tosses units out into the field when you press Q and only then click and move.
On mobile, you touch and drag with your finger. This is a slight improvement.
There are several other small improvements like this, too. Item combining, handled through the Dota 2 interface on desktop, is confusing especially if you don’t have years of Dota 2 knowledge as to what items combine with one another. On mobile, however, not only do you get a notification that items can be combined, and what other potential combo options would be available, but that notification shows up even if you’ve already given a character an item.
As someone who had played the desktop Auto Chess without previous knowledge of Dota 2, this combination mechanic was almost always impenetrable to me. But on mobile, that’s largely fixed.
Finally, it’s not an interface issue, but Auto Chess on mobile finds matches like a dream in the way that the mod version always struggled to. It was not uncommon for Dota Auto Chess matches to take 10-15 minutes to get into, just because of the way the mod worked through the Dota 2 architecture, with players readying up multiple times, servers seeming to not exist, and so forth.
On mobile, I don’t think it’s taken me longer than a minute to find and enter a match, whether Casual or Ranked. For that alone, I’ll find it impossible to go back … even though there are some negatives.
Seeing is not
While the mechanical interface (how you manipulate the game via actions) is dramatically improved from the mod, the visual interface — how you understand the game at a glance — has suffered quite a bit in the transition to the smaller screen.
There are two big reasons for this. First, Auto Chess is a complicated game, with up to 20 pieces on the board all blasting each other with a variety of different attacks and special moves. It takes a fair amount of practice to even to understand what is happening onscreen, in particular, why you might be losing to a specific opponent’s composition. Even more simply, on the damage done part of the screen or at the end of a match, a set of pixel art icons depict which units are which and … I can’t read them. They seem to have half the detail of the commensurate icons on the mod version.
Despite having that background on the desktop, I still haven’t been able to “read” a basic round of combat in mobile Auto Chess. I’m on a Motorola Moto G6, which, while not exactly cutting edge, doesn’t have a screen small enough that this should be a problem. It might be better to play on a tablet.
The other issue is that because Auto Chess is no longer directly connected to Dota’s IP, the different hero units have all been remixed and received new art. While some, like the Ogre Magi — now the “Orge Mage” to my delight — are almost identical. Others, like the Trolls becoming the “Glacier Clan,” are much less recognizable.
(Hilariously, this means that there are now generic fantasy versions of Dota 2 characters, itself generic versions of Warcraft characters, which was a semi-knockoff of Warhammer Fantasy, which was a generic fantasy pastiche to begin with.)
The new art style is perhaps more mobile-friendly — brighter colors, bigger heads and faces — but that comes at a cost of being able to recognize units on the field. If I didn’t have the prior expertise of the Dota 2 mod, then worked to translate that knowledge via the new unit names, I wouldn’t have a clue what was happening. I still barely do have that clue.
For that reason, although the interface advantages would seem to make this the ideal form for new Auto Chess players, I can’t fully say that this is the way you should try to play the game.
Drodo’s mobile Auto Chess is a significantly better way to play the original great mod if you already know and comprehend the original game, and for that, it should be a success. But it feels like a perhaps smaller-scale version of Auto Chess, one designed around the small screen both visually and as a game, might be the one to take over the world like previous mods have.