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story.lead_photo.caption Dota Underlords

Title: Dota Underlords

Platform: Windows, iOS, Android

Cost: Free

Rating: Ages 10+ for fantasy violence

Score: 8 out of 10

Auto Chess might be 2019's newest, and most popular game genre, and Valve's polished Dota Underlords, which is now in open beta access, is making a play for the auto-battling strategy game crown.

What is Auto Chess? These auto battlers, as they're sometimes called, are pretty simple. Players compete, one on one, in an eight-person round robin tournament over a 64-square grid identical to that of a chess board. At the start of each round, players buy heroes, and then deploy those units onto the board. When the round starts, the units fight each other without any further input from the player. As the game continues, the player levels up and earns gold, which allows for stronger units to be bought and more units to be placed on the field.

If you lose a match, your life points are depleted based on how many of the opponent's heroes were alive at the end. When your health reaches zero, you're knocked out of the tournament and your ranking will go up or down based on your results.

Buying three of the same hero creates a stronger, two-star version of that hero. Getting three two-star versions of a hero creates a three-star hero. Heroes have traits and earn bonuses when deployed with other heroes that share those traits, such as increased damage or faster attacks. While heroes fight automatically, positioning is important and can change how the units behave.

It's simple to learn, but difficult to master. There are dozens of types of units and the key is to find powerful synergies between the various hero units that will be an effective counter to the teams your opponents are building. For example, if one player is building a Mage-centric team that will reduce your team's resistance to magical damage, a counter would be to build a Scaled-centric team that offers a boost to magical resistance.

The secret to success in auto battlers isn't skilled tactical moves or lightning-fast reflexes, but oddly enough, money management. Every round, players receive an income -- generally, a guaranteed five gold coins per round, plus a bonus for winning (or losing) streaks, and up to five gold coins per round in interest based on how much gold players had at the start of the last round. Go on a winning streak and a player with more than 50 gold coins could be receiving 13 gold coins per round.

It takes money to make money, and money is used to buy new hero units, to buy experience to level up and to search through the pool of available units for the hero you need to complete your strategy.

It's a balancing act -- if you don't spend any money early in the game to build a bankroll, your opponents will dunk on you and you'll take serious damage to your health, leaving you in jeopardy of elimination. But if you do spend your money early, you might win consistently through the first 10 to 20 rounds, but then be at a disadvantage in the late-game, where the more powerful heroes cost more gold.

The allure is perhaps its randomness. You don't know what units you'll be offered to buy, so each game players must craft a winning strategy based partly on luck of the draw. The composition of a winning team will shift through the rounds, based not only on the hero units offered, but to counter the composition of opposing teams.

Each session takes up to 30 to 40 minutes to complete. Also, Dota Underlords offers cross-platform support -- computer users will compete in the same tournaments as mobile users.

The first game in this new genre, Dota Auto Chess, dropped in January as a mod of the popular real-time strategy game Dota 2 (which has its own origins as a mod of 2002's Warcraft III, and was itself among the first major titles of a genre called multiplayer online battle arena, or MOBA).

Valve owns the copyright to Dota, but liked the Dota Auto Chess game so much that they made their own. DAC, created by Chinese studio Drodo, will continue to develop its own stand-alone version of the game. Meanwhile, Riot Games, creator of League of Legends, a rival MOBA to Dota 2, has also just released a free, beta version of its take on the Auto Chess genre, called Teamfight Tactics, which is currently duking it out with Fortnite to be the most popular game on streaming site Twitch.tv.

It's unknown so far how Valve will monetize Dota Underlords, which saw more than 200,000 concurrent users in its first weekend, but it seems pretty likely that any purchases will be cosmetic, rather than game-play affecting. Because it's in beta, it has frequent updates and new features are still being added regularly.

ActiveStyle on 07/01/2019

Print Headline: Game On

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