Auto battlers explained: How Teamfight Tactics, Auto Chess, and Dota Underlords are different
Welcome to the era of the auto battler.
Starting with Dota’s Auto Chess workshop mode created by Drodo Studios in January, carrying on into Valve’s official Underlords title, and finally Riot Games’ Teamfight Tactics going live this week, there are plenty of options if you want to get into the genre. If you’re one of the many, many new players just now wading into the space, having probably watched someone play one in a stream or hearing about it from friends, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. We’re here to help.
Auto Chess, Underlords, Teamfight Tactics… it may all look the same at first glance. And honestly, I don’t blame you. To help, we’ll give a brief explainer on what auto battle games are, as well as a breakdown of what makes each of these three games different from one another.
What is an auto battler?
An auto battle game is a relatively simple one to get the hang of, especially when compared to many of the more complicated competitive games on the market. Fortnite, League of Legends, Rainbow Six, and many others are incredibly fun, but the learning curve for new players can be immense and, frankly, overkill. Auto battlers don’t really have that problem.
You start each game with a full health bar. Each round, the game gives you a random assortment of characters to purchase with any gold you’ve earned. You can buy some, or you can buy none, but the goal is to put together a team of characters that work well together with bonuses called synergies.
Synergies are pretty simple, really. If you have more than one of the same type of unit, they get a boost in combat. Knights, warriors, assassins, and mages/sorcerors are just a few examples that all the games share, and they’re pretty easy to identify. If you aren’t sure, there’s always a way to find out what type of unit a character is.
Once you’ve purchased a character, you just drop them on your board, and when the round begins, they run up and fight whatever enemy the game throws against them on their own. You don’t control them. If they win, you don’t lose any health from your health bar. If they lose, you take a hit. The more units left on the enemy team when the round ends, the more health you lose. Last player standing wins the game.
Since you don’t control your units, the trick is just finding the right synergy bonuses and positioning your units in the right ways. There’s lots of trial and error involved, and you have time in each game to learn from mistakes and fix positioning problems before you lose all your health. You get more gold if you go on a win streak, and also if you go on a loss streak. You can also sell characters for more gold, or you can spend some to reroll what the game randomly assigns you.
Time to start comparing each of the three major auto battle titles. We’ll start with Dota Auto Chess, as this was the first of them all. It started as a custom workshop mode in Dota 2, and that’s where it remains today. Now, however, the developers are working on a standalone title, and they’ve already released a mobile version simply called Auto Chess.
Since this one has been around since January, which is much longer than its competition, it’s the most fully-formed and established game of the bunch. It has more characters, called pieces, and a more established meta than both TFT and Underlords. Also, the balance team seems more in-touch with the game, which is likely indicative of how long the game has been out, too. There are solid ways to counter each team composition, and each game feels like a rather long strategy game. On average, games can run up to an hour.
The downsides of this game are that, since it was made by a Dota workshop studio with a much smaller budget, it doesn’t feel quite as clean as its competition. The UI tends to be sloppy and unintuitive at times, things as simple as the in-game menu can bug completely out, and directions while learning the game are quite unclear. Still, if you’re looking for as finished of a game you can find, this is it. The mobile version of Auto Chess is essentially the same, with reskinned and renamed characters to avoid copyright issues with Dota.
This one is interesting, because it’s largely just a reskinned version of Auto Chess, with some quality-of-life improvements made here and there. This is largely because Auto Chess was a Dota custom mode, which used Dota’s actual, authentic characters. Since this is Dota’s official game, Dota can just use the same models—which it does. So, this game shares many of the same characters of the original Auto Chess, but it sports a cleaner UI, a new and more satisfying item system, and other things indicative of Valve making the game rather than an independent developer.
The strengths of this game tend to lean in that direction, too. It’s basically the same game as the original Auto Chess, but it’s easier to follow. Unfortunately, though, it has fewer playable characters, and Valve’s balance team seems to have less of a grip on how to run the meta. It is extremely new, however, so that’s not surprising.
My favorite part of this game is the item system, as it allows you to choose from a list of items whenever you’re awarded one for a victorious round. Although Teamfight Tactics has a very robust and exciting roster of items, this is the only game with a selection system for choosing your own items. RNG in games is always tumultuous, at best, and although the selection of items presented to you is random, this still removes at least some RNG from the game.
Riot’s auto battle title is the youngest of the bunch, as it will remain in the League of Legends testing client until June 26, when it goes live. That being said, this game has had the smallest amount of exposure, but that hasn’t stopped it from generating immense popularity on Twitch. It has far more hype around it than the other two, and for good reason.
The differences between TFT and the other two titles are differences that the average gamer in 2019 will enjoy. It’s faster, more flashy, and overall more lighthearted. The UI is exceptionally bright and clean, and it all flows very well as a game. Also, the characters in this one are very different from the other two games. Those both share differing versions of Dota characters, but this game uses characters from Riot’s other IP, League of Legends.
This game also has a carousel of characters with attached items, which is a fun mini-game within the main game. On predetermined rounds, players are dropped in the carousel, and they have to race to grab whatever character-item combo works best for them before someone takes it. Players are allowed to run into the carousel in order starting from last place to first place. It’s a fun spin on the genre.
As with the others, though, there are certainly downsides. Riot hasn’t added nearly as many characters to this auto battle title, so there’s less freedom of expression, and therefore less options to counter whatever team comp may be meta at the time. That’s its biggest weakness, by far. And you could consider the speed of the game a weakness if you enjoy the longer play time of Auto Chess and Underlords; that’s totally subjective.