Might & Magic Chess Royale was familiar almost before I opened the app on my phone. Broadly, these auto-battlers are so simple that learning one game means you can play all of them and Chess Royale differed little from its auto-battle ancestor Dota Auto Chess. Each individual Auto Chess game has unique quirks, and Chess Royale has two that are immediately apparent.
Firstly, you’re playing against 100 opponents (the equivalent of squaring off against a decent-sized restaurant full of players) and secondly, the game is optimised to be done in 10 minutes. It makes the whole experience concentrated into a tight play session.
The last bit is Chess Royale‘s biggest strength: it means I can dig into it between meetings at work, while sprawled on the sofa watching TV and I’ve even played a couple of games sat on the toilet, guaranteed to be finished before my butt goes numb. The first time I loaded into a game and the camera showed me all 100 potential victors was wild. A small ocean of the canned emoji responses rippled out of the portraits, reminding me that I’m taking part in a much bigger game. In play, this doesn’t really change the game outside of creating more spectacle, but that’s something that can help make a quick game feel more meaningful.
A few other interesting mechanics are in play: you’re much more fragile than other games in the genre and with lower health each loss really hurts. As players start to drop out, spells are brought into play which can offer up powerful abilities for those who to buy them, granting powerful critical strikes or even stun effects.
The other side of this coin is that because the game is over quickly, you don’t get to explore different strategies quite as much as I’d like. This comes with a double whammy: on mobile, the fights are too messy to follow, the polished aesthetic and flashing particles making it hard to keep track of exactly what’s happening. Added on top of this is the fact that the character designs — beautiful when you view your future fighters in the shop — are muddy and confusing in combat leaving you wondering whether it’s your tank or your assassin getting stuck in.
The combination of all of this is that you don’t feel attached to your collection of units, and it’s so hard to follow what’s going on with combat that it resolves in a confusing fashion. It’s hard to make a good judgement on what units are performing well and which are just getting battered.
It’s a real shame because Chess Royale feels incredibly polished despite also feeling generic. Dota Underlords benefits from having recognisable Dota 2 characters, the chunky aesthetic makeing it easy to clock who exactly it is whaling on who. Compare that to the swirling beige mess of Chess Royale combat.
A few months earlier, Chess Royale could have been The Next Big Thing, but instead it gets lumped into the ‘too little-too late’ wave that follows after a genre explodes. It’s easy to remember how H1Z1 and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds made battle royale a popular genre and most remember a little game called Fortnite took the world by storm. But we don’t think about titles like The Culling 2, Ring of Elysium or even Islands of Nyne. Sadly, Chess Royale falls into this latter category and shows that the auto-chess bubble has already started to burst.
For my money, the best auto-battler out there is Hearthstone’s Battlegrounds mode, which takes the auto-battler formula and creates something distinctly unique. If you’re a fan of Blizzard’s card game, chances are you’ll dig the deck-building battler which adds something new to the genre. You field cards that you slowly upgrade over time and you fight for dominance by building a stronger and stronger stable. If it weren’t for the fact that it’s infected with the same nonsense that the wider CCG suffers from, it’d be damn near perfect.
Take a step back, and it’s easy to see how Hearthstone‘s success in the auto-battler genre spells doom for Ubisoft’s latest offering: it’s been a long time since Might & Magic felt exciting and it’s hard to identify exactly what Might & Magic‘s core identity should be. In its place, we get this AAA rendition which manages a rote recreation of an auto-battler that somehow lacks a soul of its own.
If this is indicative of what else is to come, then I suspect we’re already feeling the death throes of a flash-in-the-pan fad. The shuddering death of last year’s hit genre isn’t a negative, it’s just the calm before the next storm of innovation. We’d like to think there are still some new ideas left in Auto Chess, but Might & Magic Chess Royale is not one of them.