It’s difficult to follow the gaming news cycle recently without running into the terms “auto chess” or “auto battler,” but very rarely do they come with an explanation of what they actually are. Both are the same concept, describing a genre that has rapidly made its way into the mainstream vernacular by way of huge names in gaming like Valve and Riot Games with modest roots in the modding community.

While it may sound totally oblique, the auto battler is exciting, especially given its rising popularity, and well worth getting to know. If you’re curious about games like Valve’s Dota Underlords or Riot Games’ Teamfight Tactics, here’s what to know about the up-and-coming genre that’s as addictive as it is entertaining.

What is an auto battler?

Auto battlers are strategy games that feature a set number of players going head-to-head with enemies in one-vs-one matches on a playing field. While there are variations on how auto battlers may be played, there are usually similar rules across the genre for each. Typically, enemy matchups are assigned at random between pools of players and they play out autonomously.

While the name “chess” is part of the genre’s official title, the actual game of chess isn’t really what’s being played. The game that started it all, Dota Auto Chess, simply had a checkerboard-like playing field with units that moved in unique ways, much like chess games, except players can set their up units in any way they wish.

At the onset of each round, players can select a number of units they’d like to place on the board according to their wishes. These units them fight each other automatically without player input. Whichever player defeats their opponent’s selection of units will be declared the winner of each round. After all the rounds are complete, all units will return to their original positions and players begin placing pieces to begin the next wave.

If you happen to lose a round, that doesn’t mean you’ve lost the entire game. You simply lose health points assigned to your avatar or tactician or courier piece. Your units remain unaffected. You want to aim to have more pieces alive at the end of a match than your opponent, lest you take an extensive amount of damage. If you reach zero hit points, you’ll be subsequently eliminated from the match. The last player standing, much like in a battle royale game, is the winner of an auto battler match.

Where did the genre get its start?

The auto battler’s roots can be found in a fanmade Dota 2 mod called Dota Auto Chess that began rising in popularity earlier in 2019. The strategy game, developed by Drodo Studio, debuted in January 2019 and gathered eight players together to play a modified version of classic chess. By May 2019, it had amassed over 8 million players, and ended up inspiring a standalone version by the same team (stripped of Dota elements) called Auto Chess.

The game would assign players to a variety of different chessboards according to the number of players. Players would then select from a pool of chess pieces to be placed around a board to represent a specific class or character race. Then, each round would begin, with chess pieces battling NPC “creeps” (essentially enemies), as player-assigned “courier” or “tactician” pieces tracked player stats such as health and experience points. Throughout the course of the game, defeating creeps would earn players gold, which could then be used to buy new chess pieces and strengthen defenses on the board.

This setup acted as the framework that would eventually inspire other games to spring up with similar mechanics, though Drodo’s creation is largely credited with kicking things off and establishing the blueprint for the genre. Each of the titles that have debuted following Dota Auto Chess essentially adopt the same format as their progenitor, with name changes and small alterations here and there to keep things fresh.

What are some of the most popular auto battlers right now?

Riot Games’ Teamfight Tactics is an auto battle game mode for the popular MOBA League of Legends. It debuted in June 2019 and offers 8-player free-for-all tactical strategy games where players are tasked with recruiting and deploying champions from League of Legends. Throughout a series of automatic battlers, players duke it out to become the last player standing. Champions may be recruited with in-game gold, and each have a wide variety of different traits and bonuses that may be utilized to give players an edge. The player avatar in-game is referred to as the “Little Legend.” Should your Little Legend’s health hit zero, it’s game over.

Dota Underlords is Valve’s take on the auto battler, and it matches up players online against seven other players. The game has players recruiting characters from throughout the world of Dota, where they can recruit heroes and upgrade them to stack the odds in their favor. All heroes can form alliances with others to make more powerful teams meant to crush opponents, if players are able to seek out such alliances. It plays in largely the same way as Riot Games’ Teamfight Tactics and the original Dota Auto Chess, with a few tweaks such as offline play, seasons, ranked play, and additional Underlords on the way for players to choose from.

Autonomous gameplay is in

Auto battlers are all about giving players the tools to stage epic fights between hero characters and opponents on grid-based playfields. The battles play out autonomously without player interaction. Players act as “tacticians” of sorts to herd the characters along the path they see fit, earning gold, experience, and other helpful game items as they see fit. The genre is certainly a unique one, having gotten its start in early 2019 with Dota Auto Chess, and with Valve and Riot Games getting in on the action, it appears it’ll continue to amass additional players and fans as the days wear on.

When the battle royale genre began incubating following the rise of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG) and the eventual debut of Fortnite’s free battle royale mode, its growth was lightning quick. The same appears to be happening for auto battler games, which are still essentially in their infancy. Riot Games’ Teamfight Tactics just hit its open beta period in June 2019, and it’s still finding its footing. Just an hour after it originally released, it hit nearly 200,000 concurrent Twitch viewers, which was incidentally 60,000 more than Fortnite had at the moment. It also ended up peaking higher in terms of concurrent viewers than Dota 2 Auto Chess, and continues to surge here and there as Twitch viewers make it very clear which games they’re heading to the platform to see.

But while these titles have been all too happy to ride the wave of initial momentum they’ve received over the last two couple of months, it’s a bit too early to determine whether they’ll end up being the next household name like Fortnite or just another flash in the pan. Since it’s still pretty early on for the genre, we’ll have to take a “wait and see” approach – but given the imitators that continue to spring up in a short amount of time and the relatively simple entry points for players, we may be seeing auto battlers are here to stay.

Brittany Vincent
Features and Op/Ed contributor

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