For the record, I initially went into Dota Underlords having no idea what an auto chess game was. And a while later, I'm still not sure I understand the craze. If it were just Dota Underlords, sure, why not, but there's been Auto Chess, Chess Rush, Teamfight Tactics… That's a lot of games in the same vein popping up at the same time.
So the auto chess - or auto battler - genre has become popular pretty fast, that goes without saying, and for my money, I'm going to say that Dota Underlords is the best iteration on the formula thus far. Even though they're all pretty similar, honestly.
So what is Dota Underlords, what is auto chess, and should you care? Those are the questions we need to answer first and foremost in this review, because I can't blame you if you're feeling unsure.
Dota Underlords is an auto battler, or auto chess, game, which is where you purchase and place units on an 8x8 chess grid. That is pretty much where the chess comparisons stop. This it's own breed of game.
Once you've placed down a few units on the field during your preparation phase, you move into the battle phase, where you'll either be going against the pre-prepared army of another online player in your lobby, or an NPC group of units which you can gain loot from.
The battle will play out differently depending on your choice of units, their positioning, abilities, and more. For example, having multiple units of a single alliance or faction will give buffs to either individual units, or your entire party. Focusing on building a squad around alliances is pretty essential to make progress later in the game.
Auto gameplayThe problem is that, understandably, your influence on the game often feels intangible. You place units, and then they do battle themselves. As far as interesting gameplay mechanics go, it's not an amazing one.
That problem is worsened by how very long the games can be. You can easily find yourself playing away at a single game of Dota Underlords for over an hour. I won't blame you if you disconnect or have your attention stray in that time.
Honestly, to counter this Valve really need to make games player out faster, perhaps with shorter time limits on earlier rounds, where there are less units to do battle anyway.
Ah, yes, it's a Valve game! Shocking, I forget they made games. This does at least mean you can log in to your Steam account, and continue playing Dota Underlords on your laptop or PC. Not like that provides anything beneficial, mind you, and playing on a sofa with your mobile device seems infinitely more comfortable.
Each round that passes you will be able to purchase more units using gold you earn, or invest that gold in the ability to put more units on the field. Owning three of any one unit upgrades it a level, and then owning three level 2 units allows it to ascend to level 3. You'll be lucky to see that without some careful forethought, though.
Better overlordsYou might think I'm feeling negative about Dota Underlords, after all. It is literally a game which takes a majority of the gameplay out of your hands. And, initially, I think I hated it. But, after a while, something clicked. Dota Underlords, and auto chess as a genre, isn't so much about good gameplay, it's about good strategy. And luck.
That's the real problem. The strategy is great, placing units and selecting units which complement alliances feels strategic and smart. But you need, and I mean need, luck. The store refreshes a random selection of five units, and over time the number of units available increases.
That means it will become incredibly difficult to actually get the units you need to ascend your team to level three as the game goes on. You can spend gold to refresh the shop at any time, but the cost quickly adds up.
Dota Underlords can be a very fun and satisfying game, but at other times it is infuriating. If the stars align and you get the loot, alliances, and units you're looking for, it can be excellent. But that's perhaps a third or a quarter of the time, the rest will be spent flailing and hoping for better shop layouts.