The auto-battler revolution of 2019 saw a flurry of activity from publishers as they tried to take advantage of the latest craze: Dota 2 Auto Chess. A custom game mod built using Dota 2 itself, Auto Chess was another product of the endless iteration found in the custom map modding scene–Dota was born out of a Warcraft 3 custom map, which iterated on a StarCraft custom map, and Auto Chess itself iterated on a separate Warcraft 3 map, and so on. A year later, Valve’s free-to-play interpretation of Auto Chess is one of the few left standing, and for good reason: Dota Underlords is a thrilling game that promotes layered strategy, mental acuity, and the rush that comes with beating overwhelming odds, making it a continually diverse and compelling experience.
Unlike Dota 2, Dota Underlords is a straightforward game. You can easily think of it like a deck builder or drafting game with multiple economies–Dominion, Ascension, or the Legendary series are some good touchstones. Facing off against seven other people, you have to build a team from a selection of heroes presented to you, and that team will then fight in head-to-head battles with others over a series of rounds until only one player remains.
The game uses the heroes from Dota 2, and it automatically resolves the battles over the course of a 30-second period, with the heroes using a hand-picked selection of skills to wallop one another as fast as they can. Once a round has begun, you don’t have any influence on it, so all you can do is watch, wait, and pray that your team strategy will work for you.
Because Dota Underlords is a mostly automated game, it is able to evolve the exciting intricacies of deck building–synergies, strengths and weaknesses, etc.–in ways that tabletop games can’t. And as a result, Underlords is able to layer system-upon-system as it increases its complexity and skill ceiling through a combination of resource and random number generator (RNG) management.
The fact that most of Underlords is automated doesn’t mean there’s a lack of depth, though. Before long–it’s surprisingly easy to pick up–you’ll be able to contemplate not just your own random selection of heroes, but the hero pools of seven other players in the game as you try to craft the perfect team. You may opt out of picking up that Disruptor because you know three other teams are trying to pick him up already, and that lowers the percentage chance of you being able to get the three you need to upgrade him. With a little more experience you might pick him up just to lower the percentage for your opponents.
As anyone who plays board games, poker, or even battle royales will tell you, the opportunity to turn bad fortune into victory is the ultimate thrill. Randomness can lead to both good and bad situations, but most of the randomness in Dota Underlords is good because the game gives you plenty of viable avenues to change your fate through smart play.
If you know you need just one more Bloodseeker to upgrade him to an early three-star, for example, your best strategy is to spend a bit of time rerolling your hero selection at early levels (usually an inefficient plan since gold is precious at the start of the game) to find him. Your odds of finding Bloodseeker drop dramatically once you pass level five, so you can manage those odds by delaying levelling yourself up–and an early three-star Bloodseeker with a Stonehall Pike or Cloak is a very, very dangerous thing.
One area where the RNG management gets a lot tougher is in opponent selection as you move through a match’s rounds. You have no impact on it all, and not all opponents are created equal. Some are better players, while some just have better starts. Some are deliberately losing early rounds to put together a quick loss streak, trading their health for free rerolls and extra money to get a leg-up later down the line. And if you’re a player just doing the best with what you’ve been offered, you will face off against one of them at random. If it’s the person who rolled into a round-one two-star Nyx Assassin with a side of Weaver, you might as well start trying for that losing streak now. If it happens to be the player who didn’t field any heroes, you just got a free win.
True randomness means that in each round Underlords rolls an eight-sided die and determines who you will face, and that means you could conceivably run into Nyx and Weaver three times in five rounds. This is frustrating, and repeatedly facing off against the player in the top position is not something you can manage around. It would be foolish to try to shift your strategy into beating a single player while you still need to worry about six others still in the game, and it is demoralising when it happens again during the same match.
Everything already mentioned is primarily detailing “Standard,” but Dota Underlords actually comes with three other modes that can mix up how you think about the game. The first is Duos, which is Standard only with a partner. You can trade heroes and gold back and forth between one another, so the dynamics of the economy are different and the power spikes can happen a lot earlier.
Knockout, on the other hand, is a fast-paced variant of Dota Underlords designed to create a more palatable experience–which suits the mobile version of the game quite well. When Dota Underlords first launched in early access, Standard matches could last up to 50 minutes (which is very characteristic of Dota, but bad for mobile phone batteries), though the average sits at roughly 25 minutes now. But Knockout games are designed to last about 15 minutes tops, and because of the way they’re structured, you get to see a lot more high-powered three-star units. While I commonly secure wins in Standard with just one or two three-stars heroes, I’ve played Knockout games where every character on the board had been upgraded to the max, and it’s very exciting.
With a reduced cost to level up heroes and a simplified health system, Knockout games play out hard and fast. Economy management is non-existent, as everyone races to spend all of their money each round, and victory or defeat is always a single lucky roll away. It feels like a perversion of the form, and it won’t help you hone your strategies for the Standard game, but it’s entertaining nonetheless.
The other addition, which was released alongside Dota Underlords’ v1.0 update, is the City Crawl, a narrative-focused mode which tells the story of White Spire. With the death of one Momma Eeb, the criminal element in White Spire has found itself searching for a new ruler. Now, each of the city’s four Underlords–Anessix, Jull, Hobgen and Enno–is attempting to secure their place as top dog.
City Crawl tasks you with charting their pathways to the top by getting you to participate in a series of Underlords-based Puzzles, Knockout-style Street Brawls, and Challenges. The puzzles vary between comically simple and genuinely challenging, and the Street Brawls are well constructed, but the Challenges, which ask you to win with certain conditions, don’t seem to have as much thought in them.
Tasked with winning 40 rounds with Enno and Insects saw me specifically forcing insects into teams where they didn’t fit, for example, and as an experienced Auto-Battler, I could recognise this as inefficient play that I employed only to achieve my Challenge goal. But new players, keen to start with the game’s campaign, can form bad habits as a result of it. It also feels as if some challenges are designed solely to get players to spend their “Keys to the City”–items obtained via the Battle Pass, the only monetisation element in Underlords. Being tasked to deal 30,000 damage with Savage units, for example, isn’t a difficult task, but it’s incredibly tedious.
But by-and-large, the City Crawl incentivises playstyles that you might not otherwise enjoy–completing puzzles almost feel like reading chess books in between games. And as a result, City Crawl does a great job of reminding you why Dota Underlords is such a compelling and challenging experience. A lot of games these days require a high degree of manual dexterity from the player, but apart from brief moments spent frantically clicking the reroll button to find the solitary Medusa that will no doubt give you victory, Dota Underlords largely exercises your brain, not your mouse hand.
If Underlords faces any challenges, it’s thanks to its games-as-a-service model. The decision to rotate heroes in and out of the game allows Valve to maintain a semblance of balance, but there will always be people unhappy that their favourite hero has changed or disappeared. As season 1’s changes to Axe proved though, the rotation system provides the game an opportunity to take a character considered largely useless and turn them into an exciting and dominant force on the chessboard. Things can and will change in the future, but Underlords’ launch gives the impression that there is strong thought driving the game forward behind the scenes.
Dota Underlords is a diverse and constantly captivating experience where no match plays out the same way twice. Having been with the genre since it was a custom map mod, it’s heartening to see it executed as well as it has been here. Outwitting your opponents and the odds through clever thinking is always immensely satisfying, and the game’s complexity means that there are plenty of interesting strategies to try. Dota Underlords is a wonderfully robust and well-crafted strategy game that is very easy to lose yourself in.