Game genre names, or why I like ‘Auto-Chess’ more than ‘Auto-Battler’

Sometimes new game genres come up with names perfectly encapsulate the primary ideas and mechanics in a simple understandable way. When that happens, we get names like Battle Royale. Sometimes they don’t, and we get the holy war between the Roguelite and Roguelike people. And sometimes an entire genre gets invented more or less by accident and we end up with things like Soulslike or Auto-Chess.

This last category is annoying, because if you know the core elements that constitute the genre, the description is useful, and if you don’t, it’s absolutely worthless. But the reason defining genre is important to me is that I actively avoided a game called Super Auto Pets for a while, because its genre was miscommunicated.

When I first heard about Super Auto Pets, I was told it was an auto-battler. Having no context for this, and learning the game was available on mobile devices, I assumed it was some form of idle game, filled with the sort of traps most mobile trash is. It wasn’t until another friend downloaded it, played it, and described the mechanics that I went “Hold up, that’s an Auto-Chess game, a genre that I actually like”.

So, let’s talk about the concept of Auto-Chess as a genre real quick. As far as I’m aware, the first Auto-Chess game was a mod for Dota 2, called… Auto-Chess. It doesn’t actually have anything to do with Chess. Instead, each round you’re given gold to spend on buying units from a pool, or rerolling the pool. Buying three copies of the same units upgrades that unit into a single stronger copy. Get three upgraded units, and they combine into an even stronger unit.

There’s a board that you can place and move units on, with a cap of units that you can have on the board, and a bench of units you might have purchased, but don’t currently want to use. A timer ticks down, and when it hits zero, your board of units fight another player’s board of units. Whoever has units standing last wins, and gets gold, and the loser loses lives based on how many units were still alive at the end of the round.

The core gameplay, then, is mostly about spending your resources to make the most efficient board state possible. Since this was Dota 2, and the units you purchased were Dota 2 heroes, there was the small knowledge requirement of having to know how Dota 2 works.

Which is a monumental task. For example, how Dota 2 towers choose their target is a simple 6 step process. That guide might be out of date, it’s 8 years old.

Despite this, the mod became exceedingly popular, and quite a few things happened. Valve tried to make their own version of the game called Dota: Underlords, which kind of just died. The modders went and made their own full version of the game just called Auto-Chess that you can get on Epic. Riot pulled a Riot with their classic “Ctrl-C, Ctrl-V” of something popular that someone else made, and created Teamfight Tactics. Ed Note: I promise to stop making fun of Riot for doing things like this when they make their own game for once.

The big thing about all of these Auto-Chess games, though, is that they’re all still pretty obtuse, and require you to understand how MOBAs or RTS style games work in terms of damage types, abilities, aggro, armor, etc.

As a result, the interesting mechanical decisions end up hidden behind these other bizarre systems. Which is something Super Auto Pets arguably fixes, but more on that in a future writeup.

Looking back on it now, this actually seems to be how we got the modern roguelite. The core structure of “Try, fail, learn, try again, get a bit farther” was initially locked into dungeon crawlers. Then someone finally went “Wait, what if we took this formula and applied it to something that comes with less baggage and is less brain melting?” and now every other indie game has roguelite elements.

I don’t have too much else to say on this. Most of the writing in this post comes from an article about Super Auto Pets that I started, and then wrote a nine-paragraph tangent. Good writers kill their darlings, but I’m not a good writer. I’m more of a gardener of words. So I tended the ramblings and then moved them somewhere else to grow.

I guess really what I want to say is that defining genres is important. Not because it’s critical for us to box games into specific categories like we’re pinning butterflies, but because they let us quickly communicate to other people what a game is like, and give an idea of whether they’ll like it.