If you’ve checked Twitch over the past month you’ve probably been wondering how to play Auto Chess after spying a few new games nipping at the heels of the typical roster of battle royale titles and MOBAs, namely Teamfight Tactics and Dota Underlords. Both of these games are auto battlers, a bold new genre that has become an overnight success after starting out as a mod within Dota 2 called Dota Auto Chess - which is ironic considering that Dota started out as a Warcraft 3 mod. If you're wondering what is Auto Chess then we're here to help, as in this guide we’re going to provide a very basic overview of Auto Chess, show you the version differences, and steer you away from making any rookie errors.
Across the numerous versions, gameplay in Auto Chess is fairly static. It’s simple to play with a fairly approachable U.I, but the systems that define whether you fail or succeed create complexity. Weirdly enough, its nothing like chess or even Dota, so get that out of your head immediately.
You start out with a set health bar and you have one job - try to survive until you’re the last one left. At the start of each round, you’re given a set amount of gold and told to buy units, which can later be combined with duplicate units to upgrade them and increase their efficiency. Once you’ve got your lineup, the timer will tick down and you’ll do battle, either with creeps to get items at the start and then eventually the other seven players in your game, who are all crafting their own teams with their respective gold to face off against you.
Fights take place in real time, as your chosen heroes head out to wallop the enemy team and go for glory. Crucially, you cannot control this section of the game. The only thing you can do is choose where they are positioned. Their capability in battle is then determined by the items you’ve accumulated and attached to each unit, and their complementary skills or alliances. You pick up items from ‘loot rounds’, where you face off against creeps to get powerful global or hero-bound items.
Alliances are another kettle of fish. When you pick your units they will have named or symbolic alliances that will be demonstrated to you when you hover over them. You have to match up these alliances to buff your team or even more importantly, debuff the cabal you’re facing off against. Perhaps you can lower your enemies' magic resistance or undermine their armour by having a set of similar units, for example.
The trick is to find a solid composition and complement units with other units that tease out their best skills, in order to topple the rotating enemy teams that you face every round. If you lose, the damage dealt is usually dependant on the number of enemies left standing and their respective skill level. Once you lose all of your health - that’s it, you’re dead. You can either spectate until there’s one remaining player, or queue for another match.
Aims and goals
So the main point of the game is to stay alive. Keep in mind that you can never regain health in Auto Chess, and it can get quite punishing if you aren’t able to keep pushing out a capable team each round - if you can’t keep up you’ll fall off hard. A string of defeats can ruin you very quickly if you’re not careful, especially if your opponent has multiple two or three-star heroes and you keep wasting your money each round. Damage is calculated by the number of enemies left on the screen when you wrap up and their statistics - if you get squad wiped you’re going to suffer a heavy blow.
Therefore, you want to put the right items on the right heroes to make sure you’ve got a strong team. You’ve always got to be thinking about the next composition - the best Auto Chess players are already steps ahead of their current move. Manage your limited time properly and you should be able to set up a winning lineup. Always have long-term composition goals too - whilst in the early game it can be tempting to spend, reroll and rush out two and three-star enemies, you want to think about how they’re going to factor into your wider team and plan accordingly.
You want to level up too, naturally via gameplay or by spending gold in the shop phase to speed up the process. The higher your level the more units you can have on the field, and the units and items you find will be of greater quality, which is a crucial gateway to success.
Outside of that, there aren’t many other goals in Auto Chess beyond outlasting the competition. Build the best team you can so you can stay on top and keep that essential winning streak, which will give you the money necessary to build an unstoppable legion.
Good general strategies
Buy duplicates of the same units until they rank up - this is the most accessible tip for Auto Chess. Pick up three of the same unit and it will upgrade, bolstering stats. You can then upgrade it again by making three two star units. Be proactive - the earlier the better in most cases, especially if you want an edge on your opponents later in the game. You can lock the lineup of units in the shop phase if you need to wait for some cash too.
Positioning is everything in Auto Chess, and so is composition. Think about how you would build a team in a regular game of Dota or League - auto chess grafts some of this into the fold with the alliance system so its useful to have a basic knowledge of which heroes work together, whether they’re melee or ranged, and what their special ability is. For example, Pudge in Dota Underlords is a tanky bruiser that can hook enemies out of position from far away. Use this to your advantage to position properly and unpick enemy defences.
You also want to Study your enemies. Even though you get a minuscule amount of time to check how another battle is going, you should still keep an eye on what other players are doing. First off, this is to learn how to play properly in the early days, but then it will evolve into figuring out how to counteract their builds and prepare yourself for coming rounds.
Buy levels in the midgame - especially if you’re winning - to increase your chances of finding better units and most importantly, afford you the ability to place extra units on the field. Keep in mind the level cap too, which is 10.
Pick up items that are going to help your units. Look at the coloured alliances and see where it tells you whether it's going to help the heroes on your board or not. Don’t miss this advice, it’s crucial! If a hero has poor DPS, give them an attack speed item, if they have rubbish armour, give them an item that mitigates that - play to your strengths.
Sometimes it can actually be quite handy to lose consecutively and come back with a bang. Don’t just throw your last army +1 into the fold with reckless abandon - think carefully and save your money so you can make a big impact and turn the tide. In general, saving your money can be useful given that it often earns interest.
Where available, play the tutorial and train against A.I. Being thrown into the deep end against human opponents was really the only option during the Dota Auto Chess days, but now other companies have jumped on the trend there’s a more intuitive way to get a grip on things - especially in Dota Underlords, where you can play against bots to figure it out first.
Watch the sidebar too - this is on the left in Teamfight Tactics and the right in Dota Underlords - this gives you essential information on what alliances are working with each other, what the effects would be if you added to them, and how much damage you’re dealing in a given round. Use this as a visual aid to see how good or bad your composition is, and it will give you pointers on what you need to purchase next.
What not to do/rookie errors
Don't ignore your advantage! If you’re a Dota or a League of Legends player, pick up the game respective to your skill and playtime. Whilst most are fairly accessible in their own right, knowing what certain heroes are like can be so helpful when you’re starting out, especially if you know their style - are they burly heroes that can hold their own, or glass cannons? How do their abilities work? Make things easier for yourself by picking the game you’re most comfortable with.
Hey big spender - don’t reroll too much in the early game. This is an ok practice in the late game (especially when you’re winning) but don't lose sight of the long game - blowing all your money trying to get that one elusive unit is not a very good use of your hard-earned cash. Put it into levelling up or purchasing heroes that help your composition and complete your vision for how your team is going to shape up over the next 30 or so rounds.
Don’t bunch up your units. I know micromanagement of units is especially boring if you’re used to just controlling a hero without illusions in League or Dota, but placing your pieces on the quote-unquote chessboard is so deeply important in Auto Chess that if you’re not going to bother with placement you’re destined to fail.
Think about the fact that some enemies can teleport, and if your weak mages are all at the back they’re going to get beat up whilst the tanks are involved in the main brawl. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot. Bait out bad actors with units who can pull enemies out of position, and preempt weaknesses in your formation by having a good split of tanky enemies and glass cannons.
Think about the attacks your units do - are they long range or short range? Place them accordingly on the map in regards to this and their chosen ability. Same with stats - if a hero has rubbish armour, put him behind another with better armour, or use an item to buff their Achilles heel.
Don’t forget to study your alliances - know what the symbols mean so you can translate that to the in-game text and pick the right options. Auto Chess moves blisteringly fast in between rounds, so you need to not be checking the lorebook every time you’re prompted to make a decision. I’m a fairly indecisive person, and that often translates to failure in Auto Chess, so pull yourself out of that mindset and move with instinct. The same can be said for the available items - know what they do so you can quickly pick them and have more time to arrange your troops. Don’t throw random units together and expect a miracle, while keeping in mind that two of the same unit won't upgrade your alliance. You need another unique unit with the same alliance to improve composition.
Don't buy too many units either, especially when you don't have space on the board for them - and in turn, don't be afraid to sell units that aren’t working for you. Sometimes you have to kill your darlings in Auto Chess. Don’t be stubborn or sentimental about it. The pool for units is global, meaning that if one player buys too many of the one hero you need, you’re going to struggle to find it. Realise this and you will view the shopping phase in a different light. Improvise, adapt, overcome!
Ultimately, give it time - the foundations of Dota Auto Chess are based on Random Number Generation or RNG. You’re going to fall foul to it eventually, and when you do it hurts. It stings when you’ve been screwed over and it's not your fault, but once you've learned the ropes properly, you’ll figure out ways to work around that cruel system and come out on top. Auto battlers are complex, but once you’re on the other side and you’ve figured it out, they can be uniquely rewarding and consistently great fun with friends.
Differences between versions
Teamfight Tactics is Riot’s League of Legends-inspired Auto Battler. It’s got a quick pace and a hex grid instead of a more traditional map, with more damage dealt per round loss. There’s also a cool catchup mechanic with the drafting round, where you have to snag a hero from a rotating circle, with the worst players getting first dibs. You can also look at other players' battles on one cohesive map instead of switching between players.
You also have a protagonist in Teamfight Tactics known as the ‘Little Legends,’ adorable chibi animals that front the damage for you. It also feels a lot more intuitive and responsive, even if it has essentially been born in the LoL client. In that sense, it doesn’t have a dedicated U.I or anything - it's technically still in beta, despite being one of the more popular Auto Battle games on the market. With most of these games, there’s been a considerable rush to market, so naturally they’re a bit rough around the edges.
Dota Underlords is Valve’s attempt to corner the market - a standalone game that recently went into open beta on Steam, iOS and Android. It’s perhaps got the most cohesive identity of all the Auto Battlers so far - there’s a splash screen, ranking system and whole menu interface to play with.
Underlords naturally makes use of the Dota characters you know and love from Dota Auto Chess, so making the switch isn’t very difficult - it’s practically the same game beyond a few bells and whistles like new alliances and crossplay. Everything is far more legible than in the precursor mod, which helps too. In the future, there’s going to be a battle pass and a seasonal asset rotation to keep things fresh, as well as some kind of narrative surrounding the White Spire smuggler’s paradise.
The team behind the original mod, Drodo, will be bringing their version of the game exclusively to the Epic Game Store later in the year, so you’ll have to wait if you want the ‘true’ Auto Chess experience. For now, it's available on mobile devices and known as Auto Chess: Origins - it’s pretty much Dota Auto Chess in all but name and assets, which have subsequently been replaced by cutesy Dota-adjacent creatures instead.
Want to know more about the game's origins? Then check out the rise of Auto Chess, a Dota 2 custom map that became one of the year's biggest games.