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Dota Underlords feels like a clone of Auto Chess

In a small genre, games need to be unique to survive

Ryan Gilliam (he/him) has worked at Polygon for nearly seven years. He primarily spends his time writing guides for massively popular games like Diablo 4 & Destiny 2.

Auto Chess first arrived in the Dota 2 client, but it wasn’t developed by Valve. Instead, Auto Chess is a beautifully crafted mod made by Drodo Studio. Drodo is moving onto its own stand-alone project, bringing Auto Chess to mobile and the Epic Games Store later this year. So Valve went and built its own Auto Chess for Steam: Dota Underlords.

Valve released Dota Underlords into closed beta last week, with a planned open beta release date of June 21. With the closed beta, the response from even die-hard Auto Chess fans has been underwhelming. Despite being its own game with some small differences, it manages to feel like a Valve-made clone of the already beloved mod.

Underlords is a better-looking game and it’s more stable, and getting into a match doesn’t take 10 minutes. It’s even a bit more accessible to new players, with flashy icons and easy-to-read text.

While Underlords is instantly more appealing to new players, the similarities make it hard for veterans to see a reason to switch. Auto Chess fans have put up with a lot in the Dota 2 client, all with the understanding that it’s a mod held together by duct tape and prayers. But over the months, Drodo has improved Auto Chess dramatically, updating its units and systems.

The main issue with Underlords right now is how similar it feels to Auto Chess from a few months ago. With the exception of three different units and presentational features, Underlords is nearly identical to Auto Chess. Most of the race or class benefits operate very similarly to the mod, and a majority of characters have the same abilities.

Underlords feels like a small patch for Auto Chess, not its own game.

There is already a lot of competition in the Auto Chess space. Drodo’s Auto Chess mod is still popular, and the developers have rebuilt systems, added units, and overhauled the UI multiple times in the past few months. Riot’s Teamfight Tactics, a mode in League of Legends, is spinning up for its own beta release next week. In a war between Auto Chess, Teamfight Tactics, and Underlords, it’s hard to see how the latter stands out.

Valve intends for Underlords to replace Dota Auto Chess, and it will in time. When Valve first announced Underlords, it mentioned meeting with Drodo to discuss working together. The two studios decided it was best for them to split rather than collaborate on Auto Chess. Once Drodo’s stand-alone Auto Chess comes out, the Dota 2 mod will likely fade away.

Eventually, Underlords will be the only Auto Chess-like on Steam. But a better looking copy of a mod isn’t always as interesting as the mod itself. It needs to add something, the way Fortnite added building to battle royale.

Underlords is a more than competent Auto Chess game that has no spice. Players are migrating to Underlords because it’s easier to get in a match, not because Valve improved the formula.

If Valve can consistently update Underlords with the same level of care and interest with which Drodo updates Auto Chess, the sentiment might change. The two games will inevitably evolve in different directions. In the meantime, it’s hard not to see Underlords as an attempt to cash in on an emerging trend.

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