Clash of Clans, backed by a big marketing campaign, has become the public face of strategy gaming that none of us want. Sure, it’s actually pretty competent as free to play base-builders go. But that very model is so repellent that it’s a bit like saying Genghis Khan wasn’t quite so bad as barbarian warlords go. Clash of Clans is still the inanely grinning face that launched the steamrolling of our hobby under the freemium juggernaut.
So when its sister franchise, Clash Royale, appeared on the scene, my instinct was to run a country mile. Yet, for the sake of journalistic completeness, I felt compelled to try it. I headed into my first match with every fibre of my being straining under duress. I left it with a hot itch to play another. Right away. And another, and another, until I was forced to admit that actually, Clash Royale is really good.
It’s a true mini-mobile MOBA. Unlike other games in that hallowed turf, like Vainglory, it doesn’t carry a ton of baggage over from its PC roots. Matches are incredibly fast, at 4 minutes tops before a draw is declared. There are only two lanes. Each player has three castles, and the aim is to destroy more than your opponent does. There’s no heroes to learn, only a variety of different missile and melee troops that you launch onto the board at a time and place of your choosing. From thereon in, the AI takes over and directs them for you.
You can take eight units into battle. There’s a default eight everyone gets at the start, and a small selection of new ones you can unlock through pay or play. It’s a bit like a card system where you can put things in and out of your deck as you get access to them or upgrade the ones you have. As you rank up, you slowly gain access to more and more cards and this slow drip keep the learning curve nice and shallow.
If it seems surprising that there’s any learning curve at all in such a simple, stripped down game, that’s down to the genius of the design. Units don’t have many statistics but what there is creates an intricate web of attack and counterattack. Swarms of small units can be quickly removed with splash damage. Splash damage units can be effectively countered by flying troops. Flying troops are vulnerable to swarms of small missile units. And so on, ad infinitum.
That would be enough to make an interesting game. Yet richness is added to the mixture through a thousand tiny decisions in timing and positioning that can help win a battle. You pay for units through a slowly refilling bar of elixir. To win through to an enemy castle, you need to throw a mix of units into the offensive down one lane. But if you’re out of elixir, and you suddenly find yourself assaulted down the other lane, you’re in deep trouble.
Following a successful defence, you’re then in a dilemma with what to do about the survivors. The ragged, wounded band will march grimly on toward the enemy keep, where they’ll meet with a quick death unless you support them. Cash in too little, and it’s wasted points. Too much, and you leave yourself vulnerable. So, so many little decision points that can swing the tide one way or the other.
The result is a surprisingly deep and beguiling mix, where there’s a hint of randomness in your card selection and a lot of skill. With things being so smooth and fast it’s ideally suited to the mobile medium. The quick matches, predominance of player skill and multiple, interlocking collection and upgrade systems make it dangerously addictive. A quick five minute session can expand to eat an hour with terrifying ease.
t’s not all a bed of roses. Matchmaking is based solely on your ladder score, but you also have slowly increasing levels for your towers and all your cards. That can lead to some frustratingly one-sided matches if you happen upon a higher-level player down on their luck.
Bigger, though, is the monetisation model, which is so odious that it makes me wish Clash Royale wasn’t as good as it is. Winning matches wins you chests, which contain gold and cards. You need gold, because it upgrades your existing cards and is the only reliable way to obtain the most powerful cards. However, you can only own four chests at once, and opening one takes up to twelve hours. Unless you pay with premium, real-money fuelled, currency to take the timers away.
The reality is that while you can, in theory, play forever for free, you will lose a lot of matches and will struggle to get anywhere unless you pay. It doesn’t have to be a handsome amount, but it’s still effectively a paywall unless you have the patience of a saint. And if you’re at all impulsive, or if the game gets its substantial hooks in you, it would be easy to spend a lot of money. Top players are already taking about hundreds of dollars.
What’s so tragic and infuriating about this is that Clash Royale would have worked brilliantly on a Hearthstone style pay model. Earn gold through quests or through victories, up to a sensible daily limit. Buy card packs with your gold, or with real money. It’s made plenty of profit for Blizzard. But SuperCell weren’t satisfied with that. Instead, they chose the greedy path with Clash Royale and made what could have been a truly great game into merely a very good one.
Sad, but it’s an effective and instructional metaphor for the direction mobile gaming seems to be going. So Clash Royale sticks us in a bind. Enjoy this excellent game and hasten the demise of the things we love, or miss out on a cracking strategy game and stick to our principles? On the assumption that I’m in too tiny a minority that cares about the latter, I’m going to have to recommend we all go with the former.