AFK Journey Helped Me Finally Understand Why People Like Auto Chess So Much

Games Features AFK Journey
AFK Journey Helped Me Finally Understand Why People Like Auto Chess So Much

Even for those of us who play way, way too many videogames, there will still always be blind spots in your repertoire— entire genres that you haven’t touched out of disinterest or happenstance. For myself, the biggest of these gaps is undeniably MOBAs, a style that exploded in popularity until every college dorm student who was way behind on assignments could be heard clicking their mice in unison well into the night. Defense of the Ancients (DotA) was famously born from a Warcraft III mod, and in the next few years, its many descendants would vastly outpace traditional strategy games like Warcraft in player count.

However, this wasn’t the only mutation. Somewhat fittingly, this mod turned popular game genre would then spawn its own mod turned popular game genre. When Auto Chess came out in 2019 as a Dota 2 mod, it helped popularize another new style of play, eventually attracting millions of players in the process. Basically, the way these games work is that you draft a team of little guys and compete in a series of battles against other players doing the same. The catch is that for the actual fights, you don’t directly control what’s happening and take the back seat as your assembled crew fights for their lives (and yours).

I’ll admit it, at first blush, this description didn’t really pique my interest. For one, it seemed like an offshoot of a space I already didn’t have much personal investment in, and I assumed I would need some baseline familiarity with Dota or its spawn to appreciate it. But my biggest hangup was that I couldn’t understand the appeal of a competitive-oriented videogame where you don’t control your own characters, at least not in the traditional sense. Even after I learned how it worked in practice, Auto Chess still sounded like too passive of an experience. After all, it would take a lot to break my lifelong commitment to never install a MOBA on my computer, a vow I made to myself because everyone I know who’s been into them has described their online communities as a corrosive stew that, at one point or another, made their lives just a little bit worse.

Ultimately, I didn’t end up breaking that streak because the place where I got my first taste of auto chess was an unlikely one. AFK Journey is the new mobile release flying up the AppStore charts. Heaps of online advertising has made it difficult to avoid, and its eye-catching art style immediately caught my attention. Unfortunately, it’s also a gacha game, meaning it weaves a web of FOMO nonsense and preys on the thrill of doing just one more pull as it hits every dark pattern in the book. I’ll say it now: if you are someone who has had problems with this type of game in the past, it is best to steer clear of this one because while it is more accommodating to people who don’t want to spend any money than some other examples of the form, like other games with loot boxes and randomized rewards, it is still very much trying to psychologically manipulate you into spending money.

However, the strange thing about AFK Journey is that nestled inside this gacha experience is Honor Duel, an auto chess mode that you can enjoy without paying anything (except for a small piece of your sanity as you try to unravel the surprising amount of depth here). In a game with leaderboards dominated by people emptying their wallets to do more pulls, by contrast, there is no way to spend to get ahead here. I suppose that’s a low bar, considering that this is true in just about every other auto chess variant, but still, it’s a fascinating contrast to the rest of the game.

Like other versions of auto chess, your aim in Honor Duel is to create a team of minions who will fight in your stead. Those familiar with the genre will obviously feel at home, but what made things personally click for me was how much overlap there was with one of my favorite styles of experience: deckbuilders. Those who have enjoyed these games in the past, from old-school Magic: The Gathering drafts to modern-day roguelike variants like Slay the Spire, will probably recognize the same feeling of slowly building something up as you try to find a winning strategy.

In this case, the goal is to build your crew so that your heroes’ roles, factions, and abilities complement one another, making them into a formidable force that has each other’s backs. After each victory or loss, you’ll receive coins to purchase heroes and equipment. Seemingly small decisions quickly snowball until you’ve constructed a monster lineup that can wipe the floor with your adversaries or produced what feels like a minor league ball club facing up against pros hucking 100-mile-per-hour fastballs.

While I had unfairly written off this style of game when I first heard about it, I quickly realized just how much depth is involved when drafting a squad here. Each hero in AFK Journey has a long list of complicated abilities with tons of keywords that determine how they fight, and it’s useful to be familiar with at least the basics of their toolkits for drafting. Every character also belongs to a particular faction, and if you match several combatants with the same one, they’ll receive sizeable stat boosts that can make the difference between victory and defeat.

Perhaps the most important factor, though, is team composition, as each unit belongs to a class, like tanks, supports, and various kinds of damage dealers. Crafting a winning team often comes down to finding a good balance between beefy front liners who can absorb hits, healers who keep those big bodies alive, and lethal DPS units who can pick off foes. On top of this, you select an artifact at the beginning of each draft session with a passive effect that can entirely change how some heroes function. And all of these factors need to be weighed and evaluated on the fly, as the shop gives you a randomized list of options to spend your limited coins between matches.

Altogether, it creates a similar effect to participating in an involved CCG draft, with all its compelling micro-decisions and moments of euphoria as many little choices come together, but in a streamlined form that fits well with this mobile game package. Outside of the troop deployment phase, you can pause a set of matches (which end after you get nine wins or three losses) and come back later, making it easy to pick up and play.

And when it comes time to watch your troops march into battle, these brawls turn into a sporting event, either turning you into an angry dad at the high school football game or a proud parent watching their kid rub it in the face of your hometown’s greatest foe. While you can place where the units will be at the start of the fight and thus influence who they will target or be targeted by, once things are going, you have no choice but to sit back and enjoy (or heckle) the show. At first, I found it weird not to be controlling the flow of the battle, but then it dawned this is a simulation where you input parameters and then watch the results, spending resources to program your team as best you can. I quickly discovered there is a particular brand of satisfaction that comes from sitting back and watching the action, as a battle plays out that reflects who put together the more cohesive squad (or at least who wins this particular matchup, as there is a rock-paper-scissor type advantage thing going on with the four different factions).

Every time I watched my decked-out Vala, a noble lady by day who transforms into an umbrella-gun-wielding vigilante by night, absolutely pick apart the enemy backline as she sniped and teleported across the map, or when I saw the evil little goblin man Igor hop around, defying death as he drew buckets of agro, it gave me just about as much satisfaction as if I was directly piloting them to accomplish those feats. It also helps that the game has a confident aesthetic and great presentation, as each win is paired with a chic victory screen that shows off your MVP from the previous round.

The pinnacle of these good times came just last night after I put together a truly busted lineup based around Silvina, an assassin who can target enemies at the start of a match. My many prior choices paid off as she single-handedly tore through my foes in less than 10 seconds, using her First Strike ability to kill each enemy in sequence like an action hero slicing through underlings in a popcorn flick. It made the way for my ninth win of the session and shot me onto the top 200 leaderboard for my server, which had been my goal since I got my first big win days prior.

Still, the mode isn’t without its problems. There should probably be some balance changes around artifacts, as some are far more powerful than others. This problem is made worse because you’re only given the option to choose one out of three at the start of the game and can never swap them out, so long-term success disproportionately depends on what choices you’re presented in the opening minutes. There is also a lot of randomness when it comes to the shop, which can sometimes make the early rounds a bit of a crapshoot. But still, good team-building skills can overcome much of this, and the best players at the top of the leaderboards stay there because they figure out clever ways to minimize variance as much as possible.

All in all, I have a somewhat complicated relationship with AFK Journey. On the one hand, I’ve fallen into its depths, and while it hasn’t coerced a penny out of me, it has monopolized an alarming amount of my mental energy as I’ve hunted down every trick to navigate its depths without paying up. But tucked inside this exploitative shell, next to a story experience that eventually requires strong teams that can only be beefed up by waiting real-world time or putting in money, a PVP arena that uses these same characters you’ve collected, a Guild mode that will make you feel bad for not pulling your weight if your heroes are too weak, and a daily boss battle, that you guessed it, also basically requires spending real-world money if you want to end up on the leaderboard, lies the egalitarian Honor Duel, a place where the playing field is essentially level for all.

In good conscience, I can’t give AFK Journey a blanket recommendation for all the same reasons why other live service games can be brutal: it wants your time and money and isn’t afraid to emotionally blackmail you to extract them, even if it’s much more reasonable than many of its peers. But within this compromised experience, I found something that helped me finally “get” a genre I’d written off, giving me a first taste of a competitive mode I fell for way more than I was expecting. It may finally be time to give Dota 2 an install, not to learn about creeps and lanes, but to play a particular mod that’s also buried inside an imperfect live-service game.

Elijah Gonzalez is an assistant Games and TV Editor for Paste Magazine. In addition to playing and watching the latest on the small screen, he also loves film, creating large lists of media he’ll probably never actually get to, and dreaming of the day he finally gets through all the Like a Dragon games. You can follow him on Twitter @eli_gonzalez11.

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