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Saturday, Nov 02, 2019 - 22:40 SGT
Posted By: Gilbert

Pleasant Diversions

The promised piece on A.I. hype's been pushed back for some more urgent hype - the just-introduced resource in DotA Underlords. But before we get to it, a follow-up on current affairs. On Epstein's August "suicide", a pathologist has opined that... yeah, he didn't kill himself, which clearly leaves a lot of very interesting questions open. One was asked of Hillary Clinton on The Daily Show, where she self-indulgently declined to reveal the mystery of how she pulled the hit job off, to everyone's intense disappointment.

This made a crossover of sorts with another surprise death, this time of ISIS leader and "austere religious scholar" Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, at least according to the hopelessly-biased Washington Post, who might as well have described Epstein as a "wealthy philanthropist who dedicated his life to children", or Mao as "revolutionary culturalist and adult re-education advocate", in keeping with the growing representation of unhinged reporting in the mainstream media, which has fallen to the level of defending the courage of recognized terrorists, while assigning next to no credit for his liquidation. Luckily, this proliferation of FAKE NEWS in government is being stemmed by the mass cancellation of NY Times and WaPo subscriptions by federal agencies - which is only fair, honestly - with GEOTUS further rubbing it in Bezos' face by pushing the Pentagon's US$10 billion cloud contract to Microsoft. Excellently done!

Understanding Underlords

And on to the main course. DotA Underlords is a new strategy game in the "auto chess" or "auto battler" genre, which may naturally spark memories of the venerable Battle Chess program, for the oldies out there. While both Underlords and Battle Chess utilize the standard 8x8 chessboard, the similarities end there; Battle Chess is essentially normal international chess spiced up with animated violence, which happens to be essentially unwinnable against a good smartphone nowadays. Underlords instead has the heroes from DotA as game pieces, each of whom retain some of their signature abilities. Moreover, there is no human input once all pieces are placed in Underlords - the pieces will automatically go at each other based on fixed logical rules, until one side loses all its pieces.

Gameplay Example

Additionally, DotA Underlords is not designed to be played in one-off rounds, or against a single opponent. Instead, eight humans (and/or bots) participate in tournament fashion, with players facing each other in round-robin order. The first three rounds are can't-lose gimmes that allow the player to pick his first three game pieces and items. After that, the real battles begin, with the loser of each round losing Health equal to the combined stars (we'll get to this) of the winning player's surviving pieces and Underlord. Each player starts with 100 Health, and is eliminated once he loses all of it; the last player standing wins the tournament, and players with an above-average finish (i.e. fourth place or above) are considered to have succeeded in ranked matches (i.e. gain rank).

So, where's the skill in this game? Well, the tactical part comes with the selection and positioning of (hero) pieces, and their equipping with items - each player may have a number of pieces equal to his level on the board at the start of each round, with up to eight extra pieces in reserve on the bench that can be freely swapped with board pieces. Each piece has its unique abilities, stats and behaviour, and membership of two (or rarely three) alliances. If a player has enough unique pieces belonging to the same alliance, a useful alliance bonus will come into effect. These bonuses are generally strong enough that players would do well to pick pieces with them in mind.

The probably more-important strategic part comes with the acquisition of these pieces. Players earn gold at the end of each round, and are then presented with a random draft of five pieces to buy with their accumulated gold. Gold may also be used to bring up a new set of five pieces (2 gold per reroll), or to buy XP towards higher levels (5 gold per 5 XP), which allows the fielding of more pieces.

The improper management of gold reserves is probably how new players lose their tournaments - it is probably natural for newbies to try rerolling until they are presented with their imagined "perfect combination" of pieces. However, as with casino jackpots, this is quite unlikely, and wiser play tends to involve saving up a good warchest to earn interest early on, all the more since losing these rounds costs relatively little Health. Knowing what (piece or XP) to buy, whether to build alliances or rely on the "good stuff", and when to try rerolling (since there is a fixed shared pool of pieces, strong pieces may be heavily contested and thus simply unavailable) is probably the greater part of success in Underlords.

Stars good for pieces. Get more stars.
(Source: r/underlords)

Slightly complicating the piece situation, each piece belongs to one of five tiers, which correspond to the power and cost of the piece (Tier 1 pieces cost a single gold, while Ace [Tier Five] pieces cost 5 gold but have near-broken abilities), and also may have one to three stars, with a two-star piece having approximately double the HP and damage of its one-star variant, and a three-star piece double again that of its two-star variant. However, to obtain a two-star piece, a player has to buy three identical one-star pieces. Then, for a three-star piece, three two-star pieces, or nine one-star ones, are required. In practice, this makes it quite difficult to create three-star pieces, and it's not uncommon to win tournaments without a single one.

Finally, each player is also represented by an Underlord piece as his in-game avatar, and is presented with an Underlord-specific choice of talents after certain rounds. Currently, only two Underlords - the support healer Anessix, and the fiery Hobgen have been implemented, although at least four are planned, from the game art. Current consensus appears to be that Anessix is more-forgiving and stronger early on, being able to sustain her pieces, which Hobgen comes into his own later with his superior damage, though his problem is surviving until that advantage comes into effect.

All considered, DotA Underlords has been suitably fun and addictive, which should come as a relief to Valve given how their last big DotA spin-off - the supremely-complex trading card game Artifact - bombed. Don't get me wrong, Underlords is anything but simple, with considerations such as predicting opposition formations, hogging pieces that they need and various many little tricks increasingly important at higher levels of play, but there's something of a thrill in watching one's chosen pieces do their stuff on the board. Moreover, being a solo game, griefing and over-demanding teammates are out of the equation, unlike regular DotA. Perhaps best of all, it's free to play and cross-platform. Can't ask for more.

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