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Chess is playing the long game: The rise of the auto chess genre

Auto chess has been a popular genre since 2019 and is working its way into more and more games
Chess is playing the long game: The rise of the auto chess genre
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The impact of chess on games as a concept is undeniable, with its strategic and competitive elements seen across the industry in so many forms today. The boardgame is still going in its own right, of course, but so too has it spawned a closely linked sister genre (or perhaps daughter genre is more appropriate, given chess’ legacy). And that new, increasingly popular genre is auto chess.

Auto chess was first popularised in 2019 through a mod of PC game Dota 2. Following its enthusiastic reception, developer Valve took to making a mobile game in the same style, ultimately leading to 2020’s Dota Underlords. And in the three years since, chess-style games have only become more prevalent on the mobile platform, be they the classic experience or automated hybrids.

As it was

According to GameRefinery, chess in its base form has endured and thrived on mobile, experiencing a "massive revival" lately with countless iterations available on app stores. Currently, the most popular is the mobile version of browser game, styled simply as Chess. The browser game reached a respectable 10 million active players this year, but mobile is where things are really booming - with more than 120 million players all striving for that grandmaster title.

Chess was in fact February 2023’s most popular free iOS game, taking the crown in 28 countries. Today, Sensor Tower data shows Chess ranks fifth in the category, and the US presently represents 37% of its downloads, followed by the UK at 8% and Russia at 6%. In line with this, the US also contributes the most revenue, at 51%.

It's undeniable that chess has a strong legacy behind it - dating back to the 6th Century and crossing through cultures and time to stay with us today - and yet, its recent popularity surge has to be explained somehow…

Chessboard crossovers

Key art for The Queen's Gambit game
Key art for The Queen's Gambit game

GameRefinery suggests that chess’ recognition has risen again partly because of its appearances in other media, such as Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit series which led to 3.2 million new players, a 603% increase in chess book sales, and a spinoff mobile game.

Furthermore, while has a total of seven mobile games on iOS and Android, many people are playing other versions of chess within their favourite titles. The most recent example of this is mobile goliath Supercell’s month-long partnership with - which lasted throughout this September and introduced Clash of Clans and Clash Royale minigames to the browser experience.

On mobile, meanwhile, special chess-themed skins were added to the Clash games, a chess season of the battle pass launched and more. In Clash Royale specifically, a mode named Chess Royale saw the battlefield reconstructed as a chessboard, with players defending their royal tower with a squadron of units.

Other media representation has come from popular mobile games like Riot’s Teamfight Tactics, Moonton’s Mobile Legends: Bang Bang and Blizzard’s Hearthstone. Temafight Tactics currently takes the mobile throne among auto chess games, combining the classic chess elements with modern gaming regulars like item recipes and customised tools. After all, one of auto chess’ appeals is the ability to build a unique team of characters - not just nameless pieces on a board; they can be levelled up, their armour and weapons can be upgraded, and even the size of an army can be increased. The strategy is in building characters and placing them tactfully, ready to automatically confront whomever they approach on the board.

These automatic rounds typically take place on a grid echoing the chessboard, playing out until only one army remains. Victory brings rewards that can be reinvested towards further upgrades - either bolstering existing characters or recruiting new ones to the team - thus increasing the chance of subsequent wins. This formula makes auto chess competitive and challenging to master, with a lot of fine-tuning required to build the perfect team, but RNG elements spicing up those ambitions of perfection.

Mobile Legends: Bang Bang introduced Magic Chess as a new game mode in early 2020 just as the auto chess genre was finding its footing, and it remains as a permanent side mode to this day which many players engage with exclusively. It even features its own monetisation model, such as the aforementioned purchasing of additional characters, and the launch of its first auto chess season caused a 100% spike in Bang Bang’s daily revenue at the time.

Fire Emblem Heroes' auto chess mode Pawns of Loki
Fire Emblem Heroes' auto chess mode Pawns of Loki

Rounding off 2020, Nintendo’s biggest mobile title Fire Emblem Heroes implemented an auto chess mode fitting cleanly within what was already a grid-based strategy game. Infusing chess with Nordic mythology, Pawns of Loki was introduced in November 2020 and returns as a limited-time game mode to Heroes every couple of months - allowing players to recruit to this side mode a random assortment of their main-game characters and strengthen them with every win on the board.

Cleverly, the mode is entirely free-to-play in its own right, but the more resources (and money) players invest in their characters outside of the mode, the stronger they will be if recruited within it. Perhaps that’s part of the reason why Fire Emblem Heroes is a member of the highly exclusive $1 billion revenue club.

Photo from Amphy Blog.