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I’ll admit, despite the popularity of mobile or web-based strategy games, I never thought I’d set out to write an article talking about one of them in a positive light. While I’ve played a pretty decent cross section, from Star Wars: Commander, Age of Empires: Castle Siege, C&C: Tiberium Alliances, Vega Conflict, Battle Pirates, War Commander, Battleplans, The Incorruptibles, etc., I’ve never really been captivated my one, nor thought of them as inherently strategically or tactically fulfilling games. Magic-esque card games, a somewhat similar and more appealing genre of strategic mobile game like Hearthstone and PvZ: Heroes, as fun as they can be similarly have failed to keep my attention.
Let me go a step further than that. I have, not jokingly, listed browser/mobile RTS games a complete affront to the legacy of the real-time strategy game. I do not consider them by and large as a valuable part of the RTS genre mechanically or thematically, and their debasement of RTS systems is a constant source of frustration to me. But in in Supercell’s Clash Royale, a formula may have been derived that… I think I might actually be OK with, or at least not opposed to on principle.
I’m frankly a little surprised with how I keep coming back to Clash Royale, so I decided to try and evaluate my interest to determine its roots. While there are some things about the game to which I am resolutely opposed, I do appreciate some core elements of its approach, as well as much of the underlying logic driving its model. Let’s explore it together, shall we?
What Clash Royale Does Well
OK, I know. I’m writing about a mobile strategy game. First I say that MOBAs have some good ideas, now I’ve decided to sing the praises of a cheap knockoff for the unwashed masses? What’s become of Wayward Strategy?
Maybe you feel that way, and maybe not. Either way, please approach this with an open mind. I’m not saying this game is the next great RTS, but I do feel that it is accessible, highly addictive, and honestly includes some really smart design at least in my humble opinion, and it’s worthwhile to evaluate why it is resonating with players. The game has limitations, and I want to address them specifically as well.
First and foremost, the main reason I feel like Clash Royale bears looking at is that the game has some seriously satisfying and punchy interactions. This is something that is true of most really successful and beloved RTS, like StarCraft, Company of Heroes, and Command and Conquer. Why it’s worth pointing out in this context, is that virtually no other mobile strategy game (at least, that I’ve played) gets this right.
In most mobile strategy games up until recently, the player was asked to confront their opponent’s static defenses with a series of mostly autonomous units with predefined behaviors. Clash of Clans and Star Wars: Commander are prime examples of this, and in fact Clash of Clans popularized this model (which is better only in degree than Travian’s model). The only “strategy” in these games consisted entirely of placing units at certain times and locations to maximize their impact on what I’m going to generously call “the battle.”
Because, of course, it wasn’t really a battle. You were wailing, using dumb (as in – simplistic and automated) and uninteresting hammers against a dumb and uninteresting bulwark. Winning was mostly a matter of grinding out the highest level units and largest army that could simply overpower your opponents defenses, which of course they had to grind out to make as powerful as possible to prevent you from… and round and round it goes.
These are just awful systems. ome newer or more ambitious projects like War Commander Rogue Assault, VEGA Conflict or Age of Empires: Castle Siege, allow the user some control of their army. I’ll get into why that doesn’t necessarily work as well as Clash Royale’s model in a bit. There’s a fairly really important difference in how Clash handles things.
And, to be fair, units in Clash Royale are themselves dumb (that is, simplistic and automated). They’re mostly “fire and forget” either one-time effects, or with simple and predicable behaviors. And just like in their dumbest and most automated siblings, all you’re really doing is choosing when and where to place the units and effects.
But. But there are a couple of key differences that actually make Clash Royale feel… strategic, and dare I say satisfying.
Explaining Clash Royale
Before I can talk about what Clash Royale does well, I guess I should introduce the game itself.
Clash Royale is a real-time tactical deckbuilding game by developer Supercell. Supercell is mostly known for Clash of Clans, a mobile “MMORTS” that popularized its widely-imitated model. I mentioned my general feelings for games in this genre above, so let’s set that aside for now.
In Clash Royale, players build a ‘deck’ or loadout consisting of any combination of units, structures, or one-shot abilities and enter into real-time one-on-one battles against other players.
Units, abilities, etc are earned via chests. Chests can be purchased, but are also earned when a player wins a match. Players can ‘store’ up to 4 chests this way, and can also periodically earn ‘Crown Chests’ that unlock after a certain number of wins and are gifted free chests every couple of hours. Chests provide players with ‘unit cards’ – the player unlocks a unit once they have earned at least 1 card. As they earn more cards, they are able to level up units. This way, even purchasing hundreds of dollars worth of chests is not guaranteed to earn players the specific units they may want to level up, making the system abstracted enough to avoid obvious ‘pay to win’ complaints while still incentivizing players to purchase chests to get ahead. It’s a very fine line, but for me it falls just on this side of being fair. I’ll… talk more about the unit leveling system later.
Players bring 8 cards into a match. Players have 4 of these cards available at any one time, brought out of the deck in a random order. No card can appear more than once in a player’s hand at one time (though there is a Mirror card that allows for an extra copy of the player’s last-activated card to be summoned). Cards have an Elixir cost associated with them, between 1 and 10. Each player can have up to 10 Elixir at any given time, and Elixir is given to both players at the same rate (though there is a structure that allows a player to earn extra Elixir over time). Units, abilities, and structures are dropped onto the battlefield one at a time and often have a brief cooldown between being placed and becoming active on the battlefield.
Most units must be placed on the player’s side of the map, and walk or across the map towards the nearest enemy tower. Some units will only attack structures, some will attack either structures or units. Each player has 3 towers, and the game’s objective is to destroy these towers. Each tower destroyed earns the player one Crown, and whichever player earns more Crowns is the winner. If the player’s primary (center) tower is destroyed, they lose the match immediately.
The Smart Designs
One major difference is that Clash Royale actually allows players to compete against one another in real time. There’s no passive setup on the other side for you to crash into again and again – there’s another person with a toolbox of abilities, a brain and a will. This is a pretty big change from most mobile/browser ‘RTS’ fare that makes a huge difference. You’re actually competing against a person. While this, of course, doesn’t feel revolutionary to those of us who have been playing against other people for two decades or more, it’s still pretty rare in mobile spaces in general and mobile strategy in particular.
While units in Clash Royale are just as dumb as units in your average mobile RTS, there are many systems the developer has set up to make using them feel strategic and important. One primary component of this is the ‘Elixir’ system: each unit, ability, or structure costs between 1 and 10 Elixir, and a player can only have 10 Elixir at any given time. This means that knowing exactly what to summon and when (and often, exactly where to place it) is incredibly important – given the extreme restrictions on how many things you can summon at once, and the often extreme way in which poor decisions can fail specatularly, each placement of a unit or ability is incredibly non-trivial.
Also, the game’s counter system is designed to make poor expenditure of Elixir incredibly punishing. Having to wait for Elixir to recharge when your opponent makes a surprise move can lose you a match, making many unit or ability placements feel like walking the knife edge between a resounding victory or a crushing defeat.
And as the player engages with Clash, they learn the importance of clever placement, of how to mess with the pre-defined behaviors of enemy units to their advantage, and figuring out little psychological games they can play with their enemy to make them waste Elixir and create an opening. This is a game where any ability, any unit placement, can feel important. Each unit has a cooldown after it is summoned before it can act, and even this can be exploited by either player to their advantage. It is a very clever use of the overall simple systems that make up the game.
When playing Clash Royale seriously (what a foreign concept to those of us who play PC RTS games – a mobile strategy game that can be played seriously), it quickly becomes apparent that making the most of the game’s systems is critical to performing well. You can’t just plunk down whatever you want as quickly as it becomes available and expect to do well – not even the rare or ultra-rare units and abilities (I think there were some definite missteps made with that system, but more on that later).
Learning to create synergies of units and abilities, learning the best times/places to get the most out of every single point of Elixir, become absolutely pivotal to performing well. Sure, there are some units and abilities and combinations that feel unfairly overpowering, but by and large player skill is the #1 determining factor in winning matches.
And that is a very good thing. It’s all too often in this genre of games that the player who’s spent the most time and money grinding out the strongest army has a distinct and overwhelming advantage: a mostly skill-based tactics game is a good direction to see in the mobile space.
Also good is the satisfaction that learning some new trick with a unit or unit combination can provide. Additionally, just choosing and using units can be a weirdly joyous experience. The game has a counter system whereby some units are good against weak, massed units, some are vulnerable to them. Some are good against structures, some against high HP targets. Some exist only or primarily to slow or redirect targets temporarily, and at high levels of play these abilities are very commonly used – interrupting a single enemy hit at a critical time can mean the difference between victory and defeat.
And this is precisely why I felt Clash Royale deserves some kudos. Read that again: deflecting a single enemy hit at a critical time can win you a match. This game is ridiculously precise for all its simple mechanics. It serves to reinforce, alongside RTS staples like StarCraft, that complex mechanics don’t necessarily make a better game. Like COH2 teaches, making full and comprehensive use of engaging mechanics in ways that can surprise not just one’s opponent, but the player themselves: that is the key to an exciting and compelling strategic experience.
Exciting, punchy interactions that allow the player to feel like they’re the master of their own destiny – that’s powerful. Even in a mobile game. Too many RTS are designed with the opinion that StarCraft is too demanding – which it well might be. But in my humble opionion, they miss the core lesson of games like StarCraft and Command and Conquer – the player wants to feel that they are the master of their success. Too much of the automation that we’ve seen in modern RTS, to ‘reduce complexity’ takes away autonomy from the player, puts more distance between the player’s decisions and their success.
This is something else that most mobile games get way wrong. In games like Age of Empires: Castle Siege and Vega Conflict, the player is able to direct their forces around the battlefield. But what, ultimately, does that do? It can feel frustrating as much as it feels empowering. As dumb as units are in Clash Royale, using them makes you feel powerful, or makes your decisions feel like they are the driving force in a match. They have understandable and exploitable limitations: cost, summon timers, movement speed, vulnerabilities… and the game’s systems provide a plethora of fun and interesting ways to mess with the simple unit AI, react during summon timers, and find little ways to tweak situations to turn them to your advantage. And that’s a lot more powerful than being able to choose exactly where your units are moving.
And yes, the best RTS do all this and more. Of course they do, and they always will. But the ways that Clash encourages the player to always find little ways to tweak their limited interactions to their advantage is honestly kind of inspiring. It makes me wish that more real RTS had systems that encouraged the same kind of playful experimentation and drive to improve. That more RTS had those punchy interactions that made the player feel empowered.
Tons of units to control doesn’t necessarily make a player feel powerful and autonomous. It can help, but it’s not essential. Making the player feel that they have powerful tools at their disposal that they have to use carefully – that’s the core of the RTS experience. And Clash Royale serves as a powerful reminder to me of that.
Personalization is another part of the game that I appreciate. This is something that, as I’ve mentioned before, I feel modern players respond to powerfully. Being able to feel like you’re able to succeed or contribute on your own terms is something that we see in MOBAs, that we see in MMORPGs, and many other popular modern games. And deckbuilding games have that in droves: I prefer Black in Magic the Gathering – many might have issues with its high-risk, self-harm driven play style and prefer to rules-lawyer with Blue, or fast attack with crushing power as Red. In RTS, the ability to choose how you play is often present, but not felt viscerally (at least by me. There’s plenty of room to disagree with that statement. Please take everything I say with a grain of salt).
The short turn-around time for matches (3 minutes, plus a 1 minute overtime if both players have the same number of Crowns when the initial timer expires) means that losses, while frustrating, are never too big of a letdown. This is appropriate for mobile, though I think on PC 8-20 minutes is a reasonable average match time. Still, it bears noting that the short time of these games serves as a positive here. Also, it bears mention that these matches are not shorter: a 90 second match would not feel as satisfying. I think 3 minutes was arrived at quite carefully.
I hate to say it, but the Chest system is a powerful positive feedback loop. Players like earning ‘stuff’ and while I am fundamentally opposed to competitive games with unit leveling systems, opening chests is rewarding in kind of a gross Pavlovian way.
Also, Supercell really knocked the game’s feature set out of the park. Clash Royale has: shareable built in replays, Built-in auto tournaments, friendly clan battles, a training mode for new players, a solid ladder system, simple player stats with a focus on the positive, and a Magic the Gathering-style draft mode that allows players to try out cards they haven’t earned yet. You can even copy decks from any player’s profile, provided you have all of the cards their deck uses. I wish the deck-copy system were more robust, but the fact that it exists is pretty neat. (Searchable decks and the ability to copy partial decks based on your owned cards would be a big plus).
It’s pretty much got what players want to learn, share, and experiment. It’s (again) a very careful, thoughtful and purposeful design.
What Clash Royale Does Not Do Well
Lets get it out of the way right out of the gate. The game is… kind of cute? I guess? With its generic, overly-rounded and cutesy units and animations, it’s calculatedly bland and non-offensive. Virtually without character. Character/unit portraits for the most part, feel almost annoyingly generic. The battlefields look pretty good however: Arena 4 (PEKKA’s Playground) in particular is visually satisfying, as is Arena 6 (Builder’s Workshop).
Also, can we agree that they hypno-goblin on the store page is straight up creepy? I could go into great lengths about the pros and cons of the store system, but instead I’m going to focus on its results: the cards earned from spending money on chests.
One very fine line that Clash Royale dances with is the idea of the ‘cheat unit’ or ‘super unit’. While every unit can be countered, some of the more expensive ones don’t leave much margin for error on the other player’s side. Units like Sparky (a mobile Tesla coil that unleashes a hugely damaging attack every 6 seconds), the Golem (only attacks buildings, explodes into 2 smaller units when destroyed) or the Lava Hound (flies, only attacks buildings, explodes into 6 smaller units when destroyed) can be countered, but if done incorrectly can be absolutely devastating for the defending player. Some abilities can feel incredibly unfair as well, especially the first time they’re used on you. If you don’t have access to one of these units, or a reliable counter, you can feel that the other player won -because- they paid lots of money into the cash store, or because they luckily earned that unit from a Chest. It makes the player feel robbed.
I will note that the above-mentioned units are not used often in competitive play, because they have clear counters and are quite stoppable in most situations. Using the game’s replay feature, it becomes obvious that in the highest arenas, a great premium is placed on strong, consistent performers, stuns, and units whose rules break with some of the game’s conventions: units that can be summoned on the opponent’s side of the map, units who outrange most enemy offerings, high impact active abilities, et cetera.
Now, once you earn these units, you can quickly be brought to terms regarding their shortcomings, but that feeling of unfairness can really spoil a match when one of those units appears. “Whelp, there’s unit X. This person’s just going to win and there’s nothing I can do” – this problem is unique to deckbuilding games. RTS don’t often have situations like that, aside from some nastier cheeses that usually get balanced in the long run. (as an aside one thing I feel about RTS is that large economic/buildup phases can lead to a real inequality of outcome in the early/midgame, which is a major depressant to player satisfaction. I think Blizzard may agree with this sentiment at least in part, since in LOTV they dramatically decreased the game’s vulnerable early phase).
The same feeling of “well crap, he’s going to win” comes from the unit leveling system. As the player earns cards, they can level up units to become more powerful, gaining HP, damage, etc. While leveling a unit rarely if ever makes it invulnerable to a counter, it can make the impacts of a partially successful counter strategy far more devastating. It can also make counters feel less impactful if there’s a notable disparity between the level of the counter and the unit being used.
For instance, there’s an ability that throws a barrel of melee goblin units anywhere on the map – this is often targeted specifically at towers since the goblin barrel cannot be interrupted in-flight and thus bypasses the map’s chokepoints. A common counter to this is a low-cost active ability that deals a small amount of damage and stuns units it hits for .5 seconds. Under most circumstances, this ability will kill all of the melee goblins at once, but if the goblins outlevel the damage ability slightly, they will survive it and deal potentially considerable damage to the tower – inconsistency of results like this is one reason I am fundamentally opposed to unit leveling systems in general.
Players need to know what to expect from the outcome of their actions in a game, and unit leveling can really screw with that. In the case of one player having multiple units of a higher level than their opponent, this can end up just being a numbers game: the player with the higher level units will just have more damage they can put out and soak up, leading to an innately higher chance of victory. There
Seeing one’s opponent dump out tons of higher level units can be demoralizing and feel incredibly unfair. While this is mostly psychological, I stand opposed to this practice in general terms. No one wants to play a competitive game where they feel that their opponent can be straight-up better than them out of the gate. It’s fundamentally demoralizing and feels deeply unfair.
Lastly, let’s talk about the game’s map. I understand the importance of its design: it’s largely a flat expanse with a single chokepoint on the left and right. There’s a ‘river’ that’s uncrossable by most ground units, with a bridge on the left and right. Without this design, certain unit types would have a much different (potentially greater) impact on games, I think to its detriment. But the strategy involved in Clash Royale is mostly about getting things across that river in sufficient numbers to do damage to an enemy tower. While the interactions between units, structures, and abilities can feel punchy and satisfying, that basic goal and its unchanging nature start to pall after awhile. I want to see a 3-lane map, or maps with one wide lane and one short lane, or maps with a large open area in the middle and smaller chokepoints near the towers.
One of the many reasons RTS are better than MOBAs is that each map requires a unique approach. It has unique challenges and asks different things of the player. Clash Royale’s design may not support this complexity, but it’s something I’d want to see in future iterations of its model. Give the player new types of thing to care about, new configurations of offense and defense. Make attacking each tower feel slightly different.
Can Strategy Games Learn From Clash Royale?
Good question. Clash Royale is in many ways an incredibly simplistic game. What it does well is embrace those simple mechanics in a full and nuanced way that focuses, literally and actually, on forcing the players to make important decisions. Every action the player takes is fraught with impact in a way that’s empowering and engaging. Every player action feels meaningful in a way that I miss in many more robust strategic games. It serves as a self-evident testimony that simply taking a flawed model and letting players experience some largely meaningless freedom within it is far inferior to a system that reinforces the player’s autonomy at every turn, and gives them exciting interactions and decisions to make.
I think, more than a source of education, Clash Royale can serve as a reminder of what players can find so compelling about strategic play. Strategic play isn’t necessarily about build orders or bases, about mining minerals and worker lines. It’s about punchy, engaging interactions, about cracks and niches into which players can reach to exploit an advantage. It’s about driving depth out of simplicity instead of smothering it under complexity. It’s about giving players fun, effective, and diverse tools and encouraging them to play with how those tools can be used.
Lastly, comparing Clash Royale to games like Age of Empires: Castle Siege is important. It shows that apparent freedom of movement is virtually meaningless against the actual freedom of choice, even if those choices seem at first blush to be simplistic and limited. I don’t want RTS to be mechanically more like Clash Royale, but I do want them to pay attention to the choices it asks players to make, and the psychological impact of those choices.
Thanks for reading.