In the world of mobile games, Clash of Clans is a big deal. It's a free game that rakes in more money than most AAA blockbusters—enough money to produce elaborate Super Bowl commercials. And it's the kind of runaway success that inspires hordes of imitators, much to the chagrin of games critics like me who prefer to sample a wide variety of experiences. I'll admit, while I understand why that game's mixture of city building and mild strategy is profitable, I never found it very fun. So my expectations for Clash Royale, Clash of Clans' successor from developer Supercell, were not high. Clash Royale feels genetically engineered to be a hit iPhone game, with all of the expected but still annoying free-to-play roadblocks that entails. Much to my surprise, Clash Royale's unique blend of contemporary strategy gaming ideas is also legitimately satisfying.
Clash of the Titans
When I say Clash Royale feels genetically engineered to be a hit, I mean it synthesizes concepts from some of the biggest, most profitable free games around: tower defense, MOBAs such as Dota 2 and League of Legends, and collectible card games like Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft. Plus it has the incredibly recognizable Clash of Clans branding.
Let's break down those influences. Like a tower defense game, Clash Royale is a real-time strategy game in which players try to survive incoming waves of enemies using defensive towers. However, since it is also a competitive multiplayer game, players do this while simultaneously sending their own units to destroy their opponent's towers.
This is where the MOBA elements come into play. The field is divided into two lanes, and which lane you choose to send units down can affect your strategy. You can spread your attack evenly across both sides, or you can focus on one tower and create a direct path to the enemy base, although that may leave the other lane defenseless. Once an enemy tower is destroyed, you can place units deeper into enemy territory. There's a surprising amount to manage for a game that can be easily, intuitively played in one hand with one thumb.
Powering all of Clash Royale's systems is the deck-building component. Players activate their units and spells, from ranged archers to hulking giants to magical fireballs, by playing a card. Cards show up randomly in your hand, but you build your deck before each battle. There's a lot to consider when building your deck. You want units that complement each other. Strong units are great, but they burn up the magical energy you use to play cards. So, it's also good to pack in cheaper units and balance the deck out so you aren't totally defenseless while your energy recharges. Outside of battle, you can upgrade your cards or swap them out with better, rarer cards. The deck building adds a fantastic layer of depth to an already enjoyable casual strategy framework. It's no surprise there's already a bustling community of Clash Royale enthusiasts sharing deck tips with each other. Unfortunately, the deck building also allows the game to indulge in some of the worst mobile gaming impulses.
Royale With Fees
What makes Clash Royale's aggressive free-to-play systems more frustrating than in similar games is that here the gameplay is so good you are genuinely disappointed when the game goes out of its way to prevent you from playing it. Getting rewards, the items that mark progress and give you incentive to keep playing, requires waiting for treasure chests to open. You win chests from matches, which last a few minutes. But chests themselves can take significantly longer to open, ranging from a few seconds to several hours, especially when there's a possibility something valuable is inside, something you couldn't just get in the shop. Chests also only open one at a time.
These issues become worse the more invested you become in the game, the more you level up and unlock new battle arenas with their own new cards to acquire by chance. The gray list of missing rare cards in your deck becomes more of a taunt than a challenge. And in case that wasn't enough waiting, the game even limits how often teammates within a clan can donate cards to each other, unless they just pay up. The best deals offer about 100 gems for one dollar, but with some chests taking several dozen gems to immediately open, it's easy to get sucked into paying more than you'd like.
At least it's easy to see where all that money is going. Clash Royale is right up there with the similarly monetized Angry Birds 2 as far as mobile game production values go. The cartoony 3D medieval fantasy art style is vibrant and full of cheery personality and humor reminiscent of a DreamWorks movie. That presentation combined with the strength of the core gameplay went a long way towards making me forgive the constant waiting while playing the game on an iPhone 5s.
Heart of the Cards
As annoying as it is, it would make no sense for Clash Royale to abandon the monetization methods that made its predecessor such a hit. So I guess we should appreciate the fact that Clash Royale evolved its gameplay into something genuinely great, unlike Clash of Clans. If you're a fan of card games, strategy games, or something in between, and you have some patience, give Clash Royale a shot.