Clash-likes

Just so you don’t think I’m crazy, I know most cell-phone games are terrible. A very few are somewhat interesting, and most are reskins or “I can do that, but worse.” Clash-likes stand out. The genre was born on mobile (well, FaceBook, close enough,) and there’s an actual game in there to play. Every new clash-like has a least a few things it does better or different. I’ve never seen just a reskin, since there are so many ways to make one.

There’s no good name for the genre. They officially fall under “strategy real-time MMO”, but that’s pretty broad. I tried Asymetrical Anonymous Base-Builders (AABB,) but that’s not going to stick. Clash-like is the best name, for now.

To Contents

Features

Clash-likes are one of those genres that has a lot of room for tweaks, changes or totally new stuff; but you still know one when you see one. Here’s my list of what usually makes one:

  • Solo “opposite tower defense” gameplay. You attack other players, but you’re not playing head-to-head. You only fight their AI-controlled tower defense — not their army. Likewise, when someone attacks you, your offensive army does nothing. They only fight your tower defense.
  • Persistent progress. Once you get something, you can never lose it. Being attacked steals some gold you were saving for the next upgrade, but otherwise your defenses spring fully back after each attack. You can stop playing for a week and not be set back. Your offensive army isn’t even harmed when your village is destroyed.
  • Very dumb, obvious AI. This is considered a feature. Defenses will target the nearest enemy, ignoring a deadly but soft wizard for a slightly closer knight. Your attackers can’t be controlled after placing them. They attack the nearest buildings. The idea is, you know exactly what everything will do, so can make a plan.
  • Short, time-limited, pauseless battles. You can spend a while planning your army, figuring out a strategy, trying to figure out what went wrong … . But the actual attack is 3 minutes at most. Depending on your army and strategy, you may lose by running out of time. After the attack, you’re done with that player.
  • A medium amount of tap-based decisions during an attack. Generally targetable spells and troop power-ups. Sometimes limited control over a leader troop. You’re not tapping as fast as you can, but you do have to concentrate and will forgot things until you make a plan and get practice.
  • The attacks are real games. There’s a skill in picking an army, where and when to place troops, and when to cast spells. A good player can do much better than a beginner.
  • Troop selection is a real choice. You never get a new troop which replaces an old one. In fact, when a new troop is unlocked, you’re supposed to wonder how in the heck you’re going to use it.
  • You can’t pick on a particular person, and they can’t pick on you. Fights are against randomly chosen opponents. The same goes for guilds. A guild war is a 1-time event, against a randomly chosen guild, where the attacks don’t even steal gold.
  • Likewise, other players can’t directly help you. There’s usually a small friendship mechanic. Altogether, it’s a mostly solo game. You don’t need a big guild to do well. This is in contrast to things like Game of War, where a big active guild can carry you, or put a bull’s-eye on you.
  • Gameplay is attacking to gather gold, paying for all the allowed upgrades, then waiting. That may take a while, or may be quick. But starting all allowed upgrades is the goal and the natural stopping time.
  • This is just aesthetics, but it’s a recognizable feature: everything is in an arrangeable village grid. It’s where you arrange your tower defense. But it’s also where your troop upgrade building, spell creation building … are placed. The non-defensive buildings work as damage sponges or distractions from your real defenses.
  • Also just aesthetics: each building and troop gets a little different look as it’s upgraded. When you see someone’s base, or an attack replay, you can mostly figure out everything’s level from the pictures.
  • Planning your defense is also a real game. There are lots of options, no optimal strategy, and a thoughtful defense can matter (but, since you aren’t playing during an attack, you can just copy a base design from the internet.)
  • You have to get better to progress. At various points, people will be stealing gold as fast as you can steal it from others. You’ll have to either get better at attacking, build a better defense, or a combination of both.  In other words, it’s a game – not a fancy Cow Clicker.
  • Very, very simple resource generation. Tap to collect, and nothing else. They could easily make it more complex – like a tiny farmville. But the game is about fighting. The resource generators are just a reason for all the attacking.
  • Freemium, but you can’t buy anything you couldn’t get just by playing a lot (this is sometimes knows as spend-for-time.) But, bizarrely, you can buy everything. For a few thousand dollars, you can buy what a free player could get in a year. No one will know the difference.

History

I didn’t realize Clash of Clans is only from 2012. The first time I played it wasn’t that long after it came out. I also didn’t realize that I’ve seen and played most of the things that inspired it. Some things had to come together for a clash-like: tower defense, the arrangable map-village, and anonymous attacks. Here’s how I see that stuff:

To have a huge number of players, you need the internet. In the ‘70s you could dial-up to GEnie, CompuServe or AOL; in the ’80s anyone in college could get on-line, but that still wasn’t a lot of people. The internet wasn’t public until 1995, and Search (Google) wasn’t until 1998.

The first massive anonymous attacker I know of was free browser game ArchMage, in 2000. Your kingdom was just a few stats – mostly how much land you owned. The interesting thing was there was no world map, so you had no neighbors. You just had a list of people near your power level who you could attack. Most of them will rise or fall off the list by tomorrow. You were allowed to attack someone a few times, until they were knocked off the bottom, but players considered a double-attack as unsportsmanlike (you’d get pounded silly by every other player if you did it.) In practice, you attacked random people, one time each.

When you beat someone, you stole some of their land. That’s a great example of the backwards fake-realism clash-likes have today. Of course in real life, land is the realistic thing you steal — from your neighbors. But it makes 0 sense in a game with no map, attacking random people. ArchMage boldly went with it, and the players accepted it.

FaceBook didn’t add support for large games until 2008, when we got the MobWars, PirateWars and so on. Those games borrowed the anonymous attacking idea, and added endlessness. Normally, games have to have a winner. In ArchMage, the goal was to survive casting a very expensive, days-long “I win” spell with an “everyone is allowed to attack me” side-effect. You can’t have a game without a winner. Or so we thought. Facebook showed that you can. Just play to grow. If you make it to #1, or the top 100 … be proud and see how long you can stay there.

Two more things, tower Defense and an arrangeable village, came from the PC game WarCraft way back in 1995 (not World of – just WarCraft, the solo or 2-player RTS.) The upgradable buildings of clash-likes are copies of the ones in WarCraft. Even the upgradable Town Hall came from there (a building that does mostly nothing except unlock other things.)

Tower Defenses came from WarCraft in a funny way. Most of the single-player missions were about growing quickly, scouting and harassing the enemy to slow them down, building a few defenses only when you needed to. But some missions were just early waves of tough enemies. The only way to win was to build lots of defenses to hold them off. Those were just a fun break from the real missions, but we realized you could make a game with only that.

2009 had a brief craze for browser tower defenses. I didn’t play them, but I remember students going nuts for those sites, with all sorts of rules for tower-types, making paths, flyers… . Plants vs. Zombies is the main survivor of all that.

BackYard Monsters put tower defenses and endless random attacking together in 2010, on FaceBook. You may have heard Backyard Monsters was the inspiration for Clash of Clans and scoffed. I did. But you can look at pictures of bases and read strategies. Clash of Clans is clearly a dumbed-down copy.

In BackYard monsters, defenses were strong enough that you were expected to grind them down over several attacks (with the possibility of someone sniping a 1/2-destroyed base from you.) Attacks had a period at the end only for previously-placed troops to fight. The rules for getting a defensive shield were more complicated. Clash of Clans dumbed it down for the winning formula: quick sessions; simpler in general; freemium; skew younger; an App instead of browser-based. And, I’m not completely sure, but I think they were the first cell=phone game to show television commercials.

Walls

Out of all buildings, plain old walls are surprisingly complicated. You get about a hundred of them. 100 walls? What? It turns out a “wall” is just a tiny block. Making what a human would describe as a wall involves dragging dozens of them into a line.

There are short-cuts, glitchy ones. Selecting an entire row might also get you the corners, or not, and probably stops at walls of a different upgrade level. Dragging a whole row into a smaller space won’t work – you’ll need to unselect, trim to the correct length, then reselect. There’s an etch-a-sketch mode — trace on squares to place walls, and/or select the tiny handles and pull out a line of walls. It’s still not easy, but better than dragging 100 of them by hand.

Once you figure out how to place them, where you’re putting your walls is all wrong. Everyone starts with a rectangle around everything. That’s no good — the enemy only needs to poke a single hole. Some people make a double-thick inner keep. Also no good — the game has special rules making it not work: wall-blasters have a radius of 2. It turns out that a series of boxes, with shared off-center corners, is the best. It looks like garbage, but it works great.

If you get really into it, there’s exact math as to how much extra distance a wall counts as. You can fine-tune your base so attacking troops tend to go in odd directions or split up.

Finally, walls are a cash-sink for hard-core players. They’re the only building that takes 0 time to upgrade. If you want to play all day, upgrading walls is the one thing you can do. It’s not cheap, and you have 200 of them, so you’ll always be able to “work on your walls”. It has this funny quirk: even though it takes no time, you still need a free builder. So, regular players can put all 5 builders to work. They can’t upgrade walls while they wait, which is fine. Meanwhile, hard-core players need to leave one free so they have it to wall-upgrade through-out the day. That seems fair, sort of.

The coolest thing about walls is something just for looks. If walls actually filled their squares, they’d look terrible. They look better filling about half — like thick poles. But that means adjacent walls would have spaces between them. They fix that by auto-creating a special wall-connector segment. It doesn’t look great.

Looting and Realism

Game genres start out “realistic”, but since that’s not very good gameplay the definition of realistic-enough gradually changes. Today, everyone who plays an MMO knows you keep your stuff when you die. You die a lot and it shouldn’t be a huge penalty. But back when they were first made, passerby could loot everything from your dead body – anything else would have seemed stupidly unrealistic. Modern MMOs give that just a nod – you can loot a few coins from a dead player, but it doesn’t come out of their stash.

Clash-like looting is in a crazy place between realistic and playable. The most common rules are that you instantly steal stuff as you smash the building holding it. Hit a gold vault with a sword, or an arrow, or even a fireball, and a little bit of their gold pops directly into your treasury. Gold teleports instead of needing to be carried out because it’s simpler. Otherwise you’d need troop carrying capacity, pick-up animation, rules for when to run home with a full gold sack … ick.

One game, Batman clash-like Arkham Underworld, actually does realistic gold vaults: a massive vault door needs to be destroyed, then you quickly grab the cash. Trying to break that huge door can run attackers out of time, leaving them with nothing as the cops come. You know – the way actual vault doors work. But the other way you get gold in that game is hilarious. Computer hackers collect gold. To steal it you smash the computers with baseball bats and gold coins fly out.

I enjoy the optional “strongbox” building for how little sense it makes. Normally, attackers leave 1/2 of your gold lying on the ground for you to scrape up later. They just do. But some games have an extra building, with stats like “level 5 strongbox: 5,000 gold plus 57% of the rest is protected from attackers”. How does it work? Beats me. The same as the magical 1/2-gold rule, I guess.

Oddly, they all keep one “realistic” thing which ruins the game: you get gold by stealing from other players. That seems obvious — you can’t get gold out of thin air. But it’s a game, of course you can. It ruins the game since most people are broke, and the few players who have gold — their moms’ called them to dinner midway through playing — is pretty much arbitrary. The games could make enemies worth an “average” amount of gold, plus or minus. But people hate that. They like knowing they’re hurting someone else. For example, many clash-likes use “ghost” bases as filler — an exact copy of someone’s base, not owned by anyone. People hate those when they find out there’s no one on the other end crying over lost gold.

Instead the games bend over backwards to average out loot, while making you still feel you earn it all by stealing. The “Loot cart” makes it so you steal more gold than they actually lose. Bases are always worth a minimum amount, even if they have less. Daily challenges give free gold for a certain amount of victories. There’s an extra-safe area for storing your gold. But despite that it feels “realistic”, like the savage free-for-all gold stealing players think they want.

Builders & Upgrades

As we all know, freemium takes a perfectly good game and throws in arbitrary timers, energy bars and other limits to stretch the game out. People hate them, or, at best, see them as a necessary evil. The brilliant thing about clash-likes is how they do all that and more, and make you like it.

With troop training times, class-likes make you wait between each attack. That’s worse than the games that give you 5 tries a day. But people enjoy playing with it: when you go to bed, start training a bunch of cool, long training-time troops. You get to use them for 1 attack in the morning. Then switch to boring fast-training ones for the rest. It feels as if you have control.

When you finally get the cash to buy an upgrade, another timer makes it takes hours or days to happen. Then finally the limited number of “builders” kicks in. If I want to upgrade my Farm, I have fight a timer to earn the gold, then the game tells me I can’t spend it since the upgrades I started yesterday aren’t done. That’s so mean. But people love builders with their little tricks:

  • Builders prevent you from playing “just one more”. When every builder is put to work, you’re done for the day.
  • Build times, once they’re several days long, form a little rhythm. Some days none have finished, other days 2 builders are ready and you’ve got to hustle to get the gold to put them back to work. That doesn’t seem very exciting, but it’s less monotonous than other “check in once a day” games.
  • Time vs. gold cost can vary. Most notably, gold mines take a long time to upgrade, but don’t cost much. Casual players like the “don’t cost much” part, while aggressive players focus on the “takes a long time” and skip them. It feels like a smart choice, either way.
  • Wall upgrades are like a mini-game. If you have a free builder you can upgrade as many walls as you want. People actually discuss when to put the last builder to work, and when to keep it open in case you have a extra hour for walls.
  • When you start a new clash-like, you know getting more builders is the most important thing. A fun bit of insider knowledge. Even if you’re mostly a free player, you’d be a fool not to buy the $1.99 starter bundle with an extra builder.
  • Defenses don’t work when upgrading, giving you a choice. You can upgrade one defense building at a time, swapping positions so vital spots always have coverage. Or you can upgrade a bunch at once and be helpless, just to get it over with. People love that meta stuff.

A fun thing about builders is how they make sense at first, then make no sense if you actually think about them. Things I enjoy:

  • Buildings start tiny and get small upgrades. Your lvl 8 barracks is a shack with 7 additions. That’s not how buildings work. It’s really, really not how cannons work.
  • You aren’t even allowed to build the good versions. If you know how to build level 5 cannons and a new cannon slot opens, you’re required to make a small cannon and enlarge it 4 times.
  • Real buildings are not out-of-commission while being upgraded. For your defensive buildings, the king should explain to the contractor how keeping it on-line is of paramount importance. It should be shut down for a few hours at most. If the DOT can keep 1 lane open, only shutting completely down on Sunday night, so can my builders.
  • Why can’t 2 builders work on the same thing? WarCraft, which this was copied from, allows it. One builder-per-building isn’t even realistic by game standards.
  • Our base has builders as permanent employees. Why? Buildings aren’t made of gold, so we must be spending it to have iron and concrete brought in. Why not bring in an independent contractor with the lumber delivery?

There are good gameplay reasons for doing things this way, and that’s the point. Builders never had anything to do with realism – they’re just clever ways to justify putting limits on the game.

[Game]Fortress Legends

This neat thing about this game (which was discontinued in early 2017) is how attacking is nothing like a clash-like, but everything else is.

Attacking is a standard 3D dungeon hacker. You’re a fully controllable character, with several skills to use, a skill tree, equipment, 4 character classes. The whole MMO deal. The rooms are mostly filled with monsters, but there are blob launchers, spinning flame-throwers, traveling floor-saws, pulsing stun fields, attractors, and hidden silence and slow traps. The entire dungeon is maybe 8 large rooms. You have to clear one before moving on (the doors seal.) To make it odder, you queue-up in a group of 4 other live players (the usual Looking For Group queue. You wait while it fills up).

The monsters are: bruisers with an occasional hammer stun, fast wolves with a charging attack, various ranged that can charm, buff monsters or heal them. Or one huge semi-boss monster. The placed devices are easy enough to avoid, but dodging monsters at the same time makes it a challenge. If you like 3rd-person RPGs, it’s a decent game.

The final room is the owner’s actual character — same character class and spells — but computer controlled and massively powered-up. They did a great job, often having a several minutes long battle.

Besides that, it was a normal clash-like. People attack your dungeon, while you attack theirs. You get gold by whacking on their gold vaults. As with every other clash-like, finding the gold is more important than “winning”. You upgrade all of your guns and monsters and monster generators in the usual way, with builders. The room with computer “you” is also your Town Hall, unlocking more stuff as it levels up.

The Clan Castle was very clever. It’s another computer controlled powered-up character, of a guild-mate you choose. But it had a bad kink. To not be overpowering, you could only choose a less-powerful guild-mate. The weakest clan members were out-of-luck. If they were smart, they left for a weaker clan, then you were out-of-luck.

The dungeon-making rules used a point system. Rooms, which are huge, are allowed 20 points of whatever. Some people loved to have a trap gauntlet room, followed by a room with only waves of monsters. It was somewhat popular to choose the room design with obstacles near the doors, then everything concentrated into an entry killing zone. But then players learned to immediately run past into the huge empty room behind them.

I assume a problem leading to the shut down was that matching decent 4-player groups, of similar levels, in a reasonable amount of time, required a big player base. As it was, waits were a few minutes. I’m told some times of day you couldn’t get a team at all.

The thing I mostly remember: your base is built from connected giant stone slabs, flat on top, but ragged on the bottom where they’ve been torn out of the ground and enchanted to float high in the air. You can see other floating bases far off in the distance. It looks nice. And then: gold collectors pump gold out of the floor. It’s like a RoadRunner cartoon.

Monetizing

It’s possible to appreciate clash-likes for the way they make money. The standard trick is to ruin a perfectly good game with a bunch of limits, then charge for skipping. They usually feel fake: “You’re out of daily attempts. Spend 12 gems for another?” Clash-likes make them feel natural — of course I have to pay to attack more — how could it be otherwise?

Clash-likes make the daily free gem dispersal into a little game. As we know, giving free gems is a vital part of convincing players to spend cash, so this matters. Your base starts cluttered with “obstacles”: rocks, trees, bushes, funny stone monoliths … . A builder and some spare gold can clear them, possibly finding some gems. This is a clever way to shower you with starting gems. Most games say “here’s 50 gems”; a clash-like seeds the ground with 50 gems in little piles. Later on, obstacles randomly appear, and may have gems when cleared. The game is giving you a few gems each day, but making it fun. I like to stockpile just the trees, then dig them up all at once when I need gems fast.

Clash-likes have one of the best monetization tricks of all, built-in. The idea is that people hate losing more than not winning. The classic experiment is playing a game to win $5 vs. getting $5 and playing a game to keep it. Both are the same, but the one where you can “lose” $5 hurts more. This is great news, since in a clash-like, people are always trying to steal your money. Every morning you pray you didn’t lose too much; and certain flukes can spike your loses. Everytime you have to go to school with $2 Mil sitting in your vaults, terror makes you buy a shield, or rush a builder, or something, anything! Other games need to artificially add a fear of less, known as “inflicting pain” (what a charming term).

An old trick to sell anything is providing a “bad” option, or giving lots of options. If you want to sell a cow for $4, offer them for $5, 2-for-$8 and 3-for-$18. Clash-likes have so many cute ways to do this. For example, buying immunity to attacks is turned into a game. The week-long shield is only available once-a-month; the 4 hour shield, once a day; and so on. You can almost cover every hour of the day, if you work at it. There are also three different ways to buy gold. You’d think that one of them would be something simple like “spend 50 gems for 10K gold.” Nope:

  • There’s the standard “Not enough gold. Buy the rest?” button when you try to upgrade. The cool part is, in a game where people can steal the extra, buying only what you need feels smart.
  • You can buy gold directly into your gold vaults, but only funny percents: to the max, fill up to half, or fill by 10%. It doesn’t even tell you the actual amounts those are. And clearly, 10% and 50% are there to make “full” look like a better deal.
  • You can buy a 2x speed-up for your gold mines. They get a little glow for 8 hours. That feels more fair, like you’re working inside the game, but you’re still just paying for gold. It’s the best, right? It has to be, since it takes longer. But no one will ever really know.

Training times have 2 ways to speed them up. You can pay gems to instantly have your army ready. Yawn. Or you can buy a 2-hour x4 speed-up. That’s enough to attack almost constantly, unless your army is all dragons. Maybe you think other ways to spend gems are cheating, but this seems fair — you still earn all of your gold by stealing it from strangers. Serious players will always buy it, adding up to maybe $5/month. It’s basically a subscription, but more fun.

Every other type of game makes money with gambling chests, the ones that give a random Common, Uncommon, or Rare item. Those are super-annoying, and Clash-likes don’t have random stuff to win, so good riddance. But some clash-likes find a way to add them: take the identical Giant Barbarian Guardian everyone gets, and turn it into a random collectable hero. It’s the worst, but you have to respect the ingenuity.

Many freemium games use something known as pay-for-progress. Reaching level 10, where the game gets good, takes either a month, or $10. That’s considered fair if every level 10 player is on an equal footing. Clash-likes cash-in on this. You can’t pay to jump ahead, but you can rush each of the 100’s of steps, paying each time. I think it’s over $1000 to get to level 10. People have done it.

[Game]Boom Beach

IBM is famous for missing out on PCs because they made mainframes and didn’t want to compete with themselves. Supercell went the opposite way. After Clash was a success for them, they experimented with an entirely different clash-like, which turned out to be almost as influential. Some of the things Boom Beach did:

  • The only goal of an attack is to kill the town hall. You get all the rewards for doing that, and nothing if you don’t. In Clash often the best plan is quick raids for easy gold with no chance of winning. That’s boring. In Boom Beach, every attack is real – study how to get to the HQ, against defenses made only to defend the HQ.
  • Instead of Nexting through targets, you have a short list. You can attack only them until you win or Give Up. Either way, new players appear after about a day. It’s kind of fun to try a few things until you finally beat someone. It’s also nice to spend more time planning an attack then looking for someone weak and rich.
  • Attack squads. Instead of training 40 archers and tapping 40 times to place them, you train 3 archer squads and place a squad at a time. You still have pretty good flexibility in what you select.
  • Traps (1-shot bombs) are visible instead of hidden. That seems bad, since attackers can avoid them, but they act as deterrents. Overall, it’s better.
  • Fun computer bases, that don’t run out. They’re these weird special things that break the rules. They might have only a few mega-weapons, or lots of machine guns, or huge minefields … . Most are pretty fun, and you’ll recognize tougher versions of them as you go. It’s a nice break from player-bases, but totally optional.
  • Weekly mini-campaigns. One day a week a series of increasingly difficult computer bases opens up, resetting each time. There are cut-scenes about a mad scientist.
  • Upgrades takes multiple types of resources at once – wood, stone, and iron. Getting enough of each can be a challenge.
  • Spells use an energy system. You can cast any spell, all you want, as long as you have spell-energy for it. You get more energy for destroying buildings. That allows you you to cast plenty of spells, but not all at once. Repeating a spell also increases its cost. Even your least favorite spell eventually becomes worth casting.
  • A beacon spell that makes all troops walk towards it for a short time. It gives a crude way to control troops during a fight — for example you can lead them around to a different side of the base.
  • Enchantments. You can gradually acquire parts to make magic statues that give some special bonus. You can only have a few, and switching is slow, so you need to choose. There are a several that buff offense, or defense or how much you loot, or how fast you produce (or how fast you find new statue parts).
  • You can’t drop your ranking to fight super-easy opponents. In most other clash-likes you’re always picking on weak people. You can easily lose on purpose to drop your ranking and face even weaker ones. In this game, you’re always fighting people your own size. It’s not perfect — it’s possible to get semi-stuck with opponents you can’t beat.
  • More flexible base upgrade strategies. In Clash of Clans you were heavily penalized for not upgrading evenly. Everyone’s base had pretty much the same buildings. In Boom Beach it’s much easier to focus on only some, making your base a bit more unique.
  • The “Resource Base”. When you conquer some special island bases, a limited number, you keep them. They produce extra wood or stone or whatever. But 1 other player can see it and take it from you. You can take it back, and so on. The base’s defenses, which you can arrange, get a little more powerful each time. Eventually one of you gives up. It usually lasts about a week, and is sort of a fun mini-rivalry. New opponents come after a few days. If you’re a slow player, fast-risers will tend to steal your Resource Bases, but after a while you’ll find one where the old owner doesn’t care.
  • Only one builder, who works faster. You start to realize how annoying managing 5 builders can be.

Some clash-likes borrow only a few of these things, but they go together pretty well. You’ll general see the “Clan of Clans” model, or the “Boom Beach” one. Both original games coming from the same company.

Mini-Reviews

Short descriptions of interesting features of some clash-likes:

  • LegendBorne: You need to “rescue” your troops. Suppose you unlock vampire bats. That’s nice, but you can’t train any until you “rescue” bats, by beating certain special bases. That’s fun at first, but pretty soon you max out and it’s done. Has 2 sides — good and evil — with different troops and leaders. This was before we realized how much extra work that was, that never pays off.
  • Compass Point: West: Beautiful old-western-style art and sound. Boom-Beach-style map (including computer bases and special missions: train and cow rescues). Unique buildings for your town. The troop selection is based on poker-cards you slowly acquire, then merge to make stronger versions. That gives big spenders a definite advantage, since the stronger versions cost the same points.
  • Titan Empires: Original features: impassable river squares (with a check so you can’t surround anything); a complicated clan war map (each enemy clan base has a point value and sometimes a bonus); clan-mate’s can reinforce one of your buildings for a day. Made in Wisconsin. Invented having a wide selection of heroes (like an ogre who’s special ability is making one big jump) with gambling chests for extra gear.
  • Space Miner Wars: Attacks are flying one fully controlled Asteroids-style spaceship, while their base sprays bullets. But the rest is standard clash-like (town hall, upgrades, storages, builders… ).
  • Dawn Of Steel: Another non-clash offense: 3-4 fully controllable robots, each with a special ability. Bases have monster-spawning defenses (mini-robot factories). Monetizes by selling you special robot weapons at each level for a few bucks. At first players were randomly given different entrance patterns for their bases (2 small gaps or 1 larger one). But everyone complained until they added the option to switch.
  • StarWars:Commander: Play as Rebel or Empire (everyone plays Empire) with very different forces. The big innovation is you get generic defensive towers and can put any weapon in them. Weapons get bonuses against troop types so you get to guess which army you fear most. Damage is low and troops are slow, so attacks need to worry about the time limit.
  • Samurai Seige: One of the first Clash of Clans imitators. Samurai-themed, sillier, more events and specials (I suspect this game convinced Clash of Clans to start adding events).
  • Lords and Castles: medieval-themed old-style clash-copy. Adds terrain elevation — troops walk slower uphill and weapons fire further downhill. Fun, but too much work. Uses the new “post-style” walls. Research is a tech-tree, which also unlocks things like “+25 walls”. Rare Heroes come from Gambling chests. For no reason, the heroes are historical politicians: Abraham Lincoln can duke it out with Catherine the Great or Gandhi. With no joke intended, US leader Trump’s ability is to strengthen walls.
  • SeigeFall: Boom Beach style area map. Attacks have a fully controllable hero and squads of troops. As you destroy buildings, you get points to summon more troops. Spells are from a pre-done semi-random card-draw (you get lots of so-so spells, which you may as well use). Walls come in just a few long sections. Weekly computer-controlled base quests.
  • Royal Revolt: Defense is a real tower-defense — you create a path lined with upgradable defensive towers and barriers, with waves of selectable troops. Attacking is a fully controllable hero, with squads of troops summoned through a refilling energy bar. Nice selection, and pretty fun. Strong pay-to-win component — several ways to spend gems during an attack (for example, you have a spell that costs gems to cast).
  • OlympusRising: Greek-themed copy of RoyalRevolt (made by the same company.)
  • Dungeon Keeper: place upgradable rooms in a dungeon, connected by carved-out hallways. Some defensive monsters. Attacks come from 4 fixed entrances. Some monsters can walk/shoot through walls. Reasonably fun. This is a clash-like port of a much older game. It was hated as a cash-grab, but it’s no different than any other clash-like.
  • Batman:Arkham Underworld: Similar to DungeonKeeper, your buildings are connected rooms and hallways, with two fixed “garages” as entrances. Later you can bust through a window. Terrific AI to make defending goons dive behind your placed sandbags or sofas. Gold is in a vault room, with a very heavy door. Your HQ has “you”, a super-villain, defending. Attacking is your fully-controllable super-villian, with the usual dumb clash-like army coming with. Limited spells. Boom-Beach style map. This was a Suicide Squad movie tie-in, and was much better than it needed to be.
  • Raid HQ: Attacks are non-clash-like. Each defensive room is a level by itself — a stationary bullet-hell. Things like: one big robot, lots of waves of troops, or a tough laser bunker. Nearby rooms may add extra bullets. Attacking has a team of 4: use only 1, but freely tag in and out. The heroes are gotten and upgraded using gambling-chests, but they’re fairly generous – you can find free “S-class” heroes. At first 1 path leads to the HQ, but eventually you have to split your defenses among several. Uses the Clash Royale victory chest system (get 3 victory chests, then wait hours for them to unlock).
  • Drop Assault: WarHammer 40K-themed Boom Beach-style game. Uses a point system for defenses: you get 50 defense points per level, and defenses cost different amounts. Build and use whatever defensive buildings you want. Extras can even be put in a storage area, at no cost to you. Adds a live player-vs-player area. Gambling chests for heroes, some of which could be upgraded to be far too powerful.
  • Transformers: Earth Wars: attack team is 5 non-controllable robots. Each robot carries a spell, using a Boom Beach energy system to cast and recast. Robots are won through gambling chests. There’s a whole system with levels and stars — basically a collectable hero game.

[Game]Dawn of Gods

This game looks as if it were made by a committee. It has so much stuff slathered on, and doesn’t seem to understand how a clash-like works.

Deep down, it’s a collectable hero game. You quickly get to use 4 heroes at once, which is a lot. You’ll upgrade and level and merge the heck out of them, which will take months or years unless you spend. They also defend your base, so now you’re invincible. The $5 starting buy sets the tone — it includes an “epic” hero which can carry you for several levels. The theme is mythic gods — heroes come in Greek, Egyptian, Norse, and Misc (things such as the Archangel Micheal). There are a lot, nicely drawn, with abilities that sort of make sense. But only the best heroes matter.

The troops are broken, in that they’re boring. The giants are fast and do decent damage. As soon as you get them, use an all-giant army (as back-up for your heroes). The next giant-like troop is better in every way – replace your giants with it. Same for the next. Making an army is boring, and so is attacking. It’s actually worse. You keep troops unless they die, and you don’t need to win to keep the gold you loot. Combined, you attack with your entire army on a weak side, then hit Retreat when it gets tough.

They started to do a very clever thing. Instead of Flying they have Stealth. Wraiths have Stealth, can go through walls (instead of over — cute, right?) and the elves in archer towers have the keen eyes to see them. Seems cool, except Wraiths are very weak, there are no more stealth troops, and they add flying troops later anyway without telling you who flies or who can shoot them.

Then they adopt the generic game thing where you give piles of meaningless daily activities, with lots of currencies to play with (I counted 6, not including gold and elixir). There are daily Quests, daily “events”, a daily login reward, 3 daily chests on a timer, the standard daily random hero chests, and more you need to see to believe. There’s another quest system where you send your heroes on mission. Whew.

It may have started as a decent game. It’s somewhat playable now. They clearly put lots of work into the troops, buildings and such. But then they put more work into the stuff that ruins it.

[Game]Battle Islands

The really unique thing about Battle Islands is it has combined land, sea and air fighting. I wish I liked it more.

In a really slick move, attacking armies are trained in a barracks, a harbor and a hanger, each with it’s own troop points. Attacking armies will always be land, sea and air.

Your base is several islands. You start with 1 and get more as you level up, which must be connected (the game adds a little bridge when you move them close enough). Not only will enemy ships be sailing around, bombarding the coasts, but you have deep-sea oil wells, plus your defensive harbor with boats that come out when the enemy gets too close.

The units are the usual mix of attack priorities, but more-so — fighter planes prefer other air targets, but can hit anything; submarines can only torpedo other ships (I assume they are very good at it), battleships prefer to bombard land defenses, sailing around the islands to reach them. And the enemy force will always have all those things to target. It seems like you have a lot of interesting choices.

Each building comes with its own walls (if you want to play it, tap a building’s “reinforce” button). Sandbags at first, then adds really pretty concertina wire across the top. Put 2 reinforced buildings together and the bags combine into a pretty ring around both. It looks like it was fun to program. But it misses the point of walls. The fun part is deciding how to arrange your limited supply. If every building has walls, it’s the same as making all buildings a little tougher.

The cutest thing: troops come in 5-man landing ships. You don’t do anything to get them. When you tap to place an infantry unit, it places up to 5 in a free landing ship. It can be fired upon and can sink, killing the occupants. But that’s fine, since you can upgrade them.

One change I’m not sure I love is having only one resource: “supply”. With 2, there’s always one you currently care less about than the other. Having 1, with your only goal to get more of it, just feels funny.

I can’t believe this is a down-side for me, but the art and theme are oppresively bland. Generic, Americanish WWII troops and buildings. Functional, flat islands. I should like the Quonset huts, corrigated steel and muddy tarps over the machine-guns. But there’s not a hint of backstory or personality. The escorts look like P-38’s, the bombers look like Liberators, in a generic way. The effects for the sea are terrific, but feel wrong. I’ve never been attacked, so that might be part of it.

This game might have a lot of potential for really involved attacks. And maybe it opens up and gets busier with another town-hall level or two. At the very least, someone should rip-off the air/sea/land idea.

[Game]Gates of War

Plarium, who distributes this one, likes to make mash-ups. Gates of War is a clash-like jammed with a PvP and an RTS adventure. The class-like part is a mess, but has some fun ideas.

In most clash-likes you’ll get a building that can pop out troops when enemies get too close. In this game your gets lots of defensive troops, individually placed in any free space. That seems pretty cool, except for how the usual area-of-effect spells easily kill them. That’s probably why other games learned to hide them in buildings.

In most other clash-likes, troops can flow around buildings. Here there’s no gap. Touching buildings form a wall. For no good reason, non-weapon buildings, even gold vaults, are super-tough, about 10x tougher than your defending guns. So they make a pretty good wall. But being a futuristic game, most troops can fire over them. The “walls” only stop certain short-range troops from getting near enough. Attacks are stationary shootouts. Nearly everything has very long range, and you can hand-move your army (using the thing where you select a big square). Move them all into range and keep targeting the guns (which you can do in this game). Win or lose, it’s over quickly.

Bizarrely, you unlock new troops and upgrade them through single-player non-clashy adventures. You lead your troops through a large map, avoiding some things, picking up friends, with specific objectives. I keep losing one because the hacker I’m supposed to protect keeps dying. It’s one of the main things you do in this game. Oh, there’s also a head-to-head PvP area.

If you want to sort-of play 3 types of games at once, I guess Gates of War is OK.

[Game]Rival Kingdoms

This may have been the best clash-like ever made, and then the worst. It was innovative, made every battle exciting, and was managed by a team that that understood how to push events and contests. But the second team didn’t understand clash-likes and quickly ruined the gameplay. First, what made the game great:

They started by clearing away all of the reasons not to attack. All troops are free, not even a training time. Shield nonsense was replaced by you being attacked every six hours. Spending an attack token shows just one opponent. The combined effect was that when you opened the game, all you had to do was push the attack button and think about how to beat the base it showed you.

The new winning-streak mechanic make it exciting. Your opponents start easy, gradually become more difficult, then nearly impossible, then you lose and it starts over. That gives a nice variety of mostly challenging battles. Even the worst player gets a few wins. But even trying to beat the super-tough bases is surprisingly fun. You know you’re supposed to lose, but you could win and sometimes you do.

You can solely focus on winning fights because the game takes care of you. Longer streaks increase your rank, bumping up the difficulty to where you lose more. A problem in there games, but not here. The loot at high ranks is that much better. The penniless enemies problem is somewhat fixed. Your second important resource, rings, comes from wins (again, much more at higher ranks). Beating a low-gold base is worth it for the rings.

They did a fabulous job with your “hero”. Instead of a Barbarian King, you get a flying dragon. It’s pretty much the same except that every 30 seconds you can “sweep” it to a new spot, tailing frost or fire over a swath of buildings. That’s just fun: useful, but not overly powerful and looks beautiful. The game uses real 3D models and particle effects. It feels like a dragon.

The spells are incredibly varied and original. They come locked in preset groups of 3 but there are lots of them. One wizard can give troops a 50% damage boost in a radius, give them heal-by-doing-damage, and freeze one enemy building. With work you can get a combination of the 1st two. Meanwhile another can summon skeletons that explode on death, make 1 target take double damage, and … this needs to be seen to make sense … cover a dozen buildings with a slowing, damaging poison which can crawl to new buildings. That’s not even close to the oddest.

On defense they have the usual, but added one very customizable defense. You can choose to have each spell tower shoot an area blast, or freeze, or slow-acting anti-healing poison. Or it can fire a fast single-target blast. Or it can heal your buildings, or merely create a small destructive aura around itself. Or it can fire a slow but lethal confusion spell, causing the attacking troops to turn on themselves.

Five wall posts making a curved wall

The game also fixed how walls work. Instead of blocks which need to touch, you get posts which grow connecting walls over several spaces, including diagonals. They’re much easier to place and looks great. But the real innovation is making walls weaker. Walls in a normal clash-like are so strong that they dominate your strategy. Weaker ones here let you play around with them (the 1-sided V setup is very clever, and works fine. Some people love it).

Even with the changes, it’s very recognizably a clash-like. A town hall unlocks new buildings. You upgrade defense and offense with your 5 builders. Even your sweep timer is decreased by upgrading the dragon nest building.

That terrific design went downhill fast. Over a few patches the new team flailed with over-buffs and nerfs until the only viable army was damage-resistant soldiers and too-strong healers, backed by archers. Over-buffed spell towers were the only problem, which forced everyone to use the anti-spell-tower wizard. It was a weird slow-motion crash.

They couldn’t figure out a way to fix the problem with winning streaks: what do you do with players near the top? They have no impossible opponents. Streaks might never end. So at high rank, streaks are out and something else is in. At first, top rank players could go into a special challenge mode. You were attacked much more until you were knocked back down, gaining extra-bonus loot for how long you lasted. That was removed and replaced with just picking an easy opponent. The game turned into a sleep-fest.

Then a bug nerfed air defenses. Dragon could sweep without fear, single-handedly winning (the actual trick is complex, but it became common knowledge as players watched their replays). Players loved it. The bug was left unfixed. In fact, a later spell had an exploitable bug which fully healed your troops (it wasn’t a heading spell). Players flocked to it. It went unfixed. Meanwhile they figured out how to import the brutal monetization common in regular mobile games. More and more events required big spending or skipping school for 2 days, for new items unobtainable any other way.

Rival Kingdoms is still pretty good up through mid-game. Some of the underpowered wizards were even fixed. But the best thing I can say about it now is that you can’t copyright general game ideas. At least one other game stole its improved “post” walls. More clash-likes now have events and areas open only on certain days. I’m hoping a new one steals the way Rival Kingdoms did winning streaks, because I’m sick of passing on bases that look really fun to fight, except I don’t want to wreck my army.

Traps

Traps are what clash-likes call 1-shot defenses. They’re not all that exciting. The most interesting thing is how they don’t count as buildings for percent destroyed or gaining manna. The basic trap is a 1×1 landmine. Many clash-likes don’t use traps at all — what’s the point of a defense that destroys itself? But if you’re going to have them in your game, you may as well think about what kinds.

We have a few types of traps aimed at big, tough troops. The huge 2×2 bomb is obvious. The 1×1 “kill X points of troops” trap is sneakier. It has no radius, and goes off all at once, so almost always hits 1 thing, hopefully something big. It hardy seems worth having. If your game has human and machine troops, you get to use an anti-tank mine which only tanks trigger. That gives weak humans a little boost, so is nice.

For some fun traps, a spring can launch troops a few spaces away. People enjoy these, including picking the direction. Area freeze traps are fun — frozen troops being shot at looks neat and feels clever. A variant is the distraction trap — something tough pops up that nearby enemies must stop to kill.

The last interesting trap is a “kills X” which lasts until it’s used up. Maybe a pit. They’re obviously strong, but there’s not as much element of luck. Still, it’s cool having more and more troops vanish into it.

Visible traps work much better than one would think. They can discourage attacks from a weak side. A fun thing is having area-affect spells also explode visible traps, giving attackers an option waste a spell on trap-clearing. You also don’t need to worry about someone unfairly learning where your visible traps are, a problem with hidden traps.

The most oddball thing about traps is needing to hand-reset them. That seems insane since destroyed buildings come back for free. But it’s done. I think the main reason was sending a notice — “you’ve been attacked. Log in to reset your traps”. A game sending you a phone notice was cool back then. But people got sick of it a long time ago. We can safely have traps spring back to life along with everything else.

I’ve gotta say, Boom Beach-style traps are probably the best. You get a big pile of small bombs, visible, and one upgrade upgrades them all. Traps are fun to spread around, but how many types do we need?

Shields

Being attacked can’t take place too often in a clash-like. You spend time making a strong base to defend your gold, which is pointless if you’re unexpectedly attacked 30 times before lunch. The fix is a simple timer after each defense: “you’re not in the attack menu until 4pm”. That works fine.

But game designers are a superstitious lot, and they like money. The original Backyard Monsters had a hideously complicated set of rules for when you got a “shield”. Clash of Clans didn’t know the secret sauce and just copied everything, including funny shield rules. And shields are good business. They generate more fear. “You’re about to lose your shield” sells more than “the routinely scheduled attack is coming up”.

Variable shield lengths is the stupidest rule. If an attack doesn’t hurt you very badly, the next attack comes faster. That’s terrible. Better base designs got attacked more often, resulting in more gold loss. In response, players learned to build medium-bad bases. That was as much fun as it sounds. But variable shield lengths adds terrifying randomness. Overnight you could expect 2-3 attacks, but could have lots more, losing even more gold than if you’d been simply steamrolled twice.

The next stupid rule is shields vanishing when you attack. If your next scheduled defense was at 6pm, but you play the game at noon, you get attacked as soon as you quit. Why? This has been changed to merely move up the next attack by an hour or two. Again, why? If you should be attacked 3 times a day, why should that turn into 4 or 5 or 6 if you play the game at the wrong time? Money. For free, players can attack every 10 or 15 minutes: close the App, do something else, then come back. Shields breaking ruins that — it triggers a pile of extra attacks on you. You should buy a training time speed-up.

A really crazy thing is how Supercell’s other game is so fair about attacks. Each day a set few people are allowed to attack you. They either win, eventually, or give up, getting nothing. Every day you defend against 2 people, rain or shine. But as you might guess, Boom Beach is far down on the top-grossing charts.

Gating

Gating is game designer slang for just-because restrictions. Originally it meant adding a “real” locked gate. Suppose low-level players didn’t read the signs and kept wandering into The Forest of Deadly Monsters. We’ll add a fence around it with a magic gate stopping beginners. We often gradually introduce features so as not to overwhelm new players. Also gating. Then we sometimes gate out a game just to be mean. My favorite gating in clash-likes is Gold Vaults.

The goal of the game is getting enough gold to upgrade your stuff. Your Town Hall is the most expensive. You’re looting your way there but … your gold hits the maximum. What? I’ve never heard of a game where you have a maximum amount of gold. Even a role-playing game that tracks weight doesn’t track the weight of coins (it turns out pen&paper Dungeons and Dragons did. Treasure was sometimes in pennies and nickels, just to be funny). Clash-likes convince you that even though you have an entire island, there’s no possible way you can store a single gold piece past 3,000 until you build more shelves.

One of your valuable builders needs to waste 6 hours upgrading your Gold Vault. Then comes next level. Shockingly, your vault is too small and needs another long, expensive upgrade. But now your problems are solved with a second Vault. Nearly unlimited storage, right? Amazingly, not. You’ll need to fully upgrade both vaults to reach the next total. At some point you get a third vault which no longer fools you. You know you’ll need to buy multi-day, even more expensive upgrades for all three. Elixir is the same. You’ll be up to 3 Elixir Barrels, for a total of 6 buildings that need upgrading each level. Just so you can hold more stuff that you already have to work hard to steal.

The really impressive thing is how the games spread out this busywork and make it almost fun. At first your old Vaults are enough for some gun upgrades. A 3 million gold mortar requires just one Vault to be upgraded. Each pointless Vault or Barrel upgrade is enough for one or two more things, until you need to finish them all to get to the next level.

The only drawback is in games where you have wood, stone, iron, and … god no … there’s something after iron! More warehouses than you can count on both hands.

Heroes

Clash of Clans had a cute idea for a defensive building. What if a really big guy sat on a throne, whacking nearby invaders? It’s like a short-range gun but a little easier to destroy. To beef it up, the big guy can also join your attacks. He’s not great but he’s in addition and free. Combined, he’s an alright thing to unlock.

But there’s more. They realized the Bug Guy could give hardcore players more to do. He’ll only be improvable a tiny bit, and it will take 5 expensive upgrades each time. That’s such a terrible deal that regular players will pass, but hardcores will do anything to be 2% better than everyone else. Then they used him to add another timer: the Big Guy is tired for 15 minutes after attacking, pay to speed that up.

The WarHammer far future clash-like figured out another clever way to use these heroes, as leaders. All troops types are part of the Space Marines, led by Sergeants and such. Those fellows are your heroes. A nice thing is they tend to buff their troops, making them more the star of the show.

Pretty much every other clash-like has out-of-control heroes. Giving players a hero right away seems like an obvious plus. The super-tiny, expensive upgrades seemed too harsh. That meant you’d have an overpowered hero soon enough. You still needed an army, but clearly the hero was doing most of the work. Those games feel more like a Godzilla simulation.

The Transformers clash-like is an interesting story. By that time several clash-likes used 4 heroes at a time. They were collectable, came in Common, Rare, Epic and were highly upgradable. They had destructive special skills, equipment and “star levels”. Players seemed perfectly happy ignoring troops and instead leveling heroes like in a dungeon game. The Transformers team saw this and realized you don’t even need troops. You attack with your best 5 robots, and no troops.

I can see this two ways. A game about picking troops is distinctive and appeals to a certain crowd. Keep heroes weak and you make those players happy. On the other hand, the collectable hero market is popular but crowded. You can sneak into it by making a clash-like that gradually ramps up the hero part. That desecrates the sacred space of a true clash-like. Whatever.

Reskins!

I’ve finally found a pure reskin. Clash-likes have so many things to tweak or add that you’d hardly want to make an exact copy, but “Clan of Heroes – battle of Castle & Royal army” is one. The pictures and names are different — it’s legal — but the gameplay is a copy of the first 2/3s of CoC. It was out in Jan 2014, which seems kind of late for that. Then amazingly Dec 2015 saw an exact copy of CoH:BoC&RA, down to the screen shots. It’s “Heroes Clash – Castle of Clans” by “Xiao Lui”. The publisher page is FaceBook.

To be fair, it’s has one new feature. Remember when cell phone games were first able to show Ads? Today we have a button where you can watch an Ad to get gems. Back then the game just blasted an Ad. CoH:BoC&RA plays an Ad every 5 minutes. Just to be safe, the first is when you open it.

The resources are renamed Ore and Reiku. The Ore is beautiful — the extractor pulls pretty blue slivers out of the ground. Defenses look the same as CoC except for the basic cannon. Those are floating spheres with evenly distributed studs which shoot little bullets. The redone archers are really something. They’re “Neutron Men”. One hand is replaced by a Reiku cannon, and they have one bionic eye. They “attack enemy by virtue of dripping bullet from arm”. I looked up Reiku. It’s Japanese for “spirit ki”, which is like rubbing hands together and laying them on to heal. It’s not traditional — only from about 1900. The giant is replaced by a legless floating rock-golem with an iron sphere core.

There are two new features, sort of. The builders all share a single hut which can be upgraded to get a small increase in build-times. Stuff like that always feels like busywork to me. Feature number two allows you to buy a defense-enhancing rune for one building (not sure what it does). It costs 1000 trophies, which breaks the game. Everyone buys another when they hit 1,000, dropping them back to 0, causing new players to have to fight them. Matchmaking is just junk in that game.

After those two, I found one more reskin, “Era of War: Clash of epic clan” from Vietnam in 2015. The Developer Website isn’t for the game. It’s the front page of some kind of ISP or VPN belonging to the publishers. So you know it’s going to be good.

Gold is changed to wood, which is just weird. The gold/wood storehouses are copied from Boom Beach. Elixir is renamed food. The farms are little pens growing pigs, and the storages are piles of thick ham-steaks. But when you tap it makes the exact bubbly elixir noise from Clash. No oinking.

The only troop that looks different is the Angel. It’s a blue glowing sphere named “Soul.” For buildings we now have: “God of War Altar”, “Goddess of Archery Altar”, “Magic Creator” and “Special Barrack.” The healing spell allows troops to “recover a large amount of blood”.

But even this added something new. The campaign missions all have preset armies. They’re like little puzzles and previews of upcoming troops.

[Game]Gods of Olympus

Gods of Olympus stands out for how friendly it is, the original buildings, and for how the gods feel like gods. They tower over buildings, stomping on legions of enemy soldiers like ants.

There’s no waiting to attack. Your 4 greek gods can attack back-to-back until you run out of energy. You don’t steal from the other player, instead there’s a set reward for winning. If you’re not very good at the game, you can choose the Easy attack. But even if you lose, you get 1/2 the prize anyway. People attacking you is good. You get rewarded for how much you hurt them, even if you lost. Upgrading or buying a new building is instant. The whole game is easy-to-play and friendly.

The most distinctive thing about defenses is the endless stream of tiny legionnaires and archers. The buildings making them don’t run out, and don’t have a range. As soon as you start, enemy soldiers swarm out from everywhere. You can eliminate a handful at a time, or more with a special skill. One strategy is to occasionally try around and stomp the horde which has built up. If you need to fallback to crush a huge group, that might work, but more are always coming. You’ll probably be nicked to death or run out of time, leading them around the map as you rest. Athena can summon 30 friendly soldiers, every 30 seconds or so. That seems like a lot, but they last about 15 seconds against the endless horde. If a clan-mate is attacked while you’re playing, you can watch and tap to add your own tiny solders.

Soldiers rushing out of a barracks (right) to be mangled by Athena

Buildings aren’t so difficult to destroy — you are a god. But there are a lot and you have to smash through them to go anywhere. You win by destroying all 4 enemy temples. They work best when spread out. You’ll have to smash a long path between them. Your gods are fully controllable, so you can do that. But more often it’s better to split up for a precise strike at each temple.

Defenses are very customizable. Instead of getting a set amount of each building, you just keep buying more and more on a sliding scale. You can have dozens of weak towers, or a few very tough ones. As you find new gods, 9 total, you not only get their temple, but can build any number of their small houses, which buff nearby buildings. Athena’s give a health boost, Apollo’s gives regeneration. With all of those houses it feels as if your gods are crashing their way through an actual small town.

The biggest drawback, for me, is using the same Gods all the time. They eventually get 2 special abilities, sharing an energy pool, plus a super-special. It takes some practice to figure them out, and that’s fun. You can upgrade your gods pretty much however you want. The bases you attack tend to be different enough. I guess I like knowing I can always tweak the army a bit, or try things that are completely different.

[Game]Orcs vs. Knights

“Heroes of War: Orcs vs. Knights” didn’t really grab me, but it tried some things.

It finally convinced me that 2 different sides doesn’t work. It’s nice they could make buildings just for orcs — the elixir harvesters are terrifically grimy T-shaped oil pumps. But they pretty much copy the clash of clans troops. With only 1 side, they might have had time to be more creative. And it’s not like Orcs against Humans is something everyone always wanted to see.

Pressing the LiveStream button lets you spectate on a match. That’s new. It seems to be the highest level players only, but maybe that was the only battle going on just then.

I think they tried to fix the Next-ing system; the thing where you spend 20 minutes looking for an easy person to attack. In this you can go to a world map and see your neighbors, but you can’t use it for anything. Clicking Attack presents you with 4 possible opponents. But if you don’t like any you can get 4 more. The end result is the same as the old system. I don’t know if they had a plan and lost focus, or what.

This game tries to fix the “raid” problem. The gold you steal is multiplied by the percent of their base you destroyed. If a quick raid destroys 10% of a base and grabs 30K gold, the penalty drops the actual take to 3K. So clearly going for a serious attack on someone weaker is better, maybe. You might get 60% destruction and 60% of their gold, which is, ummm, 36%? While playing I never got comfortable with that math, and always get much less than I thought I would. I think I prefer the rule where you don’t keep gold unless you get at least a 1-star win.

The defensive barracks pop out special defensive-only troops. That seems like it would be pretty cool, but they’re not that much different than normal troops, and you have to upgrade them separately. After using that system, I’m convinced it’s better and more fun to re-use normal troops for defense.

Finally, heroes in this game are a perfect example of what not to do. You use only 1, with a limited selection. The special ability is making them attack a particular building. Pretty mild. Later you notice they can have equipment. One piece is about a 10% upgrade, which seems fine. You can have 4 pieces. Still not too bad. But with grinding you can craft level 2 equipment. That’s a big boost. All 4 pieces can go up to level 4, which is a massive boost. The really dangerous attacks are people who spent gems on hero equipment.

[Game]Hero Sky

Hero Sky has got lots of nice features. As you can guess from the title, overpowered heroes ruin the game. But it has lots of nice features until then. It would be pretty fun until mid-game if the female heroes weren’t so over-sexualized. Clever new, or new-ish things:

  • Donated clan troops go into a pool. Requesting troops gets you a random selection from that pool. This allows easy donations at any time (up to your limit). Some people really enjoy requesting “only lvl5+ wzards, plz” and won’t like this. They can bite me.
  • Placable water squares, like walls, but they act as slow + poison. They’re somewhat useful, which is the exact right amount.
  • Before attacks you can preload a small drop-capsule with a few troops. During your attack it can be placed anywhere. It’s nice. I like to load it with 2 giants to use as an emergency distraction.
  • A novel troop, near the end (I haven’t unlocked it): a huge gelatinous cube which paralyzes a defense while attacking it.
  • Tapping any two wall pieces selects all walls in-between. This is great, and should be in every clash-like from now on.
  • The mode where you defend your base from enemy invasions isn’t new with this game, but it’s improved. Enemies come in 5 waves and you can use your army and heroes.
  • Normal attacks use the same old Next-ing. But there’s a new wins-in-a-row challenge.

They worked really hard making a better clash-like. But the hero team worked just as hard ruining it. It uses the fall-on system of leveling lesser heroes to merge them into higher stars heroes to rank up the ones you’re actually using as your slaughter-meisters. Your army watches all of this.

[Game]Castle Clash

“Castle Clash” is interesting for its clumsy swerve into a hero-team game. It’s a clash-like where the heroes grow completely out-of-control, and then, out of nowhere, a whole bunch of hero-only features open up. “We’re sorry we made heroes so strong that not only are armies useless, but your heroes can trash anyone’s base without even trying. So how about we give them something else to do”.

It appears to have started as a serious, even original clash-like. Troops are in an interesting-looking 4×3 grid of grunts, tanks, archers and wizards. Defensive towers can be customized at level 10. They put some thought into making it different. On the other hand, offensive troops waiting in Army Camps also defend. It’s your army against their army and their base. So maybe they didn’t know what they were doing. But at first you raise troops, examine their base, and work to get gold and victory. It’s an actual clash-like for a few days.

But the heroes get out-of-control quickly. You get 5 at a time, and they use the full-on collectable system of mega-upgraded Rares. Each even gets a pet. A pet! Then it gets five times worse. By the time I found the game it had “Starter Boxes”. Those things shovel 3 months of gold and “rare” upgrade items at you, instantly creating mega-heroes. The game was over 3 days in. When you attack any base there are a bunch of explosions, then your heroes fight theirs. If you win, you don’t even get any more of the stuff to improve your heroes.

Instead, new hero-only areas have opened up. Lots of them. Your 5 heroes can fight another player’s 5 in an Arena, or 1 giant monster. There’s a 4 player mode where 16 heroes attack an even gianter monster. There’s a dungeon (ultra-tough computer bases) with a Sweep button (the thing where you auto-win against something you already beat, since you need to do it dozens of times for the loot).

You base has one small use. One of the extra missions is a few computer heroes attacking it. Your guns are useless. You cauld make an army of 60 tough monsters, but don’t bother. They’ll last a few seconds. Only our heroes can stand against them. But you can redo your base, mostly the walls, to try and split them up.

I was so sure Castle Clash was a 1-time mistake. But the developer, “I Got Games”, also has “Clash of Lords 2: New Age”. The main difference is getting rid of the troops. Instead, each hero comes with a dozen tiny troops clustered around it. You still have a useless defensive base which anyone can beat, but no one wastes time attacking because they’re doing all of the hero activities, same as you.

[Game]Clash of Zombies

I enjoy Clash of Zombies for its incoherence. Clearly it has a zombie theme. It’s also science fiction — your base is a crashed spaceship which the upgrades are repairing. It also has comic book superheroes. If you’re looking for the eloquent way they combine, you can stop. Mechanics-wise, you might assume it’s a boring clone, but it tries some new things, including a new idea for monetizing.

As for the zombie theme, your 3rd resource is Survivors. The generator is a radio tower calling people fleeing from zombies to come towards your camp. That’s cool, but it means you’ll later be spending humans. In the mini-game where you defend your base, the computer attackers are zombies. You can capture some of them for 1-time use later. That’s the only way to use zombies in your attacks. Out of all the heroes, only 5 are zombies. Except 1 is really a mutant from Resident Evil, another is Stitches the blobby hulk from World of Warcraft, and the last is zombie president Trump. The cut-scene at the start shows a base being overrun with zombies and tells you to rescue some guy from it. I never saw anything more about that.

Sci-Fi-wise, the whole base is futuristic. Defenses are blasters and lasers. One troop have an energy blade and one is a robot. The dragon is a huge anti-grav pod.

Idea-wise, it’s a mixed bag. Some seem pointless. “Arena” mode has you attack one base it picks, for Arena points. They give weekly prizes. I don’t think that adds much to the game. You can attack a computer base where the HQ has about ten million health, using all your heroes but no troops, and the damage you inflict stays. There’s a second defense mode where you’re attacked by only heroes, not troops. Nothing wrong those things, but they’re not all that fun.

As for good ideas, defense mode allows you to assign builders to repair buildings under attack. It’s somewhat fun, it gives you something to do while you watch.

The defensive buildings have customizations, unique to each type: a stun chance, damage over time, power-up nearby defenses, and so on. That’s some nice extra effort. But they can only be bought with special currency which can only be bought with cash. That’s pretty much the worst thing to do in a Freemium game — a big, obvious “I bought this and am better than you”.

I suppose once you have superman fighting zombies on an alien planet in the year 2300, you’re not expecting the rest of the game to be a well-crafted masterpiece.

May I watch an Ad?

In WarHammer 40K: Drop Assault, I look forward to watching the Ads.

If you haven’t had the pleasure, in the last year it became possible to put 30-second watchable video Ads on a mobile game. By possible I mean it’s now simple for a game-maker to get paid for them. Several services do all the work of contacting advertisers, handling the money and giving you a few simple commands to play Ads in your game. They even check whether the entire thing plays. It’s a real Ad, too – takes over your screen and can even show a “Download now” App Store button.

These days, a completely free game doesn’t need to sell you anything. It can play an Ad every 30 seconds or make you watch one before every round. Even higher quality freemium games often have you watch an Ad to get the daily bonus, or use “you’re out of energy – watch an Ad for more?” It’s all pretty clumsy.

Clash-like WH40K:DA does Ads brilliantly. It has: limited Ads, two clever ways to use them, lets you decide whether it’s worth it, and puts them in a place they make sense.

Ad method one is to reduce a build time. This is great since it’s rare and can’t be abused. You can watch 1 Ad/building and the reduction is a percent of the total build time. For a 15-minute build time you can watch 1 Ad to reduce it by 2 minutes. For a 16-hour build it’s 2 hours. The genius is how usually there’s no point, so it doesn’t feel mandatory. But rarely you open the game, see your long build is close to done and spending 30 seconds to finish it off seems like a good deal.

The other way to watch an Ad is to get 50% more stuff after winning a battle. This is extra-genius. You’re in a good mood after a win plus you could use a 30-second break. You feel like you earned the Ad. It doesn’t feel like a task because there’s a limit. You want to save the Ads for the bases with really big pay-offs. Even if you make only 1 attack you can look at how much you got and decide if 50% more is worth it (the game is still a clash-like – many bases have no loot and you just wanted to clear it off your map).

There is one more thing to use Ads for – the thing everyone does. On the world map you can watch an Ad once/day to get gems. That’s boring, but limited Ads still makes it a little interesting. Maybe you have 3 big attacks you want to increase, but you also want the gems – oh, the dilemma.

Star Squad Heroes uses the same Ad-after-a-battle trick, but it’s for a bonus chest, which isn’t the same at all. You just need to quickly win any three battles to get them all. The fun part, which is gone, is deciding how to spend your Ads.

 

A funny thing is that we had Ads in free games, back on the internet. Then they want away with mobile games — we didn’t know how to add them. And now they’re here again. Way back in 2000 free browser game ArchAge had a stat called “Luck”, which you gained by clicking on Ad links. They were just banners to read; I think the page got a few pennies per click, but it felt very much the same.

[Game]Star Squad

“Pixel Starships” from about 2016 is a slug-a-thon between fully customizable space ships. You’ll mostly be designing your ship with however many lasers and missiles and such. It has a small clash-like component — builders, generating gold and energy, stealing, upgradable vaults — but the game is old-style 1-on-1 spaceship battles.

Star Squad seems to be inspired by that, but is more clashy. You get a limited amount of rooms, unlocking in clash-like Town Hall style, with plenty of space to arrange them on your spaceship. You have an even more limited number of crew, and only they can fire weapons. Suppose you have 2 lasers rooms and 1 crew. One laser can fire. But when it’s destroyed, the crew member walks to the other. That’s more interesting than it sounds since missiles have an area effect. Fighting another player is still just a 1-on-1 spaceship battle, but it’s more active.

It borrowed the map idea from Boom Beach, as so many other games did. You upgrade a radar, which allows you to see more spaces around you, which have more and stronger enemies and special stuff. They did a nice job copying the computer bases. These are allowed to completely break the rules, since it’s fun. One of my favorites computer ships has only weak lasers and 2 crew to fire them, but there are 12 laser rooms. Every time you blow up a laser, you get a break as she walks to the next. If you can arrange it, a very long walk.

The mystery of giants

Giants are the first place where you realize Clash-likes are puzzles. Your first troops are warriors and archers. Those work well as a team. Next come goblins. They have no role in your warrior/archer army, but aren’t supposed to. Goblins are for the alternate “steal more, kill less” strategy. So goblins make sense. Then come giants.

It seems you’re meant to replace 5 warriors with 1 giant. The warrior’s job is to stand in front, sucking up damage. They did that pretty well until the defenders got area of effect mortars. That’s where giants come in. They’re basically mortar-resistant mega-warriors.

But then you notice giants target defensive buildings, which is not helpful. When you try to attack a bunch of gold mines, your giants walk sideways towards a cannon, exposing some of your archers. Possibly worse, giants can walk too deep into enemy territory, needlessly getting shot to ribbons. Defense-targeting is not a helpful ability for your attack strategy. Giants are also slow. Not a little slow; slow-slow. The archers can get ahead of them. It’s almost as if they don’t want you to blindly swap giants for warriors.

After a while, you figure maybe you’re meant to take advantage of giants’ new defense targeting skills. A mass of giants could take out only the cannons, making the area safe for archers. But there’s another problem. Not only are giants slow, they do very low damage. Their toughness makes up for it, but the slowness runs out the clock on your attack. Another problem, giants move to the currently nearest defense, sometimes making a zig-zag path through. When the skip even one cannon, your archers are in trouble.

It’s not that giants are bad. It’s that they don’t have any one thing they’re meant for. You’ve got several clunky attack strategies to choose from. That’s the point. A game that told you which army to make would be boring. Or at least the army part would be.

Almost to mock us, the game eventually hands out the perfect meat-shield. But the Pekka costs a massive 25 warriors. Now it’s too tough and expensive for what we need. Plus, by that point in the game we’re beyond that attack plan. It’s yet another unit that is probably useful, but has no one obvious purpose. That’s what makes the game fun.

[Game]Clash of Mech

Clash of Glory: Mech War isn’t a great game. You know that from the name. But it’s strange enough to be interesting.

There are no troops. All you have a small preset group of mechs, unlocking another every level or two. Attacks use this same 3 or 4, every time. The first is the only hand-to-hand one. But it’s not especially tough and dies quickly. A usual, the main danger is the enemy’s defending mechs (which are the same as yours).

Damage to your robots sticks around after each battle. They heal 1-at-a-time in their building. There isn’t even a queue — you need to come back an hour later and manually begin repairs on the next. But it’s not that bad since being injured doesn’t stop them from attacking again.

The hand-to-hand mech is your “leader”. I think you’re suppose to spend forever upgrading its levels before doing anything else. Maybe that makes it tough enough. It has 2 weak spells — a brief 10% buff to attack. Yay! There are 10 more but they need gems to unlock. I think you can make your original spells useful by using more gems. A weird rule is the leader can’t attack when it’s injured. But it gets to heal in it’s personal hero-house.

You normal mechs don’t have as much room to upgrade, but they can get 3 pieces of equipment in a funny tournament. A new map with 2 special bases pops up for a single day. You and other players are supposed to fight back-and-forth over them. At the end you get equipment based on how long they were occupied and how many times they were retaken. I had trouble beating it the first time. Luckily, I never met anyone else there.

Then there’s other little bits of weirdness. You get a list of attackable people, which doesn’t seem to change on its own. I attacked one guy several times a day. To build a Clan Castle to join a clan, you need “book pages”. I couldn’t even find out how to get those things.

[Game]WarReign

War Reign is a nicely done Boom Beach-style clash-like. Besides some new ideas, it has 3 fully different races; elves, humans, and undead; completely different buildings, troops, spells and leaders. No one does that. The StarWars clash-like has 2 sides, but it pretty much had to. But 3?

Each race gets one passive defensive building. For undead it’s a pustule that explodes when destroyed. The humans’ is simply very, very tough. The elves’ heals other buildings. For traps, humans do damage, undeads do a percentage of the defender’s health, and elves also slow you (I think). The undead mortar does less damage but creates nasty grubs that love to chew on tough guys. Humans get a slow, hard-hitting cannon; the elves version is machinegun-like thorns; undead instead have an “Eye of Mordor” which slowly ramps up damage on 1 target until it dies.

Undead troops include cheap skeletons and wraiths that gain power as skeletons die. The first offensive undead spell summons more skeletons, while the second allows troops to heal by doing damage. If you want a healer unit or a blast spell, play humans or elves. Elves have the game’s only haste spell. Likewise the undead leaders can summon skeletons and heal through damage. Human leaders aren’t so odd, but have the only area-of-effect attack.

A problem with all this racial variety is the small troop selection for each. I have just 4 troops types unlocked and only use 2. It appears you can separately play as each race, but that seems like a lot of work.

A really clever feature is defensive spells for the now common “defend” mode. Undead have one to weaken attackers, toughen buildings, summon skeletons, and lure nearby invaders to one building. It works great, they recharge as invaders die, turning defending into a much more active game.

You win by killing the HQ – every other building instantly explodes. Attacks come from one side, so the HQ is usually at the rear. At first you can use the Beacon spell to run around for an easy win. But once everyone knows what they’re doing, defenses are extremely tough. And you can’t find easier people to fight — the game presents 5 players a day, at about your level. There’s a prize for 5 wins. That takes me about a week. Mitigating the impossibility of winning is that losers get to keep anything they steal. There’s a special item you only get from attacking other players, which is the main reason to beat your head against that wall (metaphorically – the game has no wall defenses).

The area with computer bases has the same difficulty problem. Boom Beach style, they become more and more difficult. Fine at first, but ramps up fast. Some of them look like misprints — huge interlocking fields of guns larger than you’ve ever seen. If you somehow power through, you need to beat stages 2 and 3 without replacing any of your losses.

Most of that isn’t necessarily bad. It’s a tough game, and there are plenty of attack plans and fast thinking spell use that might beat an impossible opponent.

Lastly, this game is from “SmileGate Megaport”. That doesn’t sound right, but it’s a South Korean computer game company and that’s their real name.

[Game]Empires and Allies

Despite the terrible name, publisher and theme, Empires&Allies is a nice-looking, innovative Clash-like. Even when the end-game gets spendy, it does it in an interesting way.

It looks nice. The theme is near-future military, so you get machine guns and a howitzer; but also orbital lasers, flying drones and mechanical crabs. The crabs pause then pounce onto your tanks. The stealth-fighter-shaped drones fly over their targets and cicle as they fire. The infantry have some grenadiers mixed in with the rifles. The beefy half-tracks zippily accelerate, overshoot and make 2-point turns. They leave little tracks on the ground. Your area-affect missile tanks arc shells directly over the target which then burst straight down in a cone of sub-munitions. Explosions rock nearby trees.

The buildings are a bit smaller than normal – your base looks like a little desert outpost. They also do a nice job making it so you can spot defenses and tell them apart. I don’t even hate the dialogue. Most military-themed games are boring rah-rah. Here, one of the rotating “new troop was built” messages is a sarcastic “nice base.” Cracks me up.

Mechanics-wise, Conquest&Empire is Boom Beach. But it has the usual improvements: a button to retrain all dead troops at once, selectable sub-groups for the “move to here” flare (which always costs 1 energy.) There are walls, but very weak – good for directing attackers into the gaps.

The absolute best new feature is the roving patrols. Plenty of clash-likes have defensive troops with a detection radius, usually pretty weak. E&A gives you 4-5 sets, with the option to put them on a long winding patrol (it’s just a toggle: patrol or stand around) and they’re fairly strong. They actually matter. The crabs slaughter armour, including heroes. But they do little to infantry and can’t hit fliers. Patrolling infantry is good for that. Patrolling tanks can survive your spells and have the longest range.

The NPC missions have you conquering earth, starting in Africa, occasionally retaking areas and fighting very tough bosses. Oddly in a Boom Beach clone, it uses a Nexting system to attack players, which means you can attack as much as you like. Looting uses a funny mix. It’s basically clash-like – a 3 star system and you only get loot from the buildings you destroy. But you get nothing if you lose. You have to get at least 1 star to get any loot at all. You never a get a free shield, but you can make one. Attacking other players gives parts which can be used to build various things. Making a shield item takes about an hour, and you can save them.

End-game gets funny. You build and collect lots of power-ups and are expected to use them before attacks. One provides a day-long 10-point increase to starting spell points. Each of the 5 troop pads can be powered-up (they change to an “Alpha” version of that troop.) An event gets you 15 minutes of a free mega-spell (for 15 seconds you can use a machine-gun or laser on the enemy base. It’s almost a mini-game.) There’s a massive area nuclear blast spell (you get 5 uses for joining a clan, not sure how to get more.) You can enable free repairs for your hero (see below.)

Defensively, you can build and enable a stealth field (you can be attacked, but part of your base is hidden.) You can drag a pretty substantial day-long power-up onto a defense. And, I’m not sure what these even are, but sometimes a helicopter drops rediculously tough defensive troops (even on NPC bases.)

I haven’t gone all-out on power-ups. It seems as if an active free player can regularly make them. But realistically this game requires $5/month to always have them on.

The heroes are interesting. You can use one at a time, from a choice of 3. They unlock mid-game (you have to win about 30 battles against other players to get the currency to unlock the first one. Then even more for the rest.) The tank hero has a big, regenerating shield. The sniper hero has a longer range than any defense (but the anti-tank patrols will cream it, and it walks very slowly.) The last hero flies. On defense the hero you select can wipe out swaths of attackers with its special (the game plays a very distinctive warning tone when you scout a base with an active defensive hero.) But heroes don’t auto-repair, and repairs cost a lot. You can’t really afford to keep a hero on defense. Of course, if you somehow can you’ll do much better.

The heroes also level up by fighting, which is always a problem. Items double the experience gain or simply give a pile of free experience. My level 6 sniper hero can solo NPC bases which would otherwise be darned tough. I’d imagine being able to somehow power-level a hero gives a huge advantage.

But all-in-all this is worth it for a month or two of free play. Then it looks like a pretty good game if you’re prepared to spend a few cups of coffee a month on it.

Then, lastly, it’s from Zynga. Zynga is famous for inventing FaceBook games that spam your friends and give gems for filling out credit-card applications. And for being worth a ton of money until everyone hated those tricks and they weren’t. I suppose they’re just another publisher now, but it’s not a name you expect to see on an actual game.

Army Tanks Aren’t

People love army tanks. They’re tough, fast, and do high damage at a long range. If your clash-like is modern or futuristic it’s gotta have tanks. But a clash-like can’t have realistic army tanks. The amazing thing is we can make something that’s nothing like a tank, call it a tank, and players will agree it’s a tank.

The problem is that in a point system, everyone instinctively thinks of units pound-for-pound effectiveness. A tank doing the damage of 10 men but costing 20 is a low damage unit. That’s not just math. Your last army had those 20 soldiers and you can clearly see the tank is killing at 1/2 the rate.

You can make a deadly, tough unit — costs 6 but has the damage of toughness of 10. All you need to do is give it some horrible drawback. But tanks only have advantages. Their high speed is nice, and long-range is a huge advantage. They suffer in rough terrain, but clash-likes don’t have terrain. You can’t have a unit that’s above-average in every area. It’s a super-troop that ruins the game.

To make tanks fit into a point system, we’ll need to give them drawbacks. We’ll change their speed from fast to slow. That seems crazy, but treads feel slow and everyone’s seen war movies where a tank crawls along city streets. Next we’ll give them low damage. We have to make a big cut somewhere. We preserved toughness and long-range. It turns out that’s almost enough to make them feel like tanks.

We use the rate-of-fire trick to make tanks shots feel stronger. Instead of firing for 50 damage every second, they fire for 100 damage every 2 seconds. That’s the same low damage, but when they first drive up to something and deliver that double-strength hit, it feels strong.

The net result is a group of tanks slowly rolling to within long range of a building, then slowly knocking down its health. The tanks are taking very little damage in return. Then slowly moving a bit to the next. These tanks feel like an unstoppable force. The entire effect is so … well … barely acceptable as an army tank, that it’s widely copied.

[Game]Cloud Raiders

“Cloud Raiders : Sky Conquest” isn’t the most fun game — the troops are the same as CoC. But they added interesting stuff, good and bad.

Their base-defense mini-game has 4 stages, with a break in-between. You’ve got 3 special defensive spells and are allowed to deploy your army. After an attack you’ll probably need time to retrain killed troops. The second is the same, but the third wave includes a unique pirate boss (a pauses mid-attack announces its arrival). The fourth stage is a counter-attack — you attack their pirate base using your normal army. That’s a fun little story. But you’ve got 24 hours to complete them all or you get nothing. It can be too much of a commitment.

There’s another defense mode they call a “Titan Invasion” — a single huge monster attacks. When you finally beat it, you go to a screen showing you’ve passed 1 out of 5 stages. You can pay real money to collect your winnings now, or keep going (which realistically will be next week, since it’s tougher). That rubs me the wrong way. I understand that games need to monetize, and there’s nothing wrong with unlocking a new way to spend cash. But they should be more clear about it.

I really like their new reserve idea. Every so often the game gives you random troops for free, set aside in a “reserve”. They last for a few days, then vanish. Sometimes they’re troops you normally wouldn’t use, but they’re free and you can’t save them for later.

All games try to push you into joining a clan. The idea is you’ll make friends and play the game longer. Some force you to join, but most try to impress you with the benefits. Cloud raiders idea was giving you 25 wall sections and 3 traps for joining. I’m not sure that really works, since it won’t encourage you to stay there. But it sure is creative.

The aesthetics are great. Instead of evenly spaced fake-random junk to clear, it comes in realistic clumps — some grass around bushes or trees. There’s lots of whispy fog drifting over — you’re an island floating over the ocean, in the clouds. The elixir is even named “clouds” with collectors pulling it out of the air. When you change island skins there’s a lovely animation showing floating pirate ships lifting buildings and dashing to your new home. It’s really impressive.

The walls use hand-made pictures. A stand-alone wall section is a big post. Line them up and the posts are replaced by a log-fence picture. There are hand-drawn T-sections and 4-ways. The ends parts of long wall sections slope down into the ground. Two touching wall sections, along, makes a low berm. Just beautiful. 30-year-old ACSII maze-games used that trick: “the picture is based on what other walls you touch”. It’s nice to see someone remembered it.

Something I really didn’t like: the game starts out showing you how the Beacon spell works — the thing where you can make all troops walk to a spot, usually to regroup them to another side of the base. But it’s a consumable. After you cast it once, it’s gone. You can’t use it in any more battles until you somehow get more. The only way seems to be with gems. The other annoyance is a beautiful tentacle rising from the ocean, shaking gold out of a chest. Tapping it brings up the daily gem deal. After choosing NO there’s a second window with Cancel/Skip. It turns out that Cancel cancels skipping, which returns you to the previous Yes/No screen. When you tap it by accident, the proper sequence is “No, Skip”.

This is advertised as cross-platform: Android, iOS, Windows and FaceBook. It’s from 2014. Was cross-platform a new thing in 2014? Were Windows games still big then? The studio, Game Insight, is based in Lithuania. Was Windows big then in Europe?

[Game]Interplanet

Interplanet starts off as a clever outer-space clash-like. Then it swerves when you realize your army is just a bunch of heroes, slowly leveling up. Then it goes nuts and turns into a persistent guild vs. guild conquer-the-galaxy.

The bases are very creative. Every building needs to connect through tubes, eventually to your HQ. Buildings come in different sizes, and 60-degree 3-way connectors exist, so things aren’t on a grid. There’s a real art to putting things where you want, connected. There are 2 races. The non-human one uses 5-way connectors — their bases are very geodesic-looking.

As a space game, everything attacks from longish range but it’s balanced nicely. Your “tough” spaceships still fly in front of your offensive ones, and about the usual number of defensive guns come into range as you advance. For spells, every ship has a 1-use special. Tough guys get a 6-second shield, archer’s get a mega-shot, the missile-ship launches a wide arc of doom. Traps are wonderful. You have 2 or 3 space mines, and that’s it, but the explosions are huge and deadly. Luckily the mine-sweeper special skill disarms mines in a large radius (as all skills, it has 1 use).

The army limit is funny. At first you have the basic point limit, allowing more and more ships. But there’s a hard limit of 15. I’m not sure what harm an army of 25 small ships would cause. But once you hit 15, all you can do is replace your cheap ships with more expensive ones. Now we’re in the problem area. The newer ships you get are simply better visions of tough-guys and archers. There’s not a lot of variety.

And we’re finally at the real problem. It’s a hero game. Your ships don’t die, and need to be leveled-up and upgraded from C to B to A to be useful. It takes lots of time and space-gold to get a useful ship. You’re locked into using your 15 good ships in every attack (I tried easy raids with 15 cheap-o ships. Died too fast without getting much loot).

The game is old-school about how often you can attack. Damaged ships need time to repair. At mid-level destroyed ships take 12 minutes, and at least one ship is always destroyed. It’s a 12-minute wait between battles. It also costs money, lots of money. A fully destroyed fleet will bankrupt you.

The game has some minor silliness. The buildings, even the guns, look alike – lots of shiny grey. I think they realized this too late, so now defensive buildings have crisp icons over them during attacks. Weapons also have a paper/rock/scissors mechanic against types of armour. You can’t do much with it though. It’s best ignored. The gold-targeting “goblin” spaceship doesn’t even have the weapon type that hurts gold vaults more.

There’s a really cool feature allowing you to fly your base next to a planet. Normally you’re in black, empty space. If you build and upgrade the planet-finding building and do a day-long planetary survey, you can move your base. All you have to do is beat the computer-controlled base guarding it. Once there you get bonuses to production for a few days. You see the bonuses in advance, so you get into a cycle of researching a few candidate planets before you have to move again. The art is beautiful “majesty of space” 2.5D style. Finding a planet is worth it for that alone.

Eventually, you unlock Conquest Mode. It’s a different game. There’s one big map where every guild fights over the best planets. You bring in your spaceships but they’re completely different: the stats are different, attacking a planet takes hours of travel, and battles are text reports. It’s another version of Game of War:Fire Age. As usual, the strongest guilds camp out on the best planets, getting the best spaceship equipment, pilots, and so on. You need to keep on with the clash-like part since ships come from there. So now you’re playing 2 different games at once. I don’t see the point. How many people want to mix a 3-minute casual action game with an ultra-competitive action-less one?

I should have known there was a problem early on. The game showers you with free gold. That’s always a bad sign. After a full month I had upgrades I couldn’t possibly steal enough gold for, except for the saved-up free gold packs in my mailbox. When a game isn’t interested in having you just play it that’s a sign they know it’s not fun.

[Game]PlanetStorm : Fallen Horizon

“PlanetStorm: Fallen Horizon” is mostly a 1/2-done version of Boom Beach, but it has some very nice parts.

It has two unique races. The troops are different, and they’re fine. But the defenses are really cool. The humans have a flamer — units take damage for a few seconds after being hit. The space-elves (more on that later) version is an electro-tower. Hits jump to several further targets, shredding archers hiding behind a tough-guy. The humans longest range weapon is an area-effect shotgun, while the space elves is a continuous-damage single-target beam weapon. The humans second cannon is pretty cool – every few seconds it picks one target and, over a second, fires 4 red blasts at it. The trickiest part is remembering how the other side’s weapons work.

The resources are carbon, iridium and uranium, mined from your asteroid (you base is a small asteroid). Wikipedia says carbon and iridium are what actual asteroid miners would probably dig for. This game is educational.

The intro is really something. First your derelict spaceship’s AI snidely rebukes you for fighting every scavenger you meet, sustaining all this damage. Your only hope is crash-landing on an abandoned mining asteroid (where the remains of your space ship become your HQ). A gruff drill sergeant yells at you for trespassing, then offers you some advanced units for an attack. You play through the battle. Next, a woman in low-cut space-elf armour does the same thing. After that battle your ship’s AI relays an overheard conversation about you being the chosen savior of the galaxy. Then you choose your race. Humans have “overwhelming power” and space elves have “high-tech”. Huh.

Next are some duds. You get 1 leader. There’s no explanation, no building, no way to upgrade it or even see stats. It just shows up for battles. This game also half-way uses the people/mech upgrade building idea. You get an overall upgrade building, then one for only machine troops, and a third for only human troops. The better scheme loses the first building — heavy tanks are completely serviced in the heavy tank building, and so on. There are also frequent guild events where only the top-scoring guilds get anything. I’m not a fan of those (even though my guild full of randoms came in 8th).

The most impressive things about PlanetStorm are the battle maps. The game studio, Aykiro, lists employees under two categories, Game Developers and Artists. Now I see why. One battle map is a raised rocky ring surrounded by talon-like rocks, a round pit-like moat then the blackness of space, with scorpions crawling in the pit. Another is an asteroid top in a beautiful panoramic view of an asteroid field, with meteors streaking by, exploding when they hit something. Another is a grassy island in a river with waterfalls – 2 baby dinos wander along a ledge and check you out; while a rare spiderpion walks out of a cave and back. The ice-floes area has a fat lizard man walking behind the ice piles, while angry yeti wander the snowy edges, roaring. My home base has a giant prowling sandwurm and a migrating dust tornado.

Even the main map has a Barbarella feel with churning brightly colored dust clouds and parallax as you slide the screen. It’s by far the most work I’ve ever seen on the environment in a game like this.

[Game]Craft Warriors

On first look, “Craft Warriors” looks like another minecraft-themed barely-a-game. But once you puzzle it out, it’s a good, very original clash-like.

The main thing that stands out is attacking with only 6 units. The cool part is that left-over points can buy replacements, for when the first copy dies. Some people like to buy 1 extra copy of each, using the army in 2 waves. Or buy all expensive units and when they’re dead, they’re dead. I used to use 2 back-up archers, since so many accidents happen.

Even cooler, spells use the same system, out of the same pool. If you want 2 fireball spells, that uses 1 troop slot plus the point cost, coming out of your troop budget.

The units are nicely done – unique and none clearly better that any other. The second ranged troop out-damages archers, but can’t shoot things on top of towers (explained later). The Bandit is a tank/warrior hybrid with a small area attack (like CoC’s Valkyrie). The Paladin is tougher than your first tank, but more expensive, does less damage and slower. The ninja is mostly good against other troops, and climbs walls. There are 18 unit types, total. People seem to use them all about equally. My favorite is the spearman. If it has a straight line it charges for extra damage. Placed well, it can destroy one building after another. But anything blocking the path, or not enough distance, prevents a charge.

Defenses have a few clever bits. For the buildings full of defensive troops there’s no nonsense with clan donations or training. You set the troops for it, and you’re done. The AI is also pretty good at having them not rush to their deaths, and running them back to cover. There’s a trap that tosses attackers a few spaces away. The secret is throwing invaders into your base where they can be quickly killed (Clash of Clans “builder” bases did it first, but great artists steal). Another “trap” involves a pop-up wall. It works because the apparent gap lures troops in, then they’re stuck where you wanted them when the wall snaps into place.

Several defenses are line-of-site. If you put them next to something taller, they can’t shoot in that direction. Luckily, we have weapon towers. They’re just tall flat-topped blocks, but you can place a weapon on top. A few ranged troops can shoot directly at the weapon, but most need to beat the tower up first (the weapon drops to the ground, takes some damage, and keeps firing. It’s so cute).

Other nice features include automatic free trap resets, and no troop training times — you use attack tokens. Attacking doesn’t break shields. Building unlocks are based on your overall level, gotten from upgrading anything. The game even allows you to watch replays when the computer has someone attack a copy of your base (which happens a lot).

It’s called Craft Warriors because players can build the troops, lego-style, from lots of tiny blocks (yes, they’re 3D). There’s even a shop to buy other people’s models. As you’d guess, trademark violations are the most popular: DeadPool, Batman, DragonBall Z. Plus, of course, Nazis. The game has a dozen different races, but all they are is different character models. You can re-edit them with little tweaks, if you want. The weapons always stay the same, and are large, so you can figure out what the weirder designs really are.

[Game]Monster Castle

The only thing you need to know about Monster Castle is that your base is a cutaway side-view of a multi-floor castle. Attackers come in through the only door, walk across the ground floor smashing things, make their way to the stairs and repeat. You get a decent troop selection, hero special abilities, and spells. Maybe that makes up for only having one entrance and a single path. And the animation of the front door getting kicked in is just darling.

Defenses are a little interesting. You can slide around the ladder on each floor. Monsters seem to clear one floor before going up, so you can try to make them walk across and back, hitting every trap twice. The short-range bolt gun is best placed on the floor above a tough obstacle, a little in front. The mortar should be placed even higher (it’s funny to watch it arc up though floors, back down, then finally decide the target floor is solid enough to cause it to explode). As you level, three customization options unlock for every defense. The bombs have an option to be wider, or stun, or knock victims down through the floor. The “barricade” (just a strong 1-space obstacle) can turn to tougher steel, reflect some damage, or explode on death. There are cute pictures for each.

The dragon trap is a fun gold sink. It’s basically a bomb — your dragon flies across that floor, breathing flames. Off-the-clock, your dragon lives in a cool cavern below your castle, asking you to plow extra gold to level it. If you have extra “wine”, you can use it to water your magic beanstalk (which levels up the quests it gives).

The troops are the usual – close-range orc warrior, gnoll archer, bearman tough-guy, healer, 2 floaters (they go through floors, which I assume means they get quickly slaughtered). 9 troops total, plus 5 spells. And every troop also has 3 customization options. The bears can get extra HP, reflect some damage, or a chance to resist the spring-away trap. That seems like plenty to play with.

As you upgrade your Throne (your HQ), the floors get wider and you sometimes get a new one. This is also a problem, since attackers can also be dropped in vacant spaces. Plenty of abandoned bases have an empty top floor with a straight route to the Throne Room.

The game suffers from the usual hero inflation. You’ll eventually be slaughtered at the front door of a castle by a bought epic hero, upgraded using tokens from bought chests. It’s difficult to know how fair it is. In some games the $3 hero is practically required, and the $50 hero isn’t that much better. But the dangerous heroes here seem to have lots of paid upgrades.

The theme is monsters uniting against humans, the main baddy is an over-proud big-jawed Duke, who constantly mocks you in cut scenes. It’s cute and cartoony. As you admire that, have another look at the loading screen — it’s lovely 2-1/2D with depth planes that shift as you tilt your device. Lemix game studio did a nice job. But the publisher is TenCent – a huge Chinese internet conglomerate. I’ve seen them in the news, but this is the first of their games I’ve played.

[Game]Mini Kingdoms

“Mini Kingdoms” at first looks like a typical rushed halfway Clash clone, but once you get past the art, it’s a nicely done, original, tight Clash-like.

At first you get warriors and archers, then giants. Yawn. The only resource is gold. There’s no theme and sloppy art. But then you notice how it actually plays. Attacks use tokens – no training. You place 3 squads, which can be changed at the start of the attack. Time stops while you’re placing one, and arrows show what they’ll attack, and the next two buildings after that. That’s pretty nice. There’s a toggle for x2 or x4 speed on the battles, which is good since there’s nothing to do once you place your squads.

The wizard troop is pretty neat. It does less damage than archers, but hits an extra building touching the first (a simple but pretty 2-part electric beam). Overall it’s better than an archer. But if the nearest target is killed first, it won’t necessarily keep on the second, and players have learned the anti-wizard tactic of having buildings not always touch. In practice you look at the base and decide: archers or wizards?

Defense-wise, you get some guns, but the third defense is great – a short-range giant-killer that you really need to plan for. It fires a huge shot every 5 seconds. If you let your giants get close, they will die. But archers can kill it with only a few losses since it fires so slowly.

The bombs look like garbage – triggering them produces a red circle for a second, then troops take damage. But they work great: you can see them, there aren’t many, and they trigger at 6 spaces and affect 7. It will reliably damage most of an archer squad. You’ve got to think about who will be where when they’re set off. The chicken-trap is anti-giant. The tool tip is wrong – it turns one unit into a chicken. It’s kind of funny since the chicken keeps attacking and runs pretty quickly. Sometimes it can stay alive for quite a while (but it always eventually runs ahead and is killed in one shot).

All-in-all, you have to look over the enemy base, check locations of everything and carefully place your three squads. The game gives you time for this. And you have to work for gold in this game. Build times are fast and gold costs go up fast. You get 3 attacks in an hour and opponents give predictable fair amounts of gold, mostly for winning. I think my longest Next-ing streak for a good base is 3.

Higher level troops are a flying archer and flying giant. Yawn, except the terrible art style is hilarious: one’s an archer riding a huge bat, the other’s an armoured guy riding an armoured bat. Then it gets very strange. There’s a ground fire-mage that spawns air troops when it attacks. And an air troop that does the opposite. Some of the high level defenses seem extra whacky, but I haven’t seen them in use.

It’s an interesting no-frills Clash-like. Quick to play, not too much to do, but all good stuff.

[Game]Plunder Pirates

“Plunder Pirates” is a terrific example of an overstuffed Clash-like which beautifully hides staid gameplay. I saw it just after minimalist “Mini Castle” and they make a great contrast. Plunder Pirates adds side-missions, lots of Leaders, 2 unique bonus resources; and good lord did their art department do a great job. Only a crybaby like me would want it also to be fun.

The clash-like part starts as unimproved old-school: no reserve army or training queue means you need to wait 6+ minutes between attacks; traps still need to be hand-reset; and the best attack is the old gold raid which “loses” on purpose. Even worse, your leader does most of the work. But they add 2 fun defenses. The Bunker is a long-range machine-gun which only shoots in a 60-degree arc. It’s fun to try to place well. The Pirate Ship is similar, firing very long range but only straight out from the sides. This game also adds troop specials, for example, a 1-use button to make all pistol pirates shoot 50% faster for 6 seconds. But all-in-all, attack and defense is blah.

Besides requiring Gold or “Grog” (stored in big beer barrels, so cute), upgrades require 2 new things: Battle or Resource points. That sounds promising, but you get them through a busy-work quest system. Each of the 8 quests uses some or all of your 4 quest minions for 3-30 minutes. It’s fun to try and keep your little guys always working, but quickly becomes a 2-hour chore.

The other quest system is the exploration map, which is also tap-and-wait. It takes 5-10 minutes to sail 1 square, and about 1/2-hour to fight a sea monster or enemy fort. The random rewards for exploring include … upgrade materials for your already too strong leaders. Aaarg! It turns out the real point of this very slow mini-game is to frustrate you into paying cash when you realize just how many upgrades you need and how slow you’ll get them here. Oh, and the people sailing the ship? It’s the army you were planning to attack with in the regular game. Bye. Wait 10 more minutes to train new ones.

Other than that, Plunder Pirates is magnificent. You can spin the base view to examine the 3D buildings. There’s an auto-tour button that walks around your town, watching your quest-doers act busy. Your first leader has a unique and fun zip-line animation. Attackers come with cute little boats, paddling to the beach. Your base may have a few islands, no problem — attackers have a swim animation. You can actually see them swimming. Dead buildings shake and collapse, with a cloud of smoke and a cheer.

There’s more. It can rain. Each exploration map map monster is 3D with a unique attack animation (the shark shakes you in its mouth). The simple quest descriptions are funny and are on lovely scrolls. The buildings look great, the water on your base map makes you want to take up scuba diving. The obstacles (which take longer to clear than normal) are brightly colored ocean detritus.

The menu art style is almost too stylish to be in a game. The theme is “things made of paper cut-outs” (note to self: how have I not seen the movie “Isle of Dogs”?) Troop upgrade trees visually look great and have fun bonuses: extra health, +1 range, gain a special ability (yes, Clash’s “Builder bases” did this first, but it’s nice this game noticed and copied).

I feel like the people who were supposed to tune the troops, and who beefed-up the leaders to monetize — I feel like they really failed the great art department here.

Flying healers are the best

In Clash-likes it’s fun to have units which do unique things, and healer troops fit right in. But it seems strange how the original, Clash of Clans, has such odd rules for them. In Clash healers are large, flying and only heal ground troops. It turns out that’s great. The thing other games do with healers — having them walk behind your army like priests — that’s no good at all.

There are plenty of games where you have a lot of other things to do besides the tactics of a battle, and your army is just your army. Maybe yours has slightly more cheap infantry and fewer horses, but it’s not all that exciting. But in a clash-like all we have is our army and 1-time attacks. If we have a boring army we have a boring game. We need different armies with all sort of different troops to keep things fresh.

Clash of Clans’ big, flying healers aren’t boring. You can’t park them safely behind the rest of your flying army, since they can’t heal flying troops. But in a ground army your flying healers are the only target for those deadly air defenses. Hmmm… . And since they’re so expensive, using even 1 is a commitment. Healer have their uses — at first in an army with giants. They can be in winning armies. But there are plenty of other good armies where you really wouldn’t want them. They’re an interesting troop that makes you think.

A walking priest-style healer is the opposite which makes them boring. Any army is better with a few walking healers safely in the back. It’s an easy decision and doesn’t take any strategy. Sure when you unlock healers it’s exciting. Your army is going to be so much better with them, and when you try it, it really is. But then healers are just an automatic part of any army. Then don’t add any extra fun to designing an army or to attacking with one.

Some games manage to use this otherwise-boring style of healer well. In the Star Wars clash-like you mostly lose because of time running out. You’ve got lots of slow, tough tank-like units that hardly need a healer. Replacing a few troops with healers makes the time problem even worse. Healers are back to being a special case unit, useful in some clever armies. They make the game more interesting.

Empires&Allies uses healers to solve an old problem, which is how the starting infantry unit always becomes useless later in the game. E&A cleverly solves that by having a mid-game upgrade add a medic to each infantry unit (it will heal anything nearby, not just the infantry it’s with). Now infantry is useful again, and their healer is just great in some armies. But since the medic is attached to the infantry, which likes to get fairly close to the enemy, it’s terrible in other armies. You really have to think.

But all-in-all too many clash-likes don’t get it. Even Rival Kingdoms, innovative in so many other ways, has a healer so useful that it ruins the game. There’s only one viable army.

My favorite thing about Clash of Clans healers is how the flavor text ties it together. It seems impossible to explain why healers are big, flying, and can’t target the ground. But … Angels! As we all know, angels are impressively large, can fly, and it seems likely they can heal. And in Clash flyers are evil — imps and dragons and skeletons in balloons. Angels wouldn’t heal evil things like that. Never underestimate the value of a hand-wavy plausible explanation.

[Game]All-Star Troopers

All-Star Troopers is the first true childrens’ clash-like. The creators have a nice article explaining how it started as something completely different, which makes it even more impressive. All-Star Troopers looks exactly as if someone decided to make a simplified Royal Revolt, with some Clash Royale thrown in.

First off, everyone advances at about the same rate. There’s a limit of 3 loot chests a day, which is where you get most of your progress. You need to win them in battles, but you can keep trying. Eventually you get 3 anyone anyone can win. You don’t get much else past that, and don’t lose much if you have terrible defenses and get beat a lot. Anyone can make the same steady progress in this game. Which is nice for kids.

Bases are pre-made paths to the HQ with pre-set waves of defenders, and 1 big wall midway. In an older game, Royal Revolt, you can create the path and set each wave of defenders from a dozen troop types. In this game — you can move the wall. You also get to place guns and cannons and traps, but it’s simplified. There’s no need to actually build cannons. You always have all you need and can change defenses at any time, using a point system. Upgrades are on a whole class of items at a time, such as “upgrade cannons to level 2”. It’s quick and worry-free.

As with Royal Revolt, you control your leader while supporting troops run in to help. In RR you pre-select which troops you want, and call them in as needed. In this game it’s simply timed generic waves of good guys.

The result is less busywork, and almost no need to plan. Which is fine. The action part is fun enough, vaguely. Your hero is fully controllable and the waves of attacking and defending enemies make it interesting. Even though you use 1 hero at a time, you can instantly switch back-and-forth between 3, giving you 3 special attacks to choose from. There aren’t even that many different heroes to collect.

One feature that really sticks out — whenever you level up enough, you’re moved to a new area. The path is a little longer, the various obstacles move around, and obviously, your guns are gone and need to be placed again. This is their way of giving you longer and longer paths, without you needing you to do any work making them. Defenses are easy enough to place, and don’t really matter, so having to redo them occasionally isn’t a problem.

Finally there’s the theme. Your base is a spaceship floating over the planet (with your defense base on the planet. We’re never told why). The attack/defense minions are bipedal pigs, while the heroes are various human/animal mixes. Kids like that stuff, right?

[Game]Billion Lords

First, let me write that I’m sure talented hard-working people worked on Billion Lords. They did a nice job adding all the modern clash-like stuff. It’s such a shame that it’s impossible to attack in this game, making it boring and pointless. It’s far too easy to set up unbeatable defenses. All can you do is sit and safely farm to buy upgrades. Once you do, you can get better troops, which are also impossible to beat anyone with. Your only entertainment is occasionally watching replays of a massively expensive army being wiped out by your defenses.

The game works like the Dungeon Keeper clash-like: you dig out your base with the requirement to connect all buildings and entrances. Those entrances are at the 8 compass directions on the edges. In Dungeon Keeper you can attempt the obvious thing — funnel everyone through a single gauntlet — but the attacker has tricks to avoid that. Not in this game.

Billion Lords has no attacking tricks. Worse, the defender has lots of room. A base can easily have a path circling the entire base several times past every mortar and zapper before hitting the freeze trap (to gather them all) them massive bomb traps, then the -25% weakness trap just in front of where your leader comes out to finish them off. “But what about the 8 entrances?” you may ask. That’s easy — add a giant path in a ring touching them all and give that your one path into the labyrinth. You have plenty of room to do that.

That seems hard to figure out, but it’s a clash-like. After attacking and seeing other people who did it, you’ll figure it out.

There aren’t any flying troops to bypass this maze of death, but there are wall-destroyers. They take about a month to unlock and the description makes it sound as if they’ll borrow straight through. Nope. They’re the usual self-destructing wall bombers. Even that would work if not for for the broken AI. Wall bombers will never walk into a space that started off as a wall. You send in one and it blows open a small space. The next avoids that space, blowing up somewhere off to the side. Useless.

Hilariously, one attacking strategy works. The “wizard” leader, buyable with 1,000 gems, has a special ability that strikes several random buildings, anywhere on the map. Attack with only him. By the time he has circled the base several times he will have used his ability several times, hopefully hitting resource buildings for cash. Then press abort and repeat.

But let’s say you try. You save up and attack people much weaker where you have a chance of winning. It costs Gold to recruit your army. When you attack you might win some of that gold back, but mostly you’re trading Gold for Stone. You don’t need Stone — you already have extra sitting around. What you need is Gold. Attacking people in this game doesn’t even help you.

[Game]Mad Rocket:Fog of War

The tag for “Mad Rocket: Fog of War” is that enemy bases are covered in fog, needing to be slowly revealed. That’s true, but undersells how original this game is. The mechanics are borrowed, but they fit together so well.

Firstly, the ground beneath bases is made from a dozen large tiles which you can arrange. Nothing exists outside of it. If they’re in an H shape then attacking troops need to walk down one leg and back up — they can’t cut across. Invaders are air-dropped inside this area, preferably directly on top of a cannon you want dead. Of course, you won’t know where that is until you clear the fog.

The little pieces of fog clear at the least provocation. Troops remove it as they move. Any spell clears the area underneath — the area-effect missile spell is great for this. If an unlucky drop puts your troops between 3 guns it’s not a waste — the guns are unfogged when they shoot you to death. That might seem too easy, but there’s lots of fog and you’re on the clock. It’s always a choice between clearing fog and guessing. You can even play without fog by using the Scout spell to clear it (which uses up a valuable spell slot, so is fair).

Now we get to the good part. Attacks are completely a race against the clock. You get 4 spells which can be cast over and over. Two are troop squads — regular soldiers and another squad of tough guys. Live or die, you get to place more every 45 seconds. You can cast a big missile swarm every 10 seconds, and a single-target rocket every 2 seconds. That’s just your starting line-up. Besides cool-downs, spells use energy. It regenerates quickly, but if you really need to fire 3 rockets in 6 seconds, some other spell will need to wait a few extra seconds while energy builds back up.

Clearly, keeping your troops alive for as long as possible, which is not very long, is the way to win. Your spells can destroy land-mines and guns, and uncover safe spots for the next group, while the troops shoot up the regular buildings.

Now we come to the really fun part. Every spell, including the airplane dropping your troops, can be shot down by air defenses. The basic air defense has a medium radius and fires like a machine gun. An air defense can easily defend itself against rockets, but it turns out that the tough-guy airplane is also pretty tough and can be used as a distraction. For the second or two it’s in flight it can distract an air defense, allowing another spell to fly in safely. Later you get an attack spell which does about the same thing (shoots up short line doing so-so damage but using a very tough airplane). Much later, you’ll get a unit who’s only job is to hover and distract air defenses. But by then the defenders have more types of air defense.

To give the defender some hope, all spells fly up from the bottom of the screen, which means bases tend to be attacked from the bottom up. A few sneaky people make a long, thin base with the air-defenses all in front, but after practice that just means you can distract and then kill them all-at-once. The best defenses have the attacker always needing to worry about spells being shot down.

The timing is frantic. You get 1 minute, 30 seconds for an attack, but destroying a building gives you a few more seconds. Destroying the HQ removes all fog, which is pretty nice, and gives you a larger boost to time. That system of adding seconds make battles more unpredictable. You can spend the entire last 30 seconds of a battle only seconds away from losing.

You might think the theme is modern military, but it’s science fiction. You’re on an alien planet, mining pretty green Eternium crystals for “The Scientists”. The bad guys are trying to get it before you do. For no reason, your reports are from young women wearing Sexy Scientist Halloween costumes. The troop models are a copy of Boom Beach: white male soldier, black tough-guy soldier, female sniper (actually called Laser Girl in this game. Yuck, especially when “laser ladies” is right there).

[Game]Fort Stars

The special thing about Fort Stars is how it makes a side-view base work. Usually these are boring single paths. Fort Stars makes it somewhat exciting. But the rest of the game — ug.

Instead of placing defenses in an empty castle, you place rooms. They go in several stacks surrounding your Throne Room. The attacking team of 3 heroes fight their way through. They prefer the bottom, but if lured onto an elevator with one of your “go here” spells, they’ll gladly continue along that level. The Throne Room is a mini-boss. Beating it ends the battle. The heroes have probably gone through 3 rooms out of 15. They haven’t even touched the other side.

Here’s where it gets good. Some of those skipped higher-up rooms held the gold. Oops. Some were “buff” rooms that made the ground-floor monsters tougher, or long-range catapults. But more than that, merely beating the Throne Room is worth only 1 victory star. For the full 3 you need to destroy about 2/3’s of the base (the game shows the count). You’ll need to use that “go here” spell to drag them on a route. Even more fun, the defenders get points for each hero they kill. You have to beat that or you lose. If you go for broke but lose your 2 weaker heroes, aborting back to the Throne Room is no longer an option — you’ll lose 2 to 2.

The fun of the game is pushing your luck to get more gold and stars. Besides the “go here” spell, you can aim the heroes special attacks, and summon various monsters and blasts. But otherwise your heroes just do what they want. Setting up a defense seems interesting — plenty of interesting rooms, a point-limit, and a variety of traps.

The bad stuff comes in 2 parts. Everything in the game advances by collecting cards from chests, mostly from grinding your dailies. There’s a direct correlation between how many days you’ve actively played and your overall level. The second badness is the completely new gameplay in a “crush your neighbors” world map. You have to join a guild and kick lesser guilds out of the choice areas. I’m not sure what that eventually gets you in the regular game, but it must be something.

And now the mandatory aesthetics complaint: the start of the battle shows spectators, cheering your guys as they run past fireworks. The characters are the Stars in a “Fort Stars” sporting event. It seems clumsy – I assume it’s to lower the parental guidance rating.

[Game]Sky Clan: Clashes of Lords 3D

From the word-salad name you know something is seriously wrong with this game. That thing is that the mechanics are an exact copy of Clash of Clans, down to every number, building and troop type. Well, build times are doubled. But the art and design team did such a great job it’s worth mentioning.

It’s got a semi-steampunk theme. The clan hall is a round-topped greenhouse with wrought-iron for all of the delicate windows. Like all clan halls, it starts off to the side, broken. Weeds grow up the sides and half the windows are shattered. Beautiful. I can’t believe I repaired it before getting a picture. The liquid resource is Steam. It’s kept in fabulous iron-bound glass balls, filling with fluffy clouds of the stuff. Even the decorative peasants walking about your base are more and better than average.

Each building is a floating island in the sky, growing together if they’re not too far apart. The whole base is fully 3D and viewable from any angle. Lovely mountains are in the distance. The rubble is much nicer than usual – an old rusty windmill (on its own floating patch of dirt) a vibrant pool with flowers, the shattered rocks of a destroyed island, and more. Tapping a building creates a dangerous looking sand spill from the bottom (which, as you recall, is floating in the sky). But Clash of Clans still has them beat on building tapping sounds.

The wall drawing team clearly didn’t understand the game. The walls extend equally above and below the ground, with ghastly spikes. It’s just terrific. Except when they’re not at the edge of your base all you see is the stubby top part. Not even the spikes. And guess where the best place to put walls is in a clash-like? Not the edges.

All of the troops have a flying aesthetic. By that I mean they can’t fly over walls, but they can somehow fly up here and fly through any sky between buildings. The wall-breakers are cloth-wing gliders that fly in, bomb a wall, then fly away. The archers are lying down in floating bumper-cars with one mounted gun (they don’t look great). Giants are, obviously, floating robots. The regular grunts have barrels strapped to their backs, with huge arms on the sides. They mimic the two small arm-levers in front – seeing them smash is the cutest thing. It’s the most steam-punky thing in the game.

The new-ish feature that surprised me was a big grid, on an entirely different screen, that you explore with a ship (the same as Plunder Pirates). That’s where you fight computer bases and see the plot. You need to sail around and uncover hide-outs of the evil steam-robot king. The art department did so well. The islands you uncover look just great.

There’s one change from Clash-of-Clans, which you can probably guess: you get a hero much faster. It also levels up as you use it. But it’s not that powerful. On defense it crushes troops that ignore it – goblins and giants – but otherwise dies quickly enough. But you can spend a big pile of gems to buy a better one, or two more labelled as premium heroes. I watched one attack me on a replay. Not as bad as I expected, but definitely violates the informal “you can’t spend cash for a blatant advantage” rule.

[Game]Caravan Wars

Caravan Wars is a clash-like with a new way of making your defense. That’s rare. Plenty of games play around with building types, where you can attack from, and so on. But making a completely new type of thing to attack is a tough nut.

In Caravan Wars, as you might guess, you attack other players’ caravans. They slowly, automatically, crawl through a section of windy road as you attempt to slaughter everyone in them. You have an army, plus some towers alongside. You’ll need both since the caravans are massive. There’s no special thing you need to destroy — winning and loot are based on percent destruction, before the caravan escapes.

The roads are 6 spaces wide and each caravan section is 10 spaces long. You can fill yours with 60 small troops, or larger more powerful units. Wagons, if you use them, don’t fight, but can hold a heavy weapon. As you level up, more 6×10 caravan sections unlock, with a small gap between. I currently have 3, for 180 slots total.

2 sections of a caravan make their way past an attacker’s mortar towers

You’d think that the caravan simply turns into a giant melee to the death as soon as it hits your army, making it all pointless. But the defenders tend to want to walk their route. Wagons never even stop — the weapons fires at everything in range as it plods along. Caravan troops will stay and fight by like to run and catch up when done. Some battles are your army trying to catch up with the undestroyed part of the caravan. Further, caravans, though long and thin, have many more troops than you do. Attacking it head-on can be slow-motion suicide. One of the intro missions encourages you to wait for the first big group to pass, and ambush the second. 50% destruction counts as a win, so that’s a fine plan. Attackers also gain turret points as they go. You’ll be able to toss more towers up ahead and sometimes harass your way to a win.

Placing defensive units in the first caravan section

There also seems to be quite a bit of variety in caravans. Some like a horde of archers surrounded by tougher pikemen. Others put tough paladins only in the front and back. Some enjoy mostly weapon-carrying wagons, with lasers, mortars, or just powerful single-shot guns. There are even healers. On the other hand, troops level-up individually. You can simply use all of your best.

In order to have something to attack, other players need to send out caravans. The game does a nice job with that. You naturally get lots of the “cargo” resource. Sending out cargo caravans turn it into gold, and gives other players something to attack. You’ve got a menu with multiple options for sending out caravans of varying durations, with quest rewards for sending enough. The reports even look good — a progress line with a dot for when (or if) you were attacked.

Now for the not-so-good part. You collect re-usable troop cards from chests. A common system and fun for a while. Later you find Epic and Legendary cards. You can merge them for level 2+ cards. It quickly becomes obvious that gem-spending players have an army of Mega Legendaries, much better than anything low-spenders can grind for. Another issue, attack towers upgrade nicely at first, but then their mega-upgrades unlock. You buy those by sacrificing massive amounts of extra troop cards (massive as in: you splurged on chests to get mega-troops, and these are the surplus commons).

Spells are strictly limited. You can’t brew them. The only way to get spells is by buying 4-6 each day from the shop (with regular gold). That will last you 2 battles, tops. The game front loads you with 40 of each spell, but when you run out, ouch. I have to respect the cleverness. That $5 pack for 100 of each spell pack is looking pretty good right now.

The amount they make you wait before attacking again is funny. After an attack you’ll need to wait for dead troops to heal. But winning a battle may activate a 15-minute “troops instantly heal” spell. It affects the troops you just lost, but you can’t count on getting it. So the best plan is fighting weak opponents until the insta-heal turns on. Then you can attack for real, all you want for 1/4th hour. It’s quite strange. You may plan to attack only once, but get the buff and decide not to waste it. Or you may spend 1/2-hour fishing for it.

There’s a steampunk theme, sort of. One wagon is a mini-zeppelin, and the healer is a tech-based artificer. But there’s also a skeletal lich, a rockman, and a charging knight (that stuns). And Griffons and so on. The famous all-themes theme.

Army Camp math

Some of the fun in clash-likes is how the rules use the buildings as explanations, which then influence the rules. Army Camps are a particularly neat example. Your army is really just a number for how big it can be. Since it’s not used in defense, it doesn’t need to be displayed on the base at all. But it’s so fun to have open-air army camps with the troops wandering around them. Freshly made troops walk from the troop-making building over to the camps. Donated troops walk out of the camp and off the map. That all looks just terrific. It’s even fun to look at other peoples’ bases to see what kind of army they have.

At first things align just fine. But the rules of a clash-like say you don’t just make one army camp get bigger and bigger. Instead you should get more of them. So now our building logic is telling us the army size must suddenly double at some point. Our one army camp slowly grew from 20, to 25, to 30, to 35. But then adding a second jumps our total army size to 70. That’s a big jump, but it’s fine. We can work with that since we don’t want to break our Army Camp logic. But our visual depiction of the rules is now making the rules. Neat.

An army camp, currently holding sorcerers and treants, from Castle Clash

Here’s another fun one. Suppose we have three 35-space Army Camps, 105 spaces total, and dragons cost 25. How many dragons can we have? It’s 4 since 4*25 is less than 105. But it’s also 3 since only one can fit in each camp. Hmmm… . It turns out players hate doing complex math, so we get 4 dragons. How we’re stuffing in that 4th dragon might break suspension of disbelief, but the alternative is worse. The rules win over the visuals here.

Then we come to the back-up army. To be nice, the game allows you to train 1 extra army if you have time left from training the normal one. When you open the game after a long enough time you get to attack twice in a row, with no delay between since your back-up army trained overnight. That’s nice. But where is that entire extra army kept? Nowhere. But if we can keep troops nowhere, why is our army limited by how many fit into the Camps? Best not to think too much about it.

Final score: Abstract rules: 2, Army Camp logic: 1

[Game]G.I. Joe:War on Cobra

The GI Joe clash-like (GI Joe: War on Cobra) actually has some nice ideas for base design. Ultimately the game isn’t great because troop upgrades come from random chests and paying players have vastly better troops. But that’s not the base designers’ fault.

The basic set-up: you start at the bottom of the enemy base, going up a long semi-wide area, with the lightly-armed HQ at the top. A strip of usable ocean runs up the right side, giving the option to try your few naval forces. The 2 resources, gems and oil, are at fixed spots along both edges. Defenders have a few short indestructible wall sections, but they can be fired over. Otherwise they place the usual array of guns and defending leaders.

Placing your attack troops costs energy, which you get more of for destroying buildings. You’re allowed only 1 of each squad, but can place it again when it’s destroyed (if you still have the energy). It’s easy enough to completely destroy a few defenses with spells, but that’s expected — they have lots of defenses. It’s the Boom Beach style: part of your plan is “I could zap those 2, or those, or a bunch of those for extra energy… .”

Making it so you can’t move around your gem and oil mines works well, It encourages more spread-out defenses to avoid giving the attacker free points for destroying them. Troops can be controlled pretty well. It’s clever, you drag the troop’s icon over to the new target. You don’t need to use this often since troops are fairly smart, and prefer killing defenses. This makes the game somewhat un-clashy.

I’m not sure this next thing really helps. All weapons need to be within a few spaces of a tough energy generator building. You get lots of those, but not one for each gun. It mostly prevents you from setting one lonely gun to guard your ocean-based oil wells.

This game uses the terrible feature where troops are always ready but need to be repaired when damaged, which is very expensive in this game. It really penalizes losing and encourages you to attack only weak bases. Luckily, the game does a bad job selecting opponents and you can often find suitable targets. In return, your base will only be steam-rollered by players far out-ranking you. Both of those get old, fast.

As a bonus, if you’re a big GI Joe fan the characters here vaguely resemble the real ones.

[Game]Battle of Galaxy

Besides a kick-butt name, “Battle for the Galaxy War Game” has got some great clashy inventions. And it mixes that with the most sneaky, inventive monetization tricks. I don’t mean bringing in old tricks from other games, I mean “whoa, I never even thought to charge for that!”. First the good stuff:

This is minor, but a keeper. Clash of Clans (and all copies) has one barracks for all regular troops, and later a Dark Barracks for troops made from dark elixir. GftGWG says “why not have different types of barracks, just because?”. So in this game you get a building for People, then Light Machines (robots, drones, small tanks), and then Heavy Machines (big tanks). It’s surprisingly fun. And besides unlocking new troop types they also perform upgrades, so you’ll actually use them.

Next are the daily and weekly Events. For the daily, you and 9 other people attack the same base with a pre-made army — often a strange mix of very powerful troops, trying for the best % destruction. The top 6 out of 9 win something so it’s worth trying. You can even retry every hour. Being able to test-out crazy high-level troops for prizes is pretty fun.

The weekend event is even more unique — a “speed-base”. You start a new game in a new area running at 20x speed. You get prizes for how far you can build it up and for completing little missions. It also randomly turns some troops into super-troops with mega-upgrades. The ultimate reward is a 1-of-a-kind Artifact (a permanent bonus) for your real base. There’s no possible way to get to the end without spending money, but you can carry over points. If you play it a dozen weekends in a row you might save up enough to get the grand prize. In practice you’ll get bored after the 3rd or 4th time (each weekend you restart from nothing), but this idea has a lot of potential.

This game has a clever solution to the clashy problem of not caring whether you “win” an attack, as long as you get lots of gold. BftGWG wins give a random equipment card (a permanent small bonus to some troop type or building). You’re never done (2 more equipment cards gets the next small bonus, then 4 more…) so it’s a constant small incentive to try to look for battles where you may not get quite as much gold, but can win.

BftGWG has a better way of handling back-up armies. A modern clash-like allows you to pre-train one extra army. BftGWG says “why not 2 extra?” “why not start with no extra armies and let the player buy up to 5, through buildings?”. That’s a very clash-like thing to do, and seems obvious in hindsight. They do it by having attacks come from a Starport building. Inside, only in the menu, are up to 4 upgradeable spaceships (your Army Camps). To train a back-up army, buy another Starport. You can have up to 5. BftGWF is then devilish: each Starport independently levels up its spaceships, which is a huge time-sink. But another game could easily change that.

Onto the monetization. You start with 4 builders instead of the usual 2. But after a week you’re down to one! It turns out 3 of them were temporary for new players. Yowch! Your extra Starports can only be bought with gems. The building that houses a hero character is also gems-only (but is 50% off the first week. Seriously). Independently none of this is too bad, but together it means you’re behind if you don’t buy gems. They keep up the pressure nicely. By the time you’ve won enough gems for those buildings the game unlocks a second hero pedestal that you can’t afford.

The third currency, anti-matter — what would be dark elixir in clash of clans, is diabolical. Immediately you’ll see options requiring it — your 4th cannon, 5th machinegun, and so on. Those bonus buildings glow bright pink in the bases of people you attack, mocking you. It turns out you can only get anti-matter from the special events (or the cash shop). Since those buildings are also upgraded with anti-matter, you will always need more than you can get. Worse, anti-matter can buy a unique infantry squad which joins you in every attack. That’s BftGWG’s way of giving paying players a leg up.

That equipment you get for winning is also a cash sink. Normal equipment gives very small gains, which a normal player will tend to get naturally. But as you may recall, the game teases just how good mega (“legendary”) equipment is. You can’t get that by playing (even though an evil tooltip suggests you can). It only comes from paid loot chests.

The net effect is that by midgame things are clearly dominated by paying players. You can see they’ve got plenty of anti-matter to keep up with the best buildings, likewise gem-costing buildings, and they’ve got a few gold-colored troops stronger than anything you can field (which you know since you’ve used those same gold troops in your weekend speed-bases). Beyond that, the units just plain need tuning. Defenses get too tough, too fast, the mortar is far too powerful, the giants can hardly soak any damage, and the healers’ AI is bad. But someone should definitely copy some of this game’s good ideas.

[Game]Might&Glory

Might&Glory:Kingdom War (Nord Studios, published by My.com) starts out as an uglier more boring Clash of Clans. It has some terrible monetizing ideas, a few neat new things, and amazingly, has people playing it. I have no idea why.

Right off it’s got a link to one of those old pages where you can get gems by signing up for a credit card or answering a survey. Who knew those still existed? After the first few levels of the clash-clone stuff, you get this new customizable weapon … which turns out to be a cash-only building. Upgrades to it cost gems. Lots and lots of gems, and lots and lots of upgrades to make it good. The game allow you to create customized “totems” with various bonuses — also cost a ton of gems to upgrade to where they’re useful.

Besides cash-only items, which is very unclashy, there’s the bad game-play. Air defenses are tuned way too high — nothing flying stands a chance. Wall breakers are very stupid, running to the nearest wall even if it’s right next to a hole they just made. After suffering with your pitiful army you finally unlock a must-use super-troop. The rest of the game is simply using this one troop (it looks like a goblin with a bazooka, but don’t upgrade your goblins hoping to get it. It’s actually a dark elixir troop).

On to the neat ideas: you get a defense building that pops out 4 archers (and then wizards). Those are much more effective than the usual warriors which run and and die quickly. Your 2-5 heroes march around the entire base instead of just standing there. A end-game weapon spawns tiny spiders who also roam the whole base. This eliminates the “plinking” part of attacks (where you drop archers in safe spots around the base to “trim” it) which I never cared for.

There are some nice new troops. One is a clever ghost; fast, hits hard, goes through walls and runs around the building while attacking. That looks so cool and helps it avoid traps and mortars. The next is even cooler — an invisible beetle which runs at and kills traps for 7 seconds (at which point it becomes visible and is instantly killed, which is also pretty cool). Finally you get an expensive but long-range barbarian who freezes his current target. He’s in the perfect useful-but-not-overpowering range. But again, use the goblins with bazookas if they still exist.

On a neutral point, you get a building which can make tiny 8-hour boosts for some defenses. You get it late and it’s very expensive to upgrade. I like the idea, but the way it’s done here seems pointless.

I cannot figure out why people play this game. At first you want to unlock the weirdly-named buildings just to see what they do. Then you can’t believe a base with terrible air-defense still killed your flying army. Then you want to see what those freaking powerful goblins with rockets are. But after that? Sometimes the game rains down fireballs on every troop I place. Same spot or different spot, all get blasted. I’m a little curious what it is, but not enough to bore myself to death trying to unlock it.

[Game]Hackers

I tried the clash-like “Hackers” (by Trickster Arts) because there’s no way a decent one can be made with a computer hacking theme. Boy was I wrong! The mechanics of this are original, feels very computery, and results in interesting choices and tense battles. This is a great game.

Before getting to how fights work, the theme: other players are rival hackers. That actually makes sense — they’re your natural enemies, and can be attacked around the globe. The two currencies are credits (money) and bitcoins. Clever — as we know, some businesses want one and won’t take the other. It’s also fun how they scaled bitcoins down by about 20x — you’ll have some things that cost 30K credits next to others costing 1.5K bitcoins. Both amounts are as difficult to get.

One more neat non-combat feature is having a limited number of total buildings. As usual you can buy 2 of one type, 3 of another, and so on. Maybe adds to 18 buildings, but you’re limited to 16 total. You’ve got to decide which you can live without. I like it. It makes every base just a little different. I skimp on buildings that make money — I prefer to steal.

A typical base showing connected buildings

Now on to combat. Your buildings are “nodes” in a network. You connect each to 3 or 4 others — not just to your neighbors — to anywhere. Nothing happens “outside” of the nodes or network: your troops (programs) are placed in buildings and only attack along the connections. Instead of destroying buildings, you conquer them. Programs can’t be moved, so you’ll need to place new programs in newly conquered nodes to attack out from those. At first, bases tend to be a straight line of nodes and attacks aren’t very exciting, but it gets interesting quickly.

Defenses are doing the same thing as you but in reverse — attempting to retake connected buildings. Special defensive buildings are better at it, but all nodes have some counter-attack. When you capture a new node it will eventually be retaken unless you capture everything connected to it. Midway through attacks is the worst — you’ve got lots of exposed building being slowly retaken. You can either rush ahead and let them be recaptured, or attempt to capture pockets. Dealing with recaptures is a big part of an attack plan.

The basic attack program (your troops are “programs”) attacks one connected building at a time, switching to a new one when the old one is captured. The next attacks all connected buildings at once, but with less power. You later get “shield” programs which make it more difficult to be recaptured. A fun thing about shields is how the defender wears them down first, then they pop out of existence, freeing up the program slot. If you were paying attention you can quickly replace it with another shield program.

Later you get a program which can copy itself. At first it slowly copies into all slots of the building it’s in, then copies to every open slot in connected buildings. That seems incredible, but it only makes copies when there’s nothing left to attack. It’s still pretty good, but will need a lot of help from other programs.

Much later the powerful Kraken program can be placed in a start node and will attack all the way through to the HQ. But then it stops. It won’t attack anything past it, or off that one path. More fun, if 2 or 3 Kraken beams meet, they get extra power. This makes Kraken great for punching through those “all tough defenses in front” set-ups. But you’ll need other programs to help it.

Then they add “stealth” programs which can only be used at the start of an attack. One type can quckly “stealth conquer” a line of buildings. Then another drains the cash from a stealth-conquered building. A 3rd will permanently neutralize one building which has been stealth-conquered to help with your real attack. Much, much later, you get an expensive program allowing you to start stealth mode from anywhere, not just an official entrance.

Defensive buildings aren’t that exciting, but don’t need to be. One attempts to reconquer adjacent buildings, 1-at-a-time, with a so-so attack. Another does the same, but with a slow but strong pulse. One is just very tough with an extra shield (and one type of attack program is specially made to beat this). One is extra good at detecting stealth (it speeds up the “stealth will end” countdown).

The most interesting defense is the anti-virus building. It starts with “anti-virus”, which slowly spreads to adjacent friendly buildings (which then spread it to others, eventually to every building). Any building with anti-virus active attempts to recapture all adjacent buildings. So I lied when I said all buildings counter-attack. They do, but only when the anti-virus building spreads it to them. This is neat since it encourages the attacker to “waste” programs for a quick start, before anti-virus spreads much. Where to place that anti-virus building is an interesting choice (further back is safer, but takes longer to spread it to the front areas).

Play-wise, you can get to early mid-game relatively quickly. The stealing and being stolen from isn’t too stressful but keeps you working. And the recapture tug-of-war is really something to experience.