Clash Royale: 6 months review

This post is about Clash Royale, the Supercell game released in January 2016. I started playing Clash Royale when it was first released. This is significant: by starting at the release date, I can track my progress relative to everybody else. We all started at the same time.

After a six months of playing and reaching Level 8, I can say one thing: Clash Royale is a terrible game. It’s the closest thing in real life I’ve seen to the Ktarian Game. Clash Royale ties together the best attributes from CCG and MOBA games with an absurdly fun playing style, but with draconian time-gating and extremely aggressive monetization psychology.

Clash Royale sets up intricate barriers to impede game progress. The biggest barrier is time. Everything is time-gated. Free treasure chests appear every 4 hours (with a maximum of 2 chests stacking after 8 hours). Every 24 hours, a Crown Chest is made available for scoring 10 field points. Clan mates can donate cards to you every 8 hours. Winning a match increments your trophies and awards you a treasure chest, but it can take anywhere from 3 to 24 hours to open, depending on the type of chest awarded. There are slots for only 4 treasure chests, and you’ll lose out on additional treasure chest awards on subsequent match victories if your slots are full.  So you wait 3 to 24 hours to open a slot before playing another match. But you’ll login anyway, just to snatch the bonus treasure chests every 4 hours and cards donated by clan mates every 8 hours. What? Did I just login to a game not to play it?

Of course, you can gem everything to speed things along. And gems are expensive. Like, really expensive. I purchased a few dollars of gems to write this blog post. I wanted to know how much a boost purchasing a “magical chest” would provide. Categorically:  insignificantly minuscule. Spending $5 is utterly insignificant to gameplay. I wasted money that could have purchased a few meals to support disaster relief areas around the world. A gamer would have to purchase a lot of gems to reap in-game benefits. Let me explain what a lot means.

Your level is basically determined by how long you’ve been playing and how often you login to get the free-to-play daily bonuses and clan donations. I’ve mostly captured all of the bonus chests, daily crown chests, and kept my slots full since game release date. I’ve been able to reach Level 8. There’s simply no way to change this trajectory, except gems. In other words, I’ve been capturing all of the free-to-play upgrades and chests since game release date. Anyone who has more upgrades has gemmed it. It’s doesn’t seem possible to reach higher levels since game launch without gemming: the game’s time-gating controls your upgrade speed. Reaching Level 10 at this point in the game requires approximately $1000, and a Level 12 deck requires approximately $12,000. Levels get progressively harder, so the difference is huge between 10 and 12! The forums discuss $100 as “spending a small amount of money”. To put this in perspective, it requires $25,000 of gems to obtain maximum epic cards in the game. This is equivalent to 30+ years of collecting free-to-play items. A lot of the top players have at least some maximum epic cards. The free-to-play gamer will never be able to compete at these levels. And the game periodically introduces new and exciting cards, which means they will need upgrading, too. This is very different from Clash of Clans, where free-to-play gamers regularly compete at the Town Hall 10 and 11 levels.

So I’m a small fish (free-to-play Level 8) in a big ocean with no hope of advancing to significantly higher playing levels. I routinely get pounded by guys with high-level wizards, or some other absurdly high-level troops, obviously gemmed. I can’t compete with that, and for good reason: that’s how the game is designed. It has an addictive playing style that is impossible to progress without spending money.

The matchmaking system puts you down a dangerous psychological road, appealing to the proper neural pathways to make you insane. The game learns your strategy and deliberately arranges matchmaking with opponents that can effectively counter you. It’s terribly infuriating. You win a few times. As the system learns your strategy, it progressively matches you against opponents that can defeat you. Before you know it, you’ve dropped 400 trophies and into the next lower league. Your treasure chest slots are full of low-level league awards, and you’ve blown your chances of winning higher-level cards until you empty out the slots (taking between 3 and 24 hours per slot). But you keep playing to get back into the higher league. The game fights back with progressively more impossible opponent matchups.  The opponents aren’t necessarily better than you. They just have the infuriatingly exact combination of troops to counter yours. And they all laugh at you as you mercilessly lose.

The matchmaking algorithm is so obvious, I can tell within the first few cards the opponent plays how the match will conclude. Oh, he’s playing the exact cards that counter my deck. There needs to be a “forfeit” button, because the next 2m 50s is a waste of time. The match result is a foregone conclusion to the matchmaking algorithm, yet I continue to vainly defend against impossible odds, thinking somehow my superior strategic troop placements will somehow reverse the tide. My opponent keeps invoking the laughing face, occasionally showing the crying face, presumably because he’s laughing so hard at my vain efforts it bring him to tears. I hate those 2 minutes and 50 seconds.

The pay-to-win force is strong. The adaptive matchmaking ultimately pits your troop selection against one deliberately selected to defeat yours. After you get stomped a few times, you start looking to either acquire one of the winning cards (using gems), or to strengthen your own (using gems).

That’s right: the game psychology is structured for you to give them money for you to lose less painfully (by the way, this is a great link).

More psychology: if you accumulate 10 points on the playing field, you are entitled to a daily “Crown Chest”. Note that you can score points on the playing field but still lose the match. It’s entirely possible to score enough field points to earn a Crown Chest while losing every match. I’ve done it. The game makes you feel better by earning a Crown Chest while ruthlessly stabbing you in the back with its adaptive matchmaking system. This has an enormously powerful psychological effect. You’ve just lost 400 trophies, put into a lower trophy league, tired and frustrated, opponents keep invoking the laughing face, lost your last match, but you scored the one last field point to open the daily Crown Chest! You are rewarded and frustrated simultaneously. You finally got that damned chest open, but it’s loaded with lower-league level cards. You tell yourself that when you play tomorrow, get back up into the league where you belong.

Clash Royale is synchronous gameplay. You never know your true win/loss ratio, but statistics require it to be around 50%. If you win 51%, you will increment trophy leagues. If you win 49%, you will decrement. The game is built around the frustration of losing and purchasing gems to compensate. Eventually, you’ll reach a league with similar players to you, and your win/loss ratio will stabilize at 50% again until you spend more money. Because of the game’s adaptive matchmaking, you’ll go on disastrous losing streaks followed by long climbs back uphill. Round trip: loads of frustration and resentment on the long climb  uphill. When you get back to where you started, the round trip ultimately averages a 50% win/loss ratio. You didn’t actually win at anything, but you got a lot of free bonus chests and a crown chest, so you feel like you won something.

I suspect that using a randomly selected deck each game and simply dropping troops on the playing field as they become available would eventually stabilize with >50% win ratio. Your ability to win would be based purely on the strength of your troops and the inability for the game to adapt matchmaking opponents to your randomized strategy. You would hover in a trophy league corresponding to your troop levels until the accumulation of daily bonuses and treasure chests gradually grant upgrades, resulting in advancement to a higher trophy league. I can envision a bot that sits there all day, opening daily treasure chests and randomly dropping troops. I return in a few months, a Level 9, a deck loaded with cards, and in a higher trophy league.

In these terms, Clash Royale is a terrible game. If you play it, I suspect you agree.

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