Clash Royale Review: Dealing from the Bottom of the Deck
Supercell had a hit on its hands with Clash of Clans. The tower defense game still sits near the top of Google’s top grossing games chart. For their follow-up, they took many of the elements of Clash of Clans and distilled it into a competitive multiplayer strategy game called Clash Royale.
Clash Royale is a 1v1 game that combines tower defense, deck building and strategy. You take a deck of eight cards into battle and attempt to play them in order to destroy the enemy’s three towers before he can take down yours. If you were to look at Blizzard equivalents, it combines Hearthstone and StarCraft.
The core of the gameplay is pretty straight forward. Like Hearthstone, you assemble your deck and each card has an elixir (mana) cost to play from your regenerating elixir pool. Each card (unit) has different attributes, strengths and weaknesses. The objective is to play the optimal combination of cards in order to destroy more towers than your opponent in the time limit or destroy their King Tower (an instant win condition) before they can do the same to you.
As of writing, there are 54 cards in the game that are divided between troops, buildings and spells and ranked either common, rare, epic or legendary. It’s not a huge variety of cards even for eight-card decks and long-time players complain about stagnant meta with updates coming about once a month. While there is strategy to playing and countering cards that allows your skill and understanding of the game to carry you to victory, there are a few preferred deck builds that you need to succeed at higher levels.
Matches are scheduled for a three-minute time limit with one-minute overtime if nobody has a tower advantage at the end of regulation time or if no one has destroyed the King Tower. With short queue times to get into a game, you can play a match every five minutes which is perfect for a game on the go.
You earn cards through chests which are earned from winning matches (which also earns you gold), destroying towers in matches and once every four hours. Your chests will have gold, cards and occasionally gems (the premium currency). Your cards level up as you collect more of a unit (your deck cycles through the eight units you put into it in order so more cards of a particular unit means you level that card up rather than have more of them in a deck) but you need gold to activate that level-up. Gold also allows you to buy cards. Gems are used to buy gold and chests.
Considering all of the ways that you can earn cards and pay for cards and upgrades, it seems like a pretty fair system. There is some debate as to whether the game has a paywall from this business model. The consensus is that once you get to the last two of the eight Arenas, you’ll probably hit a paywall.
The biggest problem with this game, by a wide margin, is the matchmaking. Over my first three or four days playing, matchmaking in the lower leagues were pretty good. I was getting matchups that were fairly even in terms of player and card levels. In those matches, it was a matter of strategy and deck composition that determined the winner.
As I reached the top end of Arena 2, matchmaking took a massive turn for the worse. That’s because I noticed player and card level disparities. I was suddenly up against players two levels higher than me with cards I didn’t even have access to and the ones in my deck were outgunned. All the skill in the world isn’t going to help when your cards can’t go toe-to-toe with the competition and you need to do 300 points more damage to take down a tower with your weaker cards.
That’s because the matchmaking system is quite rudimentary. You’re matched with players based on trophies earned from winning matches. The problem is that matching based on trophies doesn’t factor in everything that other games’ MMR would. As a result, players with a higher level (meaning more health and damage from towers) or higher level cards (meaning more health and damage from their cards) or cards you don’t have access to (they become available will have an instant advantage over you. Sometimes, you can overcome that. Often, you can’t.
The problem is that Clash Royale’s matches aren’t necessarily built around being a skill-based contest. Instead of trying to determine player skill and creating an MMR, the trophies are used as a substitute. There’s no matching based on player levels, card levels or deck composition. As you get past the first two Arenas, players often find that you will find level disparities between player and cards override skill disparities until levels equalize around Arena 7 or 8.
This is what drives the pay-to-win store. You can either keep hoping for more favourable matchups, grind your way to better cards or you can just spend actual money to spend on chests for more cards to level yours up in order to compete. Supercell could have factored player and card levels along with trophies and deck composition in order to get better matchmaking but they decided to use just trophies to matchmake. Since they’re going for bite-sized gameplay, I can see the reason for keeping matchmaking simple to speed queue times. The problem is that using this simple matchmaking discourages new players and it might just discourage them out of game rather than giving them an incentive to spend real money.
From a graphics perspective, it’s cartoony but it does look better than what I’ve seen in terms of Clash of Clans screenshots. That being said, the art style is very similar. A lot of the same units from that game appear in Clash Royale. It’s like a deck-building RTS version of CoC when you get right down to it. The music is okay and the sounds aren’t too bad so you might get a little perk from playing the game with a little bit of sound going.
Clash Royale is very much a “you get what you pay” type of game. Depending on your willingness to spend money or grind, you can very quickly run into frustrations with matchmaking and that could frustrate you right out of the game.
If there was some depth to the strategy or deck combinations or if skill could reliably overcome levelled-up cards, this game would get a better score. Granted, if any of that was the case, it wouldn’t be Clash Royale. That would be closer to StarCraft.
Clash Royale was reviewed on Android but is also available for iOS. Your impressions of the game may differ depending on platform played on, device played on, money spent on microtransactions and whether you think matchmaking actually matters in a competitive PVP game.