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What I Talk About When I Talk About Freemium: A Review of Clash Royale

For two reasons does it feel weird to review a mobile game. The first is that there’s always been this sort of niggling assumption on my part that games that are so often played in only five-minute bursts are not all that deserving of the length of the long(ish)-form review - I’m far more used to and comfortable with opinions on stuff like Angry Birds or whatever it is the kids are playing these days manifesting as nothing more than 100-word, three-sentenced farts from writers who smash out about six-hundred reviews a day. And the second reason is that I don’t really play mobile games, so my actual basis for what constitutes a ‘good’ or (perhaps more importantly in this epoch) ‘honest’ mobile game is somewhat virginal and as such none of the below I can, with any degree of conviction, recommend that you trust. In fact, most of this thing is going to sound universally naive - spoilers: I love Clash Royale - but surely there’s at least a little beauty in that. I’m like a kid watching Fox News: everything is bright and colorful and explosive and entertaining, and I have no idea how truly awful all of it is. And but since this game costs no money anyway, I’m hardly doing anything irresponsible or unethical now, am I?

So here’s Clash Royale, spinning - nay, whirling - off from developer Supercell’s previous killer app, Clash of Clans, which had, presumably, players clashing with one another. Over...something. Also, clans! (?) Clash Royale sports the same Nick-Park-ish-stop-motion-style art and character design as CoC, which personally I’m into because small palettes of bold colors make it easy for my inferior monkey brain to figure out what’s happening at any given time on my teeny-weeny phone screen - which is important in a game which, at times, requires you to make decisions and deploy troops in extremely rapid fashion.


Which of course segues nicely into an explanation of what the game is all about. I suppose the most accurate description here is that the game takes the frenetic lane-management and troop deployment of a frankly standard tower defense game and shoves it up the butt of a frankly impressive trading card game, in the same way one might thrust stuffing up the butt of a turkey - turkey good, turkey w/ stuffing better. All this trading-card-game-butt-shoving is fairly popular these days as developers not called ‘Blizzard’ try to capitalise on the proven addictiveness (and therefore financially-badassedness) of digital card games: Card Hunter and Concrete Jungle, both recent titles, offer similar approaches in that they, too, manifest as standard genre games morphed by their having been shoved up the ass of a card game. And there’s nobody happier about this new trend than yours truly. I love Magic: The Gathering and Hearthstone the Pokemon TCG and the rest of this wonderful, addictive crap, so therefore I’m automatically curious whenever another TCG/x mashup title drops. As far as this one goes, the gameplay is neato burrito: there are two players, each with access to a customisable eight-card deck, with each card representing a unit, building, or spell. Each card costs a particular amount of your constantly-regenerating mana, and in true arbitrary tower defense style, certain units counter certain other units which counter certain other units in a never-ending rock-paper-scissors-style cyclical nightmare which may or may not be melting brains as I speak. And with small deck sizes, luck doesn’t have a large a role as it does in other card games, with most losses and wins usually coming down to who gone done did the mostest smart things - something which is hugely important in any title which sports, among others, the descriptive terms of, “freemium” and “multiplayer”. Because those terms are of course the sinful, constantly-fornicating parents of that depraved and malevolent bastard child: “pay-to-win”.

But not this time.

Will bottomless pockets improve your Clash Royale deck? You bet your (toned, I’m sure) ass they will. Throw a hundie stick or two at this thing and you’ll find yourself inundated with piles of badass cards with which to craft nigh-unstoppable decks. But thanks to a frankly ingenious (by multiplayer game standards) matchmaking system which utilises both a player level and an ELO-lite competitive rating as a means to enforce fairness, being matched up against superior decks is something that just straight up doesn’t happen. Because: earning new cards and levelling up existing ones increases your player level, which in turn bumps you up to tougher competitive tiers. Additionally, a competitive rating determines precisely who you’ll be matched up with within your tier. One number reflects your absolute card quality, and one number reflects your relative skill - simple and effective, and I’ve not once found myself up against anyone I felt to be truly out of my league in terms of either deck beast-ness or personal smartitude. (So take note, any developer considering possibly maybe contemplating thinking about making a card game). Therefore, even with a financially-charged deck, you’re quickly going to top out and find yourself on the same level as all those other guys who felt the need to drop fat wads on a free mobile game, while folks like myself, in our eternal state of zero money ever, are left behind to chill and have fun without all the bad beats typically associated with pay-to-win vidya games.

In terms of bang-for-your-no-bucks-whatsoever-you-Sanders-voting-commie, Clash Royale’s system is incredibly fair. Perhaps unnecessarily so, since the soft paywalls don’t actually prevent players from, well, playing the game. There are no regenerating lives or mandatory waiting periods standing between you and a spot of toilet-based noob-whomping: if you want to play, you can play. The question, therefore, is how exactly are dirty freeloaders such as myself ‘punished’? Or perhaps a more interesting and review-lengthening question is: are we even punished at all?


The answer to that question is, of course: maybe w/ upward inflection and shrug. While the game doesn’t enforce waiting periods on play itself, it does enforce waiting periods on the acquisition of in-game rewards. For each win, players are rewarded with a chest (the fantasy-themed equivalent of a booster pack) which, depending on its type, takes a particular amount of time before deciding to unlock (from three hours for the basic silver chest to six millennia for the super-ultra-badass-nightmare chest). Nothing which can’t be solved by spending some real money of course, but for everyone else, we just have to wait. The “catch” with this is that there are only four chest ‘gestation’ slots available, which means after only ten minutes of gaming your wins are going to net you nothing more than an increased player rating. As far as prizes, you’re out of luck until the next chest unlock. To some, this might sound a little stupid and tedious.


And but here’s the thing: I enjoy playing Clash Royale. As in the game itself. It’s engaging, fun, and rewarding in the sense that victories make me feel smart (as opposed to lucky) - and I don’t need much more than that, especially in a game that a) costs no money and b) is designed for play on either the bus or the toilet. Even if the new cards aren’t flowing, the rating system ensures that you’ll never stray out of reach of what it is you, or your decks, are capable of. I’ll tweak my deck within an inch of its life and see how far I can go with it - and by the time I’ve done that - well would you look at that, I’ve unlocked some new cards, and the process can begin again. Can it get a little grindy at times? Sure, but let’s not get our knickers in a collective twist over a mobile game - please, save your ten-hour stints to Metal Gear Solid V or Final Fantasy XIV or some other numerically-Roman thing.

So: if you’re a) the type of gamer who requires no rewards beyond enjoyable gameplay, b) need something to get you through those slightly more difficult and time-consuming varieties of poops, and c) want to spam some of the most annoying emotes this side of MSN Messenger while taking some strategically-void pleb to tower defense school, Clash Royale is where it’s at. Enjoy your poops.


I’m Scott. Like my things? Here is a Twitter.

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