When I first discovered Clash Royale, I was elated.

This was the kind of game I had always been looking for. A true strategy game that can be played in portrait mode with only one hand. Quick few-minute matches against real live opponents. This was going to be my new addiction.

Cheesy art style aside, Clash Royale is polished and well-designed. The playful appearance is deceptive though, because gameplay can be excruciatingly frustrating. Indeed, it is not for the faint of heart.

Bite-sized real-time strategy

With the release of Clash Royale in early 2016, developer Supercell pioneered a new mobile-based RTS genre. If there were similar games before this one came along, nobody was playing them. And ever since, we’ve seen a seemingly endless barrage of Clash Royale clones hitting the app store as developers try to claim a slice of the mobile RTS pie.

It’s the bite-sized approach to real-time strategy that really broke new ground in the mobile market. In traditional games from the genre, you’d have a large map to traverse and towers to build before you could have the resources to summon your armies to battle. In Clash Royale, the entire map between you and your opponent is the distance between the top and bottom of your phone screen. Your resources are automatically generating, and your armies come from a deck of virtual cards you build beforehand. It’s genius.

There is genuine strategy involved in playing Clash Royale. Timing is extremely important, and there are certain cards that counter specific enemies better than others. Be careful though. If you just spam your minions as soon as you have the resources to play them, you’ll find yourself at a huge disadvantage. You’ll watch helplessly as your opponent sends powerful armies to attack your towers while you’re still waiting for enough energy to refill so you can play something in defense. But if you carefully time each attack you launch, you just might destroy all three enemy towers and emerge victorious. It’s a lot of fun to play.

But, wait. This app is a free download, isn’t it? Yep. And you know what that means.

There’s A Catch

Clash Royale falls short in being an overwhelmingly shameless pay-to-win game. While you’ll be able to level up a certain amount before this really kicks in, it eventually becomes very clear that your quick-thinking and strategic deck-building is only about 50% of what it takes to win crowns and keep progressing. The other 50% is made up of cold, hard cash. This is forced into the game via a completely unnecessary mechanic that we’re seeing more and more of these days: cards that level up.

When you think about it, the only reason to make cards that level up is to make people pay.  There’s no other reason such a feature should exist in a true strategy game. Being able to have a card that’s stronger than another player’s version of the same card doesn’t exactly resonate fairness. In fact, it changes the entire strategy of the game. At some point, someone who’s paid enough money to level up cards won’t even have to think about what cards they are playing in order to win.

Pay-to-Win is, unfortunately, winning

All the same, this hasn’t stopped Clash Royale from being an extremely popular game since its release nearly two years ago. It’s even won an award for esport of the year . Sure, its an elaborate cash trap. But it’s a fun elaborate cash trap! And with such polished dazzling cartoon graphics, frantic competitive gameplay, and a masterfully-designed interface, it still has its merits.

It’s just unfortunate that game developers’ ability to make a living these days seems to be more and more at the expense of the game itself.

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