This new Dota 2 custom mode is way more popular than Artifact

Dota Auto Chess is taking the world of Dota 2 by storm.

I’m trying to figure out how Dota Auto Chess works. It’s a new Dota 2 custom game mode created by a team of Chinese developers called Drodo Studio, and it’s taking the Dota 2 scene by storm – Sunday, it had a peak of more than 100,000 concurrent players, making it 20 times as popular as Valve’s own Artifact during that same time.

So how does it work? Despite the name, it’s not much like chess, apart from the fact that it’s played on a board divided into 64 squares. Your goal is to be the last of eight players left alive, and you do that by earning gold, buying pieces, and placing those pieces on your board.

There are layers and layers of complexity baked into Dota Auto Chess. First, the pieces you buy are all Dota 2 heroes, and after each round, you’ll get a random selection of them to pick from. You’ll level up your pieces by buying duplicates, using three level one heroes to create a level two hero, and three level twos to make a level three.

Of course, each hero has its own special abilities, so you’ll need to be familiar not only with Dota 2’s extensive roster, but also with the way they’re implemented in Dota Auto Chess and how they synergize across race, class, and ability set. There are familiar items you can use to equip them, which you’ll earn by defeating creeps. Oh right, there are creeps.

Each round, you’ll face off against either a wave of creeps, or a clone of one of your opponents’ boards. There’s a big random element in Dota Auto Chess, and learning to manage risk and probability seems like a major part of the game. Team Secret director of operations Matthew Bailey has a decent rundown on Twitter:

Between rounds, you have a 30-second “strategy round” during which you’ll buy, upgrade, and place pieces. There are only 20 of each piece available per game, so you’ll have to use the strategy time to keep an eye on the other seven gameboards to see who is using which pieces and use that information to inform your buying decisions, too.

Getting started: Our guide on how to play Artifact

As you can probably tell, there’s a lot to learn, and we haven’t even touched on positioning. But what’s remarkable is that Dota Auto Chess is already massively popular after quietly launching January 4. When I fired it up this afternoon, nearly 45,000 players were active in the game, with nearly 700,000 subscribed to the mode. Compare that to the 3,559 people playing Artifact at the time, and you get a sense of the direction in which the fans have gone. Steamcharts puts Artifact’s all-time peak concurrent player count at just over 60,000, and Dota Auto Chess is beating that on a daily basis by a wide margin.

Clearly, there are significant differences in how the games work: Artifact is a paid product, while Dota Auto Chess is a free mod. But similarly to Artifact, Dota Auto Chess is remixing the familiar bits and pieces of Dota 2 into another kind of game, and it’s sparked the kind of interest that Valve certainly must have hoped they’d generate with Artifact, but which hasn’t yet materialized.

If you’re interested in playing, fire up Dota 2 and head to the Arcade – Dota Auto Chess should be near the top of the list. Hit install, and you’ll be ready to play in a couple minutes.