Clash Royale Is Like Poker

Clash Royale is one of the most popular games in the world. It’s also one of the most financially successful, generating at least a billion dollars a year worldwide. Now, given its success, a fair amount has been written about its design. There’s plenty of analysis on how it monetizes, and on the specific metagame, optimizations players can make between time, in-game currency, and real money… but what I want to talk about is different.

I want to talk about how Clash Royale uses some of the key elements of poker in its game design.

Now, the best poker players can figure out what cards another player has based on very limited knowledge, and oftentimes their success will be based on their ability to make an educated guess about their opponent’s hand and their strategy. And knowing their personality and play style helps, too.

To boil it down, each player has things they know, like what cards they have, what cards have been revealed, and how much money is on the line. They know what each other player has bet, too.

And then there’s the soft stuff, things that are open to interpretation. What’s the personality of the other players? What kind of risks do they take? What’s their mood? Is there a tell?

Okay, so keep that all in mind.

Back to Clash Royale. I’ve seen it compared to Chess, which is a game of pure strategy… but each player has the same knowledge of the board at all times. Players might not accurately predict each others’ moves, but given exhaustive effort it’s theoretically possible to do so.

I’ve also seen Clash Royale compared to Counterstrike. I think this is a great comparison in the sense that all players know what’s possible, but there’s no way to predict the decisions of the other team except by looking at their past actions and hoping that they signal future actions.

Thing is, in Counterstrike, once a round is over, that’s it – you can’t build off of the success or failure of a round. You just start over and hope to do better next time.

Clash Royale has also been compared to MOBAs. This is insightful because there are multiple paths to victory, and each player can have a drastically different loadout. But in a MOBA, each team knows what they’re up against in advance. They know the heroes, they know their moves, they just don’t know how the other players are going to use them.

To summarize:

Chess: Full situational awareness at all times, no randomness, no variation in starting state

Counterstrike: Incomplete situational awareness, no randomness, but player-driven variation in starting state (which is unknown to the opposing side)

MOBAs: Incomplete situational awareness, no randomness, more dramatic player-driven variation in starting state (but some of it is known to the opposing side)

Poker: Incomplete situational awareness, randomness, players have no control over the starting state

Now, think about those traits. How does Clash Royale fit in?

Like poker, each player has incomplete situational awareness; They don’t know what’s in the other player’s hand at all when the game begins. They have to piece it together as the other player plays their cards. And once they have played a card, the other player has to remember that it’s there, keep track of how many cards are played, and have an idea that on average a card will show up ever four cards played (since a player can only hold four at a time).

Like poker, the starting state is random, but like a MOBA, the player still has control over the loadout.

So, to use the existing terms, Clash Royale is in a unique position where a match exhibits the following characteristics:

  • Randomized starting state, but from a fixed set of possibilities defined by the player
  • Incomplete situational awareness, since players don’t know each others’ hands, like poker
  • Learning other player’s hand over time, like poker
  • Learning the other player’s style over time, like poker
  • Using the knowledge of the player’s hand and play style to predict their behavior, like poker

Of course, you can’t explain the game entirely through poker, but I do think the most interesting aspect of gameplay is when you’ve mastered your understanding of each card, because at that point the most important part of your strategy stops being about you and starts to be about learning what the opposing player has and then trying to predict and manipulate their behavior.

In other words, you can bluff, you can intimidate, you can cause panic. You can take advantage of the fact that they don’t know what you have, even though you may not be entirely sure what they have. And that sounds a lot like poker to me.

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