The waiting game: Hands-on with Clash of Clans

Clash of Clans
Before November 2013, I had never heard of Supercell's Clash of Clans. I'm not much of a mobile gamer, choosing mostly to use my iPad as a machine through which to stream Firefly episodes while I do the dishes or sweep up the immense piles of dog fur created by my ancient German shepherd. But a Thanksgiving holiday spent with friends obsessed with the game piqued my curiosity, as did the fact that Clash of Clans had helped Supercell earn roughly $2.4 million per day through most of 2013.

So, a bit begrudgingly, I joined my friends in a clan. And raided goblin villages. And built myself a nice little town. But mostly what I did was wait.

Learning the basics

Clash of Clans is at heart a strategy game; the object is to fortify your town to ensure it can't be looted by other players while simultaneously advancing your own technologies to both increase resource production and to build an invincible army. You are allowed to arrange your town however you see fit, constructing walls around valuable structures and placing defenses such as canons, mortars, archer towers, and more to help keep your stuff safe. It's a simple, effective set-up that encourages the testing of various layouts and the investigation of different defensive strategies.

Clash of Clans
What (and how many) things you can build is determined by the current level of your town hall. At town hall level one, for example, you may have one gold mine, one elixir collector, one army camp, one barracks, two canons, and one storage unit each for gold and elixir. At level two, you gain the archer tower and an additional mine, collector, and barracks, plus one more storage unit for each of your two resources. You also earn the ability to build 25 wall segments. Progression in Clash of Clans works pretty much how you'd expect from there; each new town hall upgrade (all the way to level 10) provides new structures with which to play and new ways in which to defend them.

Additional depth is found in the leveling up of individual structures. Each town hall level allows for a certain amount of upgrading of the buildings and defenses located in your town. A level two canon does more damage and has a higher number of hitpoints than a level one cannon. Level five walls are harder to break down than level three walls. And upgrades for non-combat structures, such as the gold mine or elixir collector, provide for an increase in the rate of resource collection or a raise on your gold/elixir cap.

Clash of Clans
As for your army, the units you can create depend on the current level of your barracks. While a basic level one barracks provides you with the ability to make barbarians that zerg on foot toward whatever target is closest, upgrading the barracks gives you access to increasingly powerful (and specialized) troops like the archer, goblin, healer, and wizard. Additionally, upgrading and building new army camps enables you to keep a larger standing army and to commit more troops to a battle. Units created in the barracks are for use strictly in attacking other players or completing single-player missions -- they will not come to your aid if your village is attacked.

Attacking other players (and winning) earns you and your clan trophies. The most successful clans and players get to sit astride the global leaderboards, from which any paltry serf can view his majestic, expensive, and invincible kingdoms. If leaderboards aren't your thing, sharing designs with (and attacking) your friends adds another layer of socialization to the game. My clan, which goes by the name "Other Barry," has amassed 3,215 trophies, placing us at an impressive global ranking of 557,151st.

Try not to be intimidated.

Shining gems

On the surface, Clash of Clans is a charming mobile strategy game with some truly engaging elements. Designing an impenetrable town is an exercise in OCD-inspiring trial and error, and building the perfect army for ransacking another player's settlement or destroying a village of unsuspecting goblins is a task that brings immense satisfaction. The addition of the clan tower, which allows players in your clan to send you reinforcements that serve as additional defenders or troops (depending on how you want to use them), is a nice touch, especially once you've leveled your town hall up a couple of times and begin to suffer daily assaults. Mix all of that with the attractive art style and an excellent UI and you've got a fun, enjoyable little tablet game perfect for burning a few minutes of downtime.

Clash of Clans
The one catch is that Clash of Clans is a free-to-play game. And because it is a free-to-play game, Supercell has to find a way to make you want to spend money. In the case of Clash of Clans, the chosen method is one anyone who's played free-to-play Facebook or mobile titles will know well: forcing you to wait, wait, wait for anything you actually want to do. The game isn't pay-to-win in the sense that players can purchase powerful items that yield an unfair advantage. Instead, the advantage purchased is the ability to advance more quickly through the game by tapping your wallet instead of the screen.

The premium currency in Clash of Clans is gems. A pile of 500 gems costs $4.99 US, while a chest of 14,000 costs $99.99. It's nothing new in terms of the free-to-play market. And to Supercell's credit, gems can be earned (slowly) through normal gameplay by clearing out trees, rocks, logs, and other respawning debris from the land around your town. Every action in the game takes real time. Every troop you create has a spawn time. Every building you build or upgrade has a construction time. The deeper you get into the game, the longer these times get.

Clash of Clans
Gems can be used to skip over the wait. Don't feel like spending 20 minutes waiting on your cannon to upgrade? Spend some gems. Want that next town hall level now instead of later? Spend some gems. The gem cost is relative to the amount of time skipped. Early on, when buildings and upgrades take minutes, the gem costs are light. Later in the game, when construction times stretch into days, the gem costs become exorbitant. The game's tutorial, naturally, teaches you how to spend gems to reduce downtime -- gotta build that habit early.

The slow crawl

There's another artificial slowdown in the mix, however. Clash of Clans provides you with only two builders by default. A builder can only work on one thing at a time; if one builder is on a two-day construction project, you'll have only one other builder to clear debris or to work on something else. When both builders are busy, you are incapable of doing anything besides spawning troops at the barracks. Unsurprisingly, builders are the only unit in the game that are available exclusively for gems. If you want to build/upgrade more than two things at a time, you'll need to pony up 500 gems ($4.99) per additional builder's hut.

Clash of Clans
Clash of Clans isn't unfair in its monetization. Nothing here is criminal, and you certainly don't have to ever spend gems. If you're the patient type, you can wait your construction times out. But the slowdown that occurs as you get deeper into the game certainly ruins a bit of the charm. Once you hit a point where each building upgrade takes days instead of hours, you either start to lose interest in the game or make the decision to start spending money. The town hall, for example, takes 45 days in real-time to hit max level. Each barracks takes 14 days. Every gold mine takes 11 days. And so on. Now extrapolate those upgrade times by adding dozens of structures and only upgrading or building two at a time. Once you hit mid-game in Clash of Clans, you'll regularly open the app to discover there's nothing really to be done.

Clash of Clans
The slowdown also impacts the single-player campaign. Building a new army after a raid can take an hour or more once you can build many units and many unit types. And when you run into a particularly tough mission that requires new or upgraded units, the only option is waiting until your town catches up with the difficulty curve and waiting for your army to rebuild in between attempts. What happens with Clash of Clans, or at least what happened for me, is it becomes something you open once a day out of habit, touch a few icons, and close. Maybe that's the way it's meant to be played.

Clash of Clans is a fun little game. It provides relatively deep strategy through base design, structure upgrades, a challenging (if small) single-player campaign, and PvP attacks. Supercell has the formula nailed; there's likely few, if any, games like this on the App Store that are executed with as much care and competency. It's an absolutely solid title that does everything it promises and contains very few cheap shots, though the reliance on real-time delays may turn you off as it did me.

I'm still building away, of course. Perhaps I'll write a Second Wind when I hit max level in 2017.

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This article was originally published on Massively.