A top-down primer of one of Android's most popular games

You've seen the commercials (especially if you watched the Super Bowl), you've scrolled past the Facebook ads, and you probably have at least one friend or child playing it right now. The animations offered in the commercials are cute, and being threatened by Liam Neeson is always a good time, but there's a lot more to Clash of Clans than micro-transactions and battling strangers.

It's a game that pulls from some of the oldest forms of tabletop gaming and mixes in always online and quick-glance mobile gaming to create an experience that will quickly suck you in even if you never spend a dime.

Consider this your crash course in Clash of Clans, everything from what to expect after installing to what device is best for maximum enjoyment.

At its core, Clash of Clans — available from Google Play — is a strategy game whose primary objective is to be the person with the most trophies. You earn trophies either by successfully attacking someone else's village, or by successfully defending against an attack from another online player. As you earn more trophies, you climb the ranks and are matched against opponents of equal or greater skill. The ultimate goal is to work your way to the very top — the Champion class. To get there, you'll need to spend either quite a bit of time or quite a bit of money to upgrade your village, train your soldiers, and develop the best strategies for both offense and defense.

Clash of Clans Build

The Build Phase

Like classic tabletop games, Clash of Clans is basically broken out into two phases — Build and Action. The game isn't explicitly broken out into these two modes, but it doesn't take much to see where the boundaries lie. The build phase is all about setting up your village in the best possible way. Your builders build, using gold coins and purple elixir as currency.

As your village grows and improves, you have the ability to build new buildings that give you access to new tools for offense or defense. Village growth typically focuses around leveling-up your town hall, which means your village will grow in stages. You store up enough resources to upgrade your town hall, and spend the next little while re-organizing your village to take advantage the new things you have available to you. Like any level-based system, this happens quickly at first but becomes orders of magnitude more difficult with each level up.

Defending your village is a big part of the build phase, as attacks from enemies don't happen in real time like a Tower Defense game. You get a notification after the fact telling you someone has attacked you, and there's a replay of the assault available for you to watch. As a result, you have to set the appropriate defenses and do your best to anticipate what your opponents are most likely to do. (Every now and then you're able to catch someone in the act, but this is the exception rather than the rule.) If you've been destroyed by an opponent, the village will rebuild itself once you tap on the graves that appear on the screen, but you'll have lost both trophies and resources in the process. You'll also have a shield on your village that stops other people from attacking you for a while, which usually gives you time to re-think your current layout or upgrade your defenses.

Clash of Clans Attack

The Action Phase

As hands-off as the build phase is, you'll need a couple of minutes with nothing else going on in order to enjoy the action phase. You have two options in this mode, single player and online. If you choose a single-player attack, you'll be pitted against one of the many Goblin bases that are baked into the game in order to challenge you and help you learn to play. The bases get significantly more difficult to defeat as you move along, and requires a lot of thought in order to score the Elixir and Gold that you get as a reward. The online mode pits you against a village that another player has assembled, and when you start that fight you have three minutes to do as much damage as possible.

Attacking another village is all about placing your soldiers in the right places and watching as they do the most damage possible. Once you've placed a soldier, you have no control over it. Most of these characters will attack the closest thing to them, unless there's a defensive tower attacking them. Some troops offer special features, like the ability to detonate and explosive to take down a wall or a ranged attack instead of an up close physical attack. Your ultimate goal is 100% destruction, which gives you the most trophies and some extra Gold and Elixir for your stores back home. If you can't manage total annihilation, you only take home a portion of the spoils.

Clash of Clans micro-transactions

Micro-transactions are not the same thing as 'play to win'

Clash of Clans has a third currency type on the screen, under the Gold and Elixir. Gems can be used to speed up the construction of buildings, the creation of troops and spells, and the rate at which Gold and Elixir are produced. You can even use Gems as Gold or Elixir if you've run out of one or the other, but you can't use excess Gold or Elixir to replace Gems. You start off with a couple hundred gems, and can earn more for free by completing objectives in the game. It doesn't take long to burn through that initial offering once you've gotten hooked, and if you run out you'll find you can purchase more for cold hard cash.

That's how that Super Bowl ad got paid for.

But at no point during Clash of Clans are you required to spend any money. In fact, the very first thing you see when you load this game the first time is instructions on turning off the ability to pay for anything. The game is amazingly upfront about what you could spend money on, and in order to make the game as kid friendly as possible lets users make that decision from the beginning. It's a decision everyone can make for themselves, but the only thing you lose out on if you choose not to spend money is the ability to speed things up when you're not a fan of waiting.

This may cause some concern, especially with so many "play-to-win" games out there today. (And so many kids with access to their parents' devices.) The truth is, you're still only matched against people who have roughly the same number of trophies as you. Someone who spends a ton on Gems is going to quickly move up to the next difficulty level, as though time is moving faster for them. While someone who has spent money on enhancements is in your level bracket, they have access to the same things you do and can be beaten just as easily as anyone else with the right strategy.

Clash of Clans sync

What's the best way to play?

Just about anything with a screen and access to the Google Play Store can handle Clash of Clans, but it's not hard to see why this game would be more fun to play on tablets. The larger screen lends itself to more thoughtful village layouts, as well as snap judgments when attacking the enemy. That said, it's not always easy to bring a tablet with you everywhere so you can check in on your village every few hours (and yes, that is something you're going to want to do). Fortunately, you can sync your village across multiple devices with no problem. All you need is your Google Play account, and you can check in from any Android device.

Clash of Clans is fun, and not the mindless sort of fun that so many mobile games offer up. It's carefully designed so you want to play it every time you have a couple of minutes, and the game is friendly enough that parents can easily play with their kids. We've only just scratched the surface here, as there's still a whole word of gameplay that comes available once you join a clan and start participating in clan wars. If you've been on the fence about giving this game a shot, there really is no better time than right now.