Ever since a friend introduced me to “Slay the Spire,” a virtual card game where you assemble your deck anew with each playthrough, I’ve been hooked to the idea of digital card games that bring the best of the paper-based card games to the digital space.
The video game-ness of the format allows the creators to do things that would never be possible — or at least easily possible — in traditional card games. They can increase the power of certain cards, curse others and create endless possibilities without the need to plunk down money for new cards.
What’s particularly fun about these digital card games is the developers are free to pull inspiration from other genres to make new and exciting mixes. “SteamWorld Quest” blends a card game with a traditional team-based RPG and “Dicey Dungeons” swapped the cards for dice.
The latest game in this genre is “Monster Train,” a deckbuilding game where you lead a plucky band of demons to battle angels and relight the fires of hell. It’s a silly, cartoon-y premise that belies the challenging and nuanced card game beneath.
“Monster Train” clearly draws inspiration from the fantastic “Slay the Spire,” which was first available to play in a basic form in 2017 before it was fully released in 2019, but it builds on that in interesting ways.
“Monster Train” brings a tactical element to the genre as the titular Monster Train, which you’re using to get to the center of hell because ... hell has a railroad system, has multiple stories that you’ll need to defend against waves of enemies. Each turn, you’ll have to pick from a hand of spells and monsters to play on each floor. Do you put your toughest units on the first level? Do you put them later on?
Assembling a well-rounded team and finding useful combos is key to success in “Monster Train.” My most successful combo so far is to use tough plant creatures that can improve their armor and health to block hits for my hard-hitting-but-fragile fire creatures.
Borrowing from traditional paper-based games like “Magic: The Gathering,” “Monster Train” introduces five different clans of cards: plants, fire, water, light and darkness. Each playthrough you’ll select a main clan, which provides you with a powerful champion card, and a secondary clan to combo with. Each has its strengths and weaknesses to discover as you play through the game.
The clan system and the tactical elements create a fun and often-tense system that’ll have you carefully considering each move to maximize your offense and stay alive just long enough to defend the train.
My few complaints about the game is that it has a little too much randomization for my liking and there can be some pretty sharp spikes in difficulty, sometimes bringing an untimely end to a run. Each run, though, is quick, inviting you to give it another try.
Perhaps the biggest knock against “Monster Train” is how closely it resembles “Slay the Spire.” If you’re interested in checking out the genre, you really can’t go wrong with either but I think that “Slay the Spire” presents the genre in a more accessible manner — plus it’s available on Nintendo Switch and other consoles while “Monster Train” is currently limited to PC.
But if you’re like me and have spent several late nights playing “just one more game,” then you’ll want to get both and get playing.
Matt Buxton is a freelance writer and gamer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If You Play
Game: Monster Train
Rating: 4 out of 5
Platforms: Out on PC
Release Date: May 21, 2020