I first started to play deckbuilding games not in the video game realm, but with board games. Many of my college friends enjoyed board games and we would spend our free time on evenings or weekends trying out games like Munchkin, Fluxx, Mansions of Madness, Ticket to Ride – as our nerdy board game hobby grew, it was almost inevitable that someone would show up one day with a deckbuilding game. The first one I really remember playing was DC Deckbuilder, a DC comics branded game that I wasn’t particularly impressed with. Marvel’s answer to that game, Legendary, worked for me a little more, but it wasn’t until years later when I tried games like the Scott Pilgrim card game or Sentinels of the Multiverse where I really started to get the appeal of the genre. It wasn’t long after that I started experimenting with them more in the video game space as well.
While it seems like every other day a new roguelike deckbuilder is announced, I personally have not played all that many. The first that stands out to me is One Step From Eden, which I picked up only for the its supposed similarities to Mega Man Battle Network. When that game’s fast pace didn’t really work for me, I moved on to Slay the Spire, which was much closer to the sort of experience that I personally enjoy from these types of games. I didn’t play Slay the Spire nearly as much as other people who I know love it but I still had a good time with the game and found the mechanics satisfying – there just wasn’t enough going on for me personally to feel motivated to play for hundreds of hours. But it opened me up to the possibility of playing other games in the genre, and now I have boarded the roguelike deckbuilder train once again by playing some Monster Train.
Now if you’ve made it this far and you’re thinking “Ian, what the hell does roguelike deckbuilder really mean anyway?” allow me to take a moment to explain the premise. A roguelike is a game where your path forward is procedurally generated and consists of distinct runs. When you lose a run, you game over and start a brand new run from the beginning. You never quite know what challenges to expect, and two different seeds can be vastly different than one another. A deckbuilder refers to a game where you customize a deck of cards over time – often you make choices about which cards you want to add, working towards a specific type of build as you proceed through the game. Put these together and you get a card game where you are presented at every step with random challenges to overcome; win and you get to choose how to build your deck for the next match. Collect useful cards, cull the ones you don’t care about, choose the path forward that makes the best use of your current resources, and *hopefully* claim victory.
Monster Train pretty well follows that approach. The set dressing is that you are trying to reclaim hell from angels who have taken it over by taking hell’s Pyre down to the ninth circle. The only safe way to transport the Pyre is on a train, which you must defend from angels as you descend through each level. There are five types of monster clans in the base game, two of which you’ll have unlocked by default. Each run you choose your main clan and your supporting clan, decide on a champion who leads the charge in protecting your train, and customize their starting abilities a bit before charging towards the depths of hell as fast as your train will carry you. A single run of Monster Train is relatively short but playing the game to completion only one time isn’t really the point – the bread in butter is in unlocking cards, experimenting with new decks, and challenging yourself to overcome even more difficult obstacles as you master the game.
So how does a battle in Monster Train work? The train has four “floors” so to speak; your Pyre is on the highest level, so for enemies to attack and damage it they need to make it through three floors of your defenses first. Each floor has a set capacity for defender units – capacity generally correlates directly with size and power. A small, impotent imp who mainly serves a support role might only take one capacity, while a powerful demon with 50 health and damage could easily require three. The units you play to defend your train are represented by the cards in your deck. During each round you’ll have a certain amount of ember – think “mana” or “energy” or whatever else – to play a selection of cards out of the five cards in your hand. This not only includes placing units but also casting spells, one-off effects that might inflict damage, provide healing, move units around, or grant buffs.
After you’ve played your cards for the round the battle phase begins. This is where enemies make their attacks against any defending units on the same level of the train, and then your units get to retaliate. Each unit on the field has health and damage, and may have one or more abilities in play that aid them as well. The abilities can be as simple as having some armor to prevent health damage or as complex as “if this unit survives to the end of the turn, all their allies gain +3 attack for the remainder of the battle.” Monster Train does a good job of conveying this information with unique colors and symbols for each effect type and a tooltip that fully explains everything that an enemy is capable of when you hover over them. You’ll rarely be surprised by an effect unless you simply don’t pay attention and assume you’ve got everything under control. Any enemies that survive the battle phase will move up to the next floor, and then the next round starts. If enemies make it to your Pyre, they’ll damage it and take damage in turn until either they are defeated or the Pyre is depleted. If the latter takes place, you lose.
Like many other games in this genre there are a variety of ways you can customize your deck in Monster Train. We already discussed choosing your main clan and supporting clan, but that’s just the beginning. This game features artifacts that have beneficial effects which can really change up your strategy. In my second run for example I had an artifact which gave me a free 0-cost spell that did 10 damage at the beginning of every round; this allowed me to chip away at enemies for no cost and made most of my weaker damaging spells obsolete, allowing me to focus my card choices on units and healing. As you overcome enemies, you’ll get opportunities to potentially claim more artifacts either through picking from a small selection or buying them from stores. Another thing you can buy from stores are upgrades, bonuses to specific cards that make them more effective in some way. Upgrades can make cards cheaper, more powerful, or add other beneficial effects. I had a spell card in my deck that gave one row of allied units a full heal for the cost of 1 ember. I reduced that cost to zero as well as giving the card permafrost, which prevented it from being discarded when I didn’t play the card. With this benefit, once that card showed up in my hand I always had a guaranteed, no cost full heal for an entire floor of my train ready to go. Upgrades only apply to a single instance of a card – upgrading your torch from 2 damage to 12 only applies to one copy of the card and not the other four, for example – but you can duplicate upgraded cards and the duplicate will keep all the upgraded properties.
In terms of enemies, I saw a pretty solid variety during my two attempts at the game. Some enemies primarily tank damage by having high health or armor and standing at the front of the line. Other enemies have very low health but have high attack power or some kind of insidious effect you’ll want to prevent with spells if you can. Of course, some enemies may be immune to spells or have a stealth modifier that prevents them from being attacked for a floor. Boss enemies modify this even further. During my first run, I had a pretty brutal boss battle where the boss could create bombs that did 10 damage to my units if they weren’t destroyed by the beginning of the enemy’s attack, but the bombs also had shields that completely nullified all damage from the first thing to deal damage to them. That meant that I needed to burn two attack spells every turn to stop the bombs from blowing up, and I did not have that kind of firepower in that playthrough. I managed to win that battle but I didn’t last long after. The variety of enemies as well as the variety of strategies available to you as the player suggests that there will be plenty to keep runs of Monster Train fresh, although I can’t honestly speak to that this early into the experience.
At the time of writing, I’ve played two runs of Monster Train and managed to claim victory on my second run. After taking a bit of time to make some really early blunders in terms of learning how turn order worked and cards carried over (or didn’t) and all of that, I was able to get a decent grasp of what my current decks were capable of and found a strategy that worked for me. After I won the run I unlocked a new clan to work with, so I’m excited to try them out as well as experimenting with some of the new cards I got by leveling up. My winning strategy was very defensive, heavily focused on having high-health units on the front line with the healing abilities to keep them in play. I’d like to try to make a riskier offensive strategy work; one thing your initial red deck features is a variety of imp creatures that are quite weak but have beneficial effects they bring into play as well as cards that benefit from the number of imps you control. It seems like it would be fun to run an imp deck, so I am looking forward to trying to make that happen in a future run.
Overall, Monster Train feels like another solid entry into the world of roguelike deckbuilders and – like Slay the Spire – is a lot more my speed that some others I have tried in the past. I enjoy the way the train structure changes what types of strategies are effective for this game and I also like the upgrade system the best out of any of these I have played so far. We’ll see how many runs I have in me based on the number of decks available, how many strategies each one supports, and the ways that amping up the game’s challenge level works once you’ve mastered the basics. My hope is to report back in a week or so with more thoughts on my experience with Monster Train. It looks like I may be on board for awhile.