Card games have been my favorite genre both in the real world and in the gaming world for as long as I can remember. When I was 10 years old, one of my classmates approached me with a game called Magic the Gathering and ever since, I was in love with games revolving around cards. Trading Card Games, Deck Builders, Engine Builders, no matter, as long as it has cards and is well crafted, I'm very likely to enjoy it. For a long time, though, card games on PC were somewhat of a niche. In recent years, this has changed a lot, both thanks to Hearthstone for the trading card genre and thanks to Slay the Spire for the (rogue-lite) deck builder genre.
Ever since the enormous success of Slay the Spire, dozens of (carbon) copies of the game have seen their release on Steam. Most of them aren't even that bad, but they simply never were as good as Slay the Spire. It's hard to be better than the game you try to copy without innovating on the genre after all. One of the few gems that stood out to me is Monster Train. A game that took the proven formula of Slay the Spire and iterated on it enough to be its own amazing game.
Just like in the Slay the Spire, you start each run with a small deck of basic cards that you will improve during each playthrough. To do so, you will add new cards to your deck, remove existing cards, and improve the cards you have. A typical game of Monster Train will usually take between 30 and 60 minutes, depending on how quick you play and, obviously, the difficulty level you chose.
The game's story is somewhat absurd but fitting. Hell has been conquered by the forces of heaven and is now frozen over. There's only one train remaining that still has the burning ember of hell aboard and that is hell's only chance to reignite the ever burning fires. You are the acting leader of the scattered forces of hell and you have to fight through the seven seals heaven put in place to stop you. For each seal, there's a battle taking place on your train where the forces of heaven try to stop your advance. The opposing units enter the train at the bottom floor and try to work their way up to the top where your pyre is still burning. You use your cards to either summon monsters into one of the three floors or to play spells that will either buff your own or hurt your enemy.
After each battle, you will earn additional cards, artifacts, and gold. You then get to visit several locations in between the seals where you can improve your deck further, heal your pyre, upgrade cards, and so on. Being the rouge-lite it is, you start each run from scratch again, although there is some progression in the form of additional card unlocks and new artifacts you can find in your next run.
In total, there are 6 different clans of hell to choose from and you always pick a primary and a secondary tribe for each of your runs. All clans come with unique cards and monsters. Their skill sets and strategies vary drastically and something that will work perfectly with one faction will get you killed fast with another one. By combining the different tribes, you can try to either balance out their respective strengths and weaknesses or you can fully focus on a single strategy, neglecting everything else in the process. Each clan also has two different champions, each with different abilities and a core card that will be added to your deck. Thanks to these many different options, the game offers a huge replay value as there are dozens of possible combinations to explore.
In terms of difficulty, the game is nicely balanced and after some rounds any experienced card game player shouldn't have any issues beating it at normal difficulty. That's where the covenant ranks come into effect. There are a total of 25 covenant ranks and each can be unlocked by beating the prior one. Each of these ranks will add one additional mutator to the game, making it harder and harder to beat the forces of heaven. At covenant rank 25, you will start at a hefty disadvantage, yet the game never feels unfair. Even at the highest levels, it's almost always beatable and if you loose, you mostly have your own decisions to blame.
The game itself is rather fast paced for a round based strategy game. There's always a clear indication of what's going to happen once you pass your turn so there's so unnecessary guessing. At the same time, coming up with the perfect play every turn is a lot harder than it might seem at first. You have to balance keeping your monsters alive, stopping the advancing forces before they reach the pyre, but also build your position to deal with the level boss. All decisions you make during the game are meaningful and neither can you just spam monsters and spells nor can you just randomly add cards and artifacts to your deck. At least not if you want to have any hope of winning the round. Monster Train is your classical deck builder where you carefully have to weigh your options and come up with the best build possible from the options you are presented with.
Another aspect about Monster Train I really enjoy is its art style and general presentation. A lot of these deck builder card games provide only minimal graphics. It's not that I really care about that in general. Slay the Spire may look awful, but it's still an amazing game. Having a game that is awesome to play and looking great at the same time, though, makes things just a lot more enjoyable. The whole game is really polished, with soundeffects, music, and graphics all doing what they are supposed to be doing. The clean presentation also helps to make it so much easier to follow what's happening and what's about to happen next.
All things considered, Monster Train is the best deck builder that I've played since Slay the Spire. Which of the two games ultimately is the better probably comes down to personal taste. So far, I've spent 129 hours playing Monster Train and I don't intend to stop any time soon. The cool thing is that a single run won't ever take more than an hour, so it's the perfect game to pick up after a long day, play your run, and then put it away again until you feel like playing some more. If you plan on picking it up, they just recently released their first DLC and while it's not really needed as a new player, I'd advise on getting it nevertheless, as it adds a lot of replayability to an already highly replayable game! It has 96% positive rating on Steam and that's for a good reason, it's without doubt one of the best games I own on the platform!
And that's all from me for today. Thank you all for reading and see you next time!