Sons of the Spire is a series examining digital deckbuilding games inspired by Slay The Spire.

Monster Train | Developer: Shiny Shoe | Publisher: Good Shepard Entertainment | Year: 2020
Monster Train box art

Monster Train

2008 is when Dominion changed board gaming forever. Created by Donald X. Vaccarino, Dominion used existing deckbuilding concepts from collectible card games to create a new style of game where players built a card deck during play. Dominion was mechanically brilliant and played fast and intuitively enough to become a smash hit future board games would emulate. A decade later, Mega Crit unveiled a digital deckbuilding game of their own called Slay The Spire which has likewise become very influential. So much so, a “spirelike” subgenre is being born just as deckbuilding games were following Dominion. In this new blog series, I’m examining other roguelike games inspired by Slay The Spire to see which ones build upon its winning formula and which ones fail trying to surpass its gold standard. No pressure!

The most logical game to start with then is Monster Train — one of the earliest and most successful titles in this growing field. With a theme reminiscent of Bayonetta, players command a small army of demons as they battle the forces of Heaven aboard a hellish locomotive trying to reignite the fires of Inferno itself.

Monster Train tries hard to innovate on the game which inspired it. Players defend against waves of angelic enemies attacking the titular train by deploying demonic creatures to one of three ascending platforms. It’s in this way that a fresh sense of vertical action is created, with the positioning and ordering of creatures now being an important consideration when opposing units battle at the end of each round.

It’s a little bit of wave-based survival, some tower defence, and cunning roguelike elements all thrown into a melting pot of card-driven ideas. The roguelike bits are not as harsh as they traditionally are though. Outside of combat, players drive the train along branching rails to collect treasures and resolve random encounters where the outcomes are helpfully explicit. The relatively short game length also benefits from an intro screen revealing which final boss is waiting at the end so players can plan their deck accordingly.

Monster Train looks excellent with the glistening aesthetic of its card compendium approaching Hearthstone levels of visual quality. The character sprites are only a touch more animated than the ones from Slay the Spire, but it’s nothing to complain about when everything looks this good.

Another difference is how players select two classes at the start of a run instead of one. The card library is split between different demonic clans whose various heroic units and magical sorceries each come with their own keywords and strategic archetypes (similar to the colour wheel in Magic: The Gathering). The learning curve here is a little steep, but the variety is still good thanks to customisable card upgrades and starting relics which encourage players to think of new strategies.

Monster Train is a good game which many card game fans are sure to enjoy. Unfortunately, I find its deckbuilding qualities to be largely unsatisfying. No matter which pair of clans you select, several extra cards are added to your starting deck thus immediately removing the player’s agency over the core mechanic. This gets worse as players climb the ascending difficulty modes because higher settings add yet more extra cards to the deck before play begins. I seriously dislike this design because it’s an inelegant way of adding difficulty and furthermore, tampering with my deck is supposed to be my job!

The game has to offer players stronger units at certain checkpoints to maintain balance, so there’s a feeling of the lane defence system upsetting the focus on craft drafting. Even then, I mostly ignore the bottom platforms of the train anyway and focus on deploying a few bulky creatures up top to maximise preparation time. Combat is entirely automated when a boss reaches the top floor whereupon players simply watch as both armies clash with no further input. There’s a setting to radically speed up the fighting which whilst certainly useful, does hint at how limited the interactivity is to begin with.

Any interesting decisions over which cards to collect, upgrade, or play dry up fast because runs are so short. The snappy pacing certainly makes this one easy to load up and dive into, but neither are there enough opportunities for players to edit and appreciate the deck they’ve built.

Overall Monster Train is a still quality production worth trying. Even with my gripes, I may still return to it occasionally, especially if its promising DLC pack gets discounted in the near future.