Review: Minos Strategos13 Sep 2017 2
Review: Minos Strategos
Released 01 Sep 2017
Minos Strategos bears some hallmarks of excellence, though even these are more familiar than unique. Firstly, it calls for that "one more time with feeling" feeling, leading to long satisfying bouts of play. Secondly, it scratches a nostalgic roguelike-like itch also satiated by games like Hoplite and 868-HACK. Lastly, it has borrowed its action selection system from Vlaada Chvatil's arena combat board game, Tash-Kalar. In Minos Strategos, an ancient Greek tactician commands the local fighting force tasked with repelling a mass of minotaurs and other fabled nasties, all the while holding command points to claim victory.
The situation is critical and the power imbalance dire; enemies all move every turn while friendly forces can only move one per turn. To decisively sway the course of battle, the player can play a card once per turn to trigger a powerful effect, provided the units are in the right formation. Thus the game is primarily about efficiently manipulating the theatre of battle, yielding some areas while contesting others, prioritizing the right cards and monsters based on the unfolding situation. At its best, Minos Strategos is an inspired and refreshing abstract game with strong tactical and puzzle elements.
The game's brief tutorial explains the brisk flow of a turn: either move an existing piece or create a new one anywhere on the board, and also play one of the three available cards. Afterwards, discard one of the remaining two cards. On the opponent's turns, monsters will move towards the nearest temples, destroying any units in their path and occupying these scoring zones passively once reached. Players can gain tempo by destroying monsters, who will respawn instantly on the edge of the field but lose several turns moving back into position. All this and more is elegantly conveyed in-game. More importantly, the formal rules are summarized alongside a glossary of game elements in a help screen always a single tap away from the battlefield's fray.
The progression system rewards playtime by doling out fresh challenges and tools. After each successful match, the difficulty rank increases. New enemy types appear: the Serpent, Golem and Hydra. Special shrines, a personal favorite, pop up each turn, housing a particular god's powers. If a friendly unit moves onto the space, it claims the shrine's blessing, storing it for future use.
Each shrine bestows a different one-time-use power: Apollo lets you play another card; Hermes moves three pieces; Ares allows for two attack-moves; Demeter spawns two new tokens; Zeus rescores friendly control points. The largest source of long-term progression in the game is simply the card unlocks themselves, serving to make the deck ever more sophisticated. "Sophisticated" and not "powerful" because while elaborate cards bring powerful and new effects -- like generating a rank 2 piece which can move twice as far and scores twice as much, or eliminating a monster anywhere on the board -- they also require specific and convoluted arrangements of pieces.
Around rank 10, the game really begins to hit its stride, with the sweet trifecta of better cards, god powers, and the basic move combining to make fruitful, ingenious turns possible and even commonplace. This honeymoon period, when everything is fresh and newly considered, represents much of the game's appeal. As the ranking increases, the points needed to win climb higher and higher, making precise planning and combo play key for victory.
Minos Strategos also offers three bonus modes: relaxed mode disposes with timed turn limits, draft mode builds a starting draft by choosing one card out of a possible three eight times, and Dionysus mode has randomly generated cards for extra chaos. The game's presentation is straightforward and simple, functional to the point of being bland. Its generic appearance is soon forgotten though once a game starts. The controls, however, are a little tight on the phone, and while it is pretty easy to misclick or misalign a tactics card, the undo button only allows takebacks in a few limited circumstances.
The game's merits are numerous and substantial, but watered down by some unpleasant missteps. For example, the default play mode has a hard timer which works at cross-purposes with the game's own thoughtful puzzles. The decisions themselves require vigilant pattern recognition and a keen eye for tradeoffs, but become progressively less rich as the difficulty increases. In the most interesting and difficult levels, for example, success often comes from chaining powerful combos and turns together while hoping the right combination of cards, god powers, and monster respawns appear. Victory must be found through the right series of choices, yet oftentimes it must also be granted, the opening created through the game's variation of elements.
It would be churlish and short-sighted to grumble about the game's randomness wholesale, for it is objectively no more or less random than many other games like it. Rather, the grievance is that the randomness feels as if one is belatedly reacting to it turn-by-turn, not harnessing the variations to cobble together a piecemeal strategy. The former complaints prevent the game from reaching mythical status, but it remains a happy surprise and will be on rotation for a good while. It grew on me more and more, and while this appreciation may have met its limits, I can safely say that while it has not surpassed its spiritual forebears in my estimation, it rests favorably in their company; in many respects it even stands as a breed apart.