Review: Combat Monsters01 Nov 2013 0
Combat Monsters is a complicated game disguised as a simple game in turn pretending to be a complicated game. But it's still pretty straightforward. (Except not.) It's a collectible card joint with a tactical element, the kind where you're the general of a ragtag bunch of fantasy mainstays--orcs, werewolves, the ever-thrilling humans, and so on. Now, if you suspect this one might be spreading itself just a bit thin, what with all the intermingling of mana curves and formations and buffs and gear and... well, okay, yeah, it is. Probably. But who's to say thin is always bad? It's not. (But it is. A little bit.)
So: the basics. But then again, it's mostly basics in Combat Monsters. So many of the elements at play here ring familiar. The deck-building mechanics are more or less as you'd expect. A minimum of thirty cards per deck, with cards ranging from summonable monsters, to weapons and armor, to permanent buffs and instants you can cast on foes mid-battle. All these have different mana costs, which totally makes sense.
Same story for the actual battles. You and an opposing general quite literally jump onto the field and square-off, each aiming to straight-up kill the other. On your turn, you can play cards until you've spent all your hero's allotted mana (which, remember, totally makes sense and is super sensible). Summoned monsters need to be placed next to your hero when played, but you can go ahead with blasting foes and equipping gear on allies from afar, 'cause Combat Monsters is chill like that. And yeah, summons can't move right when you play 'em, on account of their being all tired from the transition between formless ether and magical war-slave, but no worries, they can attack straight from the get-go, on account of their... well, they're angry, I guess.
And this last part is fairly important. Combat Monsters' tactical bit is, ostensibly, about maneuvering. Shuttling your avatar around the table, choosing when to summon allies, where to summon them, where to move summons once you have them--these should be key. But some design choices work against this.
Summons fall into three classes, as do the assortment of hero characters to choose from: warriors, rangers, and mages. Warriors can only attack one space away, but have generally higher health; rangers can attack only two or three spaces away, and are fragile; and mages, in a neat twist, are the middle-ground class, being able to attack one or two spaces, and having average-ish stats. Thing is, there's no line-of-sight or blocking of shots. Ranged attacks just pass right through any intervening objects on their way to a target, meaning that if you're in range of a foe, you can be hit. Tanking isn't really viable unless an opponent is rolling straight melee.
Maps are dotted with power-ups (symmetrically, in multiplayer), activated when your hero or a summon stands on them and grants you, say, an extra card, or some more mana. Again, these should be highly-contested points, but for the most part they sit in areas of the map that are either safely for one player or another, or in central locations that players are bound to cross anyway. It's never "I need to take that location" as much as it is "I guess that bonus will be nice... if I don't have to fight for it... or if I'm already heading there." Shifting your forces around just feels amorphous. Not necessarily clunky, or unpleasant, just... imprecise. No one move has particular heft or importance, because for the most part you're either moving into or out of several attack ranges--that's the main decision.
Not so with Combat Monsters' selection of, hey, monsters! As someone who appreciates the obsessive thrill of tightly theming a completely impractical deck in a CCG, it was nice to see that Combat Monsters has a selection of well-defined groups of summons to choose from, each with their own mechanic. Orcs hit harder for every other orc on the field, humans get stronger when they're placed next to friendly units, zombies get healed when things die--each group has its "thing" layered on top of the warrior-ranger-mage "thing", plus units have special move "things" such as teleports, snares, and damage-over-time attacks. It's pretty damn sophisticated, and--this is important--nothing comes off as useless. Every card has its potential place, given the right build. All werewolf deck? Go for it. A minotaur-human coalition of the willing? Barring the sticky political implications of magically summoned warriors bound to follow your every command... that sounds great!
Keep in mind this complexity is there before you even touch the support cards available in Combat Monsters, and before you realize how well these cards synergize with the summons available (and before you really start to consider the different heroes available to lead your forces). There are standard instants, stuff that grants you temporary extra card draw or lets you directly fiddle with enemy summons; armor and class-specific weapons which will upgrade either your or one of your monster's stats; plus runes, more powerful, permanent buffs that will increase your mana pool or up the damage your summons deal. These latter cards are limited by the number of rune slots you happen to get on a map, so they're powerful, but easy to over-commit to when assembling a deck.
I suppose this is all heading in the direction of Combat Monsters being "a well-built, often clever, satisfying CCG with an underdeveloped tactical component." That's true. But in the interest of clarity, it's worth repeating that this tactical component isn't bad, by any stretch. If it were the core of the game, that'd be a different, but it's not the core of Combat Monsters, and it's elevated by working in concert with the excellent deck-building on offer here.
A great match I had against an online opponent found us engaging in the center of the map, his warrior on fire and looking for a heal, my mage being harassed by archers from afar. I'd be on top, whittling down his health, he'd play a particularly nasty rune or piece of armor, I'd go on the defensive, bring out a couple of human mages for backup, he'd go on the defensive, and so on. And that's really what Combat Monsters is chock full of: turns. The kind of quick, brutal twists of fate CCGs engender, played out on some surreal crystal battlefield. In the end, with a few moves, I was able to bring out a minotaur wizard and buff him to ungodly levels with a few pieces of armor and a staff. Set: match. That's a very card game-y win. A very card game-y, but damn satisfying, win.
Combat Monsters was played on an iPad for this review.