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If you’ve ever played a collectible card game like Magic: The Gathering, at some point you’ve probably wondered how all of those battles would play out in reality. It’s one thing to say that six frightened squirrels can hold back a colossal giant, or that a heavenly catastrophe just reduced every forest, island, and mountain in the vicinity to cinders, but how would it look on a three-dimensional battlefield? Minion Master, a new free-to-play, multiplayer-focused PC strategy game, attempts to combine the strategic deck-building of a CCG with the tactical movement of a board game. The resulting creation isn’t perfect, but merits a glance from anyone who’s interested in the mashup of those two game types.

Getting started is quick and easy, and your first of five pre-constructed decks is free. Cards come in two flavors: summons, which include sorceresses, zombies, catapults, and whatever other creatures you need to wreak destruction on your behalf, and modifiers, which can enchant creatures, reshape the board, or hurt or heal the player directly. Each card costs a certain amount of mana, the game’s primary resource.

Instead of an abstract exchange of numbers, each round of Minion Master plays out on a hex-based grid. Creatures will automatically move across the board in accordance with their AI programs. Archers prefer to hang back and defend a player’s home turf, while trolls will surround themselves with enemies to make full use of their area-of-effect melee skills. You can also micromanage each unit, ordering them to defend or attack certain tiles, but this costs additional mana. This process is cumbersome and often not worth the cost, but is something of a necessity to take advantage of different terrain types or defend vital choke points.

Each player begins with 20 life points, and incurs damage when creatures attack his or her central stronghold: a tower in a far corner of the map. Killing a player’s creatures will also eat away at his or her life total, dishing out damage depending on the relative strength of the creature. Sending out a swarm of kobolds to do your dirty work may seem like a good idea at the time, but if a few enemy knights trounce ten of them, you’ll find yourself missing half of your life total within a few turns.

One of Minion Master‘s most unique features is the way it handles mana. Rather than stockpiling land cards or sending units out to gather the magical resource, players gain mana by discarding any summons or modifiers they hold in their five-card hands. While this means that Minion Master offers no devastatingly huge monsters or cataclysmic enchantments, it also keeps the game balanced and the decisions tense. Is it better to cast a spell that discards everything in your hand to replenish your life points, or summon just one lowly footman while holding onto some powerful modifiers for your next turn? Weighing a card’s potential destructive power against its utility as a mana source is at the heart of the game’s strategy.

Even though Minion Master has a solid set of core mechanics and a creative backbone, the whole experience feels like it’s missing a layer of polish. The single-player mode eschews a campaign, opting instead for a series of increasingly difficult standalone missions that utilize preset decks. These missions are intended to train you for the intricacies of multiplayer rather than to provide any kind of story. In addition to missing an opportunity for a fun narrative, a single-player mode where you build your own deck and learn its ins and outs may have been more practical than learning how to use a variety of different ones. While there is a deck-building tutorial, it’s a little bare-bones, and the game provides no guidance on which cards or strategies might work well together.

Multiplayer is where the game’s focus lies, but while it’s fully functional, the suite of options at your disposal is not terribly creative. You can host team-based or free-for-all games with up to six players, customize life totals, and choose from dozens of different game boards, but there’s no unique mode or feature to help it stand out. At present, the online community is almost nonexistent, and the game lacks any sort of trading mechanic: a core tenet of a CCG. Playing against human opponents is more fun than challenging the AI, but without any kind of ranking, progression, or reward system, it loses its luster quickly.

The production values are spotty as well. The game supports a number of resolutions, but few other graphical options. Although the core art design is solid and the cards are pretty, characters and levels always have a few jagged edges and fuzzy textures. A handful of hummable music tracks liven up the menus and card selection phases, but once the battles begin, the game goes curiously silent except for sound effects. The lack of battle music is jarring, and can make even armored dragons preying upon hordes of venomous spiders feel tedious.

On top of everything else, while the game requires no money down for your first deck, the only way to get new cards is with real money. A standard booster pack of five cards will set you back up to $3, a set of three pre-built decks will run you $12, and one copy of each card in the game will summon $20 from your wallet. Deck size is limited by a “deck value” on each card that gauges its relative worth and rarity, and your deck can possess as many copies of a card as your heart desires. As a result, acquiring ten dragons or twenty archer enchantments has the potential to get very expensive.

Minion Master is a novel mix of two beloved genres, and a fully functional one at that. With some more polish and a revised pricing structure, it could carve out a pleasant niche for itself in the world of online strategy games. As it stands now, it’s well worth a look, but you’d probably get more enjoyment out of buying a few booster packs for your CCG addiction of choice.

Bottom Line: Minion Master is a promising idea that offers some unique multiplayer fun. A throwaway single-player mode, inconsistent production values, and expensive microtransactions hold it back from its full potential, though.

Recommendation: Any fan of CCGs or hex-based strategy should at least register for the free deck and try it out. Wait and see how the online community grows before tossing too much money at it.

[rating=3]

What our review scores mean.

Game: Minion Master
Genre: Strategy
Developer: BitFlip Games LLC
Publisher: BitFlip Games LLC
Platform(s): PC
Available from: Direct download

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