Sponsored By: Mr. Rojan
Time “Mastered”: 112 Minutes
Spoiler alert: Greg doesn’t like a multiplayer game.
Difficulty curves are, funnily enough, difficult things to manage. The idea is to constantly maintain a level of challenge that engages without frustrating, and everyone has a different idea of where that window opens and closes. One thing I think we can all agree on, though, is that a difficulty curve should not look like a step function. You’re supposed to gradually increase the difficulty with time, not run the player at full speed into a ninety-degree wall with the expectation that they learn to climb in a hurry. Some of us aren’t Spider Man, after all.
The problem is only worse for multiplayer games. The whole idea of effective matchmaking is something that virtually no game does particularly well in the current era of multiplayer, because you can either match equipment levels or player skill levels, but not both.
And don’t give me the “play with friends” argument. That just makes the difficulty ramp even worse, because it means I first have to go grind analog EXP with some random person until I can craft a friendship, only to find out that I made the wrong dialog choice at level three and the loyalty missions I just spent twenty hours doing got me a companion who doesn’t even like video games.
Finally, if you’re making a multiplayer game with a single-player mode, the problem buries the needle on the troublemeter. You want your single-player mode to inform, and be informed by, the multiplayer mode while still being fun whether the player is online of off. That means making bots that play like those mythical humans that are balanced exactly with the player’s skill level.
Minion Masters is instructive in all of these problems, because it utterly fails to solve any single one of them.
But before I clock in on that one, let’s describe Minion Masters. Minion Masters is a collectible-card game where you build a deck of minions, which you then take into combat against an opponent that has a better deck than yours. When you play a card it manifests as a three-dimensional figure on the game board and advances toward whatever enemy is nearest to it, with no AI clock-cycles spent on maneuvering or defense. So it’s basically how an aggressive idiot plays Warhammer.
It features an offline mode which is identical to the multiplayer mode, except the computer controls the opposing player, and it's in this mode where the game fails to be fun or interesting in any way, but it is at least successful in preparing you for the multiplayer mode. My main problem with the single-player mode is that the first eleven levels are pathetically easy, while the twelfth, final level is the kind of frustrating that is usually associated with trips to Micro Center to replace keyboards and, occasionally, desks.
Where the game goes wrong is, in my opinion, in the deck building. As you win matches, you accrue money to buy a chance to win cards. The problem is that after the first eleven levels it's virtually impossible to win enough money to buy new cards, and when you do, they are still manifestly worse than anything your opponent is going to have. This is where the game fails to solve the problem of the difficulty ramp, because it’s not so much a ramp as it is an aggressive building that falls on you, every time, forever.
The multiplayer mode is just the twelfth level repeated infinitely with different taunts. By sheer luck I was able to win one match against a human opponent. My reward was an outhouse that can be destroyed in two hits and that dispenses crossbow soldiers who can be killed in one hit. My opponents, meanwhile, are fielding mechs that kill, in one shot, whole groups of anything I have to send, and flying wizards that kill my ranged units faster than mine can aim.
So, to be clear, Minion Masters fails to have a fun or interesting single-player mode because you’re either winning without effort or losing no matter what you do. It then fails to have effective matchmaking, because everybody has better cards than you. I suppose you could call it successful as a combination of single and multiplayer, but only because both modes perfectly balance each other in terms of their awfulness.
Will I Keep Playing?
Minion Masters is very much beloved, if the Steam store page is anything to judge by. I am hard pressed to understand why. Winning isn't fun because all it takes is having better cards. Losing isn't fun because it just means you had worse cards. You can spend real-life money to buy chances at winning better cards, of course, but all that means is that Minion Masters is a free-to-play game that doesn’t have the benefit of being free while worth playing.
Except for me, because I got it as a gift. Thanks Mr. Rojan!
So no, I don’t think I’ll be playing this one more. Maybe when it’s fully released I’ll give it a second chance, but for now it’s going to sit in my library, forlorn and alone, next to other games that seemed like a good idea but weren’t. Like Damnation and Gone Home.
Is it the Dark Souls of Multiplayer Arena Card Battlers?
I’ll give this one a flat no (which is like a sharp no, but lower) because, while Dark Souls is punishingly difficult with a difficulty curve that looks like an exponential function raised to another exponential function (like a mathematician playing poker) it’s still possible to win with the gear you’re given. In Minion Masters it’s only possible to win with gear that is virtually impossible to even get unless I want to spend real money on it, and even then your chances are on the low side of slim.
So yeah, no. Not Dark Souls. Maybe Lords of the Fallen.