iOS, Android, PC/Mac/Linux •
Art is cheap, at least when it comes to mobile games. You know this is true because even the most crap-filled freemium abomination is filled to the bevel with the most precisely crafted artwork. Pretty pixels are the aluminum siding of mobile gaming. Consequently, a good game is often not even particularly about the visuals but about the way the developer creates a tension between the tactical options available to the player and the desired game outcome. That and timers. We must always have timers.
The reason this is important is that one of the latest titles to make its way to mobile, Minos Strategos by Brett Lowey of Militia fame, is not a particularly ground-breaking game in terms of visuals and also has some surprisingly poor UI choices. Combined, these make Minos Strategos troublesome at first but are, ultimately, a slight blemish on what is a very good abstract strategy game.
Minos Strategos puts you into the shoes of an ancient Minoan general who is protecting the temples of the city from waves of monsters. Why they are attacking you? Who knows? If you want scripted story download something from inkle; we’re here to fight monsters and backstory be damned.
Minos Strategos plays on a 10 x 10 grid on which are eight temples and twelve warriors. Against this handful of defenders are the monsters, starting with minotaurs, that attempt to take over the temples, defeat your warriors and, depending on the critter, group together to create larger stacks of ne’er-do-wells. The game grid is a set of simple green squares, the temples are small lines in the corner of each grid and your warriors are crescent moon icons. Each of the monsters, as well as the other items in the game, are similarly basic icons from the Game Icons online library. The art isn’t fancy but it does the job.
To defend your temples against this onslaught you can move your warriors one space orthogonally to attack or place a warrior (or stone) in an open space. After this you get to play one of three cards available each turn. These cards are the key to winning and the core mechanism of Minos Strategos involves maximizing the effectiveness of these cards. You start with access to a small number of them and get unlock more as you win games. This keeps you from being overloaded with too many options when you’re starting out, particularly from having to worry about specific arrangements of warriors that many cards require. Building the preconditions for some of the later, and more powerful cards, takes experience that you won’t necessarily have when you first start playing.
Each card displays an arrangement of warriors shown as green icons. When you place the card on the battlefield it rotates 90 degrees in any direction so you have some flexibility in matching the pattern on the card to your battlefield formation. Some cards have actions that tigger before or after the card is played, sometimes both. In addition to the required warrior placement, each card also indicates its effect: spawning new warriors, attacking spaces, attacking every space in a particular direction or combinations of the three effects.
The icons that represent these effects are often difficult to read (see the Double Spear card above), especially on a phone and, when you’re unfamiliar with the game, can lead to frustrating situations. Additionally, it isn’t immediately clear that the card can be rotated after placed on the battlefield which also leads to some initial frustration. Often this lack of polish applied to the game’s interface is indicative of a bad game, but not here. Minos Strategos is a very good strategy title, you just need to push through the initial, and unnecessary, learning curve.
The basic gameplay mode of Minos Strategos is Ranked Play which has you playing a series of games against the computer with your wins and losses moving you up and down a ranking scale increasing the difficulty of each subsequent game by raising the points needed to win and lowering the amount of points the AI needs to acquire for a victory.
This might sound simple but as you advance, and the AI eventually needs the same number of points to win as you do, game turns become fraught with peril, especially due to the timer. Did I mention the timer? There is one, a la Hearthstone, which prompts you to get off your butt and finish your turn in a timely fashion. I don’t recall it being mentioned in the tutorial and its initial appearance scared the hell out of me. It certainly adds a level of tension to those higher levels where you really need to spend some time working out your turn.
You gain points as you take over temples and also for temples you control at the beginning of your turn. The AI scores in the same manner. Stacks of warriors or monsters are worth more points, as are some of the later monsters, forcing you to keep on your toes and take out stacks of two or three minotaurs as they can quickly cause you to lose a game.
As you advance through the ranks you unlock new monsters like the Plague Minotaur, which explodes when it expires, and the Golem, which removes all monsters and warriors from around it when it moves. Additionally you also get access to Shrines which, when you capture them, allow you to perform additional moves, attacks or spawn new warriors.
Opponents, temples, and your warriors are randomly placed at the start of each level, so you never know what to expect when starting a level. Each game becomes a test to use the game board, your cards, and the various peculiarities of the monsters to balance your ability vs. the AI’s to score points. There is no right way to do this, and often involves giving up control in one part of the board to control another or sacrificing warriors to stop the AI from getting points next turn.
Minos Strategos comes with three additional game modes: Relaxed Mode which has no timer, Draft Mode which lets you pick your deck of cards and Dionysus Mode which has nothing to do with wine making but randomly picks the cards in your deck. Surely that would be Erisian or Discordian Mode? Sadly the game only provides one save slot so you can only experience one of the four game modes at a time regardless of which you pick.
Minos Strategos is, despite its flaws, a great game. It makes you think, it provides a great gameplay experience that is part D&D and part Go. Buy it not only to enjoy it, but so Brett can continue making more brian-flexing titles like this.