Monster Train has one hell of a premise. You’re the conductor of a locomotive descending through the seven layers of hell—the denizens of the underworld hot on your tail. Harpies, warlocks, and abyssal knights are constantly breaching the walls, and players have to muster their own infernal forces to consign the interlopers back to the pits.
In the hands of a gigantic studio like Blizzard or Ubisoft or EA, it’d be easy to imagine Monster Train as a sprawling, open-world adventure. We’d explore every nook and cranny of perdition—following waypoints, climbing watch towers, maxing out talent trees. But Shiny Shoe, the developer behind the game, chose a different direction entirely. Instead of a globe-trotting action game or a titanic RPG, Monster Train is a relatively simple digital card game, where the struggle against the Seraphim plays out with a deck and a dream. In 2021, that was more than enough to blow up the charts.
“Card games are something that’s a lot more accessible to us and other indie studios as a format. In fact, a lot of triple-A studios are kinda staying away from them. We want to do the things that they aren’t,” says Andrew Krausnick, creative director of Monster Train, in an interview with WIRED. “We’re not going to compete with Call of Duty or whatever.”
Monster Train has been a runaway success. The game consistently racks up thousands of concurrent players on Steam, and its Metacritic average sits at a solid 86. The core gameplay will be familiar to veterans of board games like Dominion or Thunderstone: The player starts with a small, weak deck and slowly adds better pieces to it over the course of a campaign, eventually molding it into an efficient, demon-killing machine.
That is a paradigm shift. For decades, there’s been a quiet schism between the video game and tabletop communities. The two industries rarely mingled, and when they did, it was usually in the form of a licensed adaptation—the mobile version of Pandemic, for example. But lately, in an ecosystem of airtight MOBAs, 60-frames-per-second shooters, and endless RPGs, many gamers prefer to drag and drop cards on a computer.
Monster Train isn’t alone. We are living through a renaissance of video games that take direct influence from tabletop ideas.
Take 2017’s Slay the Spire, one of the most popular games on the internet. A lonely knight ventures through a grim gauntlet of beasties, slowly adding better cards to their deck. There’s Dicey Dungeons, a roguelike that applies Yahtzee-style rolling to maximize absurd combos, like you’re shaking up a grip of dice on the kitchen counter. In Loop Hero, an early 2021 darling, players slam down sets of mountain tiles and forest grottos as if they’re constructing the city of Carcassonne, because in this adventure, there is nothing more powerful than a four-of-a-kind. All of these games come from indie studios, and each of them proudly don their influences. In today’s gaming culture, the next big hit can fit into a regulation deck.