Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Deck Building Games: A (mostly) comprehensive introduction

I have been enjoying my deep dives into different genres and mechanics of board games over the past year or so. Having recently worked my way through worker placement games and cooperative games a year ago, I figured the next target for a comprehensive genre review should be deck-building games. DBGs are widely popular and present in my own collection and play history, so I figured it would be a fairly easy post to write.

Then a couple of recent events made this discussion even more topical. I realized that Hardback - the "pre-quill" to Paperback, a word deck-building game - was on Kickstarter, and I also discovered that The Dice Tower recently made a list of their top deck-building games, so my review of the genre suddenly became even more timely.

Note that I have chosen to focus on "deck-building" games specifically, which has meant that I have excluded a number of similar type games that feature "cube-building" (Automobiles), "bag-building" (Hyperborea and Orléans), or "dice-building" (Quarriors, Dice Masters) as a mechanic; they are similar in nature to deck-building games, but there are enough variations within those other mini-genres that it is more difficult to include them here.

I also have excluded Collectible Card Games such as Magic: The Gathering and Living Card Games such as Android: Netrunner from the conversation because their particular brand of deck crafting and/or card drafting is not the same as deck-building; again, there are some similarities, but they are different enough to warrant a different conversation.

What is "deck-building"?

Deck-building, like worker placement, is a relatively recent but prominent addition to the list of board gaming mechanics. Deck-builders have only been around since 2008, starting with the introduction of Dominion, but they have quickly emerged as one of the most popular genres in board gaming. The first five or six years of the history of DBGs after Dominion was dominated by simpler, more straightforward deck-builders, but now the genre has started to evolve and the mechanic has begun to be incorporated into more complex games.

It seems as though almost any possible theme or IP has been mined for deck-building: sci-fi; fantasy; zombies; superheroes (DC and Marvel); Star Trek; Street Fighter; Resident Evil; The Lord of the Rings; Harry Potter; Alien; Predator; Firefly; and even Big Trouble in Little China. There was even a tongue-in-cheek (though still somewhat serious) deck building game about building a deck entitled - you guessed it! - "Deck Building: The Deck-Building Game".

It's easy to see the appeal of DBGs on the parts of the designers and of the players. The basic mechanic is quite simple to design and to learn, as the basics of deck-building are arguably more standardized than any other genre. Each player starts off with a standard deck of cards that provides some combination of ability to attack other players, acquire new cards, and perhaps thin out the deck. A player plays cards, uses the possible abilities, gets new cards with new special abilities, puts everything in the discard and then draws new cards for a new turn and starts afresh.

The nature of the mechanic also makes games almost endlessly expandable and customizable. Many DBGs feature extensive sets that can be added to or intermixed in millions - maybe even billions - of combinations, and they can continually be added to, as players ultimately control the balance of the game in which expansions they include and also the way in which they add to or subtract from their decks during the game.

It is this repetitive and somewhat simplistic nature of DBGs that has been both a boon and a bane to the genre: a boon because it has allowed many DBGs to flourish with very short gestation periods, and a bane because it has limited the scope and range of the mechanic - at least until recently. But let's start going through some of my specific experience with deck builders, starting with the big one, Dominion.

Dominion and me

The grandfather of the entire deck-building mechanic genre is Dominion, and for many people, the game remains the peak accomplishment among deck-builders. There is not a lot to say about the game in general, other than what others have written. Chris Wray of The Opinionated Gamers sums up the history of the game well in his entry on the game (and the series) as part of his re-review of every game that won the Spiel des Jahres - the German award for game of the year, and game designer Donald X. Vaccarino has been public and vocal about his design process in posts on BGG like The Secret History of the Dominion Cards and designer diaries about more recent expansions.

Dominion was my first DBG, and I played it a lot when I was first emerging as a board game enthusiast a number of years ago. I have played it in some form or another in a hard copy only just over two dozen times, but I have easily played hundreds of games on my phone or online. I have familiarity with all of the expansions save for the most recent two, Adventures and Empires. It was one of my favourite games in my first few years as a true BoardGameGeek, but I don't own it anymore.

I hit a decision point about continuing to own Dominion when I was making a significant physical move in my life. At that point, I owned the base set and the Hinterlands expansion, and I knew that as a completionist that I had two choices: keep expanding and own it all - which now includes eight big boxes, three smaller expansions, several promos, and two second edition updates - or liquidate what I had and let it be. (For the record, there are now 275 different Kingdom cards in total among all of the various expansions.)

I chose to clear out the two sets I owned for a few reasons: I knew that I would be able to access Dominion in the future in others' collections; I knew I did not want to buy sleeves, which would eventually become a necessity in order to keep enjoying the game; I had other DBGs that scratched that itch enough so as to make Dominion somewhat superfluous; and I knew that I would always have the chance to play it because it is so popular.

I still really enjoy Dominion, and I rarely turn down a chance to play when it presents itself, which is surprisingly not that often. Maybe others in my gaming circles have similar timing to mine and they feel as though they played it through, or that, like me, they enjoy the themes of other DBGs more, but whatever the reason, Dominion rarely seems to make an appearance at gaming events anymore. Still, I do not regret my decision to clear it out of my collection, and I rarely find myself wanting to play Dominion, especially over my other DBGs, especially because I can play it anytime I want on my phone.

I did play enough Dominion in the time that I played the game that I was able to create a hierarchy of my favourite sets of cards in order of preference to play. Excluding the most recent sets that have been released since I mostly stopped playing Dominion (Guilds, Empires and Adventures), my order of favour of Dominion sets is: Prosperity; Intrigue; Base Set; Seaside; Hinterlands; Dark Ages; Cornucopia; and Alchemy. Now, onto the rest of the DBGs...

Compiling the list

As I did with the other genres I have reviewed, I went through the BoardGameGeek database and attempted to make a somewhat comprehensive list of all of the DBGs of note. I was able to come up with a list of only 57 games out of 1,872 total entries listed with the "deck / pool building" mechanic. I was quite surprised at how few notable DBGs there actually were, as the genre seemed to be much more ubiquitous than that judging by the space they seemed to take up on game store shelves, but I suppose that there were a lot of expansions featured along with those starter sets.

Of those 57, I have played 25, with another dozen on my want to play list. I was surprised, upon reflection on the larger list that I compiled, to discover that I own only ten DBGs ("only"), not including the two dozen various expansions and promos I own for those games. There are however, four of the ten that are space-themed, so my wife might have a point when she observes that I have too many space games that are all the same.

I have grouped those 57 DBGs into five categories according to relative complexity, with a short summary about the group. Each level includes my favourite example, DBGs in my collection, other DBGs I have played, DBGs on my want to play list, and then finally any other DBGs of note (some of which I may yet eventually play). The numbers in parentheses indicate the number of plays I have had for each game.

Micro/Introductory DBGs

These small DBGs took the concept and minimized it with smaller decks and fewer cards. They demonstrate ingenuity by nature of their ability to take the idea and to make it work to some extent in a smaller package with a quick play time, often through an insightful method of manipulating the cards. These DBGs have the feel of their larger cousins, but they do not have the depth of their longer counterparts; they are mostly meant to emulate the experience of a DBG, which several of them do well.

Flip City is my favourite of this small category mainly for its ingenuity in its reduction of cards, and I am looking forward to the new Wilderness version, which functions as either a standalone game or a game that can be integrated with the original. I suppose Friday is not that much smaller than an average DBG, but the fact that it is a solo game makes it feel a lot smaller, so I included it here.

Favourite: Flip City

In collection: Eminent Domain: Microcosm (2); Flip City (2) + Reuse expansion; Friday (6)

Also played: N/A

To play: Flip City: Wilderness

Others of Note: Fzzzt!

Straightforward DBGs

Most of the games here came be described as "deck-building in ________ or with __________", whether that blank is filled by "space", "Ancient Egypt", "words", "superheroes", "a fantasy world", or "a post-apocalyptic nuclear wasteland". Some of these have a slight edge to them, but they are fairly plain and easy to learn as far as DBGs go.

My favourite here is Star Realms, which I have played far more on my phone than on the table. I love the flexibility of the game with its various expansions, and I love how the game builds and snowballs but ends very quickly. I have played a limited amount of others in this category, but I have really enjoyed what I have played of most of them, and I look forward to more plays of Paperback and Valley of the Kings in particular.

Favourite: Star Realms

In collection: Paperback (2); Star Realms / Star Realms: Colony Wars with Gambit, Crisis and United expansions and various promos (13); Valley of the Kings (1); Valley of the Kings: Afterlife (2)

Also played: Arctic Scavengers (1); Ascension (2); Cthulhu Realms (1); DC Comics DBG (1); Dominion (26)

To play: Hero Realms

Others of note: Pixel Lincoln: The Deck Building Game; Tanto Cuore; Valley of the Kings: Last Rites

Intermediate DBGs

The primary focus of the games here is still the deck-building aspect of the game, but it's slightly more complex and often incorporates another element along with the deck building; think "deck-building plus a __________", with examples of blanks being "map", "technology tree", or "hyperviolent football match featuring various fantastical beings". My favourite here has been Eminent Domain, a game that I have feel as though I have barely begun to explore despite my many plays, which have mostly been teaching rounds or initial rounds with one of the two expansions.

This category is where many of the different games inspired by various intellectual properties (IP) end up, including the half-dozen different versions of the Legendary or Legendary Encounters games. Other than the Marvel game, I have not spent any time with the Legendary series (and I'm not even quite sure what makes the difference between a "Legendary" and a "Legendary Encounters" game, for that matter), but I would probably start with Firefly, since I have been on that kick in recent months; now that I think about it, that might be my next "legacy" game purchase...

Favourite: Eminent Domain (16)

In collection: Eminent Domain with Escalation and Exotica expansions and various promos

Also played: Blood Bowl: Team Manager - The Card Game (7); Legendary: A Marvel Deck-Building Game (4); Trains (1)

To play: Legendary Encounters: An Alien Deck Building Game; Legendary Encounters: Firefly; Mystic Vale

Others of note: Baseball Highlights: 2045; Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle; Legendary: Big Trouble in Little China; Legendary: Buffy the Vampire Slayer; Legendary Encounters: Predator; Nightfall; Pathfinder Adventure Card Game (various sets); Shadowrun: Crossfire; Thunderstone (Advance)

"Family" Strategy games that incorporate deck-building

In the past two or three years in particular, there have been more games that have incorporated the deck-building mechanic into the play of a family-oriented strategy game. In these games, deck-building is generally not the focus of the game, though it is integral to the workings of the games and of having a successful strategy.

I have chosen not to have a favourite in this category due to my limited plays of these games, but I did enjoy my plays of Super Motherload (a game by Canadian designers) and Commissioned, an interesting Kickstarter game that uses the theme of the early church spreading throughout the Middle East in the years after Christ.

Favourite: N/A

In collection: N/A

Played: Commissioned (1); Discoveries (1); Super Motherload (1)

To Play: Above and Below; Mega Man: The Board Game; Tyrants of the Underdark

Others of Note: The Big Book of Madness; Clank!

Complex games

In these much more complex games, as in the more family-style strategy games, deck-building is used as an aspect of a larger game. It still might be a prominent mechanic, but there is usually much more to the game than just getting the right cards into your deck - although getting the wrong cards can make life difficult. Most of these games have been released in the last few years, several to widespread critical acclaim, and I think that they collectively demonstrate that there is a strong future for deck-building as a mechanic in the world of complex strategy games.

My favourite so far is the very cerebral Core Worlds, which is the most traditional DBG of the category as far as I can determine. It takes at least two hours to play (unlike the much shorter Intermediate and Family Strategy DBGs, which are mostly closer to an hour or less once you know the game), and it is quite involved in terms of the thinking required to succeed. I really enjoyed the other games of this category that I have played, though, and I could easily see any of those four games becoming my favourite of this level with another play or two.

Favourite: Core Worlds (3)

In collection: Core Worlds with Galactic Orders and Revolution expansions

Played: Concordia (1); Great Western Trail (1); Lewis and Clark (1); Mombasa (1)

To play: Copycat; A Few Acres of Snow; Inis; Mage Knight Board Game; Rococo; Star Trek: Frontiers

Others of note: City of Iron; Cry Havoc; A Study in Emerald

Favourite Deck-Building Games

I know I have covered some of this information already throughout the post, but I still thought it would be valuable to collect my thoughts into one list of my favourite DBGs, regardless of level of complexity. I have included lists of the DBGs that I would most like to play, to replay, and to play more often, along with my five current favourites and a short commentary on each.

Top DBGs to play: A Few Acres of Snow; Hero Realms; Legendary Encounters: Firefly; Mega Man: The Board Game; Mystic Vale

Top DBGs to replay: Arctic Scavengers; Concordia; Great Western Trail; Mombasa; Trains

Top DBGs to play more often: Core Worlds; Eminent Domain; Paperback; Star Realms; Valley of the Kings

Top five Deck-Building Games:

Core Worlds (3) - I really enjoy that this is a complex DBG that takes over two hours to play. There are a lot of really challenging strategic decisions in the game, and I really enjoy what the expansions add to the game. Although I have only played it thrice, I really enjoy the depth of the game, and I am looking forward to many more brain-burning plays in the future.

Dominion (26) - It really is one of the best at what it does; even if the theme can seem a little dry, the mechanic is almost flawless. There is nearly endless variability among all of the kingdom cards (over 250 at this point) - almost too much, in my opinion. Still, it's a great game and one that I will always play, which earns it a place in my favourites.

Eminent Domain (16) - EmDo does a great job of combining deck-building with tableau building with a technology tree to create a surprisingly deep experience even though the basic game is quite simple. The game does have a significant learning curve, though, thanks to the presence of all of the different technologies, and the two major expansions - each of which I have played only once or twice - add more options and more depth to the game.

Legendary: A Marvel Deck-Building Game (4) - The original Legendary game is one of the better superhero games out there, regardless of genre. It has a unique set-up each time with a different super-villain, henchmen, scheme, and heroes, and it uses the established storylines and artwork of the Marvel Universe well. I do really enjoy how it mixes cooperative and competitive play - you have to work together to win, but there will still be a winner in the end - and even though it occasionally suffers from imbalance because of the way that the cards come out, I have had fun playing it every time.

Star Realms (13) - Star Realms is a fairly simple DBG - buy, attack, make combos, repeat - but I really enjoy it anyway. I really enjoy the chaining combos aspect of this game and how the game builds momentum as you play, which is not a feel that all DBGs are able to achieve.


I was very surprised to discover that I have played DBGs only 97 times in total at the time at which I wrote this post - or around 6% of my total overall plays - with over a quarter of those plays on various iterations of Dominion; that number, however, does not include the hundreds of games of Dominion and Star Realms that I have played online, It seems like that number and percentage should be much higher based on the popularity of the genre and the ease of learning DBGs, but I have chosen to spread my attention over many genres and mechanics and on many different examples within each genre, so perhaps that percentage should not be that surprising after all.

I do really enjoy DBGs, and I would like to play them more often in general. The best place for most DBGs - at least the ones at the Introductory, Straightforward or Intermediate level - is as either a warm-up before or a cool-down after the main course on a game night with people who know the game well enough to just be able to play without needing teaching or refreshing. I suppose, then, that I really need to focus on teaching the games in my collection to people with whom I play frequently, as that will likely result in more DBG plays in total.

I am also excited by the developments in the past couple of years in the complex end of the genre, and I do believe that there will continue to be innovations in how deck-building is incorporated into strategic games on a broader scale. There will likely continue to be a not-insignificant number of games based on various sources of untapped IP - Star Trek, Star Wars, Cthulhu, and Game of Thrones come immediately to mind as possibilities, though I am certain that there are many more nerdy obsessions from which viable DBGs could be extracted - and I imagine that I may end up playing a few of those, too.

Despite the fact that there is some tiredness in the constant onslaught of new IP-inspired games and somewhat of a derisive attitude amongst board gamers in regard to DBGs as a result, I tend to think that there is still a lot of life left in the deck-building genre, and I look forward to exploring more of it both in terms of breadth and depth, particularly at the more complex end of the scale. 

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