Let’s Talk: Deck Building Games

Out of all of the board gaming mechanics, deckbuilding is probably one of the most popular and iconic. Many a gamer has been introduced to and brought into the hobby through this mechanic alone. Not only is it easy to learn, but it plays quickly and can be quite addictive. Due to so much success and its long standing time in the hobby, we have seen a fair amount of evolution and adaptation as time has passed. As someone who has mixed feelings on the mechanic I thought I’d share some of my thoughts.

First, maybe I should expound on the mechanic a little before going sharing too much. Deckbuilding is a self contained form of a collectible card game; like Magic, Pokemon or Yugioh. These games have players buy booster packs, collecting cards that can be combined into a competitive deck. Players are free to build their deck in a way and play-style that they find most fun or most powerful. This ends up being both very rewarding and very addictive. Unfortunately there is a substantial cost and time commitment involved. Deckbuilding games try to distill this experience into a single 30-45 minute game. Players start with identical decks of cards and slowly build up their deck during the game, using cards found just in the base game.

As most everyone knows, the granddaddy of deckbuilding is Dominion. Designed by Donald X. Vaccarino game was released back in 2008. Players represented wealthy Aristocrats aspiring to expand their influence through various different means, each of which represented in the games different card sets. The game’s popularity has has continued to warrant expansion after expansion, now boasting an impressive 13 expansions. The game’s combinations of cards is reaching near “infinity”.

If Dominion is the granddaddy of deckbuilding, then Ascension is the great uncle. I am not nearly as familiar with Ascension’s theme, and given it’s strange and somewhat esoteric artwork can you blame me. I believe there are runes, monsters, and honor. While not quite as popular as Dominion, the game has also seen it’s fair share of expansions. The main difference between the two is the way in which cards are available for purchase. In Dominion, you select 10 different sets of cards and create a static market for the remainder of the game. In Ascension, all the games’ cards are shuffled together and then the top 6 cards are flipped faced up to create a dynamic market.

Since these two games we’ve seen numerous fresh takes on the mechanic. From quick dueling games of Star Realms to long, crunchy games of Great Western Trail, there is a deck builder out there for everyone. One of the more popular ones right now is Clank!. While mostly a traditional deck builder with a dynamic market, Clank! adds a board on which players use their cards to explore and find treasure. If recent years have proven anything, it’s that the design possibilities are endless. I’m sure we’ll there will be plenty more notable games released over the upcoming years.

So, if we’re being honest, I’ve never been a big fan of deckbuilding games. One of the very first games I played when joining the hobby was Thunderstone Advance, a deckbuilding game about building up a crew of heroes and fighting your way through a dungeon. While I enjoyed the game I had a hard finding new gamers that were interested in playing. I then sold the game to get Legendary: Marvel. I figured a more approachable theme would get the game to the table more often. Unfortunately it was a little too abstract for my casual gaming family members and friends.

I’ve since tried games like Clank! and Aeon’s End. But sadly I’ve come to find that I have a major complaint with deckbuilding games. Basically, I feel like your turns are far too scripted. I may be speaking from inexperience, but it seemed that the best strategy was to buy the most expensive card you could afford, play everything else in your hand and then try and remove weak starting cards from your deck whenever possible. The luck of the draw appeared to make it difficult to try and chain or combo purchased cards. I just never felt very fulfilled mechanically or strategically when a go was over.

Up until a couple of weeks ago I had never had the opportunity to try Dominion. I always made the excuse that I figured I wouldn’t enjoy a plain, themeless deck builder if I could bring myself to enjoy more robust and exciting games. What gave me hope was the fact that in Dominion was that you don’t get to merely play all of your hand every turn, you have to play cards that provide actions. This meant there was a little more thought that would need to go into both the cards you buy and which cards you play each turn. While the theme was indeed non-existent, I really enjoyed the game. It was fast paced, while still allowing for some friendly conversation on the side.

I have since gone out and purchased my own deck builder, something I never thought I would do. I settled on Heart of Crown. It follows a similar design structure as Dominion but with better art, more theme, and a better storage solution. While I’ve only played the game once, I am excited to continue to explore the different sets of cards and possible strategies. But I suppose I learned an important lesson with my pursuit of suitable deck builders, and that is less is more. Deckbuidling is a fine mechanic, but one that I want as the main pull and not an auxiliary feature.

So, what are your favorite deck building games? And most importantly, is there anyone else that feels the same way about games like Legendary: Marvel and Clank!?

One thought on “Let’s Talk: Deck Building Games

  1. Ben,

    Another great article. I really enjoy deckbuilders. Legendary, Hero Realms, Clank, Thunderstone Quest, and Aeons End: Legacy are all part of my collection. I agree with you where some of the hands can feel the same, however, when you do get that really nice combo and can dish out loads of damage, it is so exciting. I have not heard of Heart of Crown and I have not played Dominion yet as well, but will need to check them out one day.

    Ken Paschall

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