Board games have been around for thousands of years. So when a designer comes up with a genuinely new idea for a game mechanic, the hype train takes off like a rocket. Such was the case for deck building in 2008.
Like many fresh ideas, the concept of a deck building game is startling in its simplicity. Card games where you build a custom deck before you play have been around a while. In a deck building game, though, you build the deck while you play. Starting with a hand of currency cards, you cash them in for other, more interesting cards, and make a deck on-the-fly you think is good enough to win.
It wasn’t just gamers who got bowled over by the brilliance of the concept: it was designers too. Gaming was soon awash in copycat games, many of limited interest. Since then, the mechanic has seen redeployment into other genres of game with mixed results. But there are loads of awesome examples, too. These are the best deck-building board games:
Best start with the game that started it all. Dominion wasn’t only novel: it was also simple, with quick, three-step turns. All the complexity is on the cards themselves. The goal is to use the starting copper cards to buy better cards, allowing for more money and actions, working up to buying victory point cards. Strategy came down to honing your deck into the leanest card-buying machine you could manage. With 25 card options, of which 10 got chosen for use in each game, it had impressive replay value. Yet it’s popular enough to have spawned a slew of expansions, of which Dominion: Intrigue is often considered the best.
Deck-building sometimes feels like a mechanic in search of a theme, with many games lacking in atmosphere and excitement. Star Realms changed that with a fast, fun and functional combat mechanic. Now it wasn’t just about building the most efficient extraterrestrial empire, but about sticking one to the enemy, too. Right away this adds extra strategy: players must balance building trade against buying fleets. But it also brings a social dimension to the game alongside a rich sci-fi setting with four distinct factions. There’s a digital version available to help soak up the little additional complexity these goodies demand.
Paperback takes a whole different approach to diversifying the deck-builder. Rather than trying to evoke a theme, it gives up and makes an abstract word game instead. Each card is a letter or a wildcard, and your task each turn is to use your hand to make the highest-scoring word you can. To ensure the game isn’t just card-based Scrabble, most letter cards in Paperback also have a special ability, such as extra draws. By being both an efficiency engine and a phonetic puzzle, it combines the best challenges of two worlds. And, at the same time, offers a great entry point to deck building for fans of more generic games.
Numbers are at the heart of what makes deck-building work, and they’re at the heart of what makes Clank! special. Players are adventurers seeking to loot a dungeon and escape before a dragon wakes up. The engine of each hero is their deck, which lets them move and fight, open doors and spend gold. These are just abstract numbers that you use to overcome challenges: the real game is the frantic race in and out of the dungeon. That’s where all the theme and thrills are. By separating the strategy from the theme, Clank! manages to satisfy fans of both camps with a winning combination.
The very simplicity of deck-building can work against it. So, to add interest, many designers have used it alongside other mechanics. One of the earliest examples was A Few Acres of Snow. A simple wargame simulating the Anglo-French fighting over Quebec, much of the action took place on a board. Your deck represented your troops, transports and other resources. Forcing players to juggle planning their decks with planning for war and colony-building proved a rich strategic stew. The concept was popular enough to port to other settings. The designer released fantasy and sci-fi versions called Mythotopia and A Handful of Stars. Best of all though is Hands in the Sea, a version set in the Punic Wars. As of now A Few Acres of Snow is out of print, but it can be found on Ebay.
Turns out that something as simple as adding a board adds a ridiculous amount of fun to deck-building. The best example is Trains, in which players compete to build rail routes across a map. It’s got the same attractive simplicity as Dominion, with a focus on the cards but two key innovations. First, building on a map adds a bunch of spatial and time-based considerations that don’t exist with cards alone. Second it adds waste cards, a thematic way to clog up your deck with rubbish which you need to manage effectively to do well. The whole package adds a ton of fun to the deck-building concept, especially for lower player counts.
Inevitably, the publisher of Trains has another game called Planes and a third called Automobiles, which is the best of the lot. Rather than building a deck, this game seems you building a bag instead, filling it with coloured cubes. Each cube represents one of the cards in use for that game, so when you pull it from the bag you essentially play that card. This makes the game much faster and less fussy than the endless effect-checking and shuffling of most deck-builders. That speed suits this thrill a minute track-based racing game just fine, yet still gives players a smorgasbord of strategic options.
One of the greatest pleasures of deck-building is having to work out a new plan each turn, based on what fate gave you. Bag-builder Orleans is the absolute epitome of that pleasure. Your drawn tokens represent French peasants that you must set to work on tasks of your choice. There’s a dizzying array of work for them to do, from building walls to brewing beer, each of which gains you some reward. It’s all about balancing rewards like new workers or special buildings now against the promise of points later. But unlike most building games, Orleans has so many routes to victory that all the options blend into a deliciously rich strategic soup.
While many games add a board or two to deck-building, Mage Knight adds the whole kitchen sink. It’s a sprawling, complex fantasy adventure in which you’ll explore, recruit armies and plunder dungeons. Most notable of all, it offers deep reserves of both narrative and strategy, a rarity in game design. Deck-building is the cornerstone on which the whole, huge edifice rests. Your deck, at first, represents your heroic abilities. As you explore and grow it also comes to include spells, followers, magical treasures and a good deal more besides. With several scenarios and styles, including competitive, cooperative and solo, Mage Knight tries to be all things to all gamers and succeeds. SOURCE: IGN.com