The Evolution of Deck Building Games
Let me start by saying that Deck Building is one of my favorite game mechanics, and one that has been around for a while. Also, let me say that there are two different, distinct ways you can qualify deck building. I am not referring to the collectible card game method (or even living card game), where you can build a custom deck leading into the game. Yes, you do build a deck of cards to play with in those games, but the game itself isn’t about deck building. In some ways, they are the basis for modern deck building games, though.
In those games, you would build your deck of cards, however many that might be, from cards you had bought and collected. You were looking for interesting interactions and synergies between cards. That is something that still definitely exists in modern deck builders. But the modern deck builder doesn’t have you create your deck ahead of time. In fact, everyone starts out with the same cards and then you can build and expand your decks beyond that.
That is what makes the mechanic interesting, in a lot of the early deck builders, you would customize and try and develop your own strategy for the game based off of a set of cards that were available to everyone in the game. Dominion, the first popular deck builder, created an economy where you would search to combo cards to the point where you could buy victory point cards, in particular the high cost victory point cards which were one way to end the game.
While I do appreciate the mechanic in Dominion, Dominion does have one serious flaw to the game. There will always be a best strategy because everyone is purchasing from a static market of cards. This can lead to a run away leader problem in the game, or if the cards don’t synergize well, the strategy is then just to buy more money, so you don’t actually end up using the combinations. Also, the game has a medieval theme that could literally be any sort of economy, so it’s very very themeless. Toss in inconsistent art throughout the game and expansions, and I’ve moved on from my copy of Dominion.
But Dominion was the one that started it for deck builders, maybe not the first, but the first big one. From there we’ve moved on to a few different ways of deck building.
The first big advancement is the rotating market. The game Marvel Legendary is a great example of this. While the market is limited more so than in Dominion, the market rotates as people buy a card, you flip a new card down. This means that the market is constantly changing and there isn’t a way to create a specific strategy as clearly that is going to be the best. This helps solve the run away leader problem. It also provides more strategy for creating your deck as the option of just buying money isn’t going to fix your problem in the game of figuring out card synergies.
In a cooperative game, like Marvel Legendary, you can still make your decks highly focused as you’re talking about what is out there and who might want what card when it comes around to their turn. But in Clanks! In! Space!, you are playing a competitive game with a rotating market. This means that someones you might buy a card that isn’t ideal for your deck, just because you don’t want anyone else to have it.
There are also interesting ways that they fixed the fixed market issue in Dominion in other games without it being a rotating market. Xenoshyft: Onslaught is a good example of this. In the game you are working together to defend your base, but I might have the role of the science department while someone else might have the barracks. Because we have different roles we have different powers that make our strategies unique. If you are the science department, you have the two unique cards in your deck from the start, and you can get a discounted buy on science cards each round. That means your deck is going to lean a certain direction because it’s easier for you to load up on a certain type of good card than it is for other people. Variable player powers cover over a lot of issues you can run into with deck builders by actively making people build their deck in different ways or they won’t be building it the most efficient way using their resources.
Xenoshyft: Onslaught also has another interesting mechanic that helps. One issue with deck builders is that as the deck gets larger, you can either get a deck that is too big to really get the cards you want together, or gets too full of early game cards that you don’t get enough money at the same time to purchase more. Xenoshyft: Onslaught fixes both of these issues in unique but good ways. The first thing it does is you area always gaining money to your hand each round of the game, in the first three rounds, you get an extra xenostatham (money unit), in the next three, you get a three xenostatham card, and in the last three rounds, you get a six xenostatham. Now, this means you are never short money, but it adds bloat into your deck. Xenoshyft: Onslaught realizes this, so in the middle rounds, you can trade three one xenostatham cards for a three xenostatham card, and in the last three rounds, you can get your threes to sixes. This keeps the deck cleaner. It also allows you to use troops that you can buy in the first three rounds as discounts on troops in the later rounds, this helps keep the deck thin and focused.
One thing that all the games that I’ve mentioned thus far do better than Dominion as well is that they’ve added theme back into a deck builder. The cards that you are buying and using make sense in the game for the ultimate goal of the game. Wen you’re recruiting heroes to fight against a super villain in Legendary, it makes sense. When the cards have certain abilities on them, they make sense for the hero. That was a huge move forward from what we had been previously seeing in Dominion, and while Dominion might still be the most popular, it gave people a lot more options for games.
There are now some other interesting things that have been added into deck building that make certain deck builders unique.
A game like Cry Havoc, while not a pure deck builder, has some deck building in the game as you add in various terrain cards to your deck. It uses a draw two and pick one methodology of building up your deck. So depending on where you are locate don the board will determine what you want to take, and whom you might be fighting.
Aeon’s End (a game that I’ll have the legacy version of the game on it’s way, but this one does something unique as well. It’s interesting because instead of shuffling your deck like you do with every other deck building game I can think of, you literally just flip your discard pile. However, when you discard cards on your turn, you can sort the order that they go into your discard as long as they are used in the game time in the game. That means that you can stack your deck in an interesting way and specifically create hands, especially earlier in the game.
Deck building is definitely a mechanic that has been extremely popular and I think will remain popular, though we’re now seeing less pure deck building games. A game like Cry Havoc has deck building, but that’s fairly secondary in the game, and you’d actually be able to play the full game without doing any additional deck building if you wanted (if I remember correctly), but it’s fun to see a fairly familiar mechanic showing up in a diverse cross-section of games that wouldn’t always seem like deck building games. It’s also led to some interesting games that have hand building that can work similar to deck building, but you have access to all the cards from the start and then lose them as you play them.
So, to wrap this up, if deck building seems like an interesting mechanic, where would I start?
That’s a tough question, Dominion is probably the purest deck builder out there, but there are a ton of expansions, so it might seem a bit intimidating to get into. It’s also not the easiest game to sell to people to play, because the theme is very bland. But if you are playing with less gamer-y people, I would start with Dominion.
If you’re playing with people who are used to playing games, just not deck builders, I’d probably start with Xenoshyft: Onslaught. The game has some very interesting choices in it, and it’s fun to face off against a bunch of alien bugs. Marvel Legendary is good as well, but there are so many expansions, I wouldn’t consider it a great starting deck builder. You could look at Legendary Encounters games and just pick the them that works best for you, whether that’s Alien, Big Trouble in Little China, Firefly, or one of the others. These games all offer more to do with your cards and a lot more depth of strategy than Dominion while still keeping the focus on deck building.
What are some of your favorite deck building games?