Deck-building games

Deck-building games are a relatively new type of card/board game that have become increasingly popular over the years. The first one was Dominion, a game I don’t care too much for and have talked about before, but I am a fan of some of the games that have followed it and since they seem to be getting more and more prevalent I thought I’d talk about them a bit.

So what is a deck-building game? It’s a game where everyone starts out with a small pile of wimpy cards. These cards, known as “starters”, when played grant you gold (or power, or copper, or trade, or whatever the currency is known as in that particular game). You can use that currency to buy some better cards, which get added to your deck. And as you keep buying cards your deck gets more and more powerful, allowing you to buy even better cards, stack up powers and abilities for bigger effects, and generally have a lot of fun. Each game varies in theme, card names and types, and rules, but they also have a lot of similarities:

  • In all of these types of games you start with a wimpy bunch of starter cards. And the usual format is to start with a deck of 10 cards then draw 5 for your first hand and each hand thereafter. Street Fighter DBG (Deck Building Game), Ascension, Star Realms, and others use that particular setup.
  • One difference is that some games, like Street Fighter DBG, Star Realms, and the DC Comics DBG use a single type of currency, while others use two types that allow you to buy different kinds of cards.
  • Deck-builders have some common card types, such as “scrapping” cards that allow you to destroy your (starter) cards thus making your deck stronger, “copiers” that allow you to copy another card in play and are usually very powerful, cards that let you discard a card in order to draw more, etc. There are only so many different things you can come up with for a card to do, so you end up seeing a lot of similarities across games.
  • These games always start off slowly, as you use your low-power initial cards to buy slightly better ones and very slowly build up your deck. But as the game progresses and your cards get better and better the game gets faster because you can do a lot more each turn, and the end of the game goes by lightning fast because everyone has such a potent deck by that time. They definitely have an asymptotic curve for the playing time!

Even though all deck-builders feature this “acceleration” feature, it’s different in different games, depending on how quickly better cards and more currency becomes available. Street Fighter DBG can take quite a while to play and to get your deck built up; it’s probably the longest of the deck-builders I’ve played. Star Realms on the other hand, ramps up incredibly quickly; you can buy potent cards on the first or second turn. Consequently a game of Star Realms can take only 15 or 20 minutes.

Another thing deck-builders often feature is having cards divided into various groups. In Star Realms for example, the various ships and bases belong to one of 4 factions, except for your starters which are unaligned. Typically, members of the same group of cards can help power each other up, so obtaining as many as you can from one group can be very helpful. For example, in Ascension there are four type of constructs you can obtain, and one of them, the Mechana constructs, totally build upon each other. If you can get a whole bunch of them into play you can really overwhelm your opponent. At the same time, getting allied powers isn’t critical and you can easily win without gathering up a bunch of one type.

I really enjoy deck-builders (except Dominion…). Seeing what is going to come up next, trying to build up something good, and anxiously drawing your next hand to see what you got are all part of the fun. They do have a couple traits that can make people shy away though:

  • The slow start I mentioned earlier. It’s usually only an issue the first time someone plays, but I’ve seen that “That’s all I do?” after a player’s first turn many times. My wife wishes you could just skip that whole opening part with the weak cards 🙂
  • Card knowledge and experience within a given game are big advantages. It’s really much fairer if everyone has played the game a relatively equal amount. I’ve played so much Ascension on my iPad (free download for the base game btw!) that I’ve got everything memorized and my wife won’t play it with me anymore 😦

But really those are easily overcome, and most everyone can enjoy these types of games, depending on the theme and exact mechanics. I plan to review some of these different games I’ve mentioned soon, so stay tuned for those and thanks for reading!

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Deck-building games

  1. Ok so deckbuilding also takes on a few other connotations for me personally. Games like the Pathfinder adventure game in which you have a limited deck of cards that represents not only what your character can do, but when you run out of cards you run out of life. And really most of the CCGs come out as deckbuilding to me as you have to build a deck of cards to play the game. I know the genre of games you refer to ohhh so well (thanks for getting me into the DC one… by the way… and agreeing that Dominion has too many limits). I know I am splitting hairs and getting anal retentive about word use, but heck… 🙂 So what I am building to here is do you think there is another name that would be more distinctive for these types of games?

    • dantherpgman

      Well I haven’t played the Pathfinder game but from what I understand it’s really about building up a character and using a few cards to represent things…not really deck-building. As for CCGs, you do build a deck but it’s totally outside the gameplay…I guess these are “in-game deck-builders”? Doesn’t really roll off the tongue… :p

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