It’s incredible how many games rely on those simple pieces of cardboard—playing cards. After Magic The Gathering hit the world by storm, and hundreds of collectible card games (CCGs) followed in its wake, it seemed that there was nothing new in the world of card-based games—until, that is, deck-building games came along! This ingenious new concept takes many of the CCG concepts, but does away with the collectible idea, putting players on a more even playing field and forcing everyone to rely on their skill and ability, not just their ability to buy new cards.
The deck-building genre hit the games world with the release of Dominion by Donald X. Vaccarino and Hans im Glück in 2008. What is deck-building? Well, rather than have a number of cards in hand that you add to and play, the main strategy of the game is building an effective deck as you play. So rather than pre-building a deck, as you would in a collectible or living card game, the deck-building is an integral part of the game itself.
In Dominion, each player is the rulers of a small medieval kingdom, competing to hire minions, construct buildings, renovate his castle, and fill the coffers of his treasury. Each player starts with a small, identical hand of cards. A selection of cards—10 of the 25 available—is placed in the centre of the table, which players can buy using their cards. As you play, you attempt to build the most effective deck with which to buy precious victory cards.
Dominion certainly deserves the oft-used adjective ‘elegant’; it remains balanced despite the endless combinations and variety, since the cards are always available to all the players. It’s a perfect game for lovers of strategy, and collectible card gamers looking for something new and fresh without the common problems of that genre—like killer combos and decks.
Dominion was an instant hit, and went on to win the Spiel Des Jahres in 2009. Of course, in the tradition of all successful strategy card games, it wasn’t long before the expansions started coming. The first was Dominion: Intrigue (2009), a stand-alone expansion which added rules for up to eight players at two tables or a single game of six players when combined with the base game—not to mention 500 new cards of course!
The same year saw the release of Dominion: Seaside, an expansion that required either the base game or Intrigue. Another 300 cards, plus some new items such as coins, emargo tokens, and game mats. This year—2010—we have already seen Dominion: Alchemy, which adds 150 cards including the special Potion treasures; and Dominion: Prosperity, with 300 cards and some significant changes to the way the game plays.
With the success of Dominion, games with similar mechanics, or mechanics inspired by the game, came along to satisfy the hardcore card gamers. For example, Thunderstone (2009), is a deck building game with a deeper and more immersive fantasy dungeon-crawling theme. Rather than just buying victory points, they are won by fighting monsters, and since they have special abilities, some say the game play is more flexible. You can also play it solo!
Thunderstone: Wrath of the Elements (2010) is the first expansion for Thunderstone, adding traps and new hero and monster types—along with lots more cards of course. The next expansion will be called Thunderstone: Doomgate Legion and should be out soon.
Two more fantasy-themed deck building games are Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer (2010) and Heroes of Graxia (2010), which each bring their unique take on the genre.
Arcana (2009) is a fantasy-themed card game using a drafting mechanic, using characters from Rackham’s fantasy city of Cadwallon (recently featured in the Dust Games/FFG boardgame Cadwallon: City of Thieves). A couple of other deck-building games to keep an eye out for are Arctic Scavengers and Eminent Domain.
If you haven’t tried the deck-building genre yet, there’s lot to choose from, so let the cards be shuffled and the games begin!