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  • Essays
  • Deck Building - a Modern Card Mechanism

Deck Building - a Modern Card Mechanism

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(Photo courtesy of Big Potato Games)
There Will Be Games

Card games date back to the 1400s with Karniffel, or Thuringian Karnöffel, often listed as the oldest one, at least the oldest in Europe that we know of. As a popular trick-taking game in Germany for centuries, it clearly started a trend. Many trick-taking games are still popular in Germany today and I certainly grew up with a fair few. However, card games have come a long way since then. In this article, I want to look at deck-building games specifically and how this mechanism has been applied in many different ways since Dominion made it popular.

The Basics

I probably don't need to explain it, but deck-building is a mechanism where players select cards in some way to add to their hand, discard pile or draw deck. The aim is to make their overall collection of cards more likely to let the player win the game. Sometimes players start with a random set of cards or maybe a pre-built deck that they then change during the game.

As far as I know, deck-building games didn't originally allow for cards to be removed. The idea of thinning your deck to make it more efficient by removing less useful cards was introduced later on. Mind you, the German trick-taking game Skat does have a similar concept. After dealing everyone their hand, two cards are placed in the middle face-down. The winner of the subsequent bidding phase then takes those two cards and may use one or both to replace them with cards from their hand. It's not quite thinning, but it's close.

Anyway, the idea of trashing your cards during a deck-building game is now a relatively common facet of this mechanism. In fact, it's often a key element that players should take advantage of. Deck-building games are usually designed in such a way that players start with less powerful cards. Adding better cards does make the deck better, but the less powerful ones still slow things down. So shedding these cards during the game makes players' decks more powerful overall.

Deck-Building Over Time

Deck-building games used to simulate some sort of combat, usually between only two players. The decks of cards would consist of attack cards, healing cards and money cards. As you would expect, attack cards reduce an opponent's health, healing cards allow you to increase your own health and money cards are used to buy better cards, often from a publicly visible and shared offer row. Players would play cards out in front of them and use them appropriately, then discard them all. They would redraw their hand from the draw deck and when that ran out, they would shuffle their discard pile into a new draw deck.

Of course, games started to introduce other types of cards to create some variety and renewed interest. For example, magic or energy that you could use to cast spells introduced a new type of resource you needed to manage. Ultimately though, everything was about inflicting damage on your opponent, protecting yourself from attack with shields to reduce the damage, healing yourself or buying new cards.

Shards of Infinity introduced the concept of being able to play some cards immediately after buying them, but then having to take them out of the game. I think that's quite clever, because it means you can gain an effect straight away, while not adding to your deck and therefore keeping it nice and thin.

Mystic Vale changed the building element in such a way that your deck would never get bigger, but instead, the cards would get more powerful. You're basically buying upgrades to your cards, rather than adding to your deck with cards. Also, rather than attacking your opponents, Mystic Vale is a race game where you want to get the biggest share of a pool of points.

  Mystic ValeMystic Vale

Deck-Building With a Difference

It didn't take long for the mechanism to be applied in very different ways than what I have talked about so far.

I guess one of my most popular ways of using deck-building is in the Undaunted series of games. When I started to play Undaunted: Normandy with a friend, I was expecting a war game where your cards represented commands to move pieces around the map and attack your opponent. However, I didn't expect the game to be so much of a deck-building game in the classic sense. Other than having to learn the actions on offer, the game felt immediately familiar. You draw cards, play cards, draw up again, shuffle discards into draw decks and everything else.

All right, instead of a shared offer row, you have your own supply of cards. Instead of having money cards, you have the bolster action. Cards are also multi-functional, allowing you to choose one action of three or four from each card. However, everything else is very much like a classic deck-building game. At the same time, you're playing a war game on a map with cardboard tokens and dice. It's unexpected, but works absolutely beautifully.

  Deck Building 02Undaunted: Normandy Cards with Names

Fort is definitely a deck-building game, but it changes where players can buy cards from. There is a shared offer row, but any cards a player didn't use on their turn are also available for others to buy. The idea is that cards are children that you have invited over to your place. The cards that you play represent the kids you decided to play with. The cards you didn't play are those that you ignored and didn't include in the group. They hang around in your yard, waiting for a nicer kid to invite them over and play with them.

Deck-Building With Depth

The latest deck-building game I have played is Imperium: Classics. I think this game takes the mechanism to another level. Every player takes on the role of a faction, such as the Romans or Vikings, represented by a unique deck of cards. Every faction has different powers and plays in a different way, making the game asymmetric. While most factions want to become empires and score the most points, for some factions, their best strategy is different. They want to end the game early by forcing the other players to take the most Unrest cards.

There is still a shared market of cards and players can play cards in front of them, like you will have seen in other deck-building games. There is also the usual drawing up to your hand size, discarding cards and shuffling your discard into a new draw deck. However, there are lots of little extra twists and changes that create so much extra interest.

Even though you're not replaying history, the essence of the faction you're playing does come through. It's obviously highly abstracted and probably quite stereotyped. Vikings want to pillage, Romans want to build monuments, etc. Yet, it is amazing how much depth there is to this game that's basically just a few decks of cards and some cardboard tokens.

I haven't yet written my review of Imperium: Classics, but let me say this: after playing it twice, my friend bought Imperium: Legends because he liked what he saw so very much. So, watch this space, as they say.

What About You?

I'm sure there are many other deck-building games that introduce new concepts and push the mechanism in different directions. Are there any deck-building games that you enjoyed playing? What did you like about them? What new twists and new takes on this now classic mechanism have you come across? As always, please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below. I wonder what great deck-building games I might have missed.

There Will Be Games

Oliver Kinne
Oliver Kinne (He/Him)
Associate Writer

Oliver Kinne aims to publish two new articles every week on his blog, Tabletop Games Blog, and also release both in podcast form. He reviews board games and writes about tabletop games related topics.

Oliver is also the co-host of the Tabletop Inquisition podcast, which releases a new episode every three to four weeks and tackles different issues facing board games, the people who play them and maybe their industry.

Articles by Oliver Kinne

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Msample's Avatar
Msample replied the topic: #341102 28 Nov 2023 09:02
I really like IMPERIUM CLASSICS and am looking forward to the upcoming HORIZONS. The game has some pretty extreme asymmetry between the various decks . The garrison mechanic is a nice compromise between trashing and having your deck clogged.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #341103 28 Nov 2023 10:27

Msample wrote: I really like IMPERIUM CLASSICS and am looking forward to the upcoming HORIZONS. The game has some pretty extreme asymmetry between the various decks . The garrison mechanic is a nice compromise between trashing and having your deck clogged.


I've had Classics and Legends on my trade list for a while, but haven't managed to land a copy of either. I've seen a pretty wide range of opinions on them, from some suggesting they're brilliant, like you and Oliver, to others saying that they're bogged down by all the little rules and actually play better solo, which is a non-starter for me. Definitely interested to hear what you (and Oliver) think of them.
Msample's Avatar
Msample replied the topic: #341106 28 Nov 2023 11:54
I can see some people not liking the game. My local opponent tapped out after a half dozen games; while an experienced overall player with mechanics like deckbuilders, it can be difficult to grok how to play some of the factions. And the game does run long for a deck builder. The rules are not the best either. The various decks are rated for difficulty ; I think new players would be wise to follow these for the first few games.
southernman's Avatar
southernman replied the topic: #341116 28 Nov 2023 15:49
On your mention of Skat that is similar to the game 500 (pretty common in New Zealand and Australia and the Northern US and Canada from what I hear - well, at least in the 70s & 80s) where there are three cards, the kitty, left for the winning bidder to replace cards in his hand if useful.

I'm quite into thematic deckbuilders with my favourites being the Legendary Encounter series, mainly Alien and Firefly although the X-Files one was pretty clever.
Another good, and tough, one is Bloodborne TBG that uses the deckbuilding mechanism to build up each players deck of 12 cards (new cards automatically replace cards when you acquire them), the game being a narrative dudes on a map completely driven by your cards.
Tainted Grail (in my Top 5 games) also uses deckbuilding for the Combat and Diplomacy mechanics in the game, with a brilliant mechanism for playing them.
And FFG's Forbidden Stars also uses deckbuilding, as you purchase new Combat or Event cards to replace your starter cards.
Also have the Attack on Titan builder, to get my early 20s lad interested in non-video gaming again, and that is quite novel (and fun) in that you have a character on the table fighting/defending the Titans while you build and play your decks.
And I do have a copy of Imperium Classics, it is fun but you need the right people as it's obviously a bit more thinky.
EDIT: Mistfall is another card-based adventure crawler that gets you to purchase upgraded cards with xp to swap out in your deck, a tough but under-rated game that never really got much love or expansion material.

Deckbuilding has certainly got around in the last 20 years.
san il defanso's Avatar
san il defanso replied the topic: #341151 29 Nov 2023 23:59
Deck-building is not a mechanic built for the way my brain works. It rewards far more optimization than I can usually manage, and it also necessitates looking at patterns that aren't obvious to me cognitively. I frequently end up with decks that play a certain way, and it's very hard for me to look back and see why it's doing that.

The only true deck-builder I still play is Clank, and I think that's mostly a function of it being so dead simple as the mechanic goes. Just six cards in a row, you can rarely prune your deck, and it's all in service of a very simplistic dungeon-crawling game. It's not a very innovative format, aside from the chocolate-and-peanut-butter combo of deck building and dungeon crawling. But it has remained successful for me, perhaps because I can play it with my family with some frequency.

By far the deck-builder I've played the most is Slay The Spire, which isn't a board game (until it gets printed) but is one of my "resting position" games. If I have a few minutes I'm plugging away at a game on my iPad or phone.
Cappster_'s Avatar
Cappster_ replied the topic: #341156 30 Nov 2023 09:56
I hardly ever see Thunderstone show up in conversations about Deck Builders, and it makes me a little sad. Sure, I was a shill for AEG (Convention Support) but I genuinely loved Thunderstone and Thunderstone: Advanced. I probably demo'ed it hundreds of times, and built the setup for the 2007? Thunderstone World Championship. If my played stats were accurate (BGG somehow wiped all my plays sometimes in 2016) it would easily be my most played game.

There were a number of things that set it apart from its predecessor, Dominion. The two zones of play (or two currencies if you want to get super mechanical), the ability to "level up'" the hero cards into better versions, and a built in cull mechanic. It was an amazing property, who's only undoing was mismanagement from AEG.

I don't have much experience with Quest, for many reasons. I'd like to give it another shot, but honestly, if we are going to play Thunderstone, I'm putting OG or Advanced on the table every time.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #341162 30 Nov 2023 12:20
In similar fashion, I never see anyone but me bring up Rune Age. I'm sure some of it is the automatic disdain for FFG's "generic fantasy" Terrinoth setting, but FFG also didn't do a lot of promotion for it. And, of course, despite the scorn for "generic fantasy", people still talk in hallowed terms about things like Runewars and Descent, both of which used the same units (and, in the case of Runewars, factions) that Rune Age does.

I always found it to be an excellent game because of how many different ways you could play. There was cooperative, semi-cooperative, and four different way to play straight competitive. They all used the same system and the six factions were quite different from each other in their playstyle. I don't get the chance to play that much anymore, but if someone suggested playing a deckbuilder, it'd be right alongside Tyrants of the Underdark as a top suggestion from me.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #341163 30 Nov 2023 12:56
As a game mechanic, deck building is a neat idea. But too many deck builder games fail to bring anything else to the table, and feel like dry deck-shuffling protocols. However, I did enjoy Blood Bowl Team Manager, because the deck building is all in service of other more interesting aspects of the game.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #341164 30 Nov 2023 13:00
I played Thunderstone twice. The first time was with the original edition. It was clunky and a bit underdeveloped, leading to ridiculous turns like "We can't go into the dungeon because we don't have any armor or weapons" alternating with turns like "Here is a pile of armor and weapons.,. but we don't have anybody to use them."

The second time was second edition, where I think they addressed the above absurdity with certain standard cards that stay in play, or something like that. One player got a good start, opened up a big lead, and then won big. It felt like none of the rest of us even stood a chance after the first couple of turns.
jason10mm's Avatar
jason10mm replied the topic: #341180 01 Dec 2023 09:31
I have a love/hate relationship with deck builders. On the one hand they can really reward being intimate and knowledgeable yet also tend to be pretty rules lite on actual mechanics and easy to set up which is a nice combo, but on the gripping hand they can be conceptually difficult to grok for new players, are easy to overwhelm with keywords, icons, and linked chained combos that only an experienced player could effectively exploit, and can easily turn into a trunk of 1000 cards with a muddled thematic experience and lots of mistakes of edge case rules.

Still, when the right ones comes along they are a blast. I liked Thunderstone quite a bit but as a dungeon crawl proxy it was a tough one to keep around. The DnD themed Dungeon Mayhem is lite enough for kids, thematic enough for DnD nerds, and juuuuuust complex enough for adults to be entertained. The old faithful Dominion was just too dry, though it worked well for my brain. Race for the Galaxy, if that counts, was always fun in theory, but the iconography defeated me every time.

And I gotta say that photobucket pic or wherever you got it PERFECTLY captures the players look of bemusement and disgust as her hand of cards is picked over :P
san il defanso's Avatar
san il defanso replied the topic: #341188 01 Dec 2023 13:45
I traded away Thunderstone back in like 2013, but I liked it quite a bit for a while there. I never did get to play any of the Advance versions of the game though. I don't remember super well what my issue was, I think it was a matter of the game taking a little too long. I think I also might have just fallen out of love with deck builders by that time too.

I was a very early adopter of Dominion, and I played it a bunch through a few expansions. In some ways it's still my favorite deck builder just because it feels the most polished and balanced. I feel like there was a LOT of wobbly designs in this realm, at least at the time. But Dominion has this issue where the game feels very...I guess grind-y would be the word? It's a little like playing a Diablo clone, where there's a certain kind of brain that completely latches on to it, and for others it's just sort of a lean-back design, rather than a lean-forward one.

After the initial rush of the Dominion wore off I played exclusively with my wife, unless the other players around already knew what they were doing. It was a painful game to teach to people, because I was used to fifteen-minute games and new players needed to spend a lot of time processing all those cards. That is a broad issue with the genre, when they do the Dominion-style way of putting cards out there. The Ascension style, where there's just a line of cards, works way cleaner to me.
Cappster_'s Avatar
Cappster_ replied the topic: #341192 01 Dec 2023 14:54

Shellhead wrote: I played Thunderstone twice. The first time was with the original edition. It was clunky and a bit underdeveloped, leading to ridiculous turns like "We can't go into the dungeon because we don't have any armor or weapons" alternating with turns like "Here is a pile of armor and weapons.,. but we don't have anybody to use them."

The second time was second edition, where I think they addressed the above absurdity with certain standard cards that stay in play, or something like that. One player got a good start, opened up a big lead, and then won big. It felt like none of the rest of us even stood a chance after the first couple of turns.

san il defanso wrote: I traded away Thunderstone back in like 2013, but I liked it quite a bit for a while there. I never did get to play any of the Advance versions of the game though. I don't remember super well what my issue was, I think it was a matter of the game taking a little too long. I think I also might have just fallen out of love with deck builders by that time too.


I'll say this about Thunderstone - It shines when you DON'T use a completely random setup. It is too easy to fall into a random setup with no solution. Or, at best, a long, drawn-out solution. It sucks when you have a dungeon full of monsters that are resistant to Magic Damage, but all you have in the village are Spells and Magic Weapons. Or a village full of fun, expensive cards but no ability to generate gold reliably.

When I would demo it at conventions, I had a very specific setup that I would use. In all four rounds of the World Championship (all three years), very specific setups were used (I still have a copy of one of the Championship setups). All of this was to provide actual strategy and synergy that you would otherwise have to luck into with a random setup.

Luckily, I had (have) enough experience with the system that I could put together fun setups. I even posted a few on BGG and a few other places.

I feel that random setups are the main reason people bounce off Thunderstone. On paper, it looks like any random setup (like in Dominion, to a degree) would work. But in reality, the game needs a bit of curation.
mads b.'s Avatar
mads b. replied the topic: #341195 04 Dec 2023 03:25

Jackwraith wrote: In similar fashion, I never see anyone but me bring up Rune Age. I'm sure some of it is the automatic disdain for FFG's "generic fantasy" Terrinoth setting, but FFG also didn't do a lot of promotion for it. And, of course, despite the scorn for "generic fantasy", people still talk in hallowed terms about things like Runewars and Descent, both of which used the same units (and, in the case of Runewars, factions) that Rune Age does.

I always found it to be an excellent game because of how many different ways you could play. There was cooperative, semi-cooperative, and four different way to play straight competitive. They all used the same system and the six factions were quite different from each other in their playstyle. I don't get the chance to play that much anymore, but if someone suggested playing a deckbuilder, it'd be right alongside Tyrants of the Underdark as a top suggestion from me.


Rune Age is rock solid. I've mostly played the coop scenario, but the vs. scenario Rune Wars pretty much feels like a dudes on a map game. And I like how Rune Age makes the deck building sort of make sense. You have your barracks which is where you can train (buy) new cards. Your deck is then your standing armies and your hand is what you have available in the current month or maybe theater you want to fight in. I know it's still abstracted, but it feels much more thematic to me than a lot of other deck builders.
Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #341199 05 Dec 2023 07:12
One of the things I like about Dominion is that you essentially need to detune your deck at the end of the game in order to win, because your victory condition is junk in your deck. So that makes the challenge of turning that corner from making your deck better to making your deck more valuable an interesting part of the play.

I don't think I have seen a deck builder that does something similar. Are there any out there that do?
n815e's Avatar
n815e replied the topic: #341200 05 Dec 2023 08:04
I like the codices from Codex. The asymmetric market for each player; not buying cards but getting to choose any two every turn; the culling that doesn’t just thin your deck but also adds to you income, forcing you to decide which card you will get rid of because you want the money; the choosing of paths which limits your market as the game progresses.
mads b.'s Avatar
mads b. replied the topic: #341202 05 Dec 2023 08:49

Sagrilarus wrote: One of the things I like about Dominion is that you essentially need to detune your deck at the end of the game in order to win, because your victory condition is junk in your deck. So that makes the challenge of turning that corner from making your deck better to making your deck more valuable an interesting part of the play.

I don't think I have seen a deck builder that does something similar. Are there any out there that do?


I think a lot of deck builders do this to some extent. You usually have to pivot at some point from building up your economy to just using your cards and - hopefully - get rid of those money cards that won't help you reach your end goal.

Rune Age is a bit different here, I think, because you'll often lose your cards and then have to rebuy them. But since you use your cards on your turn and when defending event card effects, you cycle through your deck faster which means you can benefit from buying new cards even late in the game.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #341203 05 Dec 2023 10:20
That's the other thing I like about Rune Age: the dual currencies. You need gold to buy your regular dudes, but influence to get anything from the neutral market. So you don't have to completely bog down your deck with gold to buy everything that you need, because conquering locations will give you the other type of currency to pick up neutral units and spells. (And, of course, if you're playing the Dwarves, keeping some of those gold cards can be really effective in the mid- and late game.)
Cappster_'s Avatar
Cappster_ replied the topic: #341205 05 Dec 2023 18:32

Sagrilarus wrote: One of the things I like about Dominion is that you essentially need to detune your deck at the end of the game in order to win, because your victory condition is junk in your deck. So that makes the challenge of turning that corner from making your deck better to making your deck more valuable an interesting part of the play.

I don't think I have seen a deck builder that does something similar. Are there any out there that do?


Valley of the Kings. This is the whole premise.

All of the cards in your deck have to potential to be worth points, but ONLY once they are removed from your deck. You can build a great engine, that allows you to do all the things and play with all the levers, but you'll have to tear it all down if you want to score any points.

Starting cards are worth nothing, but you still want to get rid of them for efficiency. The bigger cards that have the really cool actions are worth the most points.

The game has a fantastic tension about when to shift gears. Too early, and you seriously hamper your ability to get things done. Too late, and you've lost the game because you didn't score enough points.
DarthJoJo's Avatar
DarthJoJo replied the topic: #341306 15 Dec 2023 22:31
Dominion was one of the first games I played when I started getting into modern games. It floored me, and I thought deckbuilding was the mechanic for me. I dabbled in Marvel Legendary, Star Realms, Trains, Ascension, Puzzle Strike and Arctic Scavengers and came to realize I actually just liked Dominion. I would never choose any of the others over Vaccarino’s masterpiece. Without the limits on actions and buys, they just didn’t have the same tension as Dominion. You bought the best card when you could and played it when you could. No worries. No thought.

It’s funny how limitations increase decision space.

Anyway, I’ve been playing Dominion again these past few weeks, a few expansions for the first time. Vaccarino hasn’t lost a step. I get overwhelmed checking new kingdoms and seeing a night phase and split piles and debt and heirlooms and events, but then I get them on the table. They’re clean and fun. All at once the new rules are too much but taken in order they’re good and open so much design and play space.

If you haven’t checked in over the past few, give Dominion another shot. There is so much happening in it right now.