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Deck Building - a Modern Card Mechanism

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28 Nov 2023 00:00 #341101 by oliverkinne
The Basics
I probably don't need to explain it, but deck-building...

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.

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28 Nov 2023 09:02 #341102 by Msample
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.
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28 Nov 2023 10:27 #341103 by Jackwraith

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.
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28 Nov 2023 11:54 #341106 by Msample
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.
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28 Nov 2023 15:49 - 29 Nov 2023 16:21 #341116 by southernman
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.
Last edit: 29 Nov 2023 16:21 by southernman.
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29 Nov 2023 23:59 - 30 Nov 2023 00:00 #341151 by san il defanso
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.
Last edit: 30 Nov 2023 00:00 by san il defanso.
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30 Nov 2023 09:56 #341156 by Cappster_
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.
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30 Nov 2023 12:20 #341162 by Jackwraith
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.
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30 Nov 2023 12:56 #341163 by Shellhead
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.
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30 Nov 2023 13:00 #341164 by Shellhead
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.
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01 Dec 2023 09:31 #341180 by jason10mm
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
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01 Dec 2023 13:45 #341188 by san il defanso
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.
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01 Dec 2023 14:54 - 01 Dec 2023 14:56 #341192 by Cappster_

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.
Last edit: 01 Dec 2023 14:56 by Cappster_.
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04 Dec 2023 03:25 #341195 by mads b.

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.
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05 Dec 2023 07:12 #341199 by Sagrilarus
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?

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