Yes, I know M:tG is not a deckbuilder, #thankyouverymuch. But when it came out in 1993 I knew I could fall hard for a game that combined all the obsessiveness of hockey card collecting (which I had done as a child) with all the obsessiveness of D&D (which I had experienced in my teens). However at that time I was done school, trying to make things happen for myself as a songwriter and performer (yes, I had a life before tabletop), and had very little disposable income. I knew that if I got into Magic I would fall down a rabbit-hole and never emerge. And I would possibly be quite rich right now, since I could live off selling my old cards.
One of the things that appealed to me about M:tG was that, like Bridge, the game has two distinct yet interdependent phases. In Bridge you have bidding and then playing out the hand, and each is a rich and challenging experience. In M:tG you construct your deck ahead of time and then play it out. I liked the idea of building a deck around a particular card or strategy and then testing it out.
Fast-forward to 2008 and the release of Dominion. Here was a non-collectible game where the building of the deck was the game. Each player starts with a weak deck, and there is a market of cards in the centre of the table. Some of these cards give you more purchasing power, others give you VP, and most others let you bend or break the rules of the game by giving you extra buying power, letting you draw more cards, force other players to discard cards, discard useless cards and draw new ones from your deck, and so on. Turn by turn, each player bootstraps their own deck by using the meager buying power of their original cards to buy better cards from the market, ultimately aiming to buy as many high-VP cards as possible.
Part of the genius of the original Dominion was that VP cards themselves had no purchasing power and no special powers (this changed with later expansions). They were necessary to win, but they just took up space in your deck, so the better you were doing VP-wise, the more you needed to figure out how to cycle past them.
The other genius of Dominion was that you had 25 kinds of cards to choose from for your market every game, but only used 10. This allowed for incredible replayability, because a strategy dependent on a certain card would be of no use if that card was not included in the set for a particular game. And in theory, each set of 10 cards would demand a slightly different strategy, which you’d have to figure out on the fly.
What happened, as one might expect, was that once the game was released players soon figured out which cards were strictly better than others, and which cards were useless except in certain specific situations, so certain strategies became dominant regardless of what specific cards were in the market.
For instance, the Chapel allowed you to eliminate (not just discard) up to four cards from your deck. Why would you want to do that? Well, it turns out that in deckbuilding (as defined by Dominion) the more times you can cycle through your deck the better, because that means you’ll get to use your more powerful cards more often. So an early game strategy of buying a silver coin card (worth 2 coppers) and a Chapel, Chapelling out most of your coppers and early victory cards–which seems counter-productive, since you’re losing VP–is actually very powerful. I remember the first time I saw the strategy in action. I was playing online, and the other player started Chapelling, and I was like, “What are you DOING?” and he was like, “Just wait.” And pretty soon he wiped the floor with me.
Once the expansions started coming out, the possibilities reached truly cosmological proportions, new mechanics and actions were introduced, and Chapelling stopped always being the best strategy. But by then I had become a bit tired of Dominion–after over a thousand plays both online and face-to-face. The lack of theme, aside from a vaguely medieval fantasy overlay, left me hungry for more; deckbuilding by itself was no longer enough to sustain my interest.
I’ve gone on far too long about Dominion but I had to because it established the genre and every deckbuilder was and is going to be measured up against it. Still, I remain a slave to deckbuilding itself; any game that has it is going to get at least a little of my attention. However, I’m not interested in games that essentially copy the Dominion template with a couple of tweaks.
I want to direct your attention to five of my favourite deckbuilding games, in chronological order. Some you may have heard of, others maybe not. I’m not saying these are the best deckbuilding games out there. But I like them a lot and each one in its own way puts a distinctive spin on the genre.
Friday (2011): Friedmann Friese was the first I know of to design a truly solo deckbuilder; since then we’ve had Flip City, Airborne Commander, and a few others. It’s a game I still play regularly, albeit in app form. In Friday you are Robinson Crusoe aiming to defeat not one but two bosses after three passes through a challenge deck. To win a challenge on a card, you must be able to meet or beat its target number after a certain number of draws and as many actions as you can muster from your cards. You can push your luck by drawing more cards, paying for the privilege with food tokens. Losing a challenge costs you more precious food; run out and you lose. Winning the challenge adds the card to your own deck’s discard pile, eventually turning up as a card you can use to beat further challenges, and so on. Each pass through the challenge deck raises the target number, and each pass through your deck forces you to add a harmful “aging” card. The theme works, the art is perfect, basically Friday is a work of genius, there I’ve said it.
Valley of the Kings (2014): By this time a bunch of competing designs had come out, all more or less adhering to Dominion’s various deckbuilding conventions: play cards to do stuff and/or buy new cards, discard, draw, reshuffle draw deck as necessary. Thunderstone, Legendary, Ascension, and the various Cryptozoic releases such as DC: Heroes Unite all tinkered with the formula in various ways, and quite successfully. But Valley of the Kings turned my head because of how it messed with some of the basic tropes. A relatively minor filip was the pyramid-shaped market, where only the cards at the base could be purchased, and then everything “crumbled” down to expose new possibilities. This meant, for one thing, that you might think twice about buying a good card because it would expose an even better card for the next player. But the major difference was how scoring worked. You now had to Chapel cards from your deck in order to score them (this was called “entombing”); cards left in hand at the end were worth nothing. Next, cards scored more in sets, which encouraged players to concentrate on buying certain cards. Finally, some of the most powerful cards were also worth a lot–but only if entombed. So you had to time things well to get optimal use from them, or they would be worth nada. Two standalone sequels were released, which could be combined, and now AEG is about to Kickstart a Fifth Anniversary Premium Edition, so if you missed it the first time around now might be a good time to get on the palanquin.
Baseball Highlights: 2045 (2015): if you know me you know I’m am not so much into the sportsing. For the record, I do love a good sports documentary (Ken Burns’ Baseball is the gold standard) as well as a good sports-themed game, and BH:2045 is so clever and so well-thought out that even if like me you couldn’t remember or give a shit who won the World Series last year you should give this a look. Set in a world where falling ratings lead Major League Baseball to let teams field robots and cyborgs to add excitement (and they’ve made worse decisions), BH:2045 lets players manage one of four teams (each with slightly different starting decks) through a short season and then a World Series. Each game only takes about five minutes to play thanks to an ingenious system where each card you play serves as your hitting AND pitching/fielding over the course of an inning. After each game you get to draft new players from…well, The Draft…and kick your starter cards down to the minor leagues, so your challenge is not only getting synergy going on your team but also making sure you can defend against different offences. There’s pinch-hitting, steals, saves, everything you’d want in a baseball sim. And if you can get aholt of a KS copy with expansions so much the better, as some of those players really switch things up. The solo version is fine, but there’s also an excellent app available for both iOS and Android. Designer Mike Fitzgerald is now working on a Football version and I backed it sight unseen on Kickstarter. This is the game to get for your Jays fanatic friend. I just hope Fitzgerald does a hockey version one day.
Clank! In! Space! (2017) is, in my semi-humble opinion, superior to its predecessor Clank! for various reasons. Both are “heist” games where you’re trying to break into the Boss’ lair/spaceship, steal the most goodies, and escape. Both use deckbuilding as the basis for moving around the board, and have a pretty traditional deckbuilding setup. Both use noisemaking and the avoidance thereof as a major focus. Certain (usually more powerful) cards generate “clank” when played, which force the player to add cubes of their player colour to a bag. When the boss attacks, cubes are taken from the bag, and cubes of your colour turn into damage. Take ten damage, and you die, adventurer/spaceman. Clank! In! Space! is better because it tightens up the pacing, is more thematic, and has way funnier card names and flavour text. The Apocalypse expansion adds Schemes for the Boss which complicate things perhaps a little unnecessarily. Still, unless you’re allergic to science fiction or like to stick to fantasy themes, Clank! In! Space! is the better game and also more fun to say.
The Quest for El Dorado (2017): In case you missed my writeup when it came out, Quest is by one of the biggest-name designers out there, Reiner Knizia. The Eminent Doctor came pretty late to the deckbuilding party–like, almost ten years late. But clearly he was spending time taking notes, because as he often he has in the past RK managed to breathe new life into a by-now-well-worn mechanic with a few simple twists. First of all, it’s a race game; you’re using your cards to move across lots of different terrain types. But you also need to buy better cards from the Market to move further and more efficiently. This is because, unlike any other deckbuilder, you cannot take more powerful actions by combining the power of individual cards. If you need four machetes to hack through that hexagonal plot of jungle, well goshdarnit you’re going to need a card that generates four machetes and not (for instance) two cards that each generate two. The Heroes and Hexes expansion which came out last year adds even more replayability than the base game’s modular boards and market cards already do. This is definitely one of Knizia’s most thematic games and is a very easy teach.
And, finally, as a public service, one deckbuilder to avoid. I’m still hurting from this one. Legendary: Firefly is an abomination upon the Earth and should be destroyed. The card art is laughably amateurish, and I don’t think the scenarios were playtested or balanced. Browncoats be warned. On the other hand, the Alien and X-Files versions are very good indeed.