The release of Slay the Spire in 2019 introduced deckbuilding to a whole new audience; the slew of copycat releases (some arguably as good or better) only confirms that the deckbuilding is the most popular mechanic to cross over recently from the analog to digital realms.
Back in the Before Times, I wrote about my 5 favorite deckbuilders, but I thought I’d do an update for those of you chomping at the bit for Fort to appear at your FLGS. For various reasons mainly due to COVID, publisher Leder Games decided to push back the street date so pre-orderers could get their copies first. This is a damned noble thing to do considering the buzz about the game–but Leder knows how annoying it is for early adopters to see copies turning up locally while backers are still waiting.
If you’re hankering, you can read my review of Fort here, but in the meantime here are six count’em half a dozen other deckbuilders (in alphabetical order) you can get right now that might scratch that itch:
In terms of theme it’s not unique, there’s a bunch of magical-store-running games out there, including last year’s hit Bargain Quest from Renegade Games. Even in terms of games with that theme using deckbuilding as the main mechanic it’s not the first one: 2018’s Pasaraya (also highly recommended!) got there first (okay, it wasn’t a magical store, but still).
The way Adventure Mart uses Auction mechanics for customer sales is original: players bid items from their hands with the sale going to the player with the highest-quality mix of merchandise that is also within the adventurer’s budget. It’s an innovative mix of theme and mechanics.
In terms of gameplay everything works thematically, making the game easy to learn and remember. The artwork is very cute, of course, and the rules are well-done with a FAQ at the end. And as deckbuilders go it’s interesting because you really only go through your deck five times so it’s not so much about thinning your deck to make it efficient as trying to take the most efficient use of your hand as you can and taking tactical advantage of the situation on the table. The first turn isn’t all that interesting in itself but it’s really important in terms of setting you up on your path to victory. Later turns give you a lot of really interesting choices on how to use your stock and whether to rehire staff.
Back in 2017 I wrote about the Superhot card game, based on the successful videogame (whose sequel just dropped). The design, by Manuel Correia, was adapted from his PnP Agent Decker, and in 2019 he launched a Kickstarter for a revamped and souped-up version of the original game, which naturally I backed because I thought it was an amazing game. The finished version arrived near the end of last year.
With Blight Chronicles Correia has managed to take the stealth gameplay of the pioneering Thief franchise (not the 2014 reboot by all that is holy) and translate it into a campaign-driven card game–and I mean that with the highest possible praise. You play as one of two possible Garret-type stealth mavens. The scenario included in the game has you breaking into a warehouse to rescue a scientist from bad guys. Each episode of the branching storyline has unique objectives, some of which are time-limited (not realtime, of course, but essentially you only have so many turns before the in-game clock runs out). Just like Thief (or Hitman, if you prefer/insist) you can find and keep gear and clothing which you incorporate into your deck in later episodes.
To me, playing Blight Chronicles feels exactly like a tabletop port of an FPS stealth game without the need for twitch reflexes: you can take out security cameras to reduce threat, sneak up on baddies to give them the drop and then steal their uniforms, all the while improving your skills (via incorporating better cards into your deck) to deal with the looming danger.
My only complaint is that the rules definitely could have used a final polish; there are ambiguities, edge cases, and missing bits that have yet to be answered, which is a shame. My other request is for more content please!!!!
Filler is exactly what it says: a little morsel of a game about pastry chefs for 1-6 that plays in about 45 minutes. Each player starts with a unique “deck” of 3 cards which can be used for their ingredients or the time they set their alarm clock. The rest of the deck serves as the “recipe book”, with n + 1 recipes face-up in the middle of the table every turn (where n = # players).
At the start of each round players choose one of the cards in their hand for their wake-up call time. Once revealed, players act in wake-up order (a mechanic recalling La Granja except here it’s a simultaneous and secret choice). On your turn you either get to fill a recipe from the centre, taking it into your hand where it can be used on future rounds (plus possible bonus actions) or restock, which is the only way to take your discards back in hand (plus you get to topdeck one of the cards in the recipe book, making it unavailable for later risers that round).
When the recipe book runs out players tote up VP from cards in hand and the player with the most gets to be Star Baker. Solo mode is surprisingly robust with six robo-chefs to play against each with their own personality which dictates what cards they will draft.
All in all it’s simple, elegant, portable, and ever so scrumptious.
CMON Games and designers Fel Barros and Alex Olteanu have threaded the needle and managed to turn a button-mashing FPS into a co-op deckbuilder. In GoW:TCG up to four players (it’s totally and enjoyably playable solo) take the role of Kratos, Freya, and other protagonists from the videogame, who embark on a three-battle branching mini-campaign culminating in (of course) a most epic boss fight.
Ten scenarios are supplied in the base game, of which six will be available in any session and only three actually activated. Each scenario comes with a deck of large double-sided Scene cards which are laid out in a specific tableau (à la T.I.M.E. Stories). All the card art is taken from the videogame, so the effect is quite striking.
Each character starts with a unique deck consisting of a mix of melee, ranged, and defence cards (some multi-use) plus neutral “booster” cards which can be added to any of those. Taking turns, each player takes turns moving around the Scene and pew-pewing enemies. Attacks generally feed your Rage meter, which when full can be activated for a useful perk.
After each player is done, the top card of the Upgrade Deck is flipped. Enemies and cards with runes matching the one in the upper left corner will attack and/or flip, switching things up usually in ways that are detrimental to characters’ health. It’s an unusual mechanic, and really effective.
Then each player gets to either draft one of the Upgrade cards, strengthening their deck, or instead permanently remove a card from their discard pile, thus getting rid of weak and/or damaging cards like Poison. And a new Round begins.
Assuming players win the first battle, they get a choice between two second scenarios. Whichever one they don’t choose supplies a hindrance/handicap. Similarly there are three possible Boss fights, and the two unchosen ones will make life more difficult. Each scenario plays out differently, and even once you’ve played them all the randomness of which ones are available plus the huge unpredictability of the Upgrade Deck means that there is enough replayability for the moment; personally, I hope the game gets an expansion soon.
I just love the puzzle nature of GoW:TCG and I’ve never played the videogame. On the other hand, my brother, who’s played several in the series, was willing to play a couple of Rounds but then was done with it. So I’m a little worried that CMON may have shot itself in the foot by making a game that in theory would appeal to tabletoppers but who wouldn’t give it a second look because of the theme. Plus, surprisingly for CMON, there are no minis! So although the card artwork is great, it doesn’t have the eye-candy factor that might pull in fans of the videogame who may also find the gameplay too complex.
Take everything you think you know about deckbuilding and throw it out the window. Starting deck? There ain’t none. Hand of cards? Nope. Reshuffle and draw when you run out of cards? Nuh-uh. In Hibernation you’re a bear aiming to first collect food and then turn it into fat. On your turn you can: spend some accumulated Energy to add a card from the center into your deck and then shuffle it; draw and play the top card from your deck, possibly adding food to your Hoard; cash in your Hoard for a Hibernation token; or take a break and either accumulate more energy for yourself or less energy but everyone has to shuffle their Discard pile. The first player to 5 Hibernation tokens wins.
This is a weird game. I like it because it breaks all the deckbuilding tropes. I only wish it had more variety; you use the same piles of action cards in every game, and the only variability is where the spoiled food comes up in each of the food decks. Also you have to keep track of your energy, which the component purist in me wrinkles my nose at. But full points to designer (and artist) Jesse Daniels for designing a game unique both in theme and execution.
For wargame veterans, 1983’s Up Front is both a Grail Game and a Unicorn: a one-of-a-kind card-driven game of tactical warfare in WW2 which was too ahead of its time to attract more than a cult following in a time when “wargame” = “hexes and counters”.
Now, Trevor Benjamin and David Thompson have put together a game system which in my mind provides the same kind of thrill and immersion with a ruleset which is 90% more streamlined and easy to get into (albeit without a lot of the details and “chrome”), using deckbuilding mechanics to capture the tension and confusion of the battlefield.
Each of the game’s 12 scenarios plays out on a map of square tiles laid out in a faux hex-grid, with counters representing teams of soldiers: scouts, infantry, machine-gunners, snipers, mortars, etc. Each player’s deck consists of cards that activate one of these types, or leaders who have various deck-manipulating abilities like drawing or recruiting. At the start of each round players bid for initiative by playing cards from their hand–naturally, the more powerful cards have the highest initiative value, so using them up for initiative is a sacrifice you can only make occasionally.
Only scouts may move onto unscouted tiles (duh); once they spend an action scouting, other troops can move in, but scouting also causes you to take useless “Fog of War” cards, which you then must spend another, later action to remove with your scouts. Combat is a simple dice-chucking exercise; you can choose to lay down suppression fire instead of go for the kill. Damage is taken in cards tossed out of the game; when the last card representing a troop on the board is gone, so is the counter.
It’s all so elegant. If you are at all a wargame fan, you need to get this–particularly because the upcoming Reinforcements expansion has a solo module by David Turczi, who is the master of designing such things, so you can play on your own (there are already some fan-designed solo variants on BGG). The North Africa standalone sequel just came out, adding vehicles and buildings into the mix. On the plus side, it plays out quite differently from Normandy, because (minus side) the rules changes make it incompatible with the previous game. I still love it, though.
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Also a shout-out to the upcoming Ascension Tactics, which takes the long-running deckbuilder from Stone Blade and turns it into a fascinating tactical skirmish game that forces you to rethink everything you know about Ascension without sacrificing gameplay (or canonic unity). I’ve played it on Tabletop Simulator and it’s everything I’d hoped it would be so yeah, I pulled the trigger on it at the last minute.
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There you go, fellow deckbuilder aficionados. I hope I’ve introduced you to some new favorites, as well as showing how vibrant this form-within-a-form is both in terms of theme as well as how different designers are trying out new variations. Enjoy!