Over the last few weeks, there have been discussions about what makes a deck building game and which games are the “go-to” deck-builders of choice. With this genre of game, players usually start with a set of cards, often quite weak or underpowered. As each game progresses, they acquire new cards, discard spent ones and upgrade their deck. This then allows them to face battles or perform conquests and come out on top. It is the cards themselves that are the game, rather than a vehicle to allow a game to be played. In this feature, six Zatu bloggers summarise their favourite “pure” deck building games. Whether you’re new to the genre or looking for your next favourite, read on for our recommendations.
I’ve always been partial to a deck builder, but I arrived a bit late to the party. I skipped out on Dominion and started with the deck builder combo games, my absolute favourite of which is Thunderstone Quest. It is a deck-building dungeon crawl which will have you starting with a deck of lowly adventurers and some basic equipment and finishing up with a band of heroes who are all bedazzled in fancy amulets and resplendent armour.
The game is split into two halves. The village looks and plays like a normal deck building game. You can spend your cards and tokens to buy better cards and abilities. You can also heal your heroes or level them up so they can utilise better equipment. This will be used in the second half of the game: the dungeon.
The dungeon is a grid of tiles,is packed full of monsters. Once you have enough heroes, weapons, and equipment in your hand, you can head off to the dungeon to earn your glory. Fighting monsters can earn you exotic treasures, which give you new abilities as well as XP boosts to help you level up your heroes. You may also uncover a guardian key, which is how you summon the final boss and finish the game.
Thunderstone Quest is a very thematic game. Taking too many wounds will reduce your hand size, making you less effective in combat. This means there is a real risk-reward choice to be made while you are playing. If you rush into the dungeon too early, you may end up worse-for-wear with nothing to show for it other than cuts, bruises and perhaps a festering wound. To succeed in the dungeon requires the right equipment and this makes you engage with the deck building side of the game. It is a great game to play and I’ve not even mentioned the campaign mode or expansion that gives you an option to play it co-operatively. It is definitely worth a look.
I enjoy a game with an element of deck building. As a gameplay mechanic, I find it quite engaging. I like the customisation aspect it offers to your game experience. You can build a deck to suit your style of play, or a particular strategy. It's also rewarding to discover a particularly good card combination and see it play out, or realise you've built an efficient engine that is helping you storm ahead.
My top pick of outright deck building games, in terms of accumulated table time and fun value, is DC Deck Building Game. The theme appeals to me and it gels well with the game's mechanics. I like the artwork, and the gameplay itself is slick and enjoyable.
The game follows the tried and true formula for the majority of straightforward deck building games. Players start with small, identical decks of cards, and take turns purchasing new cards. The purchased cards eventually improve the players’ decks, allowing them to purchase yet more, better cards. Players each play as a hero, represented by an oversized card, complete with a 'special power'. The powers offer synergies with different card types or game actions.
During a turn, a player will play cards from their hand to generate power, which is the game’s currency. They can use power to purchase cards from a common market, made up of heroes, villains, equipment, superpowers, and locations. Ultimately, the player will be aiming to improve their deck, so they can generate enough power to purchase a super villain. The game ends when the last super villain has been purchased. Each card has a point value. Players total the points on the cards in their deck; the one with the most points wins. It's a quick, simple game and I unashamedly enjoy it!
There is something satisfying about deck building games, starting off with a piddly little deck of rubbish cards and turning these into something powerful gives me a sense of progression and enjoyment.
One of the games that has hit my table a lot this year has been Aeon’s End. This is a 1-4 player deck building game designed by Kevin Riley and published by Indie Boards & Cards. In Aeon’s End, you play as a breach mage, taking the fight to one of a number of nemeses. You will use your starting hand of cards to buy new spells, relics and gems to take down the nemesis and its minions.
I will not go into much detail about the gameplay, as this has been reviewed on Zatu previously, but I will highlight why I think this is a deck builder worth mentioning.
When Is It My Turn?
Firstly, there is a variable turn order deck, so each player and the nemesis will have two turn order cards which are shuffled and drawn from. This simulates the chaotic nature of a battle. It is entirely possible that the nemesis will activate twice in a row and does add an element of luck into the game, so it is not for everyone, but I love it. Not knowing when you will be able to take your turn offers tension and often drama.
Every Day I’m Shuffling, or Not?
Secondly, unlike a lot of other deck building games, you don’t shuffle your discard pile when your draw pile is empty. This makes for some very careful and interesting planning and discarding during your turn. With some deck builders, you can buy all the right cards for some great combos but sometimes the cards just don’t come out in the right order. This is eliminated in Aeon’s End.
Third, the core game alone offers a ton of replayability with 7 different types of gems, 6 different relics, 14 different spells, 8 mages and 4 nemesis. Add some of the small box expansions into the mix and you have enough content to keep you going for a long time.
With just my housemate and I locked down together, I looked to expand my two-player collection. Drawn in by both the gorgeous artwork and modest price, Shards of Infinity joined my collection.
After the shattering of the Infinity Engine, powerful crystals were scattered and scavenged, producing four factions with very different thoughts on how these powerful stones should be used. The followers of these factions make up the cards in the deck, with each group focusing more on a specific aspect of the game. Wraethe cards are best used for inflicting devastating blows; Undergrowth are the healers; Homodeus brings champions to the battlefield and Order cards enhance your deck in various ways.
This deck builder pits 2-4 players against one another, pummelling down their opponents’ HP to become the sole controller of the Shards of Infinity. During the course of the game, you'll buy cards and expand your hand, unleashing everything you have during your turn. This mainly includes damage dealing, healing and increasing your mastery over the shards. The basics are simple to pick up, but there's plenty of depth to the deck building that make this title a great challenge to master.
Over the course of lockdown, my housemate and I have played countless games. It's very possibly my most played game to date. This inspired me to pick up the expansion too, Relics of the Future. This puts more emphasis on mastery, introducing more cards that are buffed by it. Included in these are new relic cards that can be used only by their relevant faction, which you pick at the start of the game. These small additions have added so much more depth and replayability to the game. I honestly couldn't recommend it more.
Next on our list of deck building games is Star Realms. You are the commander of a motley fleet of spacecraft, under orders to defeat your sworn enemy. But how can you accomplish such a task when your resources are pitiful? The answer is by wise trades and purchasing new, sleek ships. If you outwit your opponent, block their plans and defend your planet, you will be victorious.
Star Realms is a very compact deck builder. In its basic guise, two players enjoy a 30 minute battle of wits with 120 cards. You start with just a handful of cards – basic space ships. These are used to inflict damage or purchase new craft for your personal deck. Both players have access to shiny new spaceships. Initially, most will be well beyond your purchasing power. So, you need to buy medium strength craft and, with time, your deck becomes stronger. However, the more you buy, the bigger and bulkier your deck becomes. Within a few turns, you have a great juggernaut of a deck that has strength within it- but these valuable cards rarely appear. So what do you do? Be savvy! Only buy what you need. Keep your deck lean and efficient- but then it won’t be as strong…
Most of the spaceships have an alignment or faction. When two or more or played together, they have a synergistic effect, perhaps inflicting added damage. Therefore, you should fill your hand with a predominance of one or two of these factions, even if it means overlooking other cards. Again, here is the dilemma. If your opponent is building a strong hand of a certain faction, should you deliberately purchase ships that they need to prevent them from gaining strength, even at the expense of your own deck?
Star Realms is an extremely cheap and simple way to get into deck building games. As you fall deeper into its subtleties you will want to upgrade it with a few expansions. Before you know it, you will be having three or four way tussles for galactic dominance. What more could you ask for from a deck of cards that fits in your pocket?
The last of today's deck building games sees Robinson Crusoe washed up on an unfamiliar shore. He is really not equipped to survive in this hostile, unfamiliar environment. In Friday, a solo adventure, you take the role of Robinson’s island native friend, Friday, and act as his life coach as you teach him how to survive the rigours of the desert island you’re stranded on.
Mr Crusoe has a deck of cards and must draw and face island challenges, known as hazards. You do so by drawing cards from his deck according to the number of cards indicated on the hazard card. If you match or exceed the required number for the level you’re currently on, you conquer the hazard. In this case, you rotate the hazard card and it becomes a Robinson card that you then add to your deck – yes, these cards are dual use! If you don’t defeat it, you can choose to discard your life tokens to draw extra cards – but be careful! As you may have guessed, if you run out of life tokens, Robinson perishes and you lose!
After three increasingly difficult waves of challenges, you will face the ultimate showdown against two pirate ships! If you can overcome these then you win and Robinson can escape the island and leave you in peace!
What makes this game good is the pure deck building element where you acquire new skills from the cards you gain, such as the ability to double fighting values, gain extra life points, copy the abilities of other cards, exchange cards, and so on. But when Robinson’s deck is depleted, you must shuffle an ageing card into his deck, which can scupper your best-laid plans.
What makes this game great is the fact that you may want to purposefully lose against some hazards in order to discard unwanted cards from your deck. This creates some very interesting decisions and really feels like a metaphor for life, where one can truly learn from bad experiences and so-called defeats to triumph overall.
Build Your Collection of Deck Building Games
If any of these deck building games takes your fancy, you can find more examples as well as reviews and how-to-play articles here. Of course, these six hardly scratch the surface of the huge variety of deck building games on the market. If your favourite wasn't mentioned here, why not let us know on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram?
You can also click here to browse our wide selection of board games.