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Board Game Mechanics: Deck Building Games

Posted Thursday, 3-Sep-2015

Try crafting your own approach to play with deck building games.

 

Contributed by Andrew Knighton

 

When someone says ‘deck building game’ you probably think of collectors obsessively building up piles of Magic: The Gathering cards.  Maybe you are one of those collectors, relishing the joy of new artwork and new elements for the game. But a variety of approaches to deck building have emerged recently, so let’s have a look at how deck building games work, and what the different types are.

 

Unleashing the Magic

One of the most famous deck building card games is also the one that started the craze. Designed by Richard Garfield and first released by Wizards of the Coast in 1993, Magic the Gathering was something entirely new, and it caused a storm in the world of gaming.

 

Magic the Gathering
Magic the Gathering

 

In this epic fantasy card game you take on the role of wizards battling each other for supremacy. By laying down land you provide yourself with the power to cast spells and summon creatures to fight for you. The winner is the last wizard standing.

 

Design your own deck in Magic the Gathering.
Design your own deck in Magic the Gathering.

 

Magic is a card game in which you bring your own specially designed deck to the table, representing the spells and resources you want to use. Perhaps you’ll focus on fire magic, or dark swamp-powered spells, incorporating cards that play well together to let you build up your power. Collecting the cards in ‘booster packs’ with random content, you can never be sure what you are buying, and part of the excitement is building up a collection to design your deck from.

 

Collectable Card Games

Magic’s huge popularity led to a range of other collectable card games (CCGs) in the following few years. Many failed to find their market, unable to compete with the behemoth of Magic the Gathering and its dedicated fans.

The most notable exception, and one that grew to become even more famous than Magic, is the Pokémon card game. Connected to the cartoons and video games of the same name, its cute fighting animals and prominent place in Japanese pop culture made it hugely popular with younger players, many of them not dedicated gamers.

 

Pokeman Trading Cards
Pokeman Trading Cards were more famous than Magic the Gathering at one point.

 

With its large fan communities, organized tournaments and regular releases of new cards, these two games made deck building games a multi-million dollar business.

 

Pokeman has trading card tournaments all over the world.
Pokeman has trading card tournaments all over the world.

 

But it would take over a decade for anything really new to arrive, and for deck building games to become accessible for anybody who didn’t want to spend large parts of their life and money collecting cards.

 

In-game Building

A new approach to deck building arrived in 2008 with Dominion by Donald X Vaccarino (See: 9 things you didn’t know about Dominion). Playing as monarchs competing to build the most impressive kingdom, you all start the game with the same deck of ten low powered cards, while stacks of other cards sit on the table in front of you. You use the money cards in your deck to add new cards to that deck, including better money cards, actions and land worth victory points. Deck building had become part of game play, instead of a preliminary to it.

 

Spiel des Jahres winner Dominion
Spiel des Jahres winner Dominion

 

The new dynamic of Dominion proved popular, allowing players to enjoy a deck building game without having to become collectors. Expansions such Prosperity and Intrigue followed, keeping the game fresh and varied without forcing players to collect new booster packs to keep up, as had happened with Magic.

For some players, the interest value of Dominion wore off, built as it was around a single mechanic. Hisashi Hayashi created a solution for them in Trains and its expansion Rising Sun.

 

Trains Card Game
Trains: A combination of Dominion and train games.

 

This time in-game decking building is used to power a board game of railway expansion across Japan, a mix of Dominion and train games. You build up your deck to make something that drives that expansion, not just for the sake of building the most valuable deck.

 

A Different Approach to Collection: Expanding Card Games

Another recent development has been the rise of expanding card games. Starting with Fantasy Flight’s living card games (LCGs) such as the Game of Thrones Card Game, these games work much like CCGs, with players buying regular expansions and assembling the best decks they can before playing the game.

Unlike CCGs, the expansions contain set cards instead of random ones, so that collectors don’t face the frustration of not knowing what they’re getting or being unable to get hold of the best cards.

 

Living Card Games
Living Card Games are taking over the market!

 

Expanding card games, like CCGs before them, have developed lively communities in which players attend tournaments and discuss deck design both in person and online. Fantasy Flight’s cyberpunk game Android: Netrunner is particularly known for its lively community, and AEG’s Doomtown: Reloaded is providing a similar environment for fans of weird western settings.

 

More Ideas to Come

There are sure to be other deckbuilding game formats on the way, as designers experiment with what the mechanic can do. Smash Up for example involves a very limited form of deck building – picking two stacks of cards and shuffling them together for an army of zombie pirates, robot spies, ninja werewolves or many other combinations.

 

Smash Up
Smash Up

 

From a single game twenty years ago, deck building has spawned dozens of card games with hundreds of expansions, and looks set to keep going for a long time to come.

 

Published by BoardGamePrices.com



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