Published on July 8th, 2013 | by Luke Turpeinen
Top 5 Deck-Building Games
Deck-building games are among the fastest growing board game types available today. The fast paced, easy to learn rules are coupled with themes that catch the imagination to create a game experience like no other. Also known as “deck builders”, or derisively as “Dominion clones”, the market has been saturated with many different variations on this new classic.
No deck builder list would be complete without the addition of Dominion, the game that started it all. Dominion comes in at #5, and mostly because of its legacy. The benefit of playing Dominion is now mostly for the wealth of expansions one can buy for it, making it the single most customizable deck builder on the market (and certainly on this list). One of its largest perks is the ability to choose which cards you play with to truly make your game experience yours. It does lack a certain amount of finesse though. In Dominion you have to use cards to get additional purchases on your turn, apart from “money”. This mechanic has been abandoned in most other games that came after it because it’s overly fiddly and annoying in play. Also, while I’m an advocate of variations in theme, I have to say that yet another merchant game is even more boring to me than yet another fantasy game. Dominion also is the most likely of these to turn into “multi-player solitaire”, in which each person does their turn completely separately from everyone else and interactions are mostly meaningless when they even exist. That said, inventing an entire genre of games just by publishing your idea deserves a huge amount of respect.
Paperback is really the odd-man-out in this list, but for very awesome reasons. Currently in the last week of its Kickstarter campaign (one we’ve talked about previously), this game is the best version of Scrabble you will ever buy. Essentially everything functions like a normal deck builder, you have a deck of cards, those cards have points, you buy more cards to expand your deck and to buy victory point cards. Except this time around, your cards are letters (or wilds), some with special abilities, and you only get to spend points of cards that you used in a word. Confused? It’s actually really simple, go watch the video on the Kickstarter page if you need to. The longer words you can make, or the more exotic the letters you use, the higher your point score can be. This is great as it allows players to play to their strengths, and neither of those two ways is the “right” way to play. Add to this some really great 1960s style Harlequin Romance style covers as the Victory Point cards (including a parody of Twilight) and you’ve got the next best word game in town.
If a deck builder and a dungeon crawler had a baby, this is the game it would grow up to be. Ascension changed the mechanics of the deck builder genre by being the first game to introduce the idea of a staging area or line up. Instead of choosing stacks of cards before hand, usually from a list of suggested groups, all potential cards are mixed together into a deck and then the top five are laid out and are available. It also made two different resources, one used for recruiting heroes and securing artifacts and the other one used for fighting monsters for victory points. The two resource pools and monster fighting mechanics really helped push Ascension as a game that was fundamentally different from Dominion, and in that it largely succeeded. While the art of the game is very “TSR circa 1994” that tends to be part of its appeal, at least to the nostalgic late-20-something that I am. Over all the gameplay is solid and the mechanics interesting and novel.
#2. Cryptozoic Series
It looks like Cryptozoic is in the card game business again, this time with two deck builders based on very hot licenses. While the games are NOT the same and are NOT compatible, they are similar enough that I felt that they should share a spot on the board. The Lord of the Rings and DC Comics Deck-Building Games are both great additions to the genre. Both of the games’ themes revolve around good guys teaming up to defeat bad guys, and that is reflected in the mechanics. In addition to a line up of villains, heroes, artifacts and so on- each game also has a Super Bad Guy available at any given time to all players. In the DC game this is an iconic enemy of one of the Justice League’s rouge gallery (such as The Joker and Sinestro) while in the LotR game it’s one of the enemies the Fellowship faces in the Fellowship of the Ring movie (note the subtitle on the LotR box). These cards cost much more than normal cards, are very powerful, are worth much more victory points and when a player buys one, the next villain in line attacks the entire group. Just this simple change makes the race to beat the most powerful bad guys a key component in any strategy and really moves the pace of the game forward- gives it purpose. The Cryptozoic games are the fastest of all of these games, and that isn’t a bad thing. (For more info see DC Deckbuilder’s full review)
#1. Puzzle Strike
Puzzle Strike doesn’t look like a deck builder at first glance, what with its poker chips and Crown Royal bags, but at its heart it is the most deep and rewarding deck builder on the market. It takes a hint from the Street Fighter parody game Super Puzzle Fighter and its theme references that game, hence the gems and the crashing. Puzzle Strike changed many things that Dominion did, and it is better for it. Needing extra buys to purchase more than one card, having a character with unique cards that greatly influence play, making Victory Points not deck-filling fluff that just gets in your way… all of these were positive changes. Add to its list of good ideas a novel winning mechanic, where you give opponents what are essentially Anti-Victory Points and once one person reaches ten of them, the game is over and the person with the least points wins. On top of that, there are ways to block, counter, double-counter and generally mess with your opponent’s ability to give you points/gems all combine together with fighting game level precision to deliver an incredibly fun kick-to-the-head experience. (For more info see the full review)