July 17, 2012

A Comparison of Deck-Building Games

I adore deck-building games.  The combination of skill and luck makes for plenty of puzzling and adrenaline.

If you're not familiar with this kind of game, here's the basic idea: everyone starts with a few cards.  You shuffle this deck and draw a hand (often five).  You use those cards to buy other cards (or take other actions), then discard the whole lot.  When you run out of cards, shuffle everything that's discarded, and go again.  As the name indicates, you "build" the deck that you use to play the game -- trying to secure strong cards and thin out weak ones while keeping a balanced deck that will yield, on average, good hands.

Here's some great deck-building games.  I've played about twice as many deck-building games as this, but I figure there's not a lot of point in drawing attention to games I don't jump at the chance to play.

Dominion (from Rio Grande): This is the game that invented deck-building.  The other games I list here, I enjoyed because they deviated from Dominion in some incredible way.  The game itself is fairly quick, which means it's easy to pull it out and play several games in a row.

I actually had a hard time picking up the rules because no one bothered to explain them to me -- they were too eager to play and I had to learn by watching.  But, being a new player isn't a huge disadvantage.  The cards available to buy change every game, so there's not one master strategy to victory.  The downsides?  The cards have a decent bit of text on them, which means pausing for people to read and re-read cards.  Also, there's lots of shuffling.

Puzzle Strike (from Sirlin Games): It's shiny, pink, and adorable.  Also, it's about violently destroying your opponents.  This is my favorite deck-building game...which is technically not played with a deck, but with pog-sized chips.  No shuffling.  Toss the chips into the bag, shake, draw.  I love fiddling with them until it's my turn.

Like Dominion, the chips change every game, keeping things fresh.  Everyone also gets a character with their own special chips.  But there are no victory points.  It's a last-man-standing, get-your-opponents-to-crash kind of game.  It also plays super-fast.  Multiple games are a must.  Added bonus: you draw more chips the closer you are to losing, so it's quite possible to catch up from the brink of despair.

ETA: The 3rd edition has made some major changes to the game, changes that I think sadly steers the game into randomness and kingmakers and away from a kind of balanced chaos.  I'm very happy I have an earlier edition.

Nightfall (from AEG): Scary horror creatures and a dark art scheme usually aren't my thing, but Nightfall just plays so well.  Everyone gets a private supply of cards, chosen draft-style, in addition to whatever ends up in the middle.  The unique chaining mechanism means that you often get to play cards on other people's turns...which is complicated to explain without the game in front of you.  But trust me, it's neat and engaging balancing what to play when -- a few cards here and there?  A huge chain on your own turn?  Buying cards isn't just about the best thing you can afford, but what's going to chain with your deck.  Ah, choices.

At the end of the game, the player with the fewest wound cards win.  Part of the game is thus also trying to look like you're not winning so your opponents attack someone else.  I know a few people who find this frustrating, but the back-stabbing fits the game.

Quarriors (from WizKids): The shortest of all the games listed here.  And probably the one with the most luck.  It's played with dice instead of cards.  The dice you buy to build your hand might give you that giant dragon you need to defend yourself...or it might just give you money to make another purchase.  This game has the most luck of any of the games listed here, but it's also the shortest, and custom dice are fun, so it balances out.

The version I played did have a runaway leader problem, but I've been told the rules have been adjusted in the newest edition.  The changes made a lot of sense and would smooth out the problem.  Even with the problem, I still enjoyed the game.  It was short enough that if I was doomed to loose, I could wait ten minutes for the game to end, then jump back in again.

Eminent Domain (Tasty Minstrel Games): In some ways, this game makes me think of Race for the Galaxy in deck-building form.  It contains a bucket of cool mechanics that would be difficult to explain without the cards laid on the table.  But, in short, the more you use an ability, the more your deck fills up with that type of card.  And, like Nightfall, you can play on other people's turns.  The gameplay here runs a bit longer (tied with Nightfall at 45 minutes), allowing for more long-term strategy.

The only downside is the set cards.  The card available never change, meaning you only have to adjust your play to what's in your hand.  Often, I don't like expansions (they tend to add fiddly-bits without increasing my enjoyment of the game), but I hope Eminent Domain comes out with one to increase replay value.

Any favorites that I left out?


  1. I love Dominion, so I'm going to have to give Puzzle Strike a whirl after hearing you praise it so much.

  2. There are free, printable playing mats available online for Puzzle Strike that I think make it that much easier to play. It's one of the games I wish everyone had heard about.

  3. And I should have added, you can play it for free online at www.fantasystrike.com.

  4. I love Dominion and wish you lived close so we could play together! I guess I'll have to look up these other games as a consolation prize.

  5. I wished I lived closer, too. Bohnanza, especially, isn't quite the same without you guys.

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