Building a Better Deck
What is a Deck Building Game?
The deck building game category kind of all kicked off thanks to a single game (more on that later!).
A lot of card games see the player putting together a deck of cards before the match begins. However a deck building game is different.
A deck building game is distinct from this in that you build your deck over the course of the game. Trust us, it’s a lot of fun. And if you don’t agree, you can go outside and build a deck. The wooden kind.
Got wood? For deck builders, the answer is yes. Here are our favorite deck building games in 2019.
(For a hilarious game that involves cards but is much more casual, check out Joking Hazard and our review here!)
Gotta start with the granddaddy, show a little respect. As far as we can tell, Dominion introduced the concept of a game in which the players build their decks during the session itself. It may seem a tad dated by now, but Dominion is like a muscular old man whom you underestimate at your own risk. Is this the first time we have compared an old game to a muscular old man? Probably not.
Dominion is a heavy econ experience with a strong euro feel. You’re a young noble, and you’ve inherited your parents’ domain. You’ve got all the lordly blood and triple the ambition. The theme becomes a little abstract as markets, festivals, and laboratories give you extra time, money, or whatever it is that they do.
But the simple joy of Dominion is the streamlining of the deck, the little efficiency committee running in your mind. You’ll rarely be bored in Dominion, since you ought to be planning your next move while the other players take their turns.
There are a megaton of expansions available for this game, but rest assured that the core box remains the quintessential deck-building experience.
This is one of those deck building games that you ignore for years because the cover looks like a “Sy-Fy” made-for-TV special. Well turn off the TV and get ready to build that deck, Sonny! Star Realms is legit. Build an economic empire and grow your fleet. Trade, combat, and authority are your key values to pursue as you balance your strategy.
Outposts will provide defense and/or bonuses, depending on their shield types. When you play a combat card, you’re actually hitting the other player, so Star Realms is an interactive deck builder.
Unlike the cover art on the core box, the card art is actually pretty nice. It’s vibrant, and you won’t lack for theme as you try to outmaneuver your opponent using one of the untold numbers of possible strategic options.
You know those games of D&D where everyone wants to play a rogue and no one is willing to take one for the team by switching classes? And then you start stealing from one another in real life because you’re trying to prove who’s the best thief, and then out come the daggers, and it’s all downhill from there.
Solve this common predicament immediately with Clank!: The deck building game of thieves sneaking into a dragon’s lair to snatch up that sweet, sweet gold.
Collect as much loot as you can without getting fried and build up a deck of sneaky thief abilities. This deck builder is a dungeon delver with noise mechanics, which wins it points for originality alone.
It’s okay to spend Friday alone. It’s even okay to do this while you talk to a volleyball with a face that you drew on it. And the crown jewel of this experience is whipping out your copy of solo-play deck building game Friday, the desert-island survival game of being a city slicker who gradually turns into Tom Hanks.
Your deck represents behaviors or actions of the survivor “Robinson,” who must improve his skill set over time if he doesn’t want to get his ass eaten by wild animals. Though disturbingly, the real threat to your survival in a place like that is just your own ineptitude. We’d end up throwing unsharpened sticks at rabbits until we died of starvation, probably.
As a determiner of survivability, Friday is at least as effective as a BuzzFeed quiz. And it’s certainly more fun than digital Solitaire, which you should really only be playing if you are a dad in the 90s.
A Few Acres of Snow
You may have seen this game floating around here and there. Bet you didn’t know it was a deck building game, did you? It looks like one of those dusty old war games that use tiny featureless chits for everything from Confederate soldiers with rifles to bustling capital cities.
Maybe you skipped this title because it looks like it is played by old men with strong opinions about history. It may in fact be played by those old men, but it’s worth a look anyway. Think RISK, but with deck building and a French & Indian War theme.
Hoi, chummer! Shadowrun’s unique mix of cyberpunk and Tolkienesque fantasy may be William Gibson’s worst nightmare, but it makes for a hell of a game.
There is the tabletop RPG, and there are the video games, but this is the Shadowrun deck building game. Like the other versions, this centers around cooperative missions undertaken by technologically enhanced dwarves and jacked-up trolls in suits of bullet-proof power armor with wi-fi access for convenience.
Crossfire is sort of like the softcore version of the RPG, the fifth edition of which is one of the most dense pen and paper abominations ever to grace your mother’s basement table. Crossfire is tough, though, so it’s not the kid version or anything. You can level between games, adding new things to your custom deck representing a character with a very specific set of skills.
Deck building plus criminal cyberpunk scheming and flashy action in a grungy city of corporate wage slavery. Who says no to that? Corporate wage slaves, that’s who. Live a little, chummer! (And spend money on a company product.)
A complex but unique take on deck building. Mage Knight sees players taking on the roles of magical warriors, represented by–you guessed it–decks of cards. There is a big old map to traverse, which you can explore more or less as you see fit. You pick up new spells to add to your deck as you encounter various challenges around the world.
There is something really epic about the large-scale adventure across which you’re developing your powers. You’re recruiting followers, exploring dungeons, and conquering your destiny. Behind it all, there is a surprisingly good narrative to keep your imagination invested.
There’s a solo mode, a co-op mode, and a competitive mode. As long as you’re cool with rules, this is a friggin’ gem. And we don’t typically use such strong fucking language as that.
If we held awards for best deck building game art, maybe gave out a trophy or something, that trophy would be launched out of a cannon, at deadly speed, toward the nearest copy of Thunderstone Quest. The ensuing explosion and fluttering paper dust rain of vibrant card stock would set nearby fantasy buffs to poignant wonder for like, five-to-ten seconds.
Now that we have met our daily quota of millennial-style extreme-things-are-funny humor, let us discuss the gorgeous deck building game that is Thunderstone Quest.
The older Thunderstone variants were on the clunky side, but this streamlined dungeon delver manages to cut to the quick of the series’ positives while offering a host of possible options during a given turn. The main game comes with a truly absurd wealth of cards and pieces, which serve Thunderstone Quest’s agenda to overwhelm you with possibility (in the best way).
A downside? There’s some downtime during player turns while you wait for the other person to work out the best possible series of actions.
This one’s pretty widely known, but it’s gotta go on the list. Marvel: Legendary is a heroic co-op effort between players to prevent your city from falling to villainy.
You’ll put together a villain deck, replete with minions and disasters. Available for purchase are a series of replenishing hero cards that deal damage, give you currency, or perform some special effect.
There are multiple versions of each hero, so Captain America isn’t going to just throw the same left hook every time. Why do you have to pay for these heroes? Aren’t they motivated by their heroic natures to save the city on their own? What is this currency anyway? Star power?
Yeah, I’ll help you. But it’ll cost you four star cookies, bub. Stars don’t grow on adamantium claws.
Wolverine, you need help.
The villain deck will disperse baddies across the city, who progress across a linear course until they reach the bridge. Then they kick you between the legs and jump off the bridge or something. We aren’t sure, because then they disappear. But you want to take them out before this happens.
Customizable, simple, and attractive. Get your superhero fix right here.
Your Inner Craftsman.
There you go, folks. Our favorite deck builders for hours of constructive fun. Now, the real burning question is this: Can you play a deck builder on the deck?
Well, that depends. Did you help your dad build it? You can’t just expect to use his cool new deck for deck building game night if you didn’t at least pretend to listen to him talk about 2x4s in the hardware store.
Now get out there and streamline those decks for maximum efficiency, you sassy architects!