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E7 | Games | Deckbuilding

Welcome to Deckbuilding, the first in our series of Mechanics Exploration! In this episode we tackle explaining, analyzing, and recommending games that take advantage of Deckbuilding as a primary Mechanic. Several of our favorite games utilize Deckbuilding, so we are have been looking forward to this episode for a while! Let's get started with what we have to drink.


What's on our Flight (00:57)

  • Dalton’s drinking: Sexton Irish Whiskey. The bottle is a distinct hexagonal prism, making it fun to host on the shelf! A tasty and affordable whiskey, good body for an Irish and finished in sherry casks.

  • Nelson's drinking: Space Station Middle Finger by 3 Floyd's Brewing. These is Nelson's favorite beer, with great art and personal nostalgia. The theming is excellent as well! You'll never forget what the label looks like.


What's On Our Minds (03:58)


  • Arkham Horror: The Card Game. We've been playing this together, along with some friends and really enjoyed the first campaign! This Living Card Game (LCG) has you working together through short campaigns to investigate and defeat Lovecraftian Horrors. I thoroughly enjoyed this game, though there is quite a bit of setup and downtime during play.


  • Age of Steam. Biggest highlight here is over 100 playable expansions most of them exist as print-and-play maps, many of which are customized for a specific player count.

  • Brass Birmingham. With additional plays, this game might sneak in to Nelson's Top 5! The game is so tight, each turn and action critical to the outcome of the game. Its spot on BoardGameGeek's Top 5 is well deserved!

  • Spirit Island. This is the first shake-up of one of our Top 5's since we started the podcast! Spirit Island now owns a spot as Nelson's 4th favorite game and it is well deserved. This cooperative hand-builder has one of our favorite themes and is well worth checking out!


The icebreaker question for this episode was posed by Dalton (18:02)

With this episode we are starting a series of Mechanics Exploration, focused on common Mechanics in games. Which Mechanics are you most exited to talk about?

  • Nelson: Resource Management Engine Building. Games like Gaia Project, Wingspan, Century Spice Road are fascinating to explore and master.

  • Dalton: Cooperative. Possibly our collective favorite genre. There are so many attributes that make or break cooperative games it will be an exciting topic to explore!


Discussion starts at 23:17 in the episode

All good articles start with a definition. And since I (Dalton) write the show notes, I will use a slightly different definition to the one Nelson provides in the episode. Deckbuilding games are characterized by starting with an initial set of cards, then acquiring additional cards to improve your deck throughout the game so that it accomplishes some objective, usually by gaining victory points, dealing damage to a player or in-game enemy, etc. In many games the cards available for acquisition change, leading to a large variance in playable games. Deckbuilders are recognizable by their randomness, since you never know what you will draw on a given turn but you have the ability to influence that based on the cards you are putting in your deck.

The original deckbuilder is Dominion (Donald X. Vaccarino, published by Rio Grande Games), a game where you play a noble purchasing monies and lands to expand your realm. Dominion is the true essence of a deckbuilder; all you do is draw cards, play cards, acquire cards, and shuffle cards. Dominion defined the genre that we know as deckbuilding and coined some key terms that we use consistently across other deckbuilding games:

Discard - Used cards which are set aside until your deck runs out, then are shuffled to become your deck.

Supply - The cards available to be acquired and added to your deck. There are two main styles for Supply:

  1. "Fixed Supply" - Strategic, most decisions made at the beginning of the game. Dominion introduced this style.

  2. "The River" - Tactical, live-action decisions made on the fly in response to the randomness of the river. Ascension introduced this style.

Trash - Cards that are permanently removed from your deck. This is key to look for as it allows you to control your deck size, letting you draw your more powerful cards more often. This lets you choose what is in your deck and what is not.

There are some game mechanics that are similar to deckbuilding, but are different enough that we chose to exclude them from this discussion:

  • Handbuilders. Spirit Island, Bloodborne. Since all cards in handbuilders are available to be played from your hand on your turn, they lack the element of randomness, of "playing the odds," that true deckbuilders highlight.

  • Trading Card Games (TCG). Magic the Gathering, Pokemon TCG, Yu-Gi-Oh TCG. All cards are available for purchase/trade and players build their deck before the game starts, removing the act of improving your deck as the game is played.

  • Living card games (LCG). Arkham Horror: The Card Game, Summoner Wars, Ashes. Similar to a TCG, but the cards are acquired via expansions rather than random packs. Excluded for the same reason as TCGs.

  • Bagbuilders. Quacks of Quedlinburg or Orleans. Excluded as many do not have the players "draw" fully through their "deck" before "shuffling," affecting the statistics of "drawing" a specific "card." Also, they do not use cards and decks, making the terminology confusing, as I am sure you have noticed.

Consistent through many deckbuilders are the skills needed to succeed. First, it is often extremely important to know when the game will end. For many deckbuilders, this is not obvious at the outset, which is intentional. Knowing when the game will end helps you understand the trade-off between continuing to improve your deck and focusing on accomplishing the objective. Understanding the interactions between cards is also critically important. It is often necessary to create combinations from the cards in your deck, which can take time, planning, and interaction with other players.

At this point, we want to offer our recommendations for deckbuilders to look in to, but we want to do that in a new way. Here you will find our recommendations for low, medium, and high complexity deckbuilders to match your specific familiarity and desires. We hope you find something you like!

Recommendations start at 47:46 in the episode

Low Complexity

  • Nelson: Paperback. Cards in the deck are letters. The game objective is to make complex words to score victory points. River style supply, but the river has a forced distribution of cost, such that expensive and cheap options are both available. MEC: M - 7, E - 6, C - 7.5, Overall: 6.6.

  • Dalton: Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle. 7 cooperative missions, each matching one of the books from the iconic series of the same name. The game does an excellent job of ramping in complexity, making it a great place to start for players new to the genre or hobby. MEC: M - 5, E - 7, C- 7, Overall 6.4.

Medium Complexity

  • Dalton: Legendary: A Marvel Deckbuilding Game. A cooperative deckbuilder that does a great job of controlling difficulty while entertaining Marvel superheroes for theming. MEC: M - 7.5, E - 7.5, C - 7.5, Overall 7.5.

  • Nelson: Dominion. This game has been discussed at length already, the take-away here is that Dominion is a must-play game. It literally defined the genre and comes with (effectively) infinite replayability in the base game, let alone the 10 existing expansions. MEC: M - 6.5, E - 7.5, C - 7, Overall 7.1

High Complexity

  • Nelson: Clank!: A Deckbuilding Adventure. The deck controls your movement on a board. There is a feeling of a push-your-luck mechanic as you dive through a dungeon to collect treasure before the dragon awakes. MEC: M - 7.5, E - 8, C - 7.5, Overall 7.8 (One of the highest MEC ratings for a game that neither of us owns!)

  • Dalton: Mage Knight. Highly discussed game, very high complexity, combining cooperative play, asymmetric player powers, exploration, exploitation, and extermination. Very highly recommend if the time to play is achievable. MEC: M - 9, E - 8, C - 8.5, Overall 8.4.

Thanks for reading! Let us know what your favorite deckbuilder is in the comments!


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