Not Necessarily a Deckbuilding Design

DominionOver the last few years, I’ve written about deckbuilding games pretty extensively. However, in that time I’ve never actually stopped and defined what the term means. After all, in the genre’s earliest years, you knew a deckbuilder when you saw it. Thunderstone (2009), Ascension (2010) and (especially) Tanto Cuore (2009) were all obviously Dominion (2008), with some different rules and a different facade — so they were de facto deck builder games.

However in recent years that visceral definition has become less clear because deckbuilders have both proliferated and become more varied. It’s part of what I see as a four-step process.

  1. A game with an innovative mechanic appears and knock-offs mostly copy the game; they’re similar enough to feel unoriginal, but different enough to not seem like a total rip-off. Examples: AscensionThunderstone.
  2. Games continue to use the original, innovative mechanic, but vary more widely, and as a result a genre appears. Examples: Eminent Domain, Quarriors.
  3. The genre matures and the innovative mechanic becomes old hat. At this point this mechanic infiltrates other sorts of game as one part of a larger whole. Examples: A Few Acres of Snow, Copycat.
  4. Further variations appear that are so different that it now feels like the original mechanic was largely an inspiration. Some of them may vary enough that they actually are a brand-new mechanic, which might create knock-offs, genres, mechanics, and inspirations of its own.

And so the evolution of eurogames continues.

From the Old to the New

San JuanThough I don’t know if Donald X. would agree, I’ve always felt like deckbuilding games evolved from the too-small tableau-building genre of games, which began with San Juan (2004) and which also includes Race for the Galaxy (2007), Glory to Rome (2005) and not a lot else. I recently discussed it in my Alea reviews series.

Looked at through an abstract lens, deckbuilding and tableau-building games are remarkably similar. In a tableau-building game, you’re playing cards that give you special powers when they settle on the table; if you build up your special powers in a synergistic way, you’re likely to win. Conversely in a deckbuilding game, you’re buying cards that give you special powers when you play them; if you build up special powers in a synergistic way, you’re likely to win.

Both sorts of games are about building connections between purchased cards in special ways to give yourself advantages in the game that build on each other. The big difference is that in the older sort of tableau-building game you’re creating a permanent control panel, while in the newer sort of deckbuilding game you’re creating a deck that you than have to continue to manipulate.

Lewis & ClarkWhich brings me to my gaming last Wednesday and the game that made me question what a deckbuilder game was, exactly: Cédrick Chaboussit’s Lewis & Clark (2013). It’s primarily a game of resource-management and racing, but you also have the ability to change up your starting deck to gain cards with better powers and that work together in a synergistic way. Sound like deckbuilding-as-a-mechanic?

Not so fast …

Though you start out with a small set of cards in Lewis & Clark, they don’t actually form a deck. Rather, they form a hand: all of your cards are held by you at the start of the game, with no randomness as to what you see. Though cards temporarily become unavailable as you play them, they’ll all bounce back to your hand together, and then you’ll once again you’ll be able to choose from your entire hand.

As it turns out, Lewis & Clark isn’t the only game that I’ve recently play that challenges my definition of deckbuilding. In Concordia (2013) you buy cards for your deck hand over the course of the game and when you play those cards, they go into a discard pile. You can recover all of your played cards at any time by playing a tribune card, but if you wait longer you’re rewarded with valuable cash prizes.

Is the result “handbuilding”? Deckbuilding that’s more widely varied? It all depends on your definition.

Writing the Definition

So, how would I define the deckbuilding genre?

By the “deck” part of the name, [1] you must have an individual deck of cards, which implicitly means that [2] you randomly draw cards rather than seeing them all at once. This is where both Concordia and Lewis & Clark fail my definition.

By the “building” part of the name, [3] you must be able to improve your deck. This always means that [4] you must be able to acquire new cards, but also [5] you may be able to remove old cards.

Finally, by the underlying strategies required to make deckbuilding work, [6] the cards must support synergistic relationships — so that you can build more efficient decks through the careful collection of complementary cards. (And here you can see again how San Juan, Concordia, and Lewis & Clark all lie near the deckbuilding vein, because they support this sort of play too.)

Beyond that? I’m not sure. I don’t think you have to purchase cards, to have cards act as money, to have cards act as victory points, or most of the other elements which have remained very staid in most deckbuilders. In fact, I think deckbuilders could be more interesting if they omitted or transformed some of these elements.

But I also suspect that I might be missing some crucial elements that will only become obvious when I see them … because I still know a deckbuilder when I see it.

Any thoughts on other crucial elements that I could be missing from a deckbuilder definition?

Great Ideas

Even if San Juan and Lewis & Clark aren’t deckbuilders, they can still contain great ideas for expanding deckbuilding play, as it’s all connected. Here’s some of the stuff that I loved about Lewis & Clark:

  1. Cards are money that buys cards. OK, lots of deckbuilding games turn cards into money that can be used to buy more cards. That’s almost a foundation of the genre. But Lewis & Clark doesn’t work like the rest. Cards are mostly bought with resources — but if you want, you can instead expend cards permanently. This might allow some filtering, to get the weaker cards out of your deck, or it might be a sacrifice you make to get something really good.
  2. Cards are money that plays cards. Lewis & Clark also goes a step further, using an idea that dates back to Magic: The Gathering (1993) and San Juan but that hasn’t been used much in deckbuilding: even when you gets cards into your hand, you have to pay a cost (in other cards) to get them on the table.
  3. Cards became locked to table once played. Once cards are played, they don’t handily go into a discard pile. Instead, getting cards off the table and back into your hand turned out to be a large part of the gameplay. This is another idea you won’t see in a typical debckbuilding.
  4. There are lots of resources in the game. It’s been a struggle to get deckbuilders to include money, so I’m thrilled to see a resource-heavy game that’s a pseudo-deckbuilder as well. I’d like to see more.

Lewis & Clark Cards

So, whether it’s actually a deckbuilder or not, Lewis & Clark has a lot of interesting ideas to offer the deckbuilding genre … and that sort of innovation is what my deckbuilder articles have been about anyway!

Keep that idea in mind in coming weeks when I begin publishing a series on the design of great eurocard games. Though I’ll be talking about how to design all sorts of card games, many of those elements will apply to deckbuilders as well …

The San Juan picture is cropped from a picture courtesy of Forty One (FortyOne at BGG).

24 thoughts on “Not Necessarily a Deckbuilding Design

  1. Shannon: I really enjoyed this post, especially the part about Lewis & Clark. I played it for the first time last week, and about 20 minutes into the game, all of the merits you described above started clicking in my mind.

    There’s one other merit I would add to that list. This is actually shared by deckbuilding games and handbuilding games like Lewis & Clark: You eliminate the need for a set number of rounds in the game, which I find to be a more immersive experience and contributes to a better flow of gameplay. The game just continues turn after turn, with players naturally creating key moments of climax instead of the game determining in advance when those moments will happen.

  2. Great writeup and I agree with your conclusion. I would not have included Concordia or Lewis on the deckbuilder list, but I certainly enjoy those games and enjoy deckbuilders in general.
    Jamey’s point is a good one, but it’s neither a merit nor a blemish for me. Card games probably don’t require a fixed number of rounds to end. The game can end on its own naturally when the conditions are met.
    The real benefit for me is replayability. Games with cards keep me coming back for a new, but familiar experience. Dominion continues to be my favourite deckbuilder because of that variability.
    Did you cover Sentinels elsewhere as a deckbuilder? This one’s kind of fuzzy for me, but by the definition I guess it’s not. You have your own deck, you “randomly” pick up cards from that deck, your hand will get stronger, but your deck remains static. You can remove old cards, but you can’t recruit new ones for the deck – as far as I know. I have limited experience with it, but it was great. However, the active deckbuilding in Legendary elevates it in my eyes.

    • As the years have gone on, there are an increasing number of deckbuilders that I haven’t covered, because there are so darned many of them! Sentinels has never hit my table, but it sounds like another interesting design on the margin.

  3. Are there really that many? I feel like I’ve tracked every one since Dominion but I guess I’ve missed a bunch. I’m sure you’ll find Sentinels won’t match your description of deckbuilder and it shouldn’t. When it was introduced to my friend and I, we both sort of looked at each other knowing we had to get this game. He asked me if I would get it because he would otherwise. I told him I would only get it if I could get every expansion for it because that’s what I do when I like a game. I looked into it and now I’m expecting a big package tomorrow (yay!)
    I forgot to mention that I don’t enjoy deckbuilding games that feel too much like existing ones. I think Trains is a good game, but it bothered me how much every card felt like a derivative of Dominion cards (with a different pic and title slapped on). After three or four plays I sold it because I wasn’t going to go down the path of collecting every expansion for it. At this point in time, I’m hoping Martin Wallace pulls off the DB with a board in Mythotopia (A Few Acres didn’t quite work with me). I’ll preorder that one because I must have the wooden components.
    Are there upcoming deckbuilders you’re looking forward to?

    • Are there truly that many? Yeah, I think so. I’ve covered 18 here, which are what I’ve played. I’m sure you could get up to 40 or 50 with major releases, depending on what your definitions are.

      To be honest, I’m much less forward looking about games nowadays. I mostly wait for them to come out, so I couldn’t tell you of any I’m specifically looking forward to.

  4. Shannon – I have never read any of your blogs before, but you can bet I will be back – very nice writeup! I do not have the breadth of experience with this genre as you have, but the thing that made Lewis and Clarke jump immediately into my top 10 all time is that you have to essentially build 2 engines in the game – one for moving through water and one for the mountains. To me this is awesome – trying to find synergistic cards and game play that allow you to “avoid the grind” through the mountains forces a double prong approach and care when selecting what cards you want to add and how many. I also like how the timing of when you play cards, in particular the resource cards, may be controlled by who is playing what around you, which can often shift your thinking and strategy.


    • Glad you enjoyed it, David! Lewis & Clark was indeed an impressive game. It’s a little think-ier than I like (too much forward planning, turns ahead), but despite that it intrigued me. The rich artwork and the strong array of special powers definitely helped.

  5. I disagree that synergistic card play is *indicative* of deck building. It is a characteristic of deck building games, but card combos are common to any well-designed game which uses effects cards. Synergistic card play is universal enough, and, arguably necessary enough, it should be an assumed characteristic of any effects card game.

    Synergistic card play, sans individual player decks, does not a deck building game make.

    I think you hit on the correct idea when you called them “hand building” games. Hand building IS a genre of traditional card games, often melding games. I’d say these games have more in common with Mystery Rummy than Dominion.

    If you replaced all instances of “deck” with “hand” in your earlier definition, you have a pretty decent pass at a definition of “hand building” game that includes Gin Rummy, Mystery Rummy, San Juan, Concordia* and Lewis & Clark.*

    By the “HAND” part of the name, [1] you must have an individual HAND of cards, which implicitly means that [2] you randomly draw cards rather than seeing them all at once.

    By the “building” part of the name, [3] you must be able to improve your HAND. This always means that [4] you must be able to acquire new cards, but also [5] you may be able to remove old cards.

    Finally, by the underlying strategies required to make HAND building work, [6] the cards must support synergistic relationships — so that you can build more efficient HANDS through the careful collection of complementary cards.

    * I haven’t played Concordia or Lewis & Clark yet, so I cannot fully judge the appropriateness of the definition.

    • I really support this comment.
      The core of deckbuilding is… building your deck. For good and bad.
      The need of efficient deck is required both in classic deckbuilding and ‘handbuilding’ games. handbuilding games are different not in building the deck, but in the way you *play* your deck, whereas you randomly draw or rather choose the order.
      On the other hand, in San Juan and RftG, you simply don’t build a deck. You build a tableu or how you spell that word. you build an engine, but you don’t encounter the core aspect of garbage cards.

  6. My own Fzzzt! from 5 years ago is an auction game / deck builder combined with set collection in that cards START OFF as money to buy more cards to use as money etc; eventually, you use for their symbols in set-building to gain VPs. The deck building bit is rather understated, but it’s there!

  7. Shannon, I think you should have started the origins of deck building games from Magic the Gathering, at the least. Booster drafts are the canonical example of deck building, as I’m sure you know.

    However, I think deck building is really the acquisition of new resources from the utilization of old resources. You could draw a path back to some early war games and role playing games. The necessity of seeing only a random drawing of all resources at one time doesn’t seem to me to be a necessity; of course, it’s your prerogative to make it such in your definition. However, I could imagine a deck building game where you have a hand limit of, say 15 cards, and you can play any ones you want each time, always discarding a few of the weaker ones and acquiring new ones on each turn, gradually building up a better deck. The randomness would come from the system (randomly turned over monsters, say) or your opponents.


    • In my mind, the words “deck” and “hand” strongly imply randomness in the form of shuffling the deck and drawing from it to your hand. If you’re predominantly choosing from a known set, that sounds more like drafting to me. But these ontological debates can go on forever…

      • Yep. That was pretty much the basis of our discussion when we played Lewis & Clark. I originally took the side that it was a deckbuilder, but I was won over as I thought more about the genre.

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  9. I just think It’s sad whenever somebody mentions hand building they forget about the first one: Master Merchant by Seiji Kanai. It definitely has a deckbuilding vibe a la Dominion, but with a twist.

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  12. Really good breakdown of the mechanic. I keep hearing a lot of people (myself included) saying “it’s kind of a deck builder.” Designers are definitely exploring interesting design spaces with the core mechanic. What’s your take on other *builders, like dice, chips, cubes (Quarriors, Puzzle Strike, upcoming Hyperborea)?

  13. You might also want to keep an eye on the Eminent Domain spinoff game Microcosm, which appears to be a two-player handbuilder.

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