Over 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.
- 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: Ascension, Thunderstone.
- Games continue to use the original, innovative mechanic, but vary more widely, and as a result a genre appears. Examples: Eminent Domain, Quarriors.
- 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.
- 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
Though 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.
Which 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,  you must have an individual deck of cards, which implicitly means that  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,  you must be able to improve your deck. This always means that  you must be able to acquire new cards, but also  you may be able to remove old cards.
Finally, by the underlying strategies required to make deckbuilding work,  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?
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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).