Styles of Building Play
Though Dominion is all about deckbuilding, a few variants of that core gameplay have appeared.
Deckbuilding. Dominion (2008) debuted the core idea of deckbuilding play. Players start with a deck of mediocre cards that allow them to undertake actions. Over the course of the game players add new, better cards to their deck and remove old, worse ones. Each turn, they’ll randomly draw some of those cards; hopefully they’ll be a coherent set that allows them to take great actions.
Dicebuilding. Quarriors (2011) was the first dicebuilding game. Here players instead start with a handful of dice and buy new ones to improve their dice pool over time. The randomness of the play is moved: where in a deckbuilding game, players draw random cards, in a dice building game, players instead roll random results. This somewhat constrains the randomness: where deckbuilding games tend to be binary (you get a result or not), dice building games tend to have more nuance (you get a result, but its level of effect varies). Dice building games are also theoretically simpler than deckbuilders, as you can’t fit complex effects on a dice face — but Quarriors fought against this limitation by linking dice to reference cards, which was a bit exhausting.
Of course Quarriers also involved a bag: you draw six dice from up to twelve in the bag each turn. But, it’s better to keep that aside for the moment, as the use of a bag defines the newest sort of *builder game …
Bagbuilding. Bagbuilder games of a sort date back to at least Puzzle Strike (2010) and Quarriors (2011), but Orléans (2014, 2015) is the one that’s popularized and largely defined the subgenre. And, there’s a good reason for that: Puzzle Strike was pretty much cards in a bag, complete with complex text, while Quarriors was dice in a bag, complete with complex references. Orléans instead creates a different sort of game.
In the Orléans-style bagbuilder you’re essentially drawing resources out of a bag. They’re much simpler, one-note components — definitely not cards or dice with many complex powers. In the case of Orléans they’re colored characters, but they could just as easily be square resource cubes.
Though this sounds more simplistic than the typical deckbuilders, you can create a pretty standard eurogame by building on this type of bagbuilder: imagine a Catan bagbuilder where you draw wood, brick, sheep, ore, and brick each turn, which you can then use to build roads, settlements, and cities. The big difference between the traditional Catan game and this sort of bagbuilder is that your resources are perpetual: they constantly recur in the ratios that they appear in your bag. Now imagine building any number of cube pushers using a bagbuilder as its foundation; it’s an interesting premise that supports a lot of possible designs.
Orléans: The Game
Orleans uses the resources of its bag building in a rather unique way. They’re collected together into formula, just like in Catan, but those formula are used to activate actions! Many of those actions are in turn used to generate additional characters (resources) for the bag, but they also offer various improvements — such as granting buildings, money, goods, or development points. A few other actions purely generate benefits, including the ability to move about a board of the French landscape and to build guild halls there.
The result is a dense and complex game. It’s a nice example of how to take the relatively simple results possible from bagbuilding and to use them as an engine that feeds the rest of a game’s design. Ultimately, it suggests that bag building works at the level of a cube tower or a color die. It’s a way to introduce random inputs into a game, but it’s one that has unique advantages because of the long-term ability to control that randomness, as we’ve seen in games dating back to Dominion itself.
Orléans: The Co-op
The first expansion for Orléans, Invasion (2015, 2016), contains a bunch of different ways to play the core game. However the highlight of the package is surely its co-op variant, the eponymous Invasion.
Any co-op game needs a hefty dose of randomness. It’s what keeps players on their toes and ensures that their cooperation is imperfect — because they don’t know the best answers and because their strategies might change over time. Most cooperative games achieve this uncertainty through a challenge system that spits out ever-worsening problems that players must deal with, lest they lose the game. Arkham Horror (1987, 2005) continually generates gates and monsters while Pandemic (2008) constantly spawns diseases.
Fewer games lay out known end-game problems that players must solve. Salvation Road (2016) offers one example: players must store up certain resources for the final journey; however, they’re still being troubled by constantly spawned problems along the way. Even fewer games depend on end-game problems without also troubling players along the way. The Dresden Files Cooperative Card Game (2017), or DFCO, is one: it lays out a tableau of problems to deal with by game’s end, then generates its uncertainty through the imperfect interactions of the players themselves.
Invasion also falls into the last category. At the start of the game it lays out certain resources that players must gather and certain actions that they must take before the end of the game. It very cleverly aligns these cooperative goals with the goals that players have already worked toward, more organically, in competitive games. So players are still building guild halls, collecting goods, and such, but now with specific cooperative goals in mind.
So how does Invasion keep things uncertain and cooperation imperfect? Part of that comes from those same imperfect player interactions that you find in DFCO — or in any other cooperative game where players have strong control over their own resources and actions. But part of it comes from the uncertainty of bagbuilding itself. It turns out that the unknown of drawing blindly from a bag is exactly the sort of uncertainty that makes a cooperative game work really well too.
That’s probably why cooperative games have been playing with deckbuilding mechanics for a while, with Runewars (2010), Legendary (2012), and Pathfinder ACG (2013) being a few of the better known examples. However, the mixed reviews of the cooperative play for Legendary and Runewars shows that converting a competitive design to cooperative play can also be pretty tough. By thoroughly embracing all of its competitive scoring elements* and by taking advantage of the bagbuilding to sow uncertainty, Invasion gets it right.
* Actually, some of the players will find some of Orléans’ typical scoring elements mostly useless, depending on their own needs. And wool and cloth can end up being almost totally useless in a game. But for the most part, players do in Invasion what they did in Orléans, just with more precise, carefully laid out goals.
The Good & The Bad
The Good: Orléans makes surprisingly minor use of its bagbuilding. The ability to add resources to the bag (through purchases) and to remove resources from the bag (through sending characters off to stultifying meetings) is all there, but it’s downplayed. Players could easily stumble through the game with a badly designed bag and they might not realize how much it’s holding them back. They’ll just be forced to hold characters from one turn to another and to make moves that aren’t what they really want to do. This is a nice change from a classic deckbuilder where a bad draw can result in a totally wasted turn. Meanwhile, the bagbuilding is just one cog in Orléans‘ machinery. Put both of these elements together and you end up with bagbuilding mechanics that are seamlessly integrated into the overall game, creating a cohesiveness that you don’t always find in classic deckbuilders that try to go beyond their deckbuilding core.
The Bad: Because of the simplicity of its bagbuilding and its resources, the variability of Orléans is a little low. This is exacerbated by the fact that the multiple paths to victory in the game are a bit of an illusion: you often need to push forward on all of the paths in order to do well. Fortunately, the Invasion supplement offers solutions to these issues. Not only are there a lot more ways to play, but the core co-op game actually makes it so that a player really can independently concentrate on one area of advancement, as he works on just a portion of what the team needs.
There were a few bagbuilding games before Orléans, but Orléans shows how to do it right, with the draw of simple resources that fit into more complex machinery, and with the ability (but not the necessity) to improve the draws from that bag. The result feels just as natural as drawing a card or rolling a dice, but it allows control and development over time, creating a whole different sort of gameplay.