Deck Management is the New Roundel

It’s been over a decade now since Mac Gerdts produced Antike (2005). Its core mechanic was simple but innovative: allow players to take actions for their turns, but place all of those actions in a circle (on a rondel). Then, limit how far a player can advance on the rondel each turn. In Antike, you usually move just 1-3 spaces on the 8-space roundel, but you can spend resources for more advancement.

This limits players how often players can take specific actions. The result is an interesting puzzle of play. How can you successfully combine together several disparate actions to make a winning strategy? Do you streak around the rondel to get to the “good” actions more quickly, or you do slowly edge around to get a little of everything?

A designer can also have a lot of fun with the rondel, choosing whether to put the same action on multiple spaces (such as the duplication of the “maneuver” action in Antike) and choosing how to arrange all of the spaces to maximize efficiency, to maximize player frustration, or toward some other goal.

Gerdts apparently liked his rondel, because he has used it in many other games, including Imperial (2006)Hamburgum (2007)Imperial 2030 (2009), Navegador (2010)Antike Duellem (2012), and Antike II (2014). The mechanism has never become a go-to eurogame mechanism, but you can also find it in a few games by other designers, usually in quite varied forms. Finca (2009) has a complex rondel-movement system, where each player has multiple markers on the rondel, and gets to move each round a number of spaces equal to the number of markers on the rondel space; while Murano (2014) lets spaces on its full-board rondel get clogged up, requiring extra costs to move blockers off of a rondel space.

However, Gerdts has found even more success with a different game: Concordia (2013). It has a new mechanism that I’ve named “deck management” which looks nothing like roundels, but which acts surprisingly similar …

Kreta (2005)

The earliest deck-management game that I’m aware of is Kreta (2005), an excellent game by Stefan Dorra that was tragically never released outside of Germany.

The gameplay is quite simple: each player has a deck of seven cards: the Baumeister, the Feldherr, the Admiral, the Abt, the Bauer, the Konig, and the Kastellan. On his turn, a player plays one of his cards, and won’t have it available again until someone plays their Kastellan.

I suspect that the mechanic grew out of role-selection play, which was popular at the time due to Puerto Rico (2002) — though it was on the verge of being supplanted by worker placement, as Caylus (2005) was just around the corner. In any case, the similarity between role selection and this primordial deck management is obvious: they both involve players using cards to activate powers. The difference is that in role selection, the card supplies are communal and affect everyone, while in Kreta they  are personal and affect only the player who plays them (with the exception of the Kastellan, which also initiates a scoring round for all players).

However, you can also see the clear relation to roundel play, as both mechanics limit the play of individual actions, not allowing you to take the same action until you “come back to it” — by literally circling a roundel or else by picking back up your pile of cards.

Not much was done with this interesting deck-management mechanism until Mac Gerdts came back to it himself, almost a decade later.

Concordia (2013)

If I had to guess, did Gerdts adopt a deck-management mechanic from Kreta or did he create a new way to look at roundels without ever having seen the earlier game, I’d guess the latter. That’s because deck management is such a perfect match for the roundel mechanic, and because that’s been almost the entirety of Gerdts’ design.

With that said, Gerdts’ deck management is actually less like a roundel than the earlier form of the mechanic, as it appeared in Kreta.

First, your deck isn’t set. One of the card actions actually gives you the opportunity to add more cards to your deck. This isn’t quite deckbuilding, because there’s no randomness in the later usage of your cards; you instead have your entire hand available to you until you play the cards. However, it does allow you to evolve your palette of actions in a similar way. If Concordia were a roundel game, it’d be like you were adding additional spaces to the roundel that only you could use! (Some of the actions that you can buy later are also slightly better than the initial hand of cards that you get at the start of the game.)

Second, as with so many modern euro card games, the cards are multipurpose. Not only do they give you actions over the course of the game, but they also give you victory points at the end of the game! Each type of card acts as a multiplier for a specific sort of development. This is something that really couldn’t be modeled on a roundel at all. It also would be an interesting advancement for actual deckbuilder games, because it gives you a reason to buy specific cards toward the end of the game, when their actions are likely to never be used. In deckbuilders, purchasing cards often becomes perfunctory during the last few rounds, but in Concordia it can become more important than ever, as you try to acquire what will give you the most points.

I find it somewhat interesting that Gerdt’s initial foray into deck management moved it away from its roundel base. But, that might be exactly why he choose to use this new methodology: it overcomes the constraints of the somewhat limited play of pushing tokens around a circle.

Assault of the Giants (2017)

I was surprised this year to see a new appearance of the deck-management mechanic from a new designer, Andrew Parks, best known for Core Worlds (2011). Parks adopts the deck-management mechanic in its most roundel-like form, where each player has a set deck of cards that they can recycle at will.

But, like any good reuse of an existing mechanic, it also expands that in two interesting ways.

First, and more minorly, each player has a different deck. The cards are mostly similar, but they’re each specialized for the giant race that the player is playing. Each player also has a couple of unique cards: one that activates a special racial ability and one that activates a special leader ability. This type of variation can offer nice and evocative theming and create interesting asymmetries, as long as it’s carefully balanced.

Second, and more notably, cards can have ongoing powers.You’re no long just strategizing on what cards to play now, but also on what ongoing powers you want to activate.

Third, and most cleverly, cards also gain in power the later they’re played among your deck’s cards. This introduces yet another variable for when to play cards, because you must decide which cards to play earlier at a weaker level and which to play later at a more powerful level.

Whereas the expansions in Concordia move away from the deck management core, those in Assault of the Giants instead enhance it.

Conclusion

It doesn’t look like deck management is ever going to become a major euro-mechanic, but it’s been interesting to see it evolve in just a few games over the last decade, and it’s also interesting to see how closely Mac Gerdts has positioned it in relation to his better-known roundel mechanic.

16 thoughts on “Deck Management is the New Roundel

  1. “It also would be an interesting advancement for actual deckbuilder games, because it gives you a reason to buy specific cards toward the end of the game, when their actions are likely to never be used.”

    This is actually the case in Arctic Scavengers, where many (if not most) cards represent variable numbers of people, and the total number of people you have is your score at the end of the game.

  2. Circus Train is another example, and in Tom Decker’s designer notes for that game he mentions the mechanism being inspired by Kramer/Kiesling’s Sunken City and Knizia’s LOTR: the Confrontation.

  3. I was thinking LOTR: the Confrontation too. I think Knizia has used variations of this mechanism a few times, e.g. Fish Eat Fish. It’s also related to the power cards in El Grande, though those aren’t quite actions in the rondel sense (and you don’t ever pick them up again, so it’s not a round rondel…)

  4. Thanks for the article. I never thought about the similarities between the two different mechanisms but you’re right, they do have a very similar effect on gameplay and deck management does open itself to more possibilities than the roundel.

    My only issue with some games that do this is that, for me, it sometimes gets in the way of the theme. I find it frustrating that in a game such as Assault of the Giants your actions are limited as it often doesn’t make sense within the context of the theme to not be able to perform certain actions. I know that this shouldn’t really matter, but I feel it’s a mechanism that doesn’t quite fit with all games.

    Anyway thanks again for the thoughtful post!

    • You’re right that it’s a mechanic without a lot of basis in theme (unless it were a wizard’s spellbook or something).

        • And I think cycles of history may be what Gerdts was going for in Antike (with its parallel roundel mechanics).

  5. Any thoughts on…
    Mission Red Planet (2005),
    A Castle for All Seasons (2008),
    Master Merchant (2011),
    Eminent Domain: Microcosm (2014)?

    I’ve heard this mechanism called “hand building”, which is probably the term is use too. “Deck management” implies to me that you’ve still got a deck (face down, shuffled stack of cards that you draw from).

    I think of Eminent Domain as a deck management game… But that’s not the mechanism you’re talking about here though, it’s more like regular deck building (I call it “deck learning”). But I guess if I think about it, “deck management” sounds like a synonym for “deck building”, like deck building with easy access to deck culling.

    I do like that hand building (or deck management) mechanism. I think it’s interesting to look at how those different games handle getting your cards back (wait til your hand is empty, play a specific card, give up your turn, etc).

    • Yeah, “hand building” isn’t bad. I was trying to stay away from “hand management” which clearly means something else.

      Mission Red Planet felt like it had less variation among the cards, since there weren’t as many distinct actions, and I think that makes it less interesting (though it’s still in my collection).

      I haven’t played the others. (Microcosm has been sitting to be played for a few years, but the terse rules for such a non-standard game have discouraged play.)

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