So once upon a time, Collectible Card Games (CCGs, see glossary entry) like Magic: The Gathering and Pokemon became a huge deal. Players spent thousands of dollars to get huge stacks of cards to play with. They would construct their own custom decks to bring to game-events and have a whale of a time.

In recent years, there has been something a backlash against these expensive collectible card games, and instead, game makers have tried to extract the fun things from CCGs without having all the associated costs placed on the player. Living Card Games (LCGs) and deck-builders were born as a response to this. Today, I'm going to look at the deck-builder format.

Single player deck-builder, Friday.

A deck-builder takes the deck creation and customisation activity associated with CCGs and LCGs and turns it into a game itself.

Generally, in a deck-builder, players will each have a starter deck of weak cards and a shared card pool in the centre of the table. Players draw a set number of cards into their hand and use the economic aspects of these cards to acquire the most effective cards from the card pool. When their draw pile is empty, players shuffle their discard pile, place is face down as a new draw pile, and start again, now gaining access to cards previously bought from the card pool. Once player decks have developed a little strength, players will no doubt endeavour to discard their more useless cards, and thus build a super-efficient deck. A small deck allows a player to draw their more powerful cards more regularly and often helps form the much-coveted victory point machine.

Dominion (image credit:

The grand-daddy of deck-builders is called Dominion, which is some medieval themed game about developing a wealthy kingdom. It comes with huge piles of cards and is well known for its enormous expansions, prompting gamers to post their elaborate storage solutions online. It's a excellent game, even to this day. Players have to make some tough decisions about if they should acquire strong economic cards from the start, or acquire victory point cards which offer no value until the end of the game and otherwise serve to weaken your overall deck's playing power. You can even play some nice online adaptations, if you want to explore how it works. This one, for instance.

Other deck-builders include Ascension, a more gruesome variation on the same idea, which involves slaying monsters in some weird alternate dimension. It's probably my favourite deck-builder and has an excellent iOS adaptation if you want to try a deck-builder out (read my review). It has also had a lot of expansions, but I fail to see what they really add to the game. It was once a tight, straightforward and brutal race to the top, but is now fluffed out with a lot of excess mechanics. Don't get confused by all the expansions and stand-alone variations: Ascension: Chronicle of the God Slayer is the original and the best.

Ascension (image credit:

There seems to be new deck-builders being released all the time. At worst, they simply vary the theme of Dominion and leave mechanics in tact, leading many players to develop deck-building fatigue. At best, they turn deck-building on it's head, throwing in worker-placement mechanics like in the wonderful, Copycat, solitaire mechanics, like in Friday (both designed by Friedemann Friese), or weird and overly-complex combat mechanics like in Nightfall, a vampire themed deck-builder.

Deck-builders are usually not too competitive (because they rarely feature direct attacks), rarely involve player elimination, and rarely last beyond forty-five minutes. These reasons probably help explain the dominance of deck-builders in recent years and shed light on why you should have at least one in your collection.

Other Deck-Builders of Note:

  • Thunderstone - A combination of the deck-building mechanic with a fantasy theme. It has it's die-hard fans, just as much as Dominion and Ascension do.
  • The DC Comics Deck-Building Game - A horrible title but a very fun, somewhat silly deck-builder. I've often recommended it as a good game for those new to boardgames or looking for something a little lighter with an engaging theme. I have a full review available for those interested.
  • Legendary - Like The DC Comics game, but this time with Marvel Comic's characters. Many players are torn between the two games. Legendary is slightly more complex with tighter mechanics, meaning it's tougher for runaway leaders to appear.
  • Miskatonic School for Girls - Introduced a reverse deck-building mechanic, where you are able to force other players to take negative cards. It has a weak Lovecraftian theme and doesn't really rate high in the gameplay department with very many players.
  • Puzzle Strike - Replacing cards with small circular chips, but keeping the deck-building mechanics in effect. It has a fun, silly theme, but a bit of a learning curve at the start, particularly with how to make chip combinations work.