So what exactly is a deck-building game anyway?

Possibly not quite what you think

A number of videogames have shown up lately with the gameplay adjective “deck-building” in their descriptions. Steve Swink took a break from developing Scale in order to release Dad’s Building a DeckCoin Crypt released on Steam yesterday. Just this morning, we heard about a new Kickstarter campaign for a city-planner/deck-builder called Concrete Jungle.

As one who follows the tabletop gaming scene, I already have a good idea for what these games mean when they say they include deck-building elements. However, I suspect that many who exclusively play digital games may not have a clear concept of what deck building is. Let’s get our education on and change that!

Just as an informal test of my hypothesis that the average videogame enthusiast is in the dark, I asked Brett Makedonski to describe deck-building gameplay. He responded with a list: Hearthstone, Yu-Gi-Oh, Pokémon, Magic: The Gathering. Sweet, beautiful, naive Brett. He was only half wrong, at least.

Collectible card games (CCGs) like those above have been around for more than twenty years, with Magic leading the way in 1993. Living card games (LCGs) like Netrunner are distinguished from CCGs by the manner of acquisition of new cards, but both are functionally indistinct in this context: While a major part of the metagame does involve strategically constructing a deck by choosing individual cards, players generally have their decks constructed prior to beginning a proper play session.

Deck-building games, on the other hand, make the experience of crafting a deck the explicit focus of playing the game. It is not that players build a deck in order to play the game, it is that they play the game in order to build a deck. (It should be noted that these genres are not necessarily mutually exclusive; I can imagine a CCG deck-building game existing.)

Though CCGs have been around since the 1990s, this deck-building phenomenon began in 2008 with Donald X. Vaccarino’s brilliantly designed Dominion. There are several smart things that Dominion did, like Vaccarino’s now-signature use of mathematical combinations in order to create variety or the impeccable pacing that results from the dichotomy between cards that assist in play versus cards that progress toward victory. However, what the game is best known for is that it invented a genre that took tabletop gaming by storm.

Here’s a brief primer. Each player begins with a “deck” of only ten cards: gold and victory points. Gold is used to buy other cards and victory points do not have any function other than counting toward the end game. On a player’s turn, she plays any action cards in her hand, then buys a new card from the common pool using available gold. By the end of two rounds, each player usually has twelve cards in her deck, and they are then reshuffled.

Over the course of the game, decks grow larger and larger. Eventually, there is a tipping point where players transition from lazily flipping thin stacks of cards together to performing classic riffle and bridge shuffles. There is a certain tactile satisfaction in this transition; players feel like they have accomplished something, and they have physical evidence to show for it.

Dominion saw massive success, and as could be expected, many others followed suit, designing games based on that core mechanic, including some that appeal to the videogame audience, like the Resident Evil Deck Building Game or the Street Fighter Deck-Building Game. Thus, a new genre was born.

Though the explosion of deck-building tabletop games came about fairly quickly, the genre’s presence in the videogame space is just now blossoming. In Coin Crypt, the player has a pool of coins that is randomly drawn from, where individual coins serve as standard role-playing game actions: attack, defend, heal, steal, and more. By winning battles, the player gains more coins to put in the pool. Instead of gaining experience points, the player gains “cards” to add to a “deck.”

In that sense, it is not unusual that videogames took longer to latch on to the idea. Deck building is a tabletop abstraction for a continuous increase in power, and videogames already had complex systems in place to manage that. However, simplicity is often a virtue, and I am pleased to see more videogames adding this mechanic to their own decks.

[Happy National Cat Day! Image credit: Mike Toner, BoardGameGeek]

Darren Nakamura
Darren is a scientist during the day. He has been a Destructoid community member since 2006, joining the front page as a contributor in 2011. While he enjoys shooters, RPGs, platformers, strategy, and rhythm games, he takes particular interest in independent games. He produced the Zero Cool Podcast for about four years, and he plays board games quite a bit when he can find willing companions.