Board games have been around for thousands of years. So when a designer comes up with a genuinely new idea for a game mechanic, the hype train takes off like a rocket. Such was the case for deck building in over a decade ago — and we’ve come along way by now in 2022.
Like many fresh ideas, the concept of a deck building game is startling in its simplicity. Card games where you build a custom deck before you play have been around a while. In a deck building game, though, you build the deck while you play. Starting with a hand of currency cards, you cash them in for other, more interesting cards, and make a deck on-the-fly you think is good enough to win.
It wasn’t just gamers who got bowled over by the brilliance of the concept: it was designers too. Gaming was soon awash in copycat games, many of limited interest. Since then, the mechanic has seen redeployment into other genres of game with mixed results. But there are loads of awesome examples, too. These are the best deck-building board games.
In Dune: Imperium your deck represents resources that your noble house can draw on as you seek power and influence in the universe of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi epic. It’s married to another classic mechanic, worker placement, as each card play sends one of your agents to a board space, either courting influence with a faction like The Guild or The Fremen, or to the planet’s surface, to harvest spice or do battle for territory. It’s a clever melange of thematic and abstract concepts that mesh to create a fascinating whole with many parts to master. There’s also a whole new concept for deckbuilding called reveal turns where you discard your remaining cards to get a secondary effect, meaning you’re building and playing your deck on two different levels at once.
Tyrants of the Underdark
Another game where your deck corresponds to assets belonging to a noble house, only this time they’re minions in the employ of Dungeons & Dragons’ fiendish dark elves. Card play spreads your troops, assassins and influence from your starting city over a network of Underdark locations from the well-known fantasy novel trilogy The Legend of Drizzt. There’s a real sense of struggle as you tussle for territory with other players, card and counter-card adding and removing pieces from the board. Many of the cards represent iconic characters and monsters from the role-playing game with art to match. And there are multiple card sets to combine for new and interesting strategic and tactical options with every play.
Legendary: A Marvel Deck Building Game
Legendary does a couple of interesting things with the deck-building formula. For starters, it’s cooperative, with all the players working together to defeat a supervillain, although if you defeat them you can tally points and declare a top, legendary, player. Second, the villain has a deck too, which functions as a game engine and a scenario which dictates the win and loss conditions. You’re not, as you might expect, playing as individual Marvel heroes but rather controlling them as a group with your card plays, recruiting new cards and attacking the villain’s henchmen. It’s a riot of replayability with so many different combinations out of the box, plus it’s fast and smooth with lots of options to fine-tune the challenge level to your group’s needs. There’s a whole series of Legendary games built on the same mechanical engine, including the excellent Legendary Encounters: An Alien Deck Building Game.
Or you could start with the deck building game that started it all. Dominion wasn’t only novel: it was also simple, with quick, three-step turns. All the complexity is on the cards themselves. The goal is to use the starting copper cards to buy better cards, allowing for more money and actions, working up to buying victory point cards. Strategy comes down to honing your deck into the leanest card-buying machine you can manage. With 25 card options, of which 10 got chosen for use in each game, it also has impressive replay value. Yet it’s popular enough to have spawned a slew of expansions, of which Dominion: Intrigue is often considered the best.
Aeon’s End takes deck-building into the popular category of cooperative games. It’s a smart move: deck-based games are often low on interaction, and having players work together is a solid solution. Here, you’re all wizards working together to save a fantasy city from a marauding evil. And there are plenty of cards to heal and buff your fellow players, so there’s plenty to think about. Its particular genius, though, is that you flip your discard pile over rather than shuffling when it’s empty. This makes the order of card play critical, allowing you to set up combos for the next time you run through your deck. With other timing-based innovations and a tense random turn order, it’s thrilling and challenging in equal measure. You can now choose from two sets, facing off against demons in the original box or taking on the undead in a longer, more complex campaign with the new Legacy of Gravehold.
Numbers are at the heart of what makes deck building work, and they’re at the heart of what makes Clank! special. Players are adventurers seeking to loot a dungeon and escape before a dragon wakes up. The engine of each hero is their deck, which lets them move and fight, open doors and spend gold. These are just abstract numbers that you use to overcome challenges: the real game is the frantic race in and out of the dungeon. That’s where all the themes and thrills are. By separating the strategy from the theme, Clank! manages to satisfy fans of both camps with a winning combination. If you fancy taking these concepts into a long-form legacy game where the results of one game impact the next, there’s also Clank Legacy: Acquisitions Incorporated which brings the game into the Dungeons & Dragons universe. And for more strategic game ideas, check out the best strategy board games.
Deck-building has proved a surprising proxy for warfare in several games. Undaunted is the best of them, using the flow of cards from your deck as a way to simulate casualties and command confusion on the battlefield. It’s a great fit, giving players a real sense of running an infantry platoon from simple rules. Atop the deck-building strategy, there’s the extra dimension of moving pieces on the map. This isn’t so realistic, but it’s still a ton of fun as you tussle over tiles using tactics and dice. A selection of scenarios and troop types ensures there’s plenty of replay puzzling as you work the game’s layers to gain the upper hand. There are two editions of the game to choose from. Undaunted: Normandy focuses on squad-level combat in France while Undaunted: North Africa moves the action to single-soldier special forces and adds rules for vehicles. For other ideas in this space, check out our list of the best war board games.
One of the greatest pleasures of deck-building is having to work out a new plan each turn, based on what fate gave you. Bag-builder Orleans is the absolute epitome of that pleasure. Your drawn tokens represent French peasants that you must set to work on tasks of your choice. There’s a dizzying array of work for them to do, from building walls to brewing beer, each of which gains you some reward. It’s all about balancing rewards like new workers or special buildings now against the promise of points later. But unlike most building games, Orleans has so many routes to victory that all the options blend into a deliciously rich strategic soup.
While many games add a board or two to deck-building, Mage Knight adds the whole kitchen sink. It’s a sprawling, complex fantasy adventure in which you’ll explore, recruit armies, and plunder dungeons. Most notable of all, it offers deep reserves of both narrative and strategy, a rarity in game design. Deck-building is the cornerstone on which the whole, huge edifice rests. Your deck, at first, represents your heroic abilities. As you explore and grow it also comes to include spells, followers, magical treasures, and a good deal more besides. With several scenarios and styles, including competitive, cooperative, and solo, Mage Knight tries to be all things to all gamers and succeeds.
Paperback takes a whole different approach to diversifying the deck-builder. Rather than trying to evoke a theme, it gives up and makes an abstract word game instead. Each card is a letter or a wildcard, and your task each turn is to use your hand to make the highest-scoring word you can. To ensure the game isn’t just card-based Scrabble (speaking of, see the best classic board games), most letter cards in Paperback also have a special ability, such as extra draws. By being both an efficiency engine and a phonetic puzzle, it combines the best challenges of two worlds. And, at the same time, offers a great entry point to deck building for fans of more generic games.
Turns out that something as simple as adding a board adds a ridiculous amount of fun to deck-building. The best example is Trains, in which players compete to build rail routes across a map. It’s got the same attractive simplicity as Dominion, with a focus on the cards but two key innovations. First, building on a map adds a bunch of spatial and time-based considerations that don’t exist with cards alone. Second it adds waste cards, a thematic way to clog up your deck with rubbish which you need to manage effectively to do well. The whole package adds a ton of fun to the deck-building concept, especially for lower player counts.
Inevitably, the publisher of Trains has another game called Planes and a third called Automobiles, which is the best of the lot. Rather than building a deck, this game seems you building a bag instead, filling it with colored cubes. Each cube represents one of the cards in use for that game, so when you pull it from the bag you essentially play that card. This makes the game much faster and less fussy than the endless effect-checking and shuffling of most deck-builders. That speed suits this thrill a minute track-based racing game just fine, yet still gives players a smorgasbord of strategic options.
Shards of Infinity
At first, Shards Of Infinity looks like a typical example of the genre, with currency cards to buy more cards and one weapon to damage opponents. But it has two breathtaking new tricks up its sleeve. First is that you can spend leftover currency on Mastery which slowly accumulates and makes certain cards work better. Second, rather than adding a card to your deck when you buy it, you can use it straight away but then discard it. These two aspects lend then game impressive depth and flexibility. Plus, since the aim is to take out other players, it’s got an exciting level of interaction lacking from most of its peers.
If you like these, be sure to check out of picks for the overall best board games to play in 2022.