Deck builders are a classic in board gaming. Chances are you’ve probably played one without knowing! In fact, the very first board game I played (beyond Monopoly/Cluedo/Scrabble) was the number 1 deck builder on this list!
If you don’t know what a deck building game is, essentially it is a game where you start with a deck of cards, through which you can perform actions and gain points. This deck usually starts out rather trash, but over the course of the game, you can acquire new cards from a common market to help you improve your future turns.
As deck building is now one of my favourite board game mechanics, today I will run down five awesome deck builders to add to your collection.
Now, before we get into it, I have to preface this list by saying I am incredibly picky with my deck builders. To me, the puzzle and challenge of a deck-building game is in balancing the contents of your entire deck. I like deck builders where cards are gained to your discard pile and you must wait for your deck to cycle before you can reap the benefits of your new cards. No immediate gratification—just the steady satisfaction of careful planning.
With that out of the way, let’s get into my list of my top 5 deck builders!
This is the queen of the deck builders—the matriarch if you will. Despite the fact it was released back in 2008, I’d still proudly call it the best deck-builder because the mechanics are just perfection.
The “story” of Dominion is that you are the ruler of a kingdom (your deck) and you are trying to improve it with treasure and power (cards) from a central market to claim the most land (Victory Points). The theme comes through in the abilities of some cards, but overall, it’s not going to make sense. You’ll be saying things like “I Remodel my Swindler into a Laboratory” or “I use my Cellar to discard 3 Estates.”
Dominion was actually the first board game I played beyond the family classics like Monopoly, Cluedo and Scrabble and hence it has a special place in my heart. But beyond sentimental attachment, it is mechanically so crisp and elegant. The way that you are always concerned with the balance of your deck—treasure that lets you buy cards vs victory cards that are essentially dead cards, but will win you the game. The endless permutations of card combinations and synergies depending on what you select to form the fixed market at the start of the game. The fact that a card that is complete garbage in one game could be the centrepiece of your strategy the next.
I could go on, honestly.
The one caveat of Dominion is that it becomes rather slow anywhere above 2 players. At 2 players, it is perfect—at 3 or higher, I would check out one of the other fabulous deck builders on this list.
If you’re looking to pick up Dominion, I would recommend the Big Box as it contains the base game, the Intrigue expansion, and extra base cards to play with up to 6 players (but please don’t actually do that, the extra cards are just nice to have as spares)!
If you’re a board gamer that needs theme in their games, where pure mechanics make you lose interest immediately, the deck builder you’ll want is Clank!
The tagline of “A Deck-Building Adventure” is totally accurate - in Clank, you take on the role of adventurers, trying to explore a dragon’s underground lair and procure valuable artifacts. Your deck is what allows you to move, attack and purchase new powerful cards, so like in Dominion, you’ll want to constantly weigh up the balance of your deck’s different elements (Skill, Boots, Swords).
However, Clank’s best mechanic, and from where it derives its name, is noise. When you generate “Clank” (noise), either through cards or random events, you put one or more of your coloured cubes into a bag. When the dragon attacks, a certain amount of cubes are randomly drawn from the bag, each one of your colour representing a point of damage on your adventurer. Do you take all the speedy, powerful cards that give you tons of Clank and rush for the most valuable artifact? Or do you play it slow and careful, strategically removing all your Clank-giving cards and aiming to pick up items at the shop?
What’s awesome about Clank in terms of its deck building is that your deck is serving a purpose beyond just earning abstract victory points. Your deck is what lets you move around the map and get the items you’re after. And because this goal might change over the course of the game, so too shall your deck.
If you’re looking for deck-building with a purpose that doesn’t sacrifice the core of the genre, Clank is the game for you! Alternatively, if you’re looking for something slightly more complex with a modular board and a few more mechanics, you could also check out Clank in Space!
Like Clank, Undaunted: North Africa is a deck builder with a strong theme and sense of purpose that doesn’t sacrifice what makes deck builders good. I’ll be honest, war themes are not for me, but even so, this game is great.
World War II is such a popular historical board game theme and setting. However, where there are so many board games covering D-Day or the Pacific Ocean Theatre, there aren’t very many surrounding the North African campaign.
In Undaunted: North Africa, two players go head-to-head as either the Italians or the Long Range Desert Group, a British reconnaissance group. But even if, like me, you don’t love historical themes, one reason to love Undaunted is its elegant, asymmetric and surprisingly human gameplay.
Your deck is comprised of cards, each naming a different unit you have deployed on the board. By playing the card corresponding to the unit, you get to move around and perform actions on the main board. Each time a unit on the board takes damage, you lose a copy of that card from your deck, hence reducing the frequency with which you can use that unit!
Where this game’s first iteration (Undaunted: Normandy) was much more symmetrical in play, North Africa adds asymmetry without being overwhelming. In fact, I find it ends up being more forgiving to players of varying skill level while also supporting the theme by highlighting the differences between the Italians and the LDRG.
Oh and did I mention this game is scenario based? There are 11 different scenarios to choose from, each infinitely replayable, and playing them through in order forms a kind of campaign! Truly, Undaunted: North Africa is an underrated gem.
Now, Fort is the only game on this list I have not personally played, but it is beloved by our retail manager and comes highly recommended from him!
Where some deck-builders like Dominion, suffer at more than 2 players, and some like Undaunted: North Africa are designed for just 2 players, 3 players and up is where Fort shines.
In Fort, players are adorable kids trying to build a fort, collect pizza and toys, and gain friends! Like more traditional deck-builders, your goal is to earn points, but what’s unique about Fort is how it thematically incorporates interactivity into a genre that can sometimes tend to be quite solitaire-like.
Your deck forms your little circle of friends, which grows ever larger as the game progresses. However, whenever you play a card, while you’ll receive the biggest bonus, your opponents will get to piggyback off that card (provided they have friends/cards interested in what your friend/card is doing!). And even cooler, the friends (cards) you don’t play with on a turn end up in your Yard, where other players can “invite them to play” (add them to their decks) effectively pinching them from you!
With a charming theme and beautiful artwork by Kyle Ferrin (the artist behind Root), if you’re looking for a deck-builder that retains a traditional card-based, victory-point setup but adds a huge helping of interactive fun, you should definitely give Fort a try!
5) Star Realms
This teeny tiny little deck box, despite its size, is packed with a fun and well-designed deck-building battle!
In Star Realms, two players go head-to-head in a space battle, pitting their ships against each other in the hopes of knocking out their opponent’s health before their own health drops to zero! Fast-paced and easy to pick up, it’s perfect as either a filler game or an introduction to deck-builders!
In my board gaming group, when the majority of us would be playing some huge table-hogging game on the main table, the remaining two of us could play Star Realms on the end of the kitchen bench, squeezed beside the spices and takeout, without any issue!
One of the awesome mechanics in Star Realms are the faction bonuses. Many cards will give you an extra bonus when played alongside cards of the same faction, incentivising you to specialise and build your strategy around certain factions.
If you don’t quite know yet if deck-builders are your thing, or if you just like head-to-head card battles, Star Realms is so small and cheap, you might as well give it a try!
However, if you want to play with up to 4 players, free for all or cooperative, you can also check out the standalone expansion Star Realms Frontiers!
In summary, if you’re looking for...
A 2 player only game with a WWII theme? Undaunted: North Africa.
A deck-builder great at 3-4 players with adorable artwork and theming? Fort.
And there we have it! Five awesome deck-builders that show off the best of their genre. Do you have any favourites in the deck-building genre? Are you, like me, very picky with how you like your deck-builders? Let us know in the comments below!