Deck Building Games: the Lifespan of a Genre

It was two years ago when I first played a deck building game.  The game was Dominion, and while I now know that others made their way to the market first, at the time I was completely unaware of this.  Over the past two years they seem to be popping up all over the place.  Six of them have come to my attention and are what I would consider “Leaders of the Industry”:  Dominion, Ascension, Nightfall, Thunderstone, Race for the Galaxy, and Resident Evil.

I love deck building games.  They are a style of game that I use to pay top bucks to do with Magic the Gathering a couple of times a week.  By the time you are finished reading this, my goal is for you to know just how we got here, and hopefully have some idea as to what game might be right for you.

Of the six games that I listed, it all began with “Race for the Galaxy”.  This was a game published in 2007 by Rio Grande Games.  It was a deck building game that in my opinion plays very much like solitaire.  It’s you against the game, and you measure your success by how many victory points you have by the end.  The game features a row of cards that you can purchase from, that for the purpose of this article, we will refer to as an “alley”.  This alley continually changes, adding quite a bit of luck to the game, as you can never be sure what will be available to purchase on your turn.  If you read my previous review of the game, you’ll remember well that I didn’t think too much of this one.  For me, the combination of a lot of luck, combined with lack of interaction, was a big turn off.  So what does this game have going for it in my opinion?  Pretty artwork and a strong space theme, if thats your thing, but it was also quite complicated taking more than a few minutes to figure out the basic rules.

A year later, in 2008, we see the release of “Dominion” from Rio Grande Games.  This game took out the random alley of cards, thus decreasing the elements of luck.  Instead of the alley we got a bank of cards to buy from.  Each turn you have the same options (unless a given option was sold out, but that was something you could plan for).  However, we still don’t see very much interaction between players.  There is a minimal amount of interfering that can be done, but it is heavily limited.  The game also is more streamlined then it’s predecessor.  A turn could be broken down into the ABC’s: Action, Buy, Clean up, and Draw.


A chronological listing of how deck building games have evolved over time.

The following year, in 2009, we see the complexity of the deck building genre ramp up with the publication of “Thunderstone” by AEG.  This is the first game to introduce a heavy combat element, where you are not only trying to make your deck effecient, but deadly.  We also see the reintroduction of the alley, but this time mixed with the concept of a bank of cards. Monsters are released in an alley, slowly shambling towards the surface from the depths of the dungeon, in whatever order they were shuffled in.  However, the player can purchase items and other action cards from a bank.  This seemed to marry the two concepts beautifully, keeping the game highly strategic, while making each game unique.  This game also brought with it the idea that cards must be played logically together.  Even if you have a dagger in your hand, you can’t use it’s effects unless you have a hero card in your hand that can wield it.  Other games used arbitrary means of limiting card plays, but this was the first one to do so logically. The price of this complexity was a higher learning curve however, forcing players to dig through a rule book of 20+ pages before beginning.

With the success of “Race for the Galaxy”, “Dominion”, and “Thunderstone”, 2010 saw the addition of two deck building games to the market.  Each one seemed to be going backwards however, not forward with progress.

“Ascension”, by Arclight, was published early in 2010.  This game went right back to the concept of an alley.  To a gamer unfamiliar with “Race for the Galaxy”, this appeared to be new and innovative concept.  In reality, this was at best a reinventing of the wheel, and at worst a cloning of “Race for the Galaxy”.  However, in creating this, Arclight tweaked the focus of the game.  The heavy theme was gone and replaced with a much more loose theme, and solitaire play was laxed slightly.  It now had interaction on par with that found in Dominion. The complexity of the game was also streamedlined slightly, making learning the game a much more simple process.  However the elements of luck associated with an alley certainly remained unscathed.

Late in 2010 “Resident Evil: The Deck Building Game” was released by Bandai.  We were back to a bank of cards!  Hurray!  But gone was the masterfully crafted game play we saw present in Dominion and Thunderstone.  The game was pretty simple to learn and used the logical card limitations introduced by it’s predecessor (minus some of the stats and other intricacies).  It seemed like it should be the best of all worlds.  And maybe for a die hard Resident Evil fan, it was.  For the average gamer however, the game just didn’t hold up.  It seemed much more like a money grab by Bandai, then an honest attempt to put out a great themed game.  A little bit of play testing showed the lack of foresight that the creators had.

And that brings us up to 2011, which has just seen the release of “Nightfall” by AEG.  Gone is the alley, and gone is the solitaire style of play. Nightfall features a bank of cards, a drafting mechanic, and an all out assault on each other (similar to what is seen by collectible card games).  Card play limitations were not logical, but nor were they the traditional arbitrary means either.  Nightfall introduced the “chaining” mechanic, dictating what kinds of cards can be played next in line.  Mix with that a beautifully illustrated theme, and I’d say AEG has learned by watching the market place.  It’s unfortunant to say that gamers have not learned nearly as quickly.  Many seemed to struggle with the rules and new elements of the game, requiring a lot of coaching to get rolling.

Which kind of deck building game is right for you? Click here to follow the chart and see for yourself.

From the infancy of this genre to the present, we have seen the mechanics employed by creaters grow and mature.  We hope that, as has been seen in the past, others will continue to build upon the success of these games and produce innovative mechanics to delight gamers for many years to come.  However, we are also at a critical point in this genres development, the copy cat phase.  As we have seen with Ascension and Resident Evil, where the changes were minimal or the game simply wasn’t thought through well, clones and subpar games are beginning to trickle into the market place.  If the market floods with these, we could see this interesting genre die a painful death.

This entry was posted by The_Null_Entry on Saturday, May 14th, 2011 at 11:50 pm and is filed under Random Things that Fall out of my head . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.


  1. Megamaniac says:

    Race For The Galaxy is not a deck building game.

  2. How do you figure? What defines a deck building game to you?

  3. Cburke says:

    Agree – RFTG is not a deck building game.

  4. Dennis says:

    I wonder what game you are thinking of ?
    There is no alley of cards to purchase from in Race for the Galaxy Ascension uses something similar to what you describe (6 cards randomly drawn available to choose and purchase).
    The following exists in Race fro the Galaxy:
    1. You have a hand of cards.
    2. You have a tableau of already played cards in front of you that represents your empire
    3. There is a common draw pile
    4. Each player has an identical set of action cards from which they can select two actions per round.
    There are no cards available for purchase.

  5. Hi readers,

    After reading multiple comments that “Race for the Galaxy” is not a deck building game, and specifically after Dennis’s more narrowed complaint. I went back and took a second look at the rules. For reference to others, here is a link to a PDF copy of these rules:

    Firstly, let me apologize, for I misspoke when I said there was an alley of cards to purchase from. My experience with RFTG is more then a year old and among all the different games I’ve played, I incorrectly remembered that mechanic. There is in fact a draw pile, not a true alley of cards.

    However, I still hold to the other things that I said in this article about that game. I feel that it is indeed the first “deck building game”. My basis for this statement is on the decisions you make as to what to keep for yourself when you explore and what to discard. In this way you build for yourself a list of options to choose from when performing the other phases. While this might not be “deck building” in the sense that we think of it today with Dominion and Nightfall, to me this is a good example of a precursor to this style of game play.

    I hope this helps to alleviate the misunderstanding that was raised in why RFTG was included in this article. In the future I will try to refresh myself better before speaking about a game I have not played in quite some time. My apologizes for the oversight.

    Thanks for reading,
    Author of “One Gamer’s Opinion”

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