Top 5 deck builders

Cattle cards in GWT

A deck-building game is a game where you slowly build yourself a deck of cards (usually by purchasing them with cards you already have). The deck then allows you to do other stuff in the game (buy things, kill things, undertake special actions, provide end-game points). When you use the cards you put them in your own personal discard pile to use again later. As the game goes on you get a bigger deck with more powerful cards which you can then use to do bigger and better things.

5) Clank!

Game Details
NameClank!: A Deck-Building Adventure (2016)
Accessibility ReportMeeple Like Us
ComplexityMedium Light [2.23]
BGG Rank80 [7.78]
Player Count2-4
Designer(s)Paul Dennen
Mechanism(s)Action Points, Deck, Bag, and Pool Building, Delayed Purchase, End Game Bonuses, Movement Points, Open Drafting, Player Elimination, Point to Point Movement, Push Your Luck and Variable Set-up

When I first played Clank! it had been bigged up by a lot of people, but quite frankly it didn’t blow me away. The theme of the game is that you are a thief (in a fantasy setting), heading off to rob a dungeon. You want to escape said dungeon with a good treasure before the big bad gets you. As you sneak around the dungeon you make noise, and the more noise you make the more likely you are to get hurt. If you die near the exit to the dungeon your friends will pull you out (and thus you get to score). If you die too far down your score will end up as zero as your body is lost forever.

Your deck in this game serves four main purposes: the first three – to buy cards, to attack things, and to gain points – are fairly normal for the majority of deck builders. The fourth is to move around the board. It is getting that balance between fighting and moving that makes the game really quite interesting. You are running against the clock, so you need to move quickly, but fighting gets you extra bonuses, or helps you through dangerous passageways. Good cards often give you “clank” – which is the noise-making and player-damaging mechanic. When you make clank you put a cube of your colour into a pool which at certain times are added to a bag. If your colour is pulled out of the bag then you take damage.

The more I’ve played Clank!, it’s sequel Clank! In Space, and the newer legacy version Acquisitions Incorporate, the more I’ve enjoyed the balancing act.

4) Marvel Legendary

Game Details
NameLegendary: A Marvel Deck Building Game (2012)
ComplexityMedium Light [2.43]
BGG Rank247 [7.53]
Player Count (Recommended)1-5 (1-4)
Designer(s)Devin Low
Mechanism(s)Deck, Bag, and Pool Building, Events, Open Drafting, Semi-Cooperative Game, Solo / Solitaire Game and Variable Set-up

Marvel Legendary is one of a number of different Legendary deck building games, which all have a different IP. The first Legendary game I played was Firefly, but there have been many others since including Alien vs Predator, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and James Bond.

This is a co-operative game, trying to defeat the evil mastermind, although you can earn points to see who the best winner is (assuming, of course, you manage to win). Cards can usually be used to buy cards or attack bad guys, and nine times out of ten have special effects when you play the cards.

At the start of every game you select a mastermind, several sets of villains and minions (depending on player counts), and a few of good guys – you can randomise or pick your favourite characters. You make a bad guy deck based on the villains and minions with a few other special cards. And you make a good guy deck by shuffling together the decks for each of characters. Each mastermind has a specific rule and there is also a scheme card which again has extra rules and – more importantly – the main end game condition. Like many co-operative games there is one way to win (defeat the mastermind – 4 times), and lots of ways to lose – if the decks run out or if the scheme is completed.

The game is expandable so you can get the cards from your favourite Marvel comic books. As an X-Men fan I of course have that expansion.

Sometimes the game can be really easy. But I find that as I expanded it and introduced different bad and good guys, it’s harder and harder to defeat. My shuffling doesn’t help I’m sure (the decks end up being huge and the time to prep and pack away the game is probably my least favourite part of it). Sometimes defeats can feel absolutely crushing, but winning definitely feels like an achievement.

This used to be my favourite deck builder, and is still probably my favourite of what I consider “typical” deck builders. I particularly love the theme. I love that each game can be very different based on who you include in the decks. But I’m also very happy I’ve gone off it in recent years as it had become a bit of a money sink.

3) Edge of Darkness

Game Details
NameEdge of Darkness (2019)
ComplexityMedium [3.45]
BGG Rank1425 [7.50]
Player Count1-4
Designer(s)John D. Clair
Mechanism(s)Cube Tower, Deck, Bag, and Pool Building, Open Drafting, Solo / Solitaire Game and Turn Order: Progressive

Edge of Darkness is a “card crafting” game where rather than adding more and more cards to your deck you add new abilities to each card. You don’t have to buy these extra abilities – you always have to upgrade a card each round instead. But to enact the abilities you often have to have workers in the right places, adding in a bit of a worker placement element. And you don’t build individual decks but a shared one where you acquire the cards to use each round.

So this isn’t at all like your standard deck builders. But the decision on how to build the cards, what to mix with what, is a similar balancing act. The game doesn’t have the urgency of Clank! or the peril of Legendary. Instead the game is played over a set number of rounds and has a much more Euro feel to it.

Damage has a similar feel to Clank! in some ways. Depending on what cards you decide to use that round you put a number of cubes of your colour into a bag. Every round a number of cubes are pulled out of the bag and put into a special tower which makes them fall into one of three different places – each relating to a different bad guy. Once a specific number of cubes have arrived in front of a bad guy the person who has the most cubes in that section takes a damage.

The other interesting part of the game is how bad guys are created. Bad guy cards are just the reverse of good guy cards. At first they are very basic. But as you upgrade your cards you are also upgrading the bad guys (and also upgrading the rewards, admittedly). So this adds another element to how you build up your cards, although I must admit I haven’t explored this one yet.

So while not your traditional deck builder, Edge of Darkness is an interesting Euro style game with some worker placement elements and some deck building elements and is definitely one of my favourite games where you have to build a deck.

2) Aeon’s End

Game Details
NameAeon's End (2016)
ComplexityMedium [2.81]
BGG Rank81 [7.91]
Player Count1-4
Designer(s)Jenny Iglesias, Nick Little (I) and Kevin Riley
Mechanism(s)Chit-Pull System, Cooperative Game, Deck, Bag, and Pool Building, Delayed Purchase, Hand Management, Open Drafting, Solo / Solitaire Game, Variable Phase Order, Variable Player Powers and Variable Set-up

Aeon’s End is my favourite of the more classic style deck builders where you buy cards to improve your deck to do things.

There’s an interesting lore behind Aeon’s End, but the general gist is that you all play mages (each with slightly different abilities) trying to protect the last town of people, Gravehold, from demons and their minions which have entered the world through magical portals, or breeches, which are also the source of the mages powers.

Like Legendary, it is a co-operative game with a bad guy with it’s own deck. The bad guy has it’s own special powers and minions. Unlike Legendary the cards don’t come out completely randomly. There are three levels of bad guy cards and you run through the easier cards first before the harder ones turn up.

And your own personal deck doesn’t get shuffled at all. When you get to the end of your deck you flip it the other way around and draw from it in the order you discarded, adding the need to think carefully about which order you discard your cards in.

You also can’t play a card and damage the enemies immediately. Taking it’s influence, I imagine, from fantasy RPGs, you have to prep your spells one round and cast them the next – and you can’t guarantee it’ll still be there when it’s your turn next.

Turn order is the one part of the game that is completely random. Each round there are four player turns (with three players you have a wild so one player goes twice) and two enemy (or more correctly “nemesis”) turns but you have no idea which order these will come out.

It’s the lack of randomness, and the need to plan ahead when preparing spells (you are limited in the number of spells you can prep), is what makes Aeon’s End, for me, the best “standard” deck builder out there.

1) Great Western Trail

Game Details
NameGreat Western Trail (2016)
ComplexityMedium Heavy [3.70]
BGG Rank15 [8.20]
Player Count2-4
Designer(s)Alexander Pfister
Mechanism(s)Deck, Bag, and Pool Building, Hand Management, Ownership, Set Collection, Track Movement and Variable Set-up

So if Aeon’s End if my favourite standard deck builder then why isn’t number 1? Because of Great Western Trail.

In GWT you play a cowboy, driving your cattle through the country towards Kansas, where you put them on the train and sell them. The deck is your cattle. Every cow has three distinguishing feature – a colour (which correlates to breed of cow for those who are colour blind), a number which indicates how good the cow is and how much you’ll be able to sell it for, and for those cows you buy through the game a number of points.

As you drive your cattle through the country you stop at various points to choose actions – these actions include building buildings (which serve as new action spots only you can use), buying cattle, moving your train along the track, cycling through your cards, and employing new staff (and these staff allow you to be better at the other actions). Cards can be discarded at certain points for money which you need to do many of the actions. So while unlike other deck builders you don’t directly use cards to buy cards, they do earn you the money you need to buy cards.

When you finally get to Kansas you earn money based on the total value of all the unique cattle in your hand – so if you have two cattle of the same colour only one counts (which is why discarding cards is particularly useful).

While buying new cattle is essential, you can get by with only buying a few, and in fact slimming out your deck is often the thing to do so while you may only have a few cards in total you know you’ve got the ones worth the money.

GWT is in my top 5 games in general, so it’s no surprise it’s my favourite deck builder. Building the right deck is essential, and yet often difficult. There are a bunch of different tactics you can employ, focussing on specific aspects of the game (do you want to go all out buying cows, or build lots of buildings). And I’ve found that what may be a winning tactic one game may well not be the next. It’s to me a perfect game, mixing lots of different mechanisms together, and doing that really well.

Special Mention – Dominion

Game Details
NameDominion (2008)
Accessibility ReportMeeple Like Us
ComplexityMedium Light [2.35]
BGG Rank121 [7.60]
Player Count2-4
Designer(s)Donald X. Vaccarino
Mechanism(s)Deck, Bag, and Pool Building, Delayed Purchase, Hand Management, Open Drafting, Take That and Variable Set-up

While not in my top 5 of deck builders I can’t write about this type of game without mentioning Dominion. It was the first deck builder, and was for me, like many others, the first I played. It is a game of pure deck building – no fighting bad guys and until the first expansion came out no attacking your opponents either. Some cards give you money to buy more cards, some cards have special abilities, and some cards have points. But points cards are generally dead cards in your deck so if you have too many, particularly early game, it can completely stymie your turn. The game ends when a number of piles of cards are emptied (there is only a small number of each card available) so you have to carefully consider whether to risk bringing the game end forward.

Dominion has had many many expansions over the years which add more complex play, although sadly I have never had the chance to play with any but the first expansion (Intrigue, which provides a much needed way to effect your opponents). Buying lots of expansions wasn’t something I could afford to do in those early days after joining the hobby, and now that I have invested in an extensive game collection there are better deck builders I’d prefer to buy.

It’s a great game, a classic, and if you want something simple to introduce some key gaming mechanisms to new gamers then it’s the perfect option. And, I suppose, it’s one of those games every gamer should play at least once.

That’s my run down of my favourite deck builders. Which are yours? I would love to hear about other deck builders I should try.

Meanwhile, I’ve just found out there is going to be a My Little Pony deck builder in the new year, which will be the perfect game to introduce my almost 8 year old to a new type of game! Friendship is magic and all that.

Leave a Reply