Board Game Basics – A Closer Look at Deck Builders

Board Game Basics – A Closer Look at Deck Builders

In the world of board games you can pretty much take any mechanic and turn it into its own genre. Nothing represents this idea more then deck builders. The term deck builder refers to the process of having a personal deck of cards you play with and add to throughout the game. At its base, most of these games involve buying cards that let you buy more cards for which you get points that win you the game. It's also pretty common for deck builders to have a deck of cards that you fight in order to get points.

Outside of the things I mentioned above there's not a lot more to most deck builders. Buy some cards for your deck, fight some monsters, reshuffle your deck, rinse, repeat. Now that's not to say that this can't be fun, but in my opinion the best of the genre either combines deck building with other elements (Super Motherload) or just uses the deck building mechanic as a part of the game rather then it's main focus (Mage Knight).

I've went ahead and listed my top 5 deck builders below. This is not comprehensive list by any means, just my recommendations based on my own tastes. These are game I think are pretty cool and hopefully you will too!


What is it: Lets start with the granddaddy of all deck builders. Dominion pretty much started the entire genre and is still probably the best of the bunch. This game is pure deck building. You start with a deck of cards that give you currency to add more cards to your deck. The cards you buy let you draw more cards, buy more cards, give you points, or let you do other unique actions. Most points at the end wins.

Why I love it: Nothing does pure deck building better then Dominion. It's easy to teach, easy to play, and very addictive. In addition, there are a large amount of expansions, so if the elegant simplicity of the base game is not enough for you, you can add more cards with various abilities to the game pretty easily.

Pros: Simple rules, large amount of expand-ability, plays quick

Cons: While a pro for some, the simplicity may be a con for others

Legendary Series

What is it: This one is a little bit of a cheat since I'm bundling all the Legendary games together. These games are co-ops in which the players buy cards representing various heroic individuals and work together to defeat enemies from a designated story deck. There are numerous entries in this series that span a number of properties which include Marvel heroes, Aliens, Predator, Firefly, and Big Trouble in Little China. All these games play a little differently but are similar enough that if you've played one you can pick another up easily.

Why I love it: All of the games in this series really embody the theme, and if you play one and like it you know you'll like another game in the series with a theme that appeals to you. The fact that there are so many games in the series and so many expansions (at least for the Marvel version) means that you have endless possibilities. On top of this, all the games are compatible, meaning you can have the Wolverine fight the Predator or the crew of the Serenity fight off Aliens.

Pros: Drips with flavor, the co-op element works well without feeling like one player is running the whole show, lots of variety

Cons: Set-up and take down is a little time consuming due to all the different decks you mix together.

Super Motherload Board Game
Publisher Services Inc (PSI)

Super Motherload

What is it: Best to describe this as Dig-Dug the deck builder. Players are competing mining companies looking to get rich on Mars. Each turn players player cards that allow them to drill and bomb tunnels into the surface of Mars to find gems which allow them to buy more cards for their decks and complete objectives to gain points.

Why I love it: Board games tend to use a lot of the same boring themes, Super Motherload is not one of them. Mining for gold on Mars makes this game pretty interesting, and combined with the colorful, somewhat wacky art this one is a pretty unique experience. This isn't even bring up how smoothly the game actually plays. A fun little sleeper to be sure.

Pros: Colorful eye-catching design, smooth fluid game play, unique theme

Cons: While there is a good amount of strategy here it is a fairly light game

Star Realms

What is it: Portable, affordable and fast paced, Star Realms has recently seen a huge surge of popularity. In it players are dueling space empires trying build their bases and fleet and then reducing the other's authority points to zero through attacking. You get trade points to build up your fleet and bases and then attack either your opponents directly or go after their bases.

Why I love it: While the game play doesn't set the world on fire for me, the very low price point (currently about $12 on Amazon) and portability put this game on another level. If you are looking for something fast and fun that you can play with a friend while waiting for your food at a diner, this is the game for you.

Pros: Plays very fast, very low price point, fits in your pocket

Cons: This game is definitely not reinventing the wheel as far as game play goes, not that it's bad, there's just nothing revolutionary here.

Friday board game
Flat River Group


What is it: You are Friday, friend to legendary castaway Robinson Crusoe. It's up to you to train your new buddy how to survive. Each turn you draw two cards from a threat deck and choose one to fight. The threat cards all have an attack value you have to beat and a number of cards you draw from your deck to fight it. Your starting deck has cards with an attack value ranging from -1 to 2 and if you beat a threat you can flip it around and add it to your deck. If you can't beat a threat you lose life, if you survive three rounds you win if you lose all your life you lose.

Why I love it: I really debated putting this one on the list, but if I had to rank my top deck builders, there is no doubt this makes the list. This is a game that is challenging, rewards tight play, and makes you say “just one more game”. With all that said you may wonder why the deliberation about putting it on the list. Well, while it's not a problem for me, some people may be turned off by the fact that this is a solitaire game. If you've never played a solo game this is a great game to try, there is very little set up, it's cheap, and it will give you a more rewarding experience then sitting around playing League of Legends for 3 hours.

Pros: Addictive game play, very challenging, attractive art and overall design

Cons: It's a solo game

Honorable Mentions

Core Worlds: This game of building your galactic empire and crushing everyone else's is the heaviest deck builder out there, which kept it off the list. However if you like heavy strategy games and deck builders, this one is a must have.

Ascension: One of the earliest deck builders, Ascension is a game of building power and fighting monsters. I've played a lot of Ascension on their fantastic phone app but it's not a game I'm ever excited to play in real life.

Thunderstone: The game of epic adventuring. If you like dungeon crawls check this one out

Mage Knight: A super meaty fantasy adventure game that I absolutely love! This may be my favorite game of all time but while deck building is part of this game, it's more of a hybrid then a pure deck builder.

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