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Top 10 Deck Building Games

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As the gaming hobby grows, so too do the mechanisms that make games run. Deck building is a tried-and-true game mechanism that has been around for a long time, to the point that it has become a genre of its own. I’ve long been a fan of deck building and it’s been a delight to see how it has grown over time and been implemented in newer games, while the core concept—each player having an individual deck to which cards are added or culled in order to make it stronger—remains a satisfying strategic exercise.

Limiting this list to only ten games was no easy endeavor as this is such a broad category. To help myself out, I’ve stuck to games that use what I’d consider true deck building such as we find in Dominion. Excluded are: deck construction where players create their deck before the game; bag building where tokens are collected and drawn from a bag; dice building where players have a personal pool of dice they’re refining throughout the game; and hand building where you do not draw from a deck, but have access to all your cards until you play them. Any one of those categories could be a list of its own!

With those caveats established, let’s dive in and explore!

Top 10 Deck Building Games

10. Aeon’s End

Aeons EndAeon’s End has several admirable qualities that rescue it from being just another deck builder. The random turn order mechanic means you have to adapt to the circumstances, while not shuffling your discard (instead it’s just flipped) allows you to plan ahead (unless you have a bad memory, like me). This game is great at facilitating discussion as players plot how to take on the baddies, which lends to a sense of teamwork and cooperation. I’ve played with most of the Aeon’s End content except Legacy and of those my favorite has been The New Age, followed by the base game, but getting any version to the table is a treat. Now if only it had something besides the rather generic defend-the-city-from-the-nameless fantasy theme.

2-4 Players • Ages 13+ • 60 minutes • $50Get Your Copy

9. Kodachi

KodachiThis little-known little game is a clean design that couples deck building with push your luck. Each player has a hand of numbered cards and, on their turn, flips an enemy from one deck and a treasure from the other. Before you play a card you must decide if you will use strength (play higher-numbered cards) or stealth (lower-numbered cards) to get past the enemies. But once you lock into either strength or stealth, that’s where you have to stay, and you don’t quite know what’s coming next! You will continue to flip cards from the deck until you either choose to stop and collect treasure (the more enemies defeated, the more treasure collected) or you can no longer play a card to defeat a newly drawn enemy and bust, taking no reward. While the depressing artwork could use an update, I love this game for its combination of simplicity, luck, and decision space.

2-4 Players • Ages 14+ • 45 minutes • $30Get Your Copy

 

 

8. Star Wars: The Deck Building Game

Star Wars Deck Building GameThis game takes the concepts found in Star Realms and gives us more interesting decisions to make. In this two-player head-to-head, one player will take on the role of the Empire and the other the Rebels. While each side is mostly limited to acquiring the cards matching their own faction, they have the alternate option of destroying cards from the offer row that belong to the other side in order to gain a reward. With a playtime of thirty minutes, this is a good choice when you want a satisfying deck builder fix in a short amount of time.

2 Players • Ages 12+ • 30 minutes • $30Get Your Copy

 

 

7. Baseball Highlights 2045

Baseball HighlightsThis is something of an oddball (no pun intended) deck builder. I find both baseball and deck building to be emotionally cathartic, which is why this is one of the most relaxing games I own. I love sitting down to a nice solo game and seeing what the bot throws at me. Win or lose, I’m going to have a great time. In baseball highlights your deck represents your players—some will be better than others, and some will specialize in certain areas. After each mini-game, you can use the value of your played cards to purchase new, more powerful cards. This is a game that gets talked about here and there, but mostly seems to fly under the radar. If you enjoy baseball even a little and are craving a relaxing deck builder, definitely check this one out.

1-4 Players • Ages 9+ • 45 minutes • $60Get Your Copy

 

 

6. Undaunted: Normandy

Undaunted: NormandyUndaunted is a system of light war games (Normandy being the first in the series) that uses a limited style of deck building—each player can only acquire cards from their own reserve rather than a public market. On your turn, you’ll play cards to deploy and use units in an attempt to achieve your objectives and defeat your enemy. This game is a tense experience in which you’re constantly trying to gain an edge by outsmarting or outgunning your opponent. Each play and counter-play keeps you on the edge of your seat as you hope your units can hold on just a little longer in order to reach their objective.

2 Players • Ages 14+ • 45-60 minutes • $38Get Your Copy

 

 

5. Lost Ruins of Arnak

The Lost Ruins of AnarkDeck Building meets worker placement in this game of jungle exploration and monster hunting. Arnak is an amalgamation of mechanisms, but deck building is what fuels most of your actions. The temple track on the side adds yet another way to get points as well as something of a racing element. While the design has a messy “everything but the kitchen sink” feel to it, it all comes together quite nicely. Every time I finish a game of Arnak I find myself anxious for another play to see what new strategies I can explore.

1-4 Players • Ages 13+ • 30-120 minutes • $75Get Your Copy

 

 

4. Great Western Trail

Great Western TrailI might be in the minority on this, but I love the theme of Great Western Trail. In this game you’re building a deck of, yes, cattle. Throughout the game you’re driving your herd along the trail to Kansas City—stopping on the way to take actions and potentially deal with threats—in order to sell your cattle for, hopefully, a big profit. The board might change as the game progresses and players build structures that will act as new spaces to navigate. There’s also a train track along the top which represents the locations you can deliver your cattle to, with the benefits getting better the farther you can move your train along. Add to this a pile of unlockable upgrades and end-game scoring objectives and you have a crunchy euro meets deck builder.

1-4 Players • Ages 12+ • 75-150 minutes • $50Get Your Copy

 

 

3. Star Trek: Frontiers

Star Trek FrontiersThis is the sci-fi version of Mage Knight Board Game. I tend to prefer space themes over fantasy, so this is the one I own. In Star Trek: Frontiers players are boldly exploring as they draw tiles, revealing new locations and threats that will need to be dealt with. The deck building itself is a slow process, but rewarding nonetheless. What I especially like is that the cards have a basic ability and a stronger ability that can be activated using special resources. This game will make you feel capable of miracles as you somehow manage to pull off huge victories that seemed impossible in the beginning! So, go ahead, take on that Borg cube. It’ll be fine. Probably.

1-4 Players • Ages 14+ • 60-240 minutes • $79Get Your Copy

 

 

2. Dominion

Dominion Box ArtI would be remiss not to include what is considered the granddaddy of deck builders. Even after all these years, even after being expanded beyond the point any game should be expanded, Dominion still holds up as an engaging and satisfying deck builder. It uses a simple premise: start with a basic deck of cards, purchase more along the way in order to make that deck stronger, in order to eventually gain points and win the game. The market of available cards is randomized during setup, which means that you’ll have a new engine to build and new combos to explore with each play. While the base game does benefit from throwing in one or two of the aforementioned expansions, you certainly don’t need them all in order to enjoy the simple and elegant beauty of this deck building legend.

2-4 Players • Ages 13+ • 30 minutes • $36Get Your Copy

 

 

1. Dune: Imperium

Dune ImperiumThe beauty of Dune: Imperium is in the restricted decision space. Considering what you do is limited by your hand of cards, it’s a good thing the cards are multi-use, allowing for more flexibility than is at first apparent. On your turn, you can only place your worker in a location that matches one of the icons on your cards. Sometimes you won’t have the icon you want, or somebody will take the space you wanted, but with a little thought, you can pivot and take another route to your desired end. Despite the limitations, you always have something to do. This game is like a dance (or maybe a crysknife duel) that keeps you on your toes, having to weave and dodge and manipulate your strategy in order to achieve victory—not unlike the politics of Dune itself. I was not a Dune fan prior to playing this game and didn’t feel heavily drawn to the theme, but before my first play was even finished I was smitten. Sometimes with a game, it’s just love at first play, and subsequent plays have only deepened my respect and admiration for this tight, clean masterpiece of the deck-building genre.

1-4 Players • Ages 14+ • 60-120 minutes • $55Get Your Copy

 

 

6 COMMENTS

  1. You mention Aeons End could use variations on theme. I’d like to mention their publisher recast it into Astro Knights, which is mostly sci-fi and a bit easier to set up. Its not well publicized, so you may not have crossed paths with it.

    • Thanks, Jeremy! You’re not the only one who has mentioned that after seeing this list, so that game is definitely on my radar now. Honestly, I think I saw the cover at some point and passed it up because I didn’t realize who the creators were.

  2. well written April! i had no idea you did these reviews bit it was exciting to see you take on deck builders.

  3. Enjoyed the post. I’ve played 5, owned 2, and kept 0 of these. My group don’t like baseball or Dominion 😉

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