In 2008, game designer Donald X. Vaccarino released a card game called Dominion upon the world. This box of 500 cards introduced gamers everywhere to the “deck building” mechanic, and it’s fair to say that the world loved it. Dominion went on to win a variety of different awards, including the coveted Spiel des Jahres in 2009. Since then, there have been many new games to take their shot at the deck building genre. But which game is the best?
We decided it was time to take a look, so we dug through the boxes of deck builders out there and picked out 10 favorites. It was really hard to pare this list down, and some good games didn’t even make the cut, but we were finally able to narrow it down to our (almost) ten favorites. Just for clarity’s sake, we are only considering deck building games (games that use the Dominion mechanic of adding cards to your play deck as the game progresses). We aren’t including “deck construction” games, or games where you build your deck before the game (Magic: The Gathering, Netrunner, Etc…). To go with that, we are only counting deck building games, not dice building games.
So with that out-of-the-way, I present our Top 10 Deck Building Games.
Top 10 Deck Building Games
Honorable Mention: Valley of the Kings
Just missing the cut is this clever little box game from AEG. Valley of the Kings has players competing for set collection in a thematic Egyptian game. With a neat pyramid mechanic for buying cards, Valley of the Kings forces players to make some hard decisions during the game. In addition, players only get points for the cards they stash in their tomb (making them inaccessible for the rest of the game). So if you want to use those cards during the game, then you won’t score points from them.
2-4 Players • Ages 10+ • 45 minutes to play • $19.99
10. Friday (review)
A game for one, Friday is a great solo card game that has the player trying to survive on a desert island. Players will be challenged to overcome encounters and when they do, they will learn skills that will help them against future challenges. Friday has a neat risk vs reward mechanic that will have you constantly on your toes trying to make the best decision. There are not many solo games that I own, but this one tops on my list.
1 Player • Ages 10+ • 25 minutes to play • $15.99
9. Star Realms (review)
If you’ve played Ascension, then you’ll have a good feel for Star Realms. This game takes the Ascension concept and adds in a SciFi feel and some direct conflict with your opponent. Designed by two Magic: The Gathering hall of famers, this enjoyable little card game is both easy to learn and fun to play. The best part about Star Realms is that a $15 deck of cards is all that’s required to play the game with 2 players. At that price point, it’s hard not to grab a copy.
2-6 Players • Ages 12+ • 20 minutes to play • $15.00
8. A Few Acres of Snow
A Few Acres of Snow is an asymmetrical board game set during the colonial era of North America. One player controls the British while another the French in an area control battle for the continent. A Few Acres of Snow is a lot of fun and fairly unique as well. Players will have to manage their troops around the game board and all while trying to build up their deck with more efficient cards. History buffs and deck building fans will both want to check out this popular Martin Wallace title.
2 Players • Ages 14+ • 60 minutes to play • $35.00
7. Core Worlds
Core Worlds is a deck building game where players control a space-faring empire and set out to conquer other planets. Players must build up ships and technology before the moving deeper into the galaxy on a mission of conquest. While Core Worlds is a great game in its own right, it is also incredibly improved with the Galactic Orders expansion that adds to the game in a variety of ways. If you pick up Core Worlds, consider Galactic Orders to be a must as well.
2-5 Players • Ages 10+ • 90 minutes to play • $30.00
6. Legendary: Marvel Deck Building Game (review)
This semi-cooperative card game has players taking on the role of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents trying to assemble a team of super heroes to derail the evil mastermind’s scheme. Legendary is semi-cooperative because while all players are working together to defeat the mastermind, each enemy defeated is worth victory points for the player who takes him down. Once the mastermind is defeated, only the player with the most victory points wins. Of course if the mastermind succeeds in his scheme, then everybody loses. Legendary is a great game for anyone who is a fan of the Marvel Universe and also used to be my favorite game in the Legendary line…
1-5 Players • Ages 14+ • 45 minutes to play • $46.00
5. Shadowrun: Crossfire
This cooperative card game set in the fantastic Shadowrun universe has players taking on a specific role in a team of runners, trying to accomplish the scenario’s mission. The game is fairly difficult to win and absolutely requires cooperation from all four players if you expect to survive. One of the best things about Shadowrun: Crossfire is that players can “level up” their runners between games by spending the karma they earn on upgrade stickers, making them just a little bit stronger. If you are looking for a campaign style card game, Shadowrun: Crossfire is a great candidate. With the addition of future expansions, I could easily see this game being played as a long running campaign.
2-4 Players • Ages 13+ • 25 minutes to play • $46.00
4. Blood Bowl: Team Manager (review)
In Blood Bowl: Team Manager, players are managing a team of football (not soccer) players competing on the grid iron. Each player gets to control a unique team based around the different races in the Blood Bowl universe. As players win matches, they will be able to recruit star athletes into their deck, in addition to staff and team upgrades. These new athletes are much improved over what players start out the game with, making players want to quickly earn these cards. Great artwork, quick game play and highly interactive, this one is a must own for any Blood Bowl Fan.
2-4 Players • Ages 14+ • 90 minutes to play • $30.00
3. Mage Knight: The Board Game
Probably the most complex game on this list, Mage Knight: The Board Game has players taking their Mage Knight across the unknown land, discovering new places, fighting enemies and powering up via the deck building mechanic. As a Mage Knight gains experience, they will add more powerful spells to their deck of cards. If you are looking for a fantasy themed deck builder with some deep game play and an epic feel, this one is for you. As an added bonus, Mage Knight: The Board Game works well both as a solo game or with other players.
1-4 Players • Ages 14+ • 150 minutes to play • $60.00
2. Legendary: Alien Encounters
One of the newest offerings on this list, having only been released a Gen Con 2014, Legendary: Alien Encounters became an instant hit with our gaming group. Legendary: Alien Encounters takes some of the familiar mechanics of Marvel Legendary and turns it into a similar, but better game in my opinion. The game is now fully cooperative, but there is also a chance someone will turn traitor during the game. If a player gets infected with a “facehugger” card and doesn’t deal with it quick enough, it will put a “chest buster” card into their discard pile. If that cards is ever drawn, it bursts out of them and turns them into an Alien player (complete with their own deck of Alien cards). Legendary: Alien Encounters is easy to learn, highly thematic and also difficult to win. All these, combined with the fact that there are scenarios to allow the players to play through all the Aliens movies, help make Legendary: Alien Encounters one of the top games on our list.
1-5 Players • Ages 17+ • 45 minutes to play • $50.00
1. Dominion (review)
The granddaddy of deck building games, Dominion is the one that started it all. With more expansions then you could ever want, Dominion has enough variety to keep you entertained for the long haul. While the theme may be clearly tacked on, its game play is rock solid, easy to learn and can still act as a gateway game to the other deck builders on this list. If you are looking for a great deck builder that can appeal to just about anyone, Dominion is it. For people who have never played a deck builder before, Dominion is probably the best place to start. After you’ve got a good feel for the mechanics of the game, you can scroll up on this list and find a theme that really appeals to you and jump in there with minimal effort. But for being the most flexible, most accessible and having the broadest appeal, Dominion earns the top spot in our Top 10 Deck Builders list.
2-4 Players • Ages 13+ • 30 minutes to play • $28.00
So there you have it, our Top Ten Deck Building Games. There were many games we liked and they couldn’t all make the list. Games we enjoy, such as Galactic Strike Force or Ascension, were close but eventually got bumped by games we liked better. Deck building is quite the popular mechanic, so it’s no surprise there are so many games that utilize it, with more coming out all the time. Did we miss your favorites? Let us know in the comments below!
Kind of surprised to not see Trains or Thunderstone on here. They are probably my favorite deckbuilders. Legendary: Alien Encounters sounds really cool with the face-hugger/chest-burster combo, I’m going to have to check that one out. I’m glad to see an honorable mention for Valley of the Kings too, that is a really neat little game.
Thunderstone just missed the cut, but to be honest, I didn’t really like Trains that much. I actually bought it when it came out and played it a few times because I really wanted to like it, but it really just fell flat for me.
No way on Trains. That game did absolutely nothing for me.
Race for the galaxy?
I don’t think I’d consider Race for the Galaxy a deck builder. It’s more of a tableau builder.
Netrunner nor high command. Just got these and all expansions as they were just sooooo good.
If you read the intro paragraphs, you’ll see what Netrunner type games didn’t make the list. 🙂
Where is Ascension ?
Eminent Domain is a fun game, and one I own, but I don’t think I’d put it in my top 10.
Legendary is on twice??? I have to say this list totally lost all respect when decided to omit Ascension. Granted I do not play it much any more, but it and Dominion paved the way for the other deck building games. But it is your opinion.
Yes, Legendary is on here twice. They are different games, but you are absolutely entitled to your opinion.
Ascension is not on here because I don’t really like it very much. I’ve actually played it a few times (mostly on the tablet) and it just doesn’t do a whole lot for me. That and I completely hate the artwork in the game. To go with that, I did include Star Realms at #9, which is almost the same game, but better IMO.
– I was surprised to see Shadowrun on the list, let alone at number 5. My experience with it at Gencon left me with the impression that the cards themselves aren’t great and the factions/roles are bland. The campaign aspect is unique and a nice touch, but it in no way made up for the angry gameplay of the game against the players – the game hates you so much that if even a single player dies, its a wipe. This feels needlessly punishing, un-fun, and runs contrary to most rpg-style games (in Pathfinder, D&D, etc, if I die, the rest of my party can still proceed).
What’s worse is while at the official demo, the developers/designers were on hand to run the demo scenario which was even harder than the regular material. My group attempted it three times and failed three times. Then we tried the regular intro scenario for the game and failed at that. It’s not like we didn’t know our roles or played badly – the game just hated us. When we talked with the lead designer, he said he built the demo scenario such that it was harder than the entry level scenarios. This made little sense to me and left me with reduced faith in their R&D to the point that I won’t touch it again.
– I love Star Realms and am glad to see it represented on the list, but I see it as only halfway similar to Ascension. There’s only one primary resource instead of two (unless you count your life total as a resource), and I get a feeling of greater interaction between players in Star Realms than in Ascension (which largely feels more like a solitaire experience vs. a competitive game to me).
Nonetheless, your list did what good lists should do – generate discussion. Nice job!
It definitely sounds like you had a bad experience with Crossfire. We’ve actually been playing it fairly regularly for the past month and have been actually having a ton of fun (look for a review soon). While the game can be punishing, we are still wining a decent amount of time (coop games are supposed to be hard). Maybe you just had a bad experience at gencon.
Star Realms actually does have two resources, Trade and Attack Power, just like in Ascension. The only difference is that you are attack the other player, not cards. For me, I’ve found it to be vastly more fun than Ascension
Regardless, at the end of the day, these lists are all just people’s opinions. I’m glad it’s generating so much discussion. I could do 100 lists and I don’t think I’d ever be able to make one that everyone agrees with. There are a lot of great games out there and not everyone will like the same ones as someone else. 🙂
I guess Im the only one with an undying love for Penny Arcade.
You are not alone sir, I’m very surprised it didn’t make this list.
Dominon #1? Really? Bleaggh. Let’s see, I can eat some lea paint chips or play Dominion. Pass me the paint chips, please. It’s a wonderful mechanic that they try to stretch into a game. Aa game Dominion’s about as exciting as watching Paint Dry.
On the other hand, I really like Star Realms.
I love the list! And you convinced me to buy Valley of the Kings finally. What are your thoughts on Pathfinder? I love is as a deckbuilder although after playing it over the last couple of months (solo) and getting to the end (no spoilers!) I realized that with my lone characters stats and equipment there was no numerical way to defeat the ‘boss.” Oh well, I packed it all up and might bring it back out after the bitterness wears off. It was still a great ride though.
Pathfinder is a decent enough game (we reviewed it here: http://www.boardgamequest.com/pathfinder-adventure-card-game-review). I think the game play is a just OK, but the campaign style play make me want to play it again. I really like leveling up characters.
What do you think of Puzzle Strike?
Personally, I dont like deckbuilders much. The setup, storage, and shuffling together get to me.
Never played Puzzle Strike before. I’ll have to look into it.
I can understand the influence Dominion had on other deckbuilders, but it’s been totally left behind in terms of playability, fun factor, theme, and accessibility. I think it deserves recognition for trailblazing, but in comparison to virtually every other deckbuilder on the market it’s bland.
I’ll agree with you on theme, but 100% disagree with you on accessibility. Dominion is easily the most accessible and easy to learn game of all of them. Fun factor is highly subjective and I’m not really sure what playability means…
I have to disagree: Most times when teaching dominion, we did hear comments like: “… but why?”
And after playing thunderstone ones, no one ever wanted to play Dominion again. Most deckbuilding games are simply … better.
I respect your opinion, but disagree. I’ve thought Dominion to gamers and non-gamers alike and most people pick it up in a round or two.
Thunderstone on the other hand does nothing for me. If you are looking for a deeper theme, then I agree most deckbuilders are better. However if you are looking for accessibility and options/variety, Dominion is still the king.
Its nice to see Friday getting some love. Great game in such a small package.
Thanks for putting my Valley of the Kings on you list, even if as Honorable Mention.
The number one deck builder for my wife and I by far is CORE WORLDS. All the rest are very weak in comparison. Dominion is having a hard time getting onto our table after having discovered Core Worlds. But of course, each to their own.
WARmachine: high command? :3
Puzzlestrike not making this list is a crime.
This list needs Puzzle Strike. More interactivity, creativity, representation of personality and exciting climaxes than an other deck builder. Check it out online.
Have you tried Pathfinder Adventure Card Game? I guess the deck building mechanic might be too slow to consider it a true deck building game.
This article is a helpful introduction to anyone looking to discover more deckbuilding games. It does lack a lot in specific detail. For instance you neglect to mention that Mage Knight (like Heroes Wanted) if more of a hybrid board game driven by cards with some deckbuilding principals. Real shame not to see Ascension feature as a top 10 game here. This has only happened it would appear based on your limited experience with the game – you’ve only played a trial in digital form. I personally find the app very limited in scope compared to a multi-player dust up with real cards which is a very different beast. I hope somebody gives you the opportunity to revisit the game on these terms! Be surprised if you didn’t revised your opinion after a broader experience. Not sold on Legendary format yet. The play mat might be nice but the art is bland, while the co-op replace draw of co-ordinate feels ill-fitting and scenarios are questionably not providing longevity. My friend Gary would be gutted not to see Arctic Scavengers included here! 🙁
Thanks for the comments. I’ve actually tried Ascension in the physical form and stick to my opinion on it. It’s a descent game, but not for me (and I really hate the artwork on it).
I know a lot of people like Arctic Scavengers, but I’m not a big fan of it. There are definitely other deck builders I’d rather play.
Legendary Encounters is such a different experience from the Marvel-themed one it is two separate games. I concur both need to be here.
The absent great pure deck-building game of the list is clearly Thunderstone / Thunderstone Advance which would have deserved it ! Much less mecanic than Dominion and much more immersive / stronger theme ! My favourite one : that’s why I try to defend it ! The list is anyway interesting with some other very good games and I notice it looks listed by order of complexity (excpet last one Dominion) : am I wrong ?
My personal favorite is the Star Trek DBG.
I’d add Shadow Rift to this list
I don’t usually interject but I just bought and experienced Dominion tonight for the first time ever! It’s simply amazing and totally deserves the number one spot. I own I would say most of the top 10 and have played all games mentioned above (Ascension, Thundersone, ect…) I do agree Thundersone deserves some love it’s very good and was my first deck builder I used to play it everyday with my girlfriend when I bought it. It will always hold a special place in my heart but back to dominion though it lacks “theme” it makes up for it in a very unique and fun way with massive points on strategy and combos as well s some really cool medieval art. The thing that grabbed me is its about trying to get the most victory points and though you need to buy cards to give you victory points they slow you down greatly I love that double edge sword feel. I guess it’s why Boardgame geek still has it 36 overall of all time. I know some may argue Mage Knight is top 10 but it’s not a true Deckbuilder and Domnion has held its merit over time best purchase I made in a while. Thank you for this list!
Will you do another top 10 Deck Builders in the future or are these still your top 10?
We may do a part two in the future, who knows! But we still like all these games for sure.
So late to comment, but how about Tantou Coure?
I’ve played this one on iOS. While the mechanics are solid, the theme doesn’t really do much for me.
No love for Cryptozoic DC deck builder or Street Fighter huh?
Never tried Street Fighter, but not a fan of the DC Deck builder at all.
Have you tried Hero Realms yet?
I have. A review will be coming soon!
Do you have any recommendations for Best Deckbuilder/Board Game Hybrid Games like Clank!??
Besides Clank!, you should check out Tyrants of the Underdark. It’s a combination Area Control and Deck Building game.
If you want more of a war game hybrid, check out A Few Acres of Snow or Mage Knight.
Finally, while I’m not a huge fan of it, some people like Trains by AEG.
I second Tyrants and Mage Knight for sure (Mage Knight is amazing solo, especially if you like a heavier weight game). More recently, Great Western Trail and Taverns of Tiefenthal have done a great job integrating elements of deck building into a game with myriad other mechanics. They’re both a blast. The Undaunted: Normandy/North Africa games have some area control elements in a war theme, though I believe both are two player (for sure Normandy, not so sure about the sequel).
What about Cthulhu: A deck building game by Wyvern Gaming? I bought it last year at Gencon and my home group can’t get enough.
I have not tried that one yet, but I’ll need to put it on my list to check out.
Have you ever played Arcana? A deckbuilder with a bidding aspect as well which is pretty cool
another one I like is Mythotopia, similar mechanic to a Few Acres of Snow I believe, but I haven’t played that one
Are there any deckbuilding games with closed information? As in your opponents don’t know what you’re buying until you reveal it (by playing it or by being revealed by a card effect). I really like deckbuilding but I think that having a secret buy mechanic would be pretty good.
I don’t know of any game like that. Might be hard to make sure your opponents are being honest if you can’t see what they are buying. Sounds more like a mechanic for a card drafting game then a deck builder.
Your original post is from 2014. If you recreated your list today, what other games would make the list?
Arcana! Never presented on any of the top X lists.
I like it alot though.
Legendary is a great game. My dad and my uncle play it all the time.
Same question as Austin- what games would be added on your updated list?
No Magic the Gathering?
Dominion is a good game too. My dad, uncle and LOVE it.
But no Magic
I love Marvel Legendary!
My favorite to this day are the DC Deck Building games. Adds fun with your favorite DC super hero’s and villains. Then you can add on the Crisis expansions to add more difficulty and add a cooperative mode. There are four of them now….The original DC Deck Building, Teen Titans, Heroes United, and Forever Evil. Each adding there own fun, Crisis expansions, and mechanics. Definitely recommend.
Anybody who has any questions on Legendary, i am glad to ansewr
Great list but you definitely missed some of my personal favorites. Including the DC Comics deckbuilder, Clank In Space, A Handful of Stars, Pasaraya, Puzzle Strike, Super Motherload, Penny Arcade, Gateway Uprising, Heart of Crown, to name a few. (we play LOTS of deckbuilders)
I agree with you. Dominion is just dull.
1) Wait for your turn, hope they don’t run out of your favourite card, play on mobile phone
2) Maybe get forced to discard a card
3) Buy some new cards
4) Repeat until some dull win condition is achieved.