Monday, March 21, 2011

Deckbuilding Discourse

What with Eminent Domain coming out soon, and a rash of other deck building games popping up left and right, I've been doing a lot of thinking about the Deck Building mechanism. What is so interesting about it?

I think the single most interesting thing about deck building is that the iterative small scale decisions you make throughout the game have a direct relationship with your late game position. Every card you add to or remove from your deck has a lasting impact on the game for you. Which means that you need to consider long term ramifications of short term decisions, making even somewhat trivial choices more interesting.

What does this mean in terms of designing a deck building game? It means that for one thing, the end game goal should be clearly stated from the outset, so you have some way to reasonably know what cards you'll want in your deck later on. How do some of the existing, well known deck building games do this, and are they successful?

Dominion does this by allowing you to determine what you want your endgame plan to be. How will you attempt to win? Do you want to draw 8+ Gold and buy a province each turn? Do you want to be drawing your entire deck every turn to buy multiple Victory cards? You can look at the set of Kingdom cards and make that determination, and every card you choose to put into your deck can either work directly to that end, or might be a step toward a deck that will create that endgame situation for you.

Thunderstone does NOT really do this, which is why I do not like Thunderstone as much as I like Dominion. In a game of Thunderstone there are 3 different Monster types, and each one might have it's weakness, but due to the nature of the "hallway," it's not feasible to really specialize in any given monster type. You pretty much want to make a deck that produces more and more power, and it doesn't matter much what kind or how much more, just more = better.

Ascension also does not do this at all. The center row, similar to the hallway in Thunderstone, makes it impossible to really plan ahead on what you might need. The best you can do is specialize in one of the 2 currency types and hope that there will be good options for you when it's your turn. Ascension does offer you the ability to sort of build combos in your deck, by going after, say, Machina Constructs, or Lifebound cards... but considering you can't tell when those cards will come up, you don't really get to build those synergies on purpose. Every card in Ascension is worth points, and mostly at about the same efficiency. I've had a lot of success at that game simply buying pretty much whatever I could afford - I almost don't care what it is. Given a choice, a card that says "draw a card" on it is better than one that doesn't. I don't have any long term plan which I want my cards to fit into.

So how does my game stack up? I'm not going to preach from my soapbox that my own creation is perfect, but I will say that I am pleased with how it turned out. One of the design goals of Eminent Domain was to provide a late game goal which players need to take into account when choosing their role each turn in order to have a strong endgame. In EmDo cards enter your deck as a side effect of taking actions, which is in itself very different than other deck building games. But with reference to the topic at hand, your strategy in EmDo will influence your role choices so that late in the game you will be able to have big, useful turns. For example, if your plan is to research out some level 3 technology in the late game, you can't neglect research and then all of a sudden score a 5 point Tech card. you'll have to take the Research role or otherwise collect research symbols in your Empire in order to score well off of research.

The next deck building game I'm working on, Alter Ego, will also provide a clear end game goal. The Arch Villains you must defeat in order to win will be face up from the beginning, so that you know what you need to go for and which intermediate villains you need to pursue in order to get there.

I really think this is a key element in deck building games, and I think despite their popularity and sales levels, many of the Dominion clones and other new deck building games out there are failing at this aspect.

What do you mean "failing?" You just said they were popular and are selling well!"

Yeah, that's true - it's hard to argue with success. And more power to them! I'm not saying they're not enjoyable, but it's kind of a shame because I think most of the deck building games out there could probably be better than they are. It's like they're missing the point, but since deck building is hot right now, it doesn't even matter. A good theme and the deck building mechanism will only carry you so far, I predict that before long people will get bored and the hype will die down, and the only deck building games that will remain will be the ones that do more than merely put cards into your deck. I don't know how long it'll be before that really comes to pass, but I hope that Eminent Domain will be one of those games when it does!


Unknown said...

BRING ON ALTER EGO!:D Oh and update BGG with photos and info of the game as well, please:)

Unknown said...

I think the big difference between the latest crop of deckbuilding games is that Eminent Domain feels fresh and different. The other games feel directly inspired by Dominion, while EmDo feels like it could have being created on its own, without Dominion's influence. It's using deckbuilding in a different fashion, which I don't believe the other games are.

I've recently been toying around with a deckbuilding game too, and the only reason it interests me is because it uses deckbuilding in a very different way.

I'm curious to see more of Alter Ego, I like the idea of a distinct end goal that you're trying to accomplish, instead of trying to pass a "VP checkpoint" to end the game.