Deck Building – a modern card mechanism (Topic Discussion)

Card games date back to the 1400s with Karniffel, or Thuringian Karnöffel, often listed as the oldest one, at least the oldest in Europe that we know of. As a popular trick-taking game in Germany for centuries, it clearly started a trend. Many trick-taking games are still popular in Germany today and I certainly grew up with a fair few. However, card games have come a long way since then. In this article, I want to look at deck-building games specifically and how this mechanism has been applied in many different ways since Dominion made it popular.

The Basics

I probably don’t need to explain it, but deck-building is a mechanism where players select cards in some way to add to their hand, discard pile or draw deck. The aim is to make their overall collection of cards more likely to let the player win the game. Sometimes players start with a random set of cards or maybe a pre-built deck that they then change during the game.

As far as I know, deck-building games didn’t originally allow for cards to be removed. The idea of thinning your deck to make it more efficient by removing less useful cards was introduced later on. Mind you, the German trick-taking game Skat does have a similar concept. After dealing everyone their hand, two cards are placed in the middle face-down. The winner of the subsequent bidding phase then takes those two cards and may use one or both to replace them with cards from their hand. It’s not quite thinning, but it’s close.

Anyway, the idea of trashing your cards during a deck-building game is now a relatively common facet of this mechanism. In fact, it’s often a key element that players should take advantage of. Deck-building games are usually designed in such a way that players start with less powerful cards. Adding better cards does make the deck better, but the less powerful ones still slow things down. So shedding these cards during the game makes players’ decks more powerful overall.

Deck-Building Over Time

Deck-building games used to simulate some sort of combat, usually between only two players. The decks of cards would consist of attack cards, healing cards and money cards. As you would expect, attack cards reduce an opponent’s health, healing cards allow you to increase your own health and money cards are used to buy better cards, often from a publicly visible and shared offer row. Players would play cards out in front of them and use them appropriately, then discard them all. They would redraw their hand from the draw deck and when that ran out, they would shuffle their discard pile into a new draw deck.

Of course, games started to introduce other types of cards to create some variety and renewed interest. For example, magic or energy that you could use to cast spells introduced a new type of resource you needed to manage. Ultimately though, everything was about inflicting damage on your opponent, protecting yourself from attack with shields to reduce the damage, healing yourself or buying new cards.

Shards of Infinity introduced the concept of being able to play some cards immediately after buying them, but then having to take them out of the game. I think that’s quite clever, because it means you can gain an effect straight away, while not adding to your deck and therefore keeping it nice and thin.

Mystic Vale changed the building element in such a way that your deck would never get bigger, but instead, the cards would get more powerful. You’re basically buying upgrades to your cards, rather than adding to your deck with cards. Also, rather than attacking your opponents, Mystic Vale is a race game where you want to get the biggest share of a pool of points.

A card from Mystic Vale
Mystic Vale

Deck-Building With a Difference

It didn’t take long for the mechanism to be applied in very different ways than what I have talked about so far.

I guess one of my most popular ways of using deck-building is in the Undaunted series of games. When I started to play Undaunted: Normandy with a friend, I was expecting a war game where your cards represented commands to move pieces around the map and attack your opponent. However, I didn’t expect the game to be so much of a deck-building game in the classic sense. Other than having to learn the actions on offer, the game felt immediately familiar. You draw cards, play cards, draw up again, shuffle discards into draw decks and everything else.

All right, instead of a shared offer row, you have your own supply of cards. Instead of having money cards, you have the bolster action. Cards are also multi-functional, allowing you to choose one action of three or four from each card. However, everything else is very much like a classic deck-building game. At the same time, you’re playing a war game on a map with cardboard tokens and dice. It’s unexpected, but works absolutely beautifully.

Undaunted: Normandy cards with names
Undaunted: Normandy cards with names

Fort is definitely a deck-building game, but it changes where players can buy cards from. There is a shared offer row, but any cards a player didn’t use on their turn are also available for others to buy. The idea is that cards are children that you have invited over to your place. The cards that you play represent the kids you decided to play with. The cards you didn’t play are those that you ignored and didn’t include in the group. They hang around in your yard, waiting for a nicer kid to invite them over and play with them.

Deck-Building With Depth

The latest deck-building game I have played is Imperium: Classics. I think this game takes the mechanism to another level. Every player takes on the role of a faction, such as the Romans or Vikings, represented by a unique deck of cards. Every faction has different powers and plays in a different way, making the game asymmetric. While most factions want to become empires and score the most points, for some factions, their best strategy is different. They want to end the game early by forcing the other players to take the most Unrest cards.

There is still a shared market of cards and players can play cards in front of them, like you will have seen in other deck-building games. There is also the usual drawing up to your hand size, discarding cards and shuffling your discard into a new draw deck. However, there are lots of little extra twists and changes that create so much extra interest.

Even though you’re not replaying history, the essence of the faction you’re playing does come through. It’s obviously highly abstracted and probably quite stereotyped. Vikings want to pillage, Romans want to build monuments, etc. Yet, it is amazing how much depth there is to this game that’s basically just a few decks of cards and some cardboard tokens.

I haven’t yet written my review of Imperium: Classics, but let me say this: after playing it twice, my friend bought Imperium: Legends because he liked what he saw so very much. So, watch this space, as they say.

What About You?

I’m sure there are many other deck-building games that introduce new concepts and push the mechanism in different directions. Are there any deck-building games that you enjoyed playing? What did you like about them? What new twists and new takes on this now classic mechanism have you come across? As always, please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below. I wonder what great deck-building games I might have missed.

Useful Links

Audio Version

Intro Music: Bomber (Sting) by Riot (https://www.youtube.com/audiolibrary/)

The following music was used for this media project:
Music: Bugbears Be Approaching by Tim Kulig
Free download: https://filmmusic.io/song/8518-bugbears-be-approaching
License (CC BY 4.0): https://filmmusic.io/standard-license
Artist website: https://timkulig.com/albums

Trick Taking – a modern card mechanism (Topic Discussion)

Most of the earliest card games were trick-taking games played in the 800s in China. These will have felt quite different to our modern eyes. They didn’t have the concept of trump cards or trump suits. There was also no bidding. Trumps were added to European card games in the 1400s, followed by bidding in the 1600s. It took another 100-200 years for familiar trick-taking games like Whist and Skat to appear. A few hundred years after that, the mechanism has now found a new lease of life in modern hobby games.

Trick-Taking Games and Me

I am a great fan of trick-taking games, even though I rarely get to play any. Unfortunately, not many people I know have grown up with trick-taking games as I have. The concepts of following suit, trumps and bidding are second-nature to me. I can usually read what information another player signals to me when they play a specific card at a specific point in time. Trick-taking is a world filled with subtle clues, planning ahead and perfect timing. There is almost as much depth and reading your opponent as there is in Chess.

It also doesn’t help that pretty much all traditional trick-taking games require a specific number of players. Additionally, they are competitive or team games, which makes it harder to teach, unless you play your first games completely open. It takes a long time to learn what trick-taking actually means in detail. Even picking up what following a suit means and understanding why trump cards can’t follow suit can take a while. So you’ll be playing with open hands for a good few games before anyone will be comfortable playing on their own.

Luckily, modern trick-taking games have taken the genre to completely new heights. They have introduced new formats for playing and sometimes tweaked things until they have become unrecognisable. Trick-taking has also found its way into other games as just one mechanism among many.

Variable Player Counts

Addressing the problem of requiring a specific number of players is probably the biggest step forward, if you ask me. I can now take a trick-taking game to game night without having to worry about how many people will be there or will want to play the game with me. Skull King is probably the best example of a trick-taking game that can be played with a very wide range of player counts. Anything from two to six people will work equally well.

Not only that, but Skull King also doesn’t have the difficult bidding phase found in other games, such as Skat. Everyone still bids on how many tricks they think they’ll win, but that’s about it. There are also no trump cards as such. There are special cards instead, but their function tends to be quite obvious, given the game’s pirate theme. All you have to worry about is following suit, meaning you have to play the same colour as the first coloured card that was played. If you don’t have that colour, you can play a different card. Finally, everyone just starts with a single card to play. In the second round, everyone gets two cards, followed by three in the third and so on.

Skull King makes trick-taking a lot easier to understand, while still keeping enough of the traditional concepts so players slowly learn what the genre is all about. It really opens up the genre to a much wider audience. People will pick up concepts such as playing to your strong suit and reducing smaller suits while playing. There is no big teach necessary. I don’t even think you need to play with open hands, but if you do, you only reveal one or two cards to start with.

the box of Skull King (Photo courtesy of Schmidt Spiele)
(Photo courtesy of Schmidt Spiele)

Cooperative Trick-Taking

The other hurdle to getting into trick-taking is that some people don’t much like competitive games, especially if there are only two of you.

The Fox in the Forest: Duet is the answer here. It’s a two-player cooperative trick-taking game. It doesn’t have trumps, but you do have to follow suit. Additionally, cards have a special ability that can help you win or stop you from losing at least. It’s a good game to play with someone who is still learning about trick-taking. You don’t necessarily have to play with open hands to learn the game. However, you can decide to openly talk about what you’re trying to do. That way one player can teach the other why they played a certain card at a certain point and what they’re hoping the other player to play.

If you want a cooperative trick-taking game for more than two players, then The Crew: The Quest for Planet Nine is the game for you. It goes up to five players, but you can also play it with just two. There will be a straw player if there are only two of you, but I think it works really well. My wife and I enjoyed playing it that way. However, the game really shines at a higher player count. Again, you don’t necessarily have to play open. Just saying why you played a certain card will probably be enough for everyone to learn about the language of trick-taking games.

Trick-Taking and More

One game takes trick-taking in a very interesting direction. In Cat in the Box, there are no suits. Instead, when you play a card, you assign it one of the possible four suits. You record the fact on the shared game board. Now, nobody else can play that number in that suit. So if you played a two and said it was of the green suit, nobody else can now play a two and also claim it’s green. The problem is, there are only four suits but every number appears in the deck five times. That means at some point someone won’t be able to play their card. It’s crazy but really works.

Of course, trick-taking is also just a mechanism or a set of mechanisms, as well as a genre. So it’s no surprise that it has been put together with other mechanisms into one big game.

My favourite example here is Brian Boru: High King of Ireland. Trick-taking is what drives turn order and what actions players can carry out, but the rest of the game is a mix of area control, moving up certain tracks and having the most influence in various areas. It’s a really interesting way to replace action selection with something that is a lot more subtle and traditional.

Mori is another game that is taking trick-taking to another level. It adds dice rolling into the mix. These dice sort of add to the suits and numbers in your hand. I can’t quite work out how this is going to all fit together, but I’m quite excited to see other mechanisms being added to trick-taking to create something new and different.

A look at some of the cards in Brian Boru: High King of Ireland
a hand of cards in Brian Boru: High King of Ireland

What About You?

I am sure there are many more types of trick-taking games that I haven’t mentioned in this article. Can you think of any that you think should be mentioned? Are there any trick-taking games you really like? What are they and why do you like them so much? Maybe you’re new to trick-taking. Do you have any tips for newcomers you want to share? As always, please share your thoughts in the comments below. I’d love to know what trick-taking games you like.

Useful Links

Audio Version

Intro Music: Bomber (Sting) by Riot (https://www.youtube.com/audiolibrary/)

The following music was used for this media project:
Music: Corporate Uplifting Chill by MusicLFiles
Free download: https://filmmusic.io/song/6298-corporate-uplifting-chill
License (CC BY 4.0): https://filmmusic.io/standard-license
Artist website: https://cemmusicproject.wixsite.com/musiclibraryfiles

The following music was used for this media project:
Music: Lo-Fi Hip-Hop 03 by WinnieTheMoog
Free download: https://filmmusic.io/song/7848-lo-fi-hip-hop-03
License (CC BY 4.0): https://filmmusic.io/standard-license
Artist website: https://linktr.ee/taigasoundprod

The following music was used for this media project:
Music: Mermaids by Rafael Krux
Free download: https://filmmusic.io/song/6403-mermaids
License (CC BY 4.0): https://filmmusic.io/standard-license
Artist website: https://www.orchestralis.net/

About Time – time as a mechanism in board games (Topic Discussion)

Time as a concept, is something we are very familiar with in our daily lives. Sometimes time goes quickly, at other times it seems to almost stand still. Time is also a concept that appears in board games. There is the play time, of course, but some games also use time directly as a mechanism. I want to look at how board games represent time and how they use the concept in different ways.

Play Time

Let’s start with a game’s play time. We all enjoy spending time with friends or family while playing a board game or two. Some people love longer games, while others prefer shorter ones. Picking the right game for the right crowd and the current mood is important. Pretty much every game will show its expected play time. That allows us to try and choose a game that fits the amount of time we have to play or that people are willing to invest in a specific game.

However, we all know that play time is often a very rough measure. It is very hard to define precisely, except maybe for games where there is an actual time limit. Even then, play time is only one metric. How long it takes to teach a game to people, setup time and the amount of time to put everything away again are also very important. If a game takes half an hour to explain but only five minutes to play, people will probably be disappointed. Similarly, if a game takes long to set up and/or put away, but plays much more quickly, it has a negative effect on the gameplay experience.

Putting that aside, actual play time often varies heavily, depending on who is playing, how well they already know the game, what mood they are in, how tired they are and many other factors. So, while it is useful to have a rough idea of the expected play time, be prepared that the actual game may be quicker or take longer than is printed on the box.

the score track, goal cards, point tokens and timer from Nine Tiles Panic (Photo courtesy of Oink Games)
Nine Tiles Panic is a real-time game using a sand timer (Photo courtesy of Oink Games)

Real Time

Before we move onto how the concept of time is used within games themselves, let’s look more closely at real-time games. These games use time in its literal form as a consciously chosen mechanism to create the intended gameplay experience. There is a whole plethora of real-time games that use sand timers, rely on phone app clocks or some other way to keep track of actual time.

One of my favourites is Nine Tiles Panic. I don’t know why, but I still haven’t reviewed this game. There is a lot of tactility in this game that comes with thick cardboard tiles and a lovely little sand timer. Having to arrange nine tiles into a 3×3 grid with continuous roads and certain elements in specific places, depending on the current scoring goals, within a relatively short time limit is a lot of fun. I love visual puzzles like this, even though I’m generally not a fan of real-time games.

For me, the pressure of having to take your turn within a short amount of time is often too much. Saying that, I previously wrote about how having a hard deadline for the end of your game night can speed up players’ turns and while I think having a time limit is useful, generally speaking, it needs to be sensible and allow players to enjoy the game and not feel overly pressured into rushing through their turns.

In-Game Time

Now let’s look at how games represent the concept of time.

In some games, actions always take a certain amount of time to complete. Bremerhaven is probably my favourite example here. In the game, you fulfil contracts with resources delivered by boat to your harbour’s quayside. The contracts are lorries waiting to deliver certain types of goods or coaches waiting for passengers. The problem is that boats and contracts have a certain amount of time assigned to them.

Boats stay in your harbour for a fixed number of rounds, blocking berths for other goods deliveries. Similarly, coaches and lorries wait in their parking lots for a specific amount of time, limiting how many contracts you can have open in parallel.

That time limit can work in your favour, allowing you to wait for another delivery to fill up one of the lorries or to leave goods on a boat while your quayside is full. Of course, the time limit is also often ruthless. Boats will sail away, even if you’ve not unloaded them. Coaches and lorries will drive off, even if you’ve not delivered the passengers or goods they had asked for, which incurs penalties. Not only that, even when you have fully unloaded a boat or completed a contract, they won’t go away until their timers have run out.

So while Bremerhaven isn’t a real-time game, time management plays a huge part. You really have to keep an eye on everything, which can create a lot of pressure, in a similar way to sand timers that trickle down in real-time.

close-up of the game board around Birmingham with a number of industry and link tiles on it
Brass: Birmingham plays over two eras

Epochs, Eras and Generations

There are also games that don’t use timers as such, but there is still an element of time passing. In these games, time is usually linked to rounds or turns, but rather than making this necessarily an obvious, direct link, it is a bit more subtle than that to create a sense of the game lasting a number of days, weeks, months, years, decades, centuries or even longer.

In Brass: Birmingham for example, the timer is the draw deck. When it runs out and everyone has also played the last card from their hand, the game goes to a scoring turn and then resets, ready for the next era. You begin in the canal era and then switch to the age of steam. The game covers a time span of 100 years in a matter of a couple of hours. So while the game’s play time isn’t the shortest, the in-game time is even longer. You do really get the sense of playing through a decade or so every round, as the board fills up with new industries and new infrastructure.

Tapestry really plays with the emulation of time. While there is no link to turns or rounds, your civilization develops new technologies and skills as you draw cards or move along the four tracks. The game is set in a fantasy world, so there is no expectation that inventions will play out in a realistic way. It’s very possible that your civilization has developed the credit card, but still has no language and relies purely on symbols. It bears no resemblance to humanity’s history, but you still get a sense of how you’re progressing through time.

What Time Is It?

These are the ways I have found games handle time. Have you come across any other examples? If so, what are they? Do you like real-time games or do you prefer to take your time? Do you enjoy when games use time as a mechanism in some way? What is your favourite game that emulates time in some way? As always, I’d love to hear what you think. It’s time for you to share your experiences in the comments below.

Useful Links

Audio Version

Intro Music: Bomber (Sting) by Riot (https://www.youtube.com/audiolibrary/)

Music: Breaking News 6 by Sascha Ende
Free download: https://filmmusic.io/song/10180-breaking-news-6
Licensed under CC BY 4.0: https://filmmusic.io/standard-license

Playlist

These are the songs I listened to while I was writing this topic discussion article: