Building a house of cards

by Nate T on August 19, 2011

When Donald Vaccarino sat down one day by the seaside and came up with the concept for the card game Dominion, I wonder if he realized this would revolutionize the world of games. Of course, he could have thought, "This would be a really cool game mechanic" - which also works (The part of the story about the seaside is pure speculation on my part).

In Dominion, Vaccarino has literally filtered down the challenge and intrigue of deck construction, aspects commonly found in collectible card games like Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh and Magic: The Gathering, and made a game unto itself. In most of these card games, commonly referred to as CCGs, deck construction is a balancing act of strategy, synergy, combinations and also actual costs. As with any economic model, limited supply and high demand will cause certain cards to rise in value.

Short of some form of alchemy that would change a Mahamoti Djinn to Jace two-point-oh (Magic reference, don't worry if you don't get it), the frustration with most of these CCGs is the arms race mentality that goes on. As new sets are released every few months, another chase for the- next-big-card begins and starts the cycle anew of finding and acquiring. The challenge among those who play is to accurately predict which cards among the cornucopia of choices will contribute to a winning deck strategy, which would then raise the market value of the card. Prosperity, whether as a collector or a player, is fleeting.

Dominion though, makes this challenge of acquisition part of the game itself. While it may still be a frustrating experience (foiled in getting that last Festival), its contained within the game environment, and doesn't linger when the game ends (or rather, it shouldn't). Different combination of kingdom cards (cards that allow you to take various actions during game play) may make one card good in one setting, but quite useless with other kingdom cards. Using only 10 of the 25 kinds of kingdom cards offered in the game, each session is almost guaranteed to be a new experience; unless you are able to play 3,268,760 times. With the multitude of variations the game can be configured to, increased even further as new expansions are released every now and again, the game certainly doesn't get old or too done.

Another aspect of Dominion that is surprising is the general appeal of the game. The appeal for CCG players is already evident. Game enthusiasts are intrigued by the game since it offers a unique mechanic and even a glimpse into collectible card games, without the large (financial) commitment associated to it. And even females (whether casual gamers or not) find a theme in the game that they can understand and get into... shopping.

What's amazing though, is not just the game Vaccarino has created, but the whole genre of gaming it has spawned. Before Dominion (i.e. before 2008), there was no such thing as 'Deck Construction'. In just a few years, the genre has exploded with many popular games, each with its own theme and unique twists. However, they all have similar mechanics, so if you get a chance to learn Dominion, you already know how most of these other games play.

A quick run through of some of the other 'Deck Construction' games (those that I've played at least):

Fantasy themed game where each player must fight monsters in a cave. Players can have heroes aid them in the search for the thunderstone, who then can be improved through the game.
My initial play of this game was with the base set and an early version of the revised rules - which from what I understand, wasn't very polished at the time. I didn't quite enjoy the experience and haven't gone back to it since. However, as its now on its 4th expansion (with another one on the way as of this writing), they must have fixed it enough to be worth playing still.
Resident Evil DBG
Based on the popular video game series, players explore the mansion and try and bring the monsters to an end. Most recent rules update has each player controlling two characters from the Resident Evil universe. By arming their characters with weapons and other gadgets, the player must navigate them around the mansion to face the cliche of any adventure video games, the boss.
Of all the thematic deck construction games, I would have to say I enjoyed this one the most. The gameplay gives the same eerie feeling as playing the video game (when you open the door, is there a monster behind it?). However, being one of the more affordable games (retail price is UNDER $30.00), the trade-off is less card choices. Of course, expansions fix this lack of choice issue and RE-DBG has a second expansion coming out soon.
Tanto Cuore
The most popular deck building game in Japan (with 2 expansions already out in Japan) gets an english translation and a release in North America. Each player is the master of the house and is in charge of hiring servants to make it the best home possible. Unique to the game is one 'kingdom' deck only has unique cards in it. Anime. Maids. What's not to like?
Anime. Maids. Sold.
Ok, so a bit of a guilty pleasure game since the game does have good art. The gameplay itself is similar to other deck construction games, but has enough unique elements to make it a fun experience. I would play this ahead of the more fantasy based games, but that's more of a personal preference.
Puzzle Strike
Deck construction with chips, instead of cards. Puzzle strike takes from another popular video game (Puzzle Fighter) and attempts to simulate it in the context of a physical game. In the game, players try to keep a tower of jewels from building too high. Unlike Dominion or Thunderstone, which at times can feel like a solitaire game, Puzzle Strike is all about interacting with other players, well, more like attacking, since one way to get jewels off your tower, is to send it to someone else.
The game mechanics certainly mimic the video game and the variety of characters does make each game unique in its own way. What should conceptually be a fast game though, feels it drags on at times, as there is a tendency for PBA (paralysis by analysis) due to the many options available in terms of actions that can be taken. Genre fans will certainly enjoy it no matter the drawbacks, but unless you 'get' the charm, there are some better options out there (or until there's some revision to the rules).

A few that I haven't played yet:

Fantasy themed game
Heroes of Graxia
Another fantasy themed game (I know, there's quite a bit) where players can fight monsters or attack other players.
Horror themed game with focus on player versus player combat and a unique chain mechanic when playing cards.

A few other games coming down the line:

Instead of cards, its dice... by Heroclix makers, Wizkids Games.
Star Trek DBG
From initial previews, this will be set in the TNG universe so players will have access to Picard, Sisko and Janeway. Also from Bandai - who made the Resident Evil DBG.
Eminent Domain
Science fiction based game from an up-and-coming game company, lots of positive buzz and I can't wait to try it out myself.
Penny Arcade
Based on the popular web comic... that's about as much as I know.


  • That’s a mold-breaker. Great tnhiikng!

    Posted by Jermajesty on September 07, 2011

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