Everything you could want to know about digital deck builders
Welcome to our attempt to corral all available information about deck builders available on your mobile devices. We will attempt to define the genre, explain why there are so many fans, discuss the games that fit the bill, and make recommendations based on what you might be looking for. We don’t want to rehash the nitty gritty of these games, so click on their names to read our full reviews (with app store links), or click the images to get the Amazon listing for the physical versions.
What Is a Deck Builder?
Dominion, essentially. Dominion set the groundwork of what we will call a “classic” deck builder. Some very basic mechanics found in Dominion have been repeated many times over. Many people instantly associate deck builders with Dominion, so this is as good of place as any to start. The basics:
- Starting hands of a set number of cards (frequently 10), containing a predefined number of cards which either help you purchase new cards or help you towards the ultimate game goal (which can be scoring points, defeating an opponent, etc…).
- Decks are shuffled and a starting hand is drawn (almost always five cards). The discard pile is shuffled when the draw pile is empty.
- There is a common pool of cards available for each player to purchase. These cards are more powerful than your starting cards and vary in cost and strength and are, usually, purchased into your discard pile.
- The ability to get rid of cards from your deck to make it stronger and/or more cohesive (called “trashing”).
- Card abilities to allow you to extend turns with extra card draws.
- The deck building doubles as an engine building exercise, leading to some very powerful decks at the end of a game.
- Being an engine builder, there is usually a point in the game where a player must shift from deck-improvement to goal-chasing. Timing this is crucial.
- Deck builders are required to have a near endless supply of expansions.
You would be amazed at how many deck builders hit on each of those eight points. One rule which most deck builders don’t follow from Dominion is that Dominion allows you to play only one action card per turn. Cards can be played to allow more actions, but you, generally, can’t play all action cards from your hand. All of the games mentioned below which involve drawing hands allow you the opportunity to play all of the cards in your hand each turn.
Now that we’ve brought everybody up to speed on Dominion, let’s rant at the inability to get a decent mobile implementation for that game. It is ripe for mobile and in-app purchases. There is a long history there which we won’t get into, but the end result is bad for players who want the Dominion experience on mobile.
Why Do People Like Deck Builders?
A lot of reasons, of course. Deck builders usually end up being engine building games, which is among the most common and popular mechanics in board gaming. It is a fun experience to see your lowly, weak deck at the beginning of a game build up to a behemoth to conquer everything by the time the game ends. It’s rewarding because there are necessarily a lot of tiny decisions over the course of the game which shape your engine and ultimately determine if you win or lose.
Another big part of many deck builders is the race aspect. Whether chasing points to destroying an enemy, many deck builders have two very distinct phases: 1) building up your ability to earn points or produce vicious attacks and 2) stop building and start earning points or attacking. This isn’t strictly true in all cases, as you will usually be attacking and point-earning throughout, but many of these games will come down to a final race at the end to out-score or destroy. By this point all players will have fairly stacked decks which will test how well their engine building went.
The final major aspect, in our opinion, that makes deck builders such a popular genre of games is how many strategic options they provide. Granted this one is especially dependent on the specific game, but a good deck builder will present you with a bunch of different options, often at the luck of the draw, and it is up to you to find the optimal one. And, being card-based, the optimal route one turn might turn out to be the absolute wrong route the next if the cards turn on you. It’s the constant need to adapt to what you draw in your hand and what is available to purchase that makes each game of the best deck builders so exciting, even if you’ve played it a few hundred times.
Some Classic Deck Builders on Mobile
With Dominion as the template, what games are currently available for mobile which fit that bill and what twist to the formula do they add?
Star Realms takes the point-chasing from Dominion and turns it into outright attacking of your enemy. Rather than trying to build up enough currency to buy points (Dominion), you build up enough currency to buy new ships to absolutely steamroll your opponent. Star Realms also uses a different purchase pool system, where cards are drawn individually and placed in the pool, so the available cards will change frequently. Otherwise, Star Realms hits on each of the basic Dominion deck building tropes.
We could have put Ascension first, it shares many similarities with Star Realms. The key difference is that Ascension still has you working towards points to win the game. There is an attack system but that is used to take out monsters in the common card pool to earn bonuses and points. Other than that, the card purchase pool and faction bonuses are also found in Ascension and the game follows the Dominion outline closely.
Hardback is the sequel to Paperback and plays mostly the same. Purchase cards from a common pool, replacing them as they are purchased. Build up your deck with stronger cards, and repeat. Hardback takes the deck building a step further by introducing genres to the game, which are the equivalent of factions, to allow players to combo cards together for larger gain. The biggest step away from traditional deck builders is that there aren't any cards which allow you to draw more into your hand on a turn, this is done through a unique risk/reward mechanic called Ink.
Paperback is very Star Realms/Ascension-like in that you purchase cards from a changing pool of common cards in an attempt to outscore your opponent. That it is a word game throws a wrench into things, but at its core it definitely falls quite close to a classic deck builder. The big difference here is in the way you use the cards you have. Rather than playing one at a time with separate abilities, Paperback has you playing as many as you can in conjunction with each other in order to gain more points and abilities to purchase better cards and points.
Starting to Get a Little Weird
All of the above games have players playing hands of five cards in an attempt to buy better cards to build up their decks to achieve the goal, either point scoring or total destruction of the enemy. They are very Dominion-like in these respects, even if some of the details have been changed. But taking a small step away from that mold, what is out there that starts to take a few extra steps away from the classic formula, but retains many of the same key points?
This is a non-licensed version of the popular Legendary board games which is been released under many different IPs, most notably the Marvel and Alien, but there are many others. Legendary has a lot of classic deck building tropes. You draw your hand, use them to buy better cards and work towards your goal (attacking the game’s enemy deck). It differs right from the start by being a co-op game. You aren’t racing for points or to destroy an opposing player, but rather attempting to defeat a deck of cards which plays by preset rules. This is the game where some of the basic mechanics are the same, but you really start to veer away from the basic core of a classic deck builder which is always to crush an opponent playing on the same field as you.
The big twist for Baseball Highlights 2045 is that each turn is a back-and-forth between to players. One player plays a card, the other plays a response card. That continues for six cards and the “turn” is over. After that, based on what cards were played, players can purchase new, better cards to use on the next turn. The end goal of the game is to win as many of these turns as possible, which is a big departure from the larger, overarching goals seen in classic deck builders.
Distant Deck Building Cousins
All of the above games shared quite a few core common aspects with a classic deck builder. Now, let’s look at the games which are only holding onto some small aspects of that core deck building experience but take the rest of the game in completely different directions.
The starting deck varies depending on which character you choose, and you only play one card at a time. The deck building aspects of adding and trashing cards are allowed, but are secondary to using the cards you have to defeat the enemy deck.
You do start with a common set of low-powered cards, and add/remove from your deck over time to improve it. That’s about where the similarities end. The main mechanical difference is that trashing cards in Friday isn’t a “nice to have” option, it is a necessity and a core part of the basic gameplay. You trade life points for the ability to trash cards, that’s how important it is. Aside from that, the game only plays one card at a time and, like in Legendary, you are playing against an enemy deck, not an actual opponent.
Deck Builders, Maybe?
These are the ones that you could make a sound argument aren’t actually deck builders and we wouldn’t fight you on it. However, they retain some thread which can be pulled back to that classic deck builder, so we are adding them anyway, word count be damned!
First of all, Hostage Negotiator isn’t strictly a card game which separates it from everything else mentioned thus far. Dice rolling is a major aspect here, but every action is taken as a result of playing a card from your deck. The big deck building twist to this one is that you don’t “buy” cards as you would in a traditional deck builder. You merely rent them for a one-time use, afterwards they head back to the purchase tableau so you can purchase and use later. As such, it is a stretch to call this a deck “builder” as you aren’t really building a deck over time, but the similarities are there that it was worth mentioning.
This is a tough one, because it does share a lot of commonalities with classic deck builders. It has engine building, point chasing, and card reuse, but it just doesn’t *feel* like a deck builder. The way you purchase cards is a 7 Wonders-esque hand passing system. The big conflict resolution system feels well outside of the world of traditional deck builders. Since it does share a few key features of other deck builders, we’ve included it here.
Which One Is For Me?
That’s the million dollar (okay, three dollar) question. We’ll take some guesses at what people might be looking for and give recommendations for those. Have a question we didn’t answer? Add it to the comments and we’ll get right on it. We’ll be honest, the first pass of these pretend questions is just an excuse to highlight which each of these games does well, but we never pass up the chance to hold a fake Q-and-A.
I just want to see what deck building is all about:
Star Realms. It is freemium, you can play a few offline games against AI opponents to get a feel for what deck builders are to determine if they are right for you. Ascension is also a freemium option, but we believe Star Realms is a little easier to get into if you’ve never played a deck builder and the app is a little more polished.
I want to play online: Ascension or Star Realms. We prefer Star Realms’ online system a bit better with the automated matchmaking and general smoothness of the app, but Ascension has a huge online following as well. Paperback and Age of Rivals both have very solid online implementations as well.
I want a game I can play for eight years: Ascension. The depth of the expansions is pretty amazing. Star Realms is getting up there in terms of total expansions, but Ascension’s are more game-changing. You can start with the base game and fold the expansions in over time and be busy for quite a long time.
I want a better Words with Friends: Paperback. Paperback has online play with an active, but seemingly small, player base. If you like word games but are tired of WWF, try Paperback and bring a friend along. It presents a different kind of word challenge than WWF, but it will scratch the same itch in a much more interesting way.
I want a better version of Paperback: Hardback. Paperback is great and it remains a fantastic way to introduce word game friends to deck building games. However, Hardback simply improves on Paperback too much to be ignored. The clever mechanical twists it adds really make for a fantastic game.
I want a brutally tough solo experience: Friday. It will take you a while to win your first game of Friday. The balance of trashing/advancing is tricky to say the least. Once you do, you will probably start winning somewhat regularly on the easiest setting, but crank it up a notch or four and you’ll be right back to losing. Baseball Highlights 2045 deserves a mention here, the true solo mode (not AI mode) can be brutal.
I want a pass and play game: Baseball Highlights 2045. Phew, I was worried I wouldn’t get to highlight this game. Coming from a big baseball fan, this game is fantastic. The big problem is that there is no online play and if you are experienced enough with the game the AI here won’t put up much of a challenge for long. There is a true solo mode which is incredibly tough, but that mode takes out the best aspect of the game: the back-and-forth attack/defend gameplay. Enter pass and play mode, which allows for the great interaction the game is built on.
I want something a little different: Age of Rivals. This is a great, great game. It was direct to digital and mashes together some really cool mechanics in very interesting ways. It definitely feels the least “deck builder-y” to us, but does check a lot of the boxes. The game is good online or against AI, and has some collection/unlock aspects which can keep you busy if that is your thing.
I want an adventure: Meteorfall. Each game is a battle through a series of monsters and bosses culminating in the final boss fight. You can play as a few different characters, each with their own styles and decks to match.
I want the feel of a deck builder, but I also want dice: Hostage Negotiator. This is a really great game if you can accept the increased luck that comes into play when everything you do is a success or failure based on how the dice roll. We really like the “pay for each use” mechanic here, a great twist to traditional deck building card acquisition.
I want a co-op: Legendary DXP. This is a co-op but packs a competitive twists that really becomes a focal point if you jump into the online game. In-game rewards are dished out after games and the better you do, and the worse your opponent does, the better the rewards you get. The physical game can be played more like a traditional co-op, but you won't find the online community so forgiving on this one.
No More Words
Okay, a few more. Deck builders are great. The idea of starting small and using only your wits and the seven coins in your deck to turn your deck into an unstoppable powerhouse is a very appealing way to spend 10 minutes on your mobile device. Many of these are absolute staples for us here, in fact one writer may or may not have logged over 2,500 online games of a certain deck builder that may or may not rhyme with Car Helms. If you haven’t dipped your toe in the genre, we highly recommend trying one out, and there are a few freemiums on this list. If you are an avid deck builder player, we hope we might have been able to shine a light on a game you hadn’t yet tried. Either way, happy deck building!