Finding the time and knowledge to craft decks for trading card games such as Magic: The Gathering can be a little too much for players, which is why deckbuilding games are so brilliant. Instead of having to research and construct decks in your own time, deckbuilders provide a similar experience within the very game itself. Whilst you’re trying to figure out what cards are going to produce the best combos, so is everyone else, meaning that there’s a greater feeling of being on equal footing.
Deckbuilding games often combine multiple mechanics into a single game, mixing in things such as area control, push-your-luck and tactical combat. There are many unique and complex deckbuilding games out there, thanks to the fact that the mechanic integrates so well with other elements.
This has meant that deckbuilding games have gradually become more innovative over the years, providing players with a wide variety of experiences - including different themes and motifs, from standard fantasy settings, like the one featured in Dominion, to adventure stories inspired by classic 1950s and ‘80s adventure movies.
Best deckbuilding games
- Lost Ruins of Arnak
- Clank! In! Space!
- Thunderstone Quest
- The Taverns of Tiefenthal
- Dune: Imperium
- Undaunted: North Africa
- Great Western Trail
The deckbuilding games on this list range from being fairly beginner-friendly - teaching you the basics of the genre, with maybe a little extra on top - to offering more robust experiences that will test both your brains and bravado. While deckbuilding games can be a lot more forgiving on newbies than trading card games, there are still plenty that present players with quite the challenge.
Whether you’re looking for the next two-player card game to try with your friend or partner, or want to get lost in an epic world of danger and adventure, this list of the best deckbuilding games is sure to satisfy any and all desires.
A fantastic starting point for anyone interested in getting into deckbuilding games
Let’s start with an absolute classic of the genre. The original deckbuilder, Dominion still serves as a brilliant introduction to deckbuilding. In Dominion, players become the monarchs of their very own medieval kingdoms. However, having control over their current land and its people isn’t quite enough for the players, with their ambition reaching for an even larger kingdom with greater wealth. The theme and artwork for Dominion is certainly nothing exceptional, but the game’s flow and its ability to teach less experienced players makes up for it.
Throughout Dominion, players take turns to play cards from their hand and discard their gold cards to purchase new cards from the market. What cards are available depends entirely upon what players have decided to include in the market for that game, with different combinations of cards resulting in different combos. For example, some cards may give players the gold they need to purchase a more expensive card on their turn. Others, meanwhile, could give them the information they need to choose whether to perform another action. Dominion can provide players with the opportunity to be rather mean, but it is still one of the most accessible deckbuilding games out there.
2. Lost Ruins of Arnak
Become the next Indiana Jones in this deckbuilder about exploring an island
It’s surprising how versatile deckbuilding can be as a mechanic, providing a variety of different gameplay styles - from allowing players to craft enormous decks to encouraging them to be cleverer with what they already have. Lost Ruins of Arnak fits into the latter category, restricting the size of players’ decks to a smaller size but enabling them to do a lot more with their cards. The game’s story invokes classic adventure films from the 1950s and ‘80s, as players become explorers seeking knowledge and secrets on a mysterious island. However, they’ll need the help of the local people and plenty of resources to make the kind of discoveries they’re dreaming of.
Lost Ruins of Arnak combines deckbuilding with worker-placement gameplay, as players won’t just be looking to purchase new cards with their resources; they’ll also be looking to recruit appropriately skilled people to help them in their exhibition. Gaining assistants and other workers will open up actions for players to perform on their turn on top of playing cards from their hand. Players will not be able to draw that many cards on their turn, but they’ll eventually be able to combine these with the actions they get from their workers to get stuck into exploring the island and unearthing its amazing secrets. With such a fun theme, interesting approach to hand size and mixture of deckbuilding and worker-placement, Lost Ruins of Arnak is a deckbuilder definitely worth playing.
An already charming concept is elevated by fantastic deckbuilding gameplay
With so many board games themed around fantasy, science-fiction and epic adventure, it’s sometimes nice to come across something a bit more down-to-earth. Fort is a deckbuilding game about being a kid trying to make friends with other kids in your neighbourhood. The game’s theme is perfectly encapsulated in Kyle Ferrin’s whimsical artwork - depicting children doing classic childhood activities like soapbox racing or arts and crafts - and brings a real sense of joy to the experience. This theme also comes through in the gameplay, with players calling on their various friends to reach out to other kids, gradually growing their gang - or deck of cards - and enabling them to gain more resources.
Players rarely have large decks in Fort. Instead, certain cards allow both the active player and the other players around the table to perform actions. Potential actions can include acquiring pizza or toys - which serve as the game’s currency - as well as all important victory points. Players can also have the option to trash their cards in order to perform certain actions, making their decks even smaller. At the end of a player’s turn, they’ll be able to take a new card from the market or from another player, making the drafting phase of a player’s turn a stressful experience for everyone else.
Fort is such a special deckbuilding game because it doesn’t overload players with complicated mechanics to stand out. Instead, it provides an engaging interactive experience between players.
4. Clank! In! Space!
Frisk the evil Lord Eradikus for everything he has in this sci-fi themed adventure game
Clank! is already considered to be a beloved deckbuilding game, but what about its science-fiction-themed cousin - Clank! In! Space!? Coming out after the original fantasy board game, Clank! In! Space! takes what people love about Clank! and provides its own unique twist on the formula. Instead of a scary dragon, players are attempting to rob a malicious cybernetic overlord for every intergalactic treasure they can find, and instead of exploring a dungeon, players are scuttling through the corridors of an enemy spaceship. As in the original, Clank! In! Space! has players using their deck of cards to move across a board and fight off whatever creatures get in their way.
In a similar fashion to the first Clank!, surviving Clank! In! Space! requires players to be careful with playing certain cards as they’ll create enough noise to put a target on their back. Should Lord Eradikus decide to attack the interlopers on his ship, the players who have made more noise are more likely to be hit. You can’t carry treasure back if you’re dead, so Clank! In! Space! is all about balancing the desire for bigger points with the need to actually get out alive. Besides the new theme, the biggest addition with Clank! In! Space! is the opportunity to gain allies and hack into modules for the richer loot offerings.
If you’ve played the original Clank! you’ll likely enjoy this deckbuilding sequel. If you haven’t, prepare to experience the fear and excitement of diving into the proverbial belly of the beast.
5. Thunderstone Quest
Delve into a dungeon on an epic deckbuilding journey filled with monsters, heroes and danger
The original Thunderstone was released in 2009 and has since received two follow-up titles, with the latest being Thunderstone Quest. Containing new challenges not found in the previous entries in the series, Thunderstone Quest invites players to go on an adventure into a dungeon. Players begin the game in the village, where they’ll be able to acquire new cards for their decks - such as fresh spells, weapons and equipment - which their heroes will then be able to wield against the many beasts awaiting them within the dungeon. Having a certain set of heroes will make players more capable against particular types of monsters. The players will need to guide their heroes through the dungeon, gradually turning over new tiles and discovering what happens next via a story booklet that comes with the game.
Whilst the mechanics of Thunderstone Quest are really solid - they’ve had multiple iterations to get it right, after all - it’s the story and world that are the deckbuilding game’s real draws. Depending on the storyline players choose to pursue, they’ll experience a different set of narrative beats and even side-quests that they’ll be able to complete if they fulfill the necessary requirements. Players can also recruit a selection of different heroes for their deck - which they’ll be able to level up by collecting experience - and face a bestiary of monsters every time they play. To satisfy that sense of adventure you may have, why not crack open a copy of Thunderstone Quest?
Write a novel in less than an hour with this quirky deckbuilding game about combining letters
Who knew that word games and deckbuilding titles could work so well together? Paperback is a nifty little board game about playing letter cards in order to form words and subsequently acquire new letter cards. As the author Paige Turner - an example of the game’s amusing wordplay - players will want to grow their deck of letter cards so that they can spell out more complicated words and grab all-important novel cards worth victory points. The more cards players have, the more likely they’ll be able to spell out longer words and - therefore - get their hands on yet more victory points.
Playing certain letter cards will also activate special abilities, such as improving the score of a completed word, meaning that players will want to get those as well as wild cards. Whilst Paperback is a very straightforward deckbuilding game - especially when compared to some of the other entries on this list - it is undeniably enjoyable to play. The simplicity of Paperback, combined with its unusual theme and use of wordplay mechanics, is arguably the game’s greatest strength.
Paperback may not have all the bells and whistles of some deckbuilding games, but it’s definitely one that you’ll want to whip out and play again and again.
7. The Taverns of Tiefenthal
Fulfill your dreams of opening up your very own medieval pub in this fantasy game
Who doesn’t love a good trip to the pub? In The Taverns of Tiefenthal, players are placed on the other side of the equation and must ensure the happiness of their paying customers. Set in an ambiguous fantasy setting, Taverns of Teifenthal is a deckbuilding game by Wolfgang Warsch - the creator of The Mind and The Quacks of Quedlinburg - in which players will be looking to create a deck filled with the most valuable cards possible by gradually developing their individual pubs. As players are in competition with the other tavern owners in the game, they’ll want to turn their respective businesses into more successful ventures by adding new staff and well-paying customers for them to serve.
Once players have revealed their starting cards for each round - which could provide them with bonuses - they each roll four dice and choose one, before passing the rest to the player next to them. These dice can then be placed on the various cards that have been placed within a player’s pub in order to activate their associated benefits. For example, a customer will pay income or a delivery person will fulfill an order. Income can be used to acquire new cards which will help to further develop a player’s tavern. Despite being a relatively short game, The Taverns of Tiefenthal provides an immensely engaging deckbuilding experience.
8. Dune: Imperium
Vie for control on the planet Arrakis in a deckbuilding adaptation of the classic sci-fi series
As a launchpad for adaptation, Frank Herbert’s series of Dune novels is perfect. Containing a world filled with layers upon layers of fascinating detail, it’s unsurprising that the Dune franchise has already received several tabletop adaptations - including a recent roleplaying game. Dune: Imperium is one of these adaptations, taking the dangerous politics of the planet Arrakis and translating them into an intriguing deckbuilding game. In Dune: Imperium, players command one of the several rival houses that are vying for control of Arrakis and its immensely profitable Spice trade. As the leader of one of these houses, players will be looking to secure domination over various locations across the planet by playing cards and deploying workers.
The deckbuilding and worker-placement elements of Dune: Imperium are fundamentally intertwined, with players needing to play cards in order to send their units to any of the location cards. Besides enabling the player to place a worker on a location, certain cards will also allow players to perform additional actions or gain resources on top of any they acquire from the location itself. As players gradually build up their house’s prestige and resources, they may decide to get involved in conflict zones in order to cut down their opponents. Just like the series it’s based on, Dune: Imperium has the potential to get incredibly brutal and is not for the faint of heart. However, lovers of intense competitive action, and of Dune itself, would do well to give this deckbuilding game a shot.
9. Undaunted: North Africa
Command your troops in a one-one-one battle in this World War II skirmish game
The first entry in the Undaunted series was released back in 2019 and became an instant favourite amongst the Dicebreaker team. The combination of deckbuilding and tactical combat made for an intensely engaging two-player game that put the series on the map. Last year’s sequel Undaunted: North Africa improved on an already excellent formula, with Matt calling the game an “exceptional experience” in his reviewhttps://www.dicebreaker.com/games/undaunted-north-africa/review/undaunted-north-africa-board-game-review. Based on the various conflicts that took place between the British Army’s Long Range Desert Group and the Italian Axis forces during World War II, Undaunted: North Africa presents a campaign of 11 separate missions - each with their own set of objectives.
In the skirmish game, each player takes control of one side of the conflict - either the British or Italian forces - and must move their respective forces across the game board using their individual decks of cards. While the Axis forces are bolstered by heavily armoured vehicles and defensive capabilities, the Allied side leans further into stealth and reconnaissance-style troops. This means that each player will need to adopt very different tactics in order to achieve their respective goals, with their unique decks reflecting those varying approaches. Players will have different experiences depending on which side they play as, which is why Undaunted: North Africa is such a great game to replay over and over again - on top of the fact that each scenario is relatively short as well.
10. Great Western Trail
This board game with deckbuilding elements sees you herding cattle across 19th-century USA
There are plenty of western-adjacent board games out there, but rarely do they actually centre on the work element of the cowpoke lifestyle. Great Western Trail is a strategic board game with deckbuilding elements, about herding cattle from one part of the ol’ USA to another, with the aim being to have the highest quality batch of livestock possible to load off the train at Kansas. Players begin the game with a hand filled with very basic kinds of cattle, but over the course of the entire journey players will need to take opportunities to purchase more bovine, as well as additional helpers - who can get them even better cattle - engineers to help the cattle train along and even craftspeople to construct buildings to attract more buyers to the trail.
Each stop on the trail will give players a new chance to trade their hand up and earn them a tasty bit of cash, with the better hands of cattle cards ensuring that players will be able to travel further and visit more unique locations. Every time they arrive at Kansas and unload their livestock, players will be able unlock even more features for them to use on their individual player boards during the game - opening up more options for players to improve their cattle-herding business. Transporting a bunch of cows may not sound like the most exciting concept for a game, but Great Western Trail manages to provide players with a highly engaging experience thanks to its ever-expanding gameplay loop and its complementary inclusion of deckbuilding elements.