Obtaining power and money, upgrading your character, unlocking abilities: these are the fundamental joys of deckbuilding board games.
Unlike collectible, expandable and trading card games, deckbuilders don’t require you to bring pre-prepared decks to the tabletop, meaning there’s no need to learn how to build a Magic: The Gathering deck, or learn which cards are actually worth using in Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh! or whatever-have-you.
In deckbuilding board games, the making of your deck takes place during the game itself, rather than away from the table. You get a sense of obtaining increasingly better cards, without having to deal with all the hassle (not to mention the additional expenditure) of buying booster packs or expansions.
Dominion: A classic deckbuilding board game for intermediate players that adds new mechanics to the formula.
Tyrants of the Underdark: An advanced deckbuilding board game that combines two genres to provide a greater challenge.
Deckbuilders see players expanding their starting hand of basic cards - which is usually the same for everyone - by steadily unlocking and buying new cards, performing actions and using abilities to reach an eventual goal, whether that’s gaining the most points or defeating your opponents. Often your turn will see you use every card in your hand, discarding any leftover cards before drawing a brand new hand next round - when your deck runs out, you shuffle in the discard pile including all the cards you’ve purchased, creating a brand new set of cards to pull from.
The rhythm of a deckbuilding game is driven by the playing and purchasing of cards, with card actions often bouncing off one another, so that player turns gradually become more complex as more actions become available. Many of your cards will simply be currency to spend on buying or activating other cards, with the cards you choose making your deck and play style completely different to the other players.
Deckbuilding can lend itself to either competitive or co-op board games, and can be theme-rich or dry as you like. Sometimes deckbuilding can be part of a much bigger tabletop experience, or it can be the main focus of a game.
Here are three increasingly complex deckbuilding board games you can try for yourself right now, from your first baby steps into deckbuilders to tougher challenges once you’re building decks like a pro.
Best for Beginners: Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle
What better place to start than school?
Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle isn’t necessarily an accessible deckbuilding game because of its beloved source material, although it certainly helps when getting tabletop newbies involved. The game’s designers definitely had newcomers in mind when creating its ruleset, as Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle is a perfect beginner board game for those unfamiliar with the deckbuilding genre, guiding and supporting unsure players through its seven boxes of content - each loosely based on the Harry Potter films.
In Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle, you step into the wizarding robes of four major characters from the series - Harry Potter (of course), Hermione Granger, Ron Weasley and good ol’ Neville Longbottom - as they attempt to get through their entire school education without being eaten by a three-headed dog, bitten by an angry werewolf or straight-up murdered by Ralph Fiennes’ Voldemort. You’ll get a different starting hand and set of abilities and allies depending on which character you choose to play, which will gradually grow and improve as you buy more spells, characters and items from the central board using knuts - you know, wizard money.
Being a co-op board game, Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle provides many opportunities for players to work together to thwart the nefarious schemes of whomever happens to be the villain, which will change with each ‘year’ of Hogwarts Battle you’re playing. This, as well as the game’s lack of permanent death and forgiving difficulty arc, is what makes Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle such a brilliant first deckbuilder for players. There’s certainly enough to pull you in - if the villains take control of too many locations, you lose - but primarily it does an incredibly solid job at teaching and gently expanding on the basic gameplay mechanics of the deckbuilding genre.
The Next Step: Dominion
This deckbuilding board game adds a few more mechanics and a competitive element
The board game that invented deckbuilding, Dominion is the next logical step in your deckbuilding journey. It takes all the mechanics established in Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle - performing actions, chaining abilities, spending money to acquire more cards - and applies them to a competitive format rather than a co-op board game. Instead of assisting one another in a fight against evil users of dark magic, you’ll be looking to amass a larger medieval territory than your opponent.
In Dominion, you’ll use treasure cards to buy yet more cards, which can be action cards, victory cards that increase your score or more treasure cards. Depending on what you draw, you might also be able to perform an action, which can result in a variety of consequences - including negative effects for your opponents.
This inevitably means that you’ll be dishing out, as well as receiving, a decent amount of skulduggery that you’ll then have to twist to your advantage. Manipulation, whether it’s altering the flow of the game or messing with the other players, is essential to winning Dominion. You’re all buying cards from the same limited stock; once it’s run out of enough victory cards, the game ends. Sometimes, delaying or speeding up that end is a necessary evil. Regardless of how many treasure or action cards you may collect during the game, without enough victory points, you might as well have a handful of Uno cards for all they’re worth.
This is what makes Dominion a great go-to once you’ve grasped the fundamental mechanics of deckbuilding board games. You’re not just acquiring cards in the moment; you’re building towards an eventual goal, which requires some amount of strategising and forethought. It’s also a game that encourages a lot of interaction and rivalry between players, which puts yet more obstacles in the way of winning.
Something More Advanced: Tyrants of the Underdark
Tyrants of the Underdark steps things up a notch with area control and deckbuilding
Tyrants of the Underdark is a deckbuilding board game set in the world (or should that be underworld?) of tabletop RPG Dungeons & Dragons 5E, wherein you and your friends wrestle for control in the treacherous caverns of the drow homeland. Drow are a race of elves who are almost universally unpleasant, which is unsurprising, considering that their favorite activities seem to be a) worshipping a giant spider and b) routinely stabbing their friends in the back.
The good news is you’ll be playing as a drow, so you’ll be able to indulge in those activities yourself. More specifically, you’ll be playing as one of the noble drow houses vying for power over the Underdark. The word power is more than just a descriptor here, as power is a key currency in Tyrants of the Underdark, alongside that of influence. Whereas influence serves the role of money/gold in this deckbuilding game, enabling you to purchase various cards from a shared economy, power is what you’ll use to obtain greater board control.
Yes, there is a board in Tyrants of the Underdark, and it plays a central role in the board game’s victory point system. As with Dominion, the winner is determined by whomever has the most victory points. Unlike Dominion, however, Tyrants of the Underdark provides a whole smorgasbord of ways to collect victory points, rather than just collecting point cards.
Tyrants of the Underdark is an ideal stepping stone from Dominion, because you’re now having to juggle multiple paths to success and use multiple currencies, alongside all the usual shenanigans of obtaining cards to get other cards and so on. It’s a deckbuilding card game combined with the wrestling for domination over regions of the board in area-control games such as Risk and Blood Rage, making it the ideal choice once you’ve got the basics of deckbuilding under your belt.
What to Play Next?
Those are our select recommendations for the best beginner, intermediate and advanced deckbuilding games. But there are, of course, a bevy of other fantastic deckbuilders out there for you to try. Here are four more to bring to the table.
Legendary: A Marvel Deck Building Game
The Legendary series offers an excellent selection of co-op board games based on various pop culture universes, from Alien to the Marvel comic books.
If you’re looking for a more complex co-op board game experience than Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle, defend a city from monstrous attackers in Aeon’s End - and embark on a full campaign in its legacy board game spin-off.
Mage Knight: The Board Game
If Tyrants of the Underdark isn’t quite complex enough for you, Mage Knight is what you’re looking for: a deep, complicated fantasy adventure with highly tactical combat that’ll take you hours to master (and play).
Ascension: Deck Building Game
A fast-moving deckbuilding game involving monster-fighting and card-upgrading, that offers something a little lighter than the above and bridges the gap with snappy competitive card games.