I’ve been cleaning out my closet and listing items on eBay, one of which is the original Penny Arcade card game from 2006. It used the UFS rules designed for collectable card games (CCGs) but was itself a standalone, pre-built set. Upon listing this, I discovered that Penny Arcade is actually selling a new card game described as, “It’s a deckbuilding game, if you’re familiar with the genre. Think of games like Dominion, Ascension, or Thunderstone.” I was not familiar with deck-building, but I love interesting game mechanics so I started researching.
Deck-building games rely on a fixed set of cards: Ascension (BGG) has 200, Penny Arcade (BGG) has 411, Dominion (BGG) has 500. One of the main appeals of this genre is that everything you need comes in the box; you don’t need to buy random booster packs to build out your deck like a CCG. That doesn’t mean they haven’t published numerous optional expansions to some of these titles (Dominion, the grandfather of this genre, has added 1700 cards across 6 expansions).
The way deck-building games generally work is this (with some made up numbers): At the beginning of the game, each player gets a very small set deck of say 10 resource cards that they shuffle and draw their first hand of 5 cards from. On their turn, they spend those cards to purchase more cards from a pool that is accessible to all players. These cards could be more resources, special abilities, or victory points. At the end of the player’s turn, they discard their entire hand and any new cards they purchased. They then draw a new hand from their deck. If the deck runs out, and this is the key, their discard pile is shuffled and becomes the new deck. During play, the player can earn victory points through certain actions and at the end of the game the value of all the cards in the player’s deck also adds to their total to determine the winner. The Penny Arcade: Gamers vs. Evil publisher Cryptozoic has a series of videos that demonstrate this.
I really enjoy this mechanic. It makes for a dynamic game that forces you to think and change strategies on the fly as the cards available to you and your opponents change, but it also rewards you for your foresight as cards you purchase get recycled into the deck. As a former Magic player, I find it fun to use things I learned long ago like milling a deck, playing cards in a specific order to amplify their effects, and knowing when you have to start trimming resources to increase your odds of drawing cards you want. A big difference from Magic is that a card going to the discard pile isn’t a death sentence. They’ll always be back. Figuring out card combos as they appear in the game is also really fulfilling.
While researching these games on BoardGameGeek, I discovered the very popular Ascension was available for iOS and really well regarded (it was on many best board game app lists for 2011). Ascension is only $0.99 so I jumped right in. The tutorial is only about 15 minutes long and makes the game incredibly easy to pick up. Just today they released version 1.2 which adds in support for the iPad Retina display along with making another card expansion available. The 2 expansions are available via in-app purchasing. The Retina upgrade takes care of one of my main complaints; now you can almost always read the card text without having to zoom in. I like the pricing model too. $0.99 got me in the door and I can see myself paying $2.99 or $3.99 for an expansion once I feel I’ve reached the limits of the base game. I do find that I have trouble following what the other player is doing during their turn and what strategy they could be building. I also need to learn how balance the amount of resources I acquire vs. other cards. I’m sure I’ll get a better hang of it with time.
Last month Ascension iOS developer Playdek also released Nightfall from a different board game publisher, AEG. I mention this because Nightfall appears to have a lot more complex player interaction than Ascension. In Ascension, you occaissionally steal a card from your opponent or make them discard or bury, but it’s not too common. Most of what you’re doing is trying to deny them getting the cards they want. In Nightfall though, you’re definitely attacking the other player.
I’m giving a hearty thumbs up to this new deck-building genre and great boardgames coming to the iPad. You should be playing Ascension with me online!
Aside: I hadn’t looked at BoardGameGeek in a few years and was shocked by the sheer number of board game overview and review videos being posted to YouTube. The one above covers Ascension, both the physical and iOS versions.