Building a Better Deck

Daaah- Blew it! Missed my Wednesday Post time by 4 damn hours.

So, recently, as part of my focused efforts to become a better gamer and by extension a better designer of games, I’ve taken to trying more non-video game and non-PC games. My next step is to putz about with Facebook games some more and explore the social side of all that in addition to tackling the daunting world of mobile game apps, but that’s an ongoing process (save ends).

I got (back) into Dungeons & Dragons about two years ago when Penny-Arcade started doing these Dungeons & Dragons podcasts – basically, Wizards of the Coast paid them and Scott Kurtz some money to come around the office (and later to send their guy over to PA’s office) to play DnD so that they could record them and release it as a podcast. This was a fascinating and it turns out brilliant idea, because it instantly exposed the PA audience – many of whom are curious about non-video games but don’t feel comfortable or familiar with them – to the unique and odd joy of DnD. Particularly through Mike Krahulik’s eyes, as he was super new to the whole concept of “rolling dice.” Basically, this gimmick worked splendidly on me, but I found, as time wound on, it’s really fucking difficult to break in to the tabletop gaming world. All the stores tend toward independent ownership (which is good) and subsequently develop a really exclusive culture (which is bad) that makes getting yourself ingratiated enough to find a group god-damn next to impossible (which is the worst). If your friends exist in diaspora as mine do, it’s really difficult to get schedules to line up and find time to do some DnD via virtual¬†tabletops, MapTools or otherwise. So here I was with a newfound vigor for what we might call ‘classic’ gaming and no way to pursue it.

Fast forward two years – I get laid off, Danielle gets sick, and we decide to take her over to the doctor’s office up the street. The doctor’s office is adjacent (ish?) to a games and hobby store, which it turns out is basically just a front door that leads to a spiraling ramp/staircase into a basement filled with nerdism. We decided to go in because we keep coming back to this conversation that the games I play aren’t games she likes, but she plays and enjoys card games. Well, I’ve played a couple of nerd-friendly card games before, very recently in fact, and I wasn’t sure we had the same idea about “card games.” I also wasn’t sure there were any that were, as every mom from the 80s insisted things be, “two-player.” Particularly, I wasn’t looking for another game that pitted me against her, because I wasn’t sure that was right for us. The guy talked eventually about the idea of “deck-building games,” and included Munchkin in that process, but I wasn’t sure about that statement. Ultimately, this was the path we took, but it put me to thinking about card games in general. I don’t have experience aplenty with this medium, but I have recently expanded my mindset quite a bit. Quick look back at that:

I played Munchkin at PAX East for the first time this year and also a game called Loot and learned a third called Puzzle Strike from some wonderful fellow PAX-goers at the hotel after the show ended. Each of these games was essentially played as a card game (Puzzle Strike forgoes cards in favor of chips that have a similar effect, but have a nice tactile quality that makes you more kinesthetically connected with it. Or, at least, that’s what I took away from it), but they ultimately emulated three different types of games. Munchkin was the card game version of a dungeon-crawling RPG with slight adversarial elements between the Players – i.e. like Gauntlet, the other players were totally content to let me get screwed. Ryan, in particular took joy in it. Loot, similarly, possessed some very real adversarial elements, but Loot’s flow felt more like a Strategy Game. I had a series of resources at the ready that I could deploy and make an effect on the world, which is to say, the other two players. Puzzle Strike was a fighting/tetris game. You had a character and a deck of chips that the character could pull from, each with their own unique extras. Some were combo focused, others were focused on screwing up your opponents deck, others still had various bonuses. Winning involved building up your personal allotment of gem chips so that you could kick them into the opponent to your left. This was called crashing, and is sort of like sending rows you eliminate in tetris to your opponent’s screen. It has the twin effect of potentially giving him the opportunity to score huge points and also sort of screwing him over, because, just like in tetris, in Puzzle Strike, if you go over 10 gems in your personal gem pile (your “stack” as it’s called), you’re out of the game.

So the strategy comes in when you look at the chips that are available. Your guy starts with a couple and you have a handful of money chips in your hand at the beginning of the game. Available for purchase are larger denominations of gems (2s, 3s, and 4s), which give you more money in a single chip pull, special chips that let you do more than one action in a turn, special tips that let you block the attacks of your opponent (you’re only ever playing one guy at at ime), and special chips that let you add dead cards to the other players’ hands, which sucks univserally because your hand only ever has 5 chips in it (I think).

Anyway, that’s what I learned at PAX, and it was an awesome good time. I really enjoyed it. What I wanted to look more into was games that were simpler than that, because I thought that amount of data would overwhelm Danielle. The only reason I learned it at all was because I had a patient and kindly teacher in a fellow Arcadian who was in the hotel lobby. Gamers can speak each others’ languages, so it makes it super simple to pick new stuff up. I wasn’t sure if that would be the case for her, so I went into the store with her on the theory that I’d have to get them to understand that I couldn’t walk out of there with a deck of magic cards – besides being a commercially dangerous, I find the whole idea of customizable, expandable card games a little unnerving. You buy booster packs with the hope and prayer that, hiding within that 5 dollar investment, is a new card that will make your deck just perfect for three or four scenarios, providing you draw the card at the right time. Financial investment wins that game, regardless of what anyone says, which is why you can go on eBay and other sites and purchase individual cards for slightly more than the booster packs but without the hassle of having to wade through the system. Either way, Wizards gets paid, so I don’t think they care.


Regardless, I didn’t want Magic. I’m not a big fan of the game. I find it obtuse and convoluted and its system of monetization too aggressive for me. I don’t think it’s an awful game, but I’ve played it before and I don’t need to again. That’s fair to say.

Anyway, I went in there and basically said that and gave my narrow world view of Magic and within seconds I could see that I had walked into a Magic-centric shop, which started red lights and klaxons in my brain, for a number of reasons. I have an unwarranted low opinion of Magic enthusiasts which I struggle to hide from them and from the rest of nerddom. I don’t know what caused it, but it’s there and it is definitive. I manage to steer the convesration in the direction I want it to go – I have a Girlfriend, there she is, and I want a game I can play with her. I was hoping something out there would be cooperative, and it turns out there was, but it was a Lord of the Rings game which they were out of stock of. So they gave me Dominion.

Dominion, is, frankly, fantastic. It may be the mac daddy of all deck-building card games. The formula is essentially the same – the game comes in a big heaping box with a bunch of big heaping decks of identical cards. Your goal in the game is to acquire cards of a specific type which, when the game ends, are converted based on the number displayed on their faces into point values. Highest score wins. Simple stuff, but what makes Dominion so cool is how you go about doing it. The game kicks off with some simple stuff – on the playing surface are treasure cards (worth and costing respectively 1, 2, and 3; and 0, 3, and 6), Victory Cards (aforementioned “points” cards) of values 1, 3, and 6, and Curse cards (negative points). ¬†You start the game out with a deck of 10 cards per player, 7 coppers (1 coin value) and 3 1-point victory cards. Your hand is only 5 cards deep. Each turn has an action phase and a buy phase. In your action phase, you play cards from your hand. In your buy phase, you play treasure from your hand and bonuses granted from your buy phase to add new cards to your deck, but everything from this turn goes into a personal discard pile, and you draw another hand from your deck. Eventually you run out and you shuffle the whole thing and continue.

The brilliance of Dominion is in the other 10 cards on the table. These cards are all action cards, and in their own fascinating way tell a tiny story. The goal of Dominion is to build up a medieval…well…Dominion or Realm over which you, as a monarch, rule. You don’t do this by raiding and pillaging and conquering. You do this by purchasing land. You’re basically an historical real estate mogul. Each of the 10 Action Cards, called Kingdom Cards, in play on the table assist you in some way toward the goal of gaining more Victory cards. You get to customize what actions your capable of by using your treasure cards to purchase new actions. These fill in the story in neat little ways. For example, I have a card called “militia” which is an Attack that causes my opponents’ hands to go down to 3 cards and gives me a +2 bonus to my buy phase. This represents me hiring thugs to go harass the other monarchs, thinning out their available resources temporarily without causing long-term damage. They also loot and pillage along the way and bring back a bit of swag for me. Danielle has a card in her hand currently that’s called the “Moat” and acts as a blocker card – I still get my +2 bonus, but the Militiamen basically got to her part of the realm and went “well, that’s a fair bit of water” and then puttered off somewhere else, able to bring me the spoils of the puttering but not able to cause a significant harm to Danielle’s kingdom/dominion.

That’s the part of it I find so clever – we get to tell a tiny story of the struggle for dominance in this historical-fantasy kingdom while playing a neat game of Sid Meier’s Civ… well, not really, Civ is a tabletop game in and of itself, but something within that “economic strategy” genre. And then even deeper than that, the game comes with 25 different kingdom cards, but only 10 are in play at any time. It means that there’s no surefire win strategy, and there are a number of playstyles that can benefit depending on the mutually-agreed-upon set of Kingdom Cards. The game comes with a couple of presets that it suggests and even an extra representative of each deck, giving the ability to shuffle that bitch up and have fate decide what cards you’re going to play with. It keeps things fresh and interesting.

Yet despite that, I’m pining for the expansion decks. It’s not a matter of having gotten bored with the current set of cards, but more a matter of wondering what else they’ve done. Each expansion focuses in a new direction both thematically and mechanically – Dominion was originally envisioned for 2 – 4 players at a single table, but one of the expansions adds a system for two tables competing against each other – a sort of duel of alliances. Another introduces the 15th-century exploratory focus, where things become about corporations and shipping and trade, still another focuses on making the core game bigger and better while functioning with the original sets – new types of cards you can get in your hand, new ways to win the game, and even new denominations of money and even bigger point values on a new Victory card.

But all of that is just icing – the weird thing about a card game like this, about deck-building games in general, is that, while I’ve been able to distill the “30 seconds of fun” in a video game down really quickly over the past couple of years so that I can play one for probably about an hour and narrow in on their core loop, I still have a hard time accurately communicating all the nuance and subtlety of games like this. It could be the thrill of not knowing what’s coming, even within my own deck, and it could be the nature of planning out such a massive wealth of resources to manage – your deck can get upwards of fifty or sixty individual cards before a game ends, and some turns could see you going through 20 cards in a single hand, sometimes more. The various ways the game gives you of betting your luck, the systems it borrows from classic card games and even clear influences from stuff like the generations of Civilization games – all of these are parts that don’t show you the whole picture. I think deck-building games may be my new favorite thing. They’re definitely a great gateway drug for Danielle, but they have their drawback.

We were at Legions again today and I was trying to sell her on the Wrath of Ashardalon box set because it has a cooperative aspect to it – her response? “You know, now that I’ve gotten away from the board, I don’t know if I really want to go back.”

I’d like to think that’s Dominion’s greatest contribution to our gametime – its micro stories have opened her mind and imagination to a lot more now. And I’m one step closer to getting her to roll one of these:

Arbiter of FortuneAnd then her journey to the Dork Side will be cohm-pleehtuh.

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