After a lengthy drought, we recently picked up a number of new table top games. Among these were two deck-building card games: Dominion and Rune Age. Having only ever played card games involving the standard English 52-card deck (with the notable exception of Uno), I didn’t even know what a deck building game was, so the learning experience that followed was entertaining in itself.
I’m sure there are better introductions to the topic of deck building games, and getting my head around the strategy took some time. Gameplay aside though, so many of these games were simply beautiful to behold. If you find yourself playing one and are stuck waiting for other players to complete their turns, the illustrations and atmosphere they engender can be their own enjoyment.
Both games seemed deceptively similar at first, which no doubt can lead to some confusion for someone learning one and then the other. In both cases, the player starts with a small, weak deck of cards, and wants to build to a stronger one. Getting there, however, differs completely between the games.
In Dominion it’s likely you want to end the game with a big fat deck of high value Victory cards, giving you more points than your competitor. You can easily spend the first half of your game increasing your buying power (adding more currency to your deck) and the second half spending it (trading or playing those cards for Victory cards). But while it sounds like a generic strategy, it’s not the only one, and there’s a lot of variety in how you go about this: The game (and its expansions) offers a huge number of randomly chosen scenarios, and there’s a depth of strategy to be discovered in interactions between that scenario’s action cards.
In most respects, Dominion plays like a familiar card game – players take turns, build points, and tally points at the end of the game. I was pleased to see how easily everyone picked it up – my six and nine year olds could understand the basics, as could their grandmother, who understands the strategy a little better. I can play it with a variety of people and while the game doesn’t seem random, the outcome (so far) is far from assured.
Rune Age is also a deck building game, and it’s there that the similarity ends. It plays more like a fantasy card-game implementation of Risk (or Civilization, or some variation therein). With Rune Age you play one of several pre-crafted scenarios, which provide objectives, rewards and obstacles for the game. You attempt to turn your small starting deck of weak cards into a small endgame deck of strong cards suitable for your objective – which may be to have wealth, eliminate other players, or defeat territories or monsters. The game is complex, and while it’s possible to have a fast half-hour game with others, the first game always seems to take hours (especially with players who haven’t played deck building games before). The notion that whittling your deck down by eliminating weak cards isn’t going to be obvious to everyone on the first round; my nine-year-old son still thinks the objective of the game is to have the fattest deck of cards at the end.
For depth of play and a far more ‘epic’ atmosphere, I love playing Rune Age. But for playing with family and casual gaming friends, its complexity is its undoing – it’s very difficult to find people with the patience to actually learn the game. It is perhaps the only new card game I have which specifically offers solitaire as an option, a bonus for learning the game, but also not a feature that I don’t expect to be taking advantage of years later.
It’s been a revelation though, having been brought up on board games such as Monopoly, Scrabble and card games like Pinochle and Spades. So many new possibilities opening up – now to find more people to play with.