How to Play a Deck-Builder, Deckbuilder, or Deck Builder

Vaughn Reynolds

What is a Deck-Builder/Deckbuilder/Deck Builder?

Referred to as a “Deck / Pool Building” mechanic on the popular BoardGameGeek, they define it as,
… a mechanism in which players start the game with a pre-determined set of cards / player pieces and add and change those pieces over the course of the game. Many deck-building games provide the players with a currency that they use to “buy” new items that are integrated into the deck or pool. These new resources generally expand the capabilities of the player and allow the player to build an “engine” to drive their future plays in the course of the game.

This mechanism describes something that happens in play during the game as a function of the game, not customization of the game from a body of cards prior to play.

To explain it more visually, I’m going to use the example of Dominion, the first “pure” deck-builder that started the whole craze for this style of game.


The Basics:

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Card Breakdown. This will make more sense as you go on. Simply use this to refer back to.

Currency – Every deckbuilder has a currency, which is used to purchase new cards or activate abilities. In Dominion the currency is called Coins, which are produced by Treasure Cards.

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Treasure Cards, which produce Coins (the basic currency of the game)

Your Starting Deck – Each player begins the game with the same starting deck. This varies slightly depending on different publishers, designers, and sets.

In Dominion, every player begins with 7 Copper and 3 Estates.

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Your Starting Deck

Your Goal – In Dominion, and most deckbuilders, the goal of the game is to win with the most victory points. In Dominion these points are acquired with Victory Cards.

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Victory Cards, which determine the winner at the end of the game

Card Types – Each game has it’s own card types, determined by the theme. In Dominion’s base set, you have the Treasure and Victory Cards mentioned above, plus Actions, which allow you to create more depth of play during your turns instead of just using coins to buy new cards.

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Card Types, as shown on the bottom of the card

Curse Cards – There is also a special type of card called Curse. This card gives you a minus to your Victory Points at the end of the game. This card type is not present in all instances of the game. It is only present when there is a card that produces it, such as the Witch pictured above.

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Curse card, which gives minus Victory Points at the games end.

Board Layout – This is the layout for the base set of Dominion, arranged to match the online version of the game. You may lay it out any way that works for you and your game group.

The Victory Cards along the left and Treasure Cards along the right will be present in every game you play. The 10 card stacks in 2 rows across the top will change each game (or you can keep them the same if you prefer). The Curse card, as shown above, isn’t always present in a game of Dominion.

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This is the full layout for a game of the base set of Dominion.

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In the base game, there are 25 different cards to choose from. Each game uses 10 of these cards.

With 25 cards to choose from and 10 cards used per game, that means there are 3,268,760 ways to play the base game of Dominion! That’s part of the reason this game is so popular and has grown in popularity over the years with more expansions. With all of the sets, there are roughly 22 Quadrillion combinations to play! It’s mind-boggling really.


Playing the Game:

Your Starting Hand – Each player shuffles up their 10 starting cards (3 Estates and 7 Coppers) and draws a hand of 5 cards.

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In this opening hand, I have 4 Copper, which produces 4 Coin.

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You can buy this.

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You can buy this.

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You cannot buy this.

Card Acquisition – When you purchase (or “acquire”) a card, they go directly to your discard pile, which is next to your deck. In this case, with the 4 coin produced, I purchased the Moneylender, which goes to my discard pile, along with the 4 Copper and 1 Estate I played this turn.

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At the end of your turn, you must discard all cards in your hand and all cards you have played.

Turn 2 – Each turn you will draw 5 new cards. If your deck runs out of cards, you draw what is available, shuffle your discard pile, and draw the remainder. This is the fundamental basis of deck building!

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Turn 2 I purchased the Silver. This card costs 3 and produces 2.

Subsequent Turns – After turn 2 your deck will be empty. You now will have your 10 starting cards plus the 2 cards your purchased.

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After 2 turns your deck will be empty.

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On turn 3 I draw a whole new hand of cards, which potentially has what I have purchased so far!

Turn 3 – This is the first turn you may end up drawing non-starter cards. In fact, in the example, I drew both the Silver and Moneylender that I purchased in turns 1 and 2! Woohoo!

This cycle continues throughout the game as you buy new cards and acquire victory points.

The End Game – In the base set of Dominion, the game ends on the turn the last Province is purchased. The alternate end game trigger is when 3 piles of cards are emptied.

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Everyone counts up their Victory Points and you determine the winner! Woohoo!

External References:

Deck / Pool Building – BoardGameGeek

Math Is Fun – Combinations and Permutations Calculator