Why I like deck-building games so much

It’s time for something a little different for game day here at spalanz.com today! While I normally showcase something awesome from my game collection, today I thought I’d just talk more about what seems to be the largest-represented subtheme of games that I have, the deck-building game, and why I like them so much.

Dominion, of course, is the grandfather of the deck-builders, and has a whole slew of expansions. First released in 2008, it ignited the spark that brought us so many more since. However, precisely because of the developments that have taken place in board games over these past seven years, I find Dominion to be quite a dry experience today, with its generic medieval-themed cards and its basic mechanics of buying as many cards as you can to win. There’s more to it than that, of course, and I won’t deny, managing to set up those killer-combos can be a lot of fun, but I eventually sold my Dominion collection earlier in the summer, as it had become a game that merely took up too much shelf-space.

Thunderstone (2009) immediately began to shake things up. Following the basic idea of having a set of cards that you can buy from, the game included a separate action that felt so much more like an actual game, where you went into a dungeon to fight some monsters. This is where the deck-building game really takes flight for me. While Dominion’s premise was to build a deck as the end result of your game, Thunderstone combined deck-building with an actual game to simple yet highly effective ends. Fans of Dominion will recognise the village as the usual card pool, but while in the older game, you bought cards which would allow you to buy more cards, and the goal was all about trying to refine your turn and maximise your resources, here you buy cards to actually do something with them. You hire warriors and buy equipment to outfit them better to fight the monsters.

There’s something about Thunderstone that remains highly appealing to me, and it’s a game that I continue to enjoy the more I play it. It’s the idea of deck-building for a reason that is so enjoyable for me.

Ascension (2010) is a curious blend of the two, I find. The biggest departure from both is that the “village” idea of a collection of cards you always get to choose from has now been replaced by a centre row of just six cards. This combines the idea of buying cards to refine your deck, as well as elements of the dungeon from Thunderstone, so that heroes and monsters can both emerge from the main deck. I think Ascension is my favourite type of deck-building game, and it’s also one of my favourites for the theme, also. It’s a fairly generic fantasy-style world, but the theme of each faction you can recruit really comes through very strongly. The best thing about this, however, is the variety that comes from having an ever-changing line-up of six cards. No two games will necessarily be the same, while Thunderstone has the potential if you use the same set-up (though the monsters will change as you go through, of course). Of the three games mentioned so far, Ascension wins hands-down for its variety!

I play most of my Ascension through the app, which is actually pretty awesome as well, and definitely worth downloading.

Rune Age (2011) is a curious mix from Fantasy Flight Games. It’s a little bit like a pared-down Thunderstone, with just a few cards on offer to buy rather than the whole village. It also uses an event deck, which can be both beneficial and harmful. The greatest departure here, of course, is that you start out in a specific faction, and build up your deck from there. The object of the game varies with each event deck in play, and the result is almost like a third way for deck-building games. I love this game for so many reasons, chiefly among them of course is the setting of Terrinoth. However, while there is so much to enjoy right out of the box, it’s unfortunately starting to get a little stale for me now, as so much of any deck-builder is dependent on the different ways you can build your deck. For Rune Age, that depends on the faction you play, and also the event deck you use, and with only six of each to choose from, it has become clear that more variety is needed! But when it’s been a while between plays, it’s always a real pleasure to come back to this one.

DC Deck Building Game (2012) is almost a straight copy of Ascension, featuring a main deck and centre line-up of six cards, where you recruit heroes and fight villains. However, there’s an added element that makes it a little more exciting, but the theme is perhaps the greatest draw here. You get to play as classic DC superheroes, and fight the arch-nemeses such as the Joker and Lex Luthor. The design isn’t particularly ground-breaking, but the execution is really great, leading to a fairly straightforward, yet super-fun game. While the base game may be a pared-down Ascension with a superhero theme, subsequent expansions have introduced several different keywords that alter play a lot, while the Crisis expansions have really served to deliver a really interesting game experience. Importantly, Cryptozoic have used the game engine for several other deck-building games, that are all compatible with each other – Street Fighter, Naruto Shippuden, and Lord of the Rings to date!

Marvel Legendary (2012) continues the superhero theme, and has been one of the break-out games from the deck-building genre of recent years. Of course, the runaway success of Marvel movies no doubt has a part to play here, but the game is actually really, really great, more than justifying its success. It plays very much like two games of Ascension happening at the same time – or more accurately, a game of Ascension where the heroes and the villains have been separated out, so you have two decks that are spewing cards each turn. However, we’re very much back to deck-building with a purpose here, as the villains are being led by a Mastermind, who is trying to get his scheme to go off. The object of the game is always roughly the same – defeat the villains and the mastermind – but the addition of schemes means they always play a little differently. Subsequent expansions have succeeded in both appeasing the fanboy need for more superheroes and also enriching the game experience.

Marvel Legendary is definitely the deck-building genre grown up.

So what is it about these games? Why do I have so many, and why do I keep coming back to them?

Well, first of all, I love variety. I could have the same game in several different themes, and love them all equally. I love card games such as the LCGs from Fantasy Flight and the recently-discovered Magic, and deck-building is obviously a highly intrinsic part of such games. I’ve said it before that, for me, the best part of Android: Netrunner is the deck-building, as you try to put together the perfect deck that should, in theory, run like clockwork. Getting to make a game out of building a deck just sounds so cool, and the fact that it actually is cool is just the icing on the cake, really. In a game like Ascension or DC, you get to choose the cards you want to buy not because they’ll be worth a lot in the end (though that is certainly a strategy you could go with), but because they’ll allow you to do much more. It’s always fun to see people around the table start with the same basic cards, but end up building entirely different decks as they attempt to go about their strategies.

I said at the beginning that I’m not the biggest fan of Dominion any more, but I’m certainly more than grateful to it for having provided the basis for so many of my favourite games!

Rune Age

Hey everybody!
Tuesday is once again game day here at spalanz.com, apologies for missing it last week! Today, therefore, I’m doing something a bit special (for me, at least), and taking a look at the first card game I ever bought for myself: Rune Age.

Rune Age

I’d played card games before, of course, but after splitting up with my ex, I’d stuck to just the one board game, Runebound. After a few weeks of indecision about investing in the Lord of the Rings LCG, I eventually decided to try a smaller card game from FFG first, thinking I’d see what they’re like and whatnot. As I love Runebound so much, Rune Age seemed like the logical choice so, taking the plunge, I bought a copy. I still remember sitting down, having set up the cards as described by the manual, and feeling a little nonplussed by how to start. However, that didn’t last long, and away I went! The game was fantastic, and the rest is history!

Rune Age is a deck-building game from Fantasy Flight Games, designed by Corey Konieczka, who is, at the time of writing, the Executive Game Designer at FFG. Set in Terrinoth, the same universe as Runebound, the game is in what I have been referring to lately as Stage 2 of the company’s Terrinoth games, the post-Runewars phase. In case you don’t know, Runebound and Descent (1st edition) were set in the universe, where heroes battled monsters as they went up against various threats, such as Vorakesh and High Lord Margath. Runewars came out at the end of 2009 and changed the world significantly – while there were still heroes, the predominant feel was now of warring factions, as the game universe was blended with that of Battlemist, a game from the late 1990s that was somewhat derivative of Warhammer/D&D. Battlemist was designed by FFG’s CEO Christian Peterson, so it’s perhaps understandable that he would want to reintroduce some of his earlier ideas into his current games line-up. Runewars brought four factions to the table: the Daqan Lords, the Latari Elves, Waiqar the Undying, and the Uthuk Y’llan (each one derivative of the Empire, High Elves, Vampire Counts and Chaos Daemons from Warhammer, respectively).

Rune Age came out in mid-2011, and translated much of the sprawling wargame of Runewars into card-game form. The same four factions were featured, using the same four unit types in each, and the card game even included one scenario called Runewars. The choice of a deck-building game is perhaps a little odd, but overall the format really works well. Looking back, I’m still really impressed with it, and would say it’s one of the best non-collectible card games that I own.

So what’s it all about?

Players take command of one of the four fantasy races and compete in one of four scenarios while building their deck. Unlike, say, DC or Street Fighter, where the goal is to acquire victory points – and, even, unlike Thunderstone, where you build your deck to delve into a dungeon, but you’re still competing for victory points – Rune Age has different victory conditions depending on which scenario you play. It’s this aspect that makes it truly a breed apart from the other deck builders out there, and really makes the game fresh each time you come to it.

If you didn’t want to watch the video, or you just like to read my rambling discourse, then continue!

Rune Age

Each of the four scenarios is different, ranging from all-out war to fully co-operative. Each one also uses different cards from which the players build their decks, leading to different gaming experiences in each scenario. So let’s have a look at each one.

Rise of the Dragonlords

Rune Age

This scenario should be familiar to anyone who has played the base game of Runebound. Players are trying to defeat the dragonlords as they appear, including Kalladra (of DungeonQuest fame) and Margath himself, before defeating one final card, the scenario objective itself. The dragonlord cards can give you bonuses when you come up against the final objective, so that you stand a better chance, and the person who does so is declared the winner. I play most of my Rune Age solo, and this scenario is fine for that, as you’re fighting the event deck itself.

Runewars

Rune Age

This is an all-out war scenario, and Runewars fans will no doubt appreciate the nods to the wargame here and there. Basically, players are fighting each other, besieging each others’ home realms and friendly cities, in order to eliminate each other from the game, with the last faction standing declared the winner. At the outset, the players receive one random Dragon Rune card each (the two cards at the bottom-left and -right of the above picture), which provide varying bonuses to the players throughout the game. When you eliminate a player, you also take control of his Dragon Rune, and you can use it instead of your own. I haven’t played this much, as I’m not a big fan of player elimination games like this. Plus, if I want to play Runewars, well, I’d play Runewars!

The Monument

Rune Age

Another race game, in The Monument the players are trying to build their faction’s beacon of power. As you can see in the picture above, each faction has a unique Monument card that has a gold cost in the bottom-right corner. The object of the game is to get enough money that you can build your monument with one hand of cards before your opponents do. The “evil” factions seem to have the upper hand here, as their monuments are cheaper than the “good” factions. There is less player interaction than in Runewars, with each player trying to gain enough gold while the event deck itself messes with everyone. While some cards will provide gold bonuses, much like the dragonlords in the earlier scenario, there are also cards that force the discard of gold-providing cards throughout the game. I quite like this scenario, as it has the right amount of competitive play for me. And, as you’re trying to build your monument while the event deck tries to stop you, it also works reasonably well solo.

The Cataclysm

Rune Age

And finally, we have a fully co-operative scenario. Again, fans of Runebound will no doubt be pleased to see this one, which utilises a similar mechanic to The Cataclysm adventure variant to that game. While in previous scenarios the players have been fighting against the event deck to varying degrees, here the event deck is really out to get you. The object of the game is basically to survive against it, and if the players manage this, they all win – however, if anyone is eliminated, the players as a whole lose. Now, I really liked the Runebound adventure, and I do quite like this one, too – however, I must say that this scenario can be brutal if you’re not focused on it. I’ve played it a few times, but I believe I’ve only managed to outlast it twice. Really good one, this one!

As I said before, each scenario brings with it its own cards. Now, players obviously have their own ‘barracks’ of cards to buy that make up their particular faction, but there are also neutral cards for purchase, which can often really help you. These cards are divided into two types, units and tactics:

The unit cards are similar to the unit cards in each faction’s barracks, but the tactics cards are similar to event cards in other card games, providing a one-time benefit when played. As you can see, each card has an icon in the bottom-left corner, which denotes to which scenario it belongs; the scenario objective cards show these icons on their reverse, allowing you to build up the central play area for each scenario. This is a really impressive way of going about things, I feel, and one of the ways the game is kept fresh each time. The only other game I’ve played that comes close to this is Thunderstone, but without any specific rules, that gameĀ all becomes a little random.

Anyway. The other feature that is available in the central play area, besides the money cards, are the Neutral Cities. These correspond to the eight Free Cities on the original Runebound board, and a proportionate number of them are available for each game at random. They provide bonuses for the players, but they must first be won! They also have some of the best artwork in the entire game:

Rune Age

This brings me on to the currency of the game, something that I also really like about it. Gold is obviously a currency, but you also have Strength, denoted by a shield icon, and Influence, denoted by a jewel icon (that last also a nod to Runewars). A card’s cost is displayed in the bottom-right corner, and the bonus it provides is shown in the top-left. This used to confuse me no end, and indeed, whenever I introduce new people to the game, it confuses them, as well, because most people (myself included) automatically assume the cost is in the top-left. Anyway, it’s a small point, but still. The city cards shown above also have a number below their Influence value, which is their auto-defense bonus. I’ll get onto that shortly.

Rune Age

We’re ready to begin!

As is usual with deck-building games, players begin with some money and some comparatively weak-powered cards, and try to refine their deck as they go. Usually, it’s rare that you can take on one of the enemy cards within the first couple of rounds, as you’re mainly building up your deck. Players can, however, use their low-powered units to build up their home realm by buying Stronghold cards (shown in the bottom left of the above picture), which have a Gold and a Strength cost. These cards provide Influence, which is used to buy the neutral cards in the centre, either units, tactics or gold. Influence is also used to keep cards in your hand – ordinarily, players discard their hand and draw back up to 5 cards at the end of their turn, but if you have a particularly useful card, you can exhaust an Influence card to keep it in your hand.

When you go up against an Enemy card, you play your units down and compare the strength of your army with that of the Enemy. Some Enemies will force you to roll the attrition die, which will possibly subtract strength from your army depending on how many skulls you roll. If you equal or exceed the Enemy’s Strength, you defeat it, and either claim it as a Reward, or else place it in the discard pile.

Rune Age

Unit cards have various effects that often lead to some wonderful synergy, and my favourite faction to play for this is the Uthuk Y’llan. Above, you can see that my total army Strength is 13; however, I have also played the Battle Cry tactics card, which adds 1 Strength to each unit in my army. 17 is still not enough to go against the Rise of the Dragonlords objective itself, but this is where the synergy comes in – my Chaos Lord has an ability that lets me wound one participating unit, which I have used on my Berserker (hence he’s slanted a bit), whose own ability allows me to add 2 Strength to that unit, giving me 19 in total. I rolled one skull on the attrition die, which leaves me with 18, meaning I have defeated the objective and won the game!

The mechanic of wounding cards reflects the bloodthirsty nature of the faction. It basically means, at the end of the combat, that card is ‘destroyed’ – put back where it came from, either the barracks or the central play area – rather than discarded.

In addition to attacking the event cards, players can attack each other throughout the game by conducting sieges. When doing this, the besieging player declares his target and lays out his army, while the defending player lays out his. If the besieger is going after one of the Neutral Cities, that card’s auto-defense bonus is added to the defending player before the siege is resolved and, if the siege is successful, the city changes hands. If the besieger is attacking a player’s Home Realm, however, he deals as much damage to that Realm as the defending player didn’t block – all Home Realms can take up to 20 damage before that player is eliminated.

Rune Age

I’ve had a lot of fun with Rune Age, but was overjoyed when, in April 2012, an expansion was announced for the game: Oath and Anvil.

Rune Age: Oath and Anvil

This expansion offers a whole host of awesomeness to the original base game. Foremost among this are two new factions, and two new scenarios.

 

The scenarios reflect what I have now taken to calling Stage 3 of the Terrinoth games, which coincided with the release of Descent 2nd Edition, which was released shortly before Oath and Anvil. One of the scenarios, Ascent of the Overlord, is basically the game of Descent brought under the Rune Age formula. One player is the Overlord, against whom at least two Allied players are fighting. The Overlord is trying to eliminate these players, with help from the event deck, which provides a series of boons to him that the Allied players will need to work towards to defeat.

Rune Age: Oath and Anvil

The second scenario is called The Quest for Power, which replaces the Neutral Cities from the base game with eight Landmark cards, including such notable places as the Obsidian Library (as seen in Runebound: Island of Dread), as well as the Empyreal Vale, the home of the Latari Elves. The scenario is called “complex” by the rules sheet, but isn’t really all that difficult to grasp. Players are competing for Power in a similar way to competing for Gold in The Monument scenario. Power is represented by an icon on each Landmark card, and players collect this Power on their Home Realm in the shape of damage tokens. Players receive Power tokens at the start of their turn equal to the Power provided by the Landmarks he controls. Players can besiege each other and either steal the Landmark or steal 2 Power tokens, and the first person to 20 Power wins. Marvellous!

 

The Quest for Power is definitely my favourite of the new scenarios, as I enjoy the jockeying for Power than results from the game. It’s also somewhat less confrontational as, while you are besieging other players, you’re not trying to eliminate them in the same way as you are in Runewars, so for me this is an improvement on that earlier scenario.

Rune Age: Oath and Anvil comes with an absolute slew of cards, however. Obviously, both the new scenarios also come with new neutral cards you can buy:

Rune Age: Oath and Anvil

There is also a new group of cards called Mercenary cards, which I was really excited about when I first read about them. Basically more neutral cards, these guys can be added to any scenario following a nicely-executed system. Where the scenario icons are located on the usual neutral cards, mercenaries have a wax seal with I or II in it – you take two different I cards, and one II card, and add them to the set-up along with the scenario specific cards.

Rune Age: Oath and Anvil

Most of the mercenary cards tend towards player-vs-player play, so as I play mostly solo I don’t get an awful lot of use out of these guys, but there are nevertheless some really good cards here, and the entire mercenary mechanic is something that I really like. As you can see, with cards like the Flesh Moulder and the Shadow Dragon, we’re seeing a lot more of Descent in this game than ever before.

Finally, but by no means the least, Oath and Anvil gives the core set factions and scenarios new cards. You may have noticed that the two new races have six unit cards rather than four? Well, with two new units apiece, the core races aren’t forgotten:

Rune Age: Oath and Anvil

Oath and Anvil introduces a new unit type, Mythic units. These Mythic units are represented by a golden shield in the top-left corner, and are extremely powerful members of your faction’s army. In addition to their effects, Mythic units are discarded when they are destroyed, meaning you only have to buy them once (which is a good thing, considering their price!). Something that I thought quite interesting at the time was that the new units introduced in this expansion corresponded to the Runewars expansion Banners of War, which was released shortly after the core set for Rune Age. The new scenario cards are a nice feature, as you can often cycle through these cards quite a lot, depending on how well the game is going, so it’s nice to introduce some fresh blood like that. (There is also the option of playing Rise of the Dragonlords fully co-operative with a variant introduced here).

Rune Age: Oath and Anvil is, quite simply, a required purchase for any fan of the base game. The vastly increased gameplay options presented by the box contents can lead to even more hours of fun, and I can highly recommend getting it if you haven’t already. The new races have a wonderful, distinctive feel to them, and the new scenarios add a nice twist to the whole.

Rune Age

I’ve often seen Rune Age in comparison with the other Terrinoth games from FFG. When it was released, it was highly comparable to Runewars while retaining strong links to Runebound (which wasn’t as dead back then as it is now). Oath and Anvil has brought a big portion of Descent into the game, while retaining the original feel. While Descent remains at the forefront of FFG’s Terrinoth line-up, the recent news from GenCon that we’ll be seeing more for Battlelore has got me wondering whether there will be a move to integrate Rune Age more fully with that game. There are already strong ties, of course, but those are more by accident than design, as Battlelore drew as strongly on Runewars as Rune Age itself originally did. Whether there will be further integration when we see the new Battlelore stuff will, I suppose, remain to be seen.

Indeed, it’ll be interesting to see if there’ll be anything new coming for Rune Age. Christian Peterson did say at this year’s In-Flight Report that, unless they categorically say so, no game on the FFG roster is actually abandoned or dead. I have previously contacted the company suggesting the use of Print on Demand for new scenarios, rather than generating a whole new box of material, but while they thanked me for my input, nothing has yet appeared. We’ll see what happens next year I suppose, when Battlelore has had its new stuff.

Until then, get yourself a copy of this game, and bask in its excellence!

Buy it from amazon:
Rune Age
Rune Age: Oath and Anvil