Deckbuilding games have become popular in both the tabletop and video gaming space over the course of the last few years. The best deckbuilding games combine many of the common appeal elements of collectible, customisable trading card games such as Magic: The Gathering and Yu-Gi-Oh! but without the potentially vast expense and quasi-gambling element involved in acquiring the best possible cards for your deck. They also start each new game with everyone on a level playing field, rather than providing those who have ploughed more time and money into the hobby with an obvious advantage.
For the unfamiliar, the specifics vary from game to game, but the core of a deckbuilding game is that you start a game with a set deck of cards, draw cards from that deck and play them in order to perform actions, and gradually add new cards to your deck over the course of a single game. The best deckbuilding games involve striking a balance between broadening your range of possibilities by adding new cards and trimming your deck to be more efficient by removing cards that aren’t useful.
In the video game space, developers have found great success in combining the mechanics of a deckbuilder with the structure of roguelikes and roguelites. The way the best deckbuilding games work is inherently similar to a roguelike anyway in that you start over from scratch each time you play, but the video game medium makes it practical to gradually add more possibilities to the pool of available “cards” as you continue to play the game. This is similar to how roguelites allow an element of persistent progression through unlocks alongside having to start the game from the beginning with each run.
They’re a lot of fun — and a type of game you can get potentially limitless enjoyment out of, thanks to the inherent variation between each playthrough. So today we thought we’d take a look at 10 of the most interesting video game deckbuilders out there — both “roguelike” and otherwise — beginning with one that’s been newly announced today!
Super Bullet Break
Announced today by PQube, Super Bullet Break is a game in which the unthinkable has happened: the world’s video games have ground to a screeching halt! It’s up to you, working alongside your mysterious allies, to fight your way through a series of corrupted games, defeat the Buggos and Singulaladies who are causing the problem, and return the digital world to normal.
Super Bullet Break follows the deckbuilding roguelike formula perfectly. Each of the “games” you infiltrate starts you with a set deck of “bullet” cards based on characters from the game, and as you progress through a series of battles, special events and rest stops on your path to victory, you gradually build up your deck with additional characters, many of which are designed to synergise with one another and produce some devastating effects when used in concert.
We’ve been fortunate enough to have the chance to play around with an early version of Super Bullet Break recently. While there’s no set release date yet, this is already shaping up to be one of the best deckbuilding games around — featuring a huge cast of gorgeous anime girls from a variety of artists, to boot.
If you like the sound of Super Bullet Break, be sure to add it to your wishlist on Steam to stay up to date with the latest news and get notified as soon as it has a release date; the final game is set to land on Switch and PS4 as well as PC, and, interestingly, Sony don’t appear to have an issue with the significant amount of anime T&A on display in this one, either.
Slay the Spire
No list of the best deckbuilding games would be complete without the one people won’t ever stop banging on about any time the genre is mentioned even in passing. Slay the Spire is one of the main games that is responsible for the boom in roguelike deckbuilders, and with good reason — it’s an exquisitely balanced, well-designed game that has an absolute ton of replay value, and a variety of different possible strategies to explore.
Your mileage may vary a bit when it comes to the game’s art style — I personally hate it, but there are also people who loathe anime-style aesthetics, too (outrageous, I know) so I don’t let it bother me too much — but the gameplay chops and longevity of this one can’t be denied. And with mod support on PC, you can continue to expand the game to your heart’s content long after you feel like you may have exhausted the base game’s possibilities.
Monster Train is another essential inclusion on any list of the best deckbuilding games, having risen to popularity following the success of Slay the Spire. The concept is a little different this time around, though; rather than making your way through a dungeon as in Slay the Spire, in Monster Train you’re attempting to defend a train full of monsters from those pesky do-gooder heroes. The unique twist here is that you’re managing several “floors” of forces at once.
Monster Train also features a strong community element, with a multiplayer mode, the ability to create challenges for your friends and the broader community, and the usual “daily run” feature found in many of today’s other roguelikes. It’s definitely a solid choice, particularly if you enjoy the idea of blending elements of tower defence games with deckbuilding and roguelikes.
Taking a little sidestep into the world of tabletop, Ascension is one of the main games that helped establish and popularise the deckbuilding concept among tabletop gamers. But it also works very well as a digital game.
In Ascension, your job is to score points by defeating monsters, and the way you do this is through purchasing additional cards for your deck and making use of them to blast your way through the never-ending array of foes that stand before you. Strike a good balance between acquiring new cards for your deck and “banishing” the weaker ones you start with to continually put yourself in a good position, and come out on top against your opponents as the one true Godslayer!
Another one of the best deckbuilding games for tabletop — while Ascension often takes credit for popularising the genre, Dominion claims to have invented it. Dominion is an interesting one in that it’s more about building than conflict. Your aim in Dominion is to build yourself a deck of cards and play them in such a way that you construct an efficient, productive kingdom that demonstrates your indisputable superiority over your rival lords of the realm.
Dominion is simple to learn in its base form, and there are a variety of expansions available to increase the tactical depth and change up the overall feel of the game. It’s an enjoyable strategic puzzler that will particularly appeal to those who prefer the idea of building to fighting.
If you prefer your card games with a sci-fi twist, Star Realms is one of the best deckbuilding games out there. Combining a deckbuilder structure with plenty of ship-to-ship combat, Star Realms is a popular game both on the tabletop where it originated, and in its digital form. It has some great design talent behind it, too, with contributions from veterans of Magic: The Gathering and Ascension.
The digital versions have a nice “try before you buy” option, with a tutorial and short campaign available for free, then the full base game experience (including multiplayer) available for a very reasonable £3.99. There are also several expansions available.
Let’s hop off the “tabletop adaptation” train now and look at some of the best deckbuilding games that are unique to the digital space. We begin with the utterly delightful Yamafuda!, which is a card game about cute anime girls hiking up mountains. Each turn, you’re presented with a certain numerical amount of adversity to overcome, which can be countered by playing cards with a “Care” value on them. At the same time, you need to use the “Hike” value on your cards to make progress up the mountain before you become too exhausted.
Yamafuda! starts simple and, in roguelite style, adds new options to the pool of available cards as you progress. It is quite an easy game, but in many respects that’s a blessed relief after the exceedingly punishing nature of some of the other titles on this list. Plus the whole thing is wrapped in such an adorably comfy atmosphere that you won’t be able to resist coming back to it time and time again. Seriously, don’t sleep on this one; it’s become my go-to comfy game ever since I discovered it quite recently!
Yamafuda! is available for PC.
The World According to Girl
The concept of this sci-fi deckbuilder is pretty fascinating: by building your deck and playing cards, you’re attempting to raise the absolute optimal human being by carefully controlling her environment and the people who interact with her.
Unlike many deckbuilding games, which tend to involve playing cards situationally from turn to turn, The World According to Girl involves a significant amount of playing cards and then keeping them in the game for the duration of your playthrough, giving it something of a feel of a drafting game as well as a deckbuilder. There’s a hefty degree of luck and RNG involved, so be prepared for that — but the fascinating concept makes this one of the best deckbuilding games to explore if you fancy something a bit different from the norm.
The World According to Girl is available for PC.
Alina of the Arena
A fairly recent release that has proven quite popular with the community so far, Alina of the Arena distinguishes itself from the other best deckbuilding games out there by adding a strong tactical element: as well as playing the right cards at the right time, you’ll also need to take into account positioning and formation.
The game describes itself as a blend of Slay the Spire and Into the Breach, featuring roguelite-style progression and resets plus an emphasis on movement: dodging and knocking foes back is just as important as dealing damage to them! As you might expect, this makes Alina of the Arena quite a bit more complex to play than some other deckbuilders — and bear in mind its current Early Access status means it will likely continue to be tweaked and rebalanced over the course of the next 6 months or so.
Alina of the Arena is available for PC.
Another recent release, Battle Bands is noteworthy for its interesting concept: rather than engaging in “combat” with rivals, you’re instead battling using the power of music! Even better, you can assemble several players together and play cooperatively as a “band” to take on the game’s challenges.
The interesting twist that Battle Bands provides is that each instrument you choose to specialise in has its own variations on the cards available, making for a notably different experience if you choose to play as a different band member. Several different ways to play mean there’s plenty of longevity here, too. We could have done without the microtransactions, but the developer are keen to emphasise multiple times on the store page that they’re purely cosmetic — there are no pay-to-win elements.
Battle Bands is available now for PC.
There’s our top picks, then, including some well-known, well-established titles and a few leftfield suggestions you might not have heard of! What do you think are the best deckbuilding games out there? Feel free to share your recommendations down in the comments, via the usual social channels or on the Rice Digital Friday Letters Page!
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