DC Comics, and the Evolution of the Deck Building Game
Out of all the Deck Building Games I’ve played to date (and I’ve played the majority of them), DC Comics, the Deck Building Game is the most approachable. It combines a solid IP, reasonable mechanics, natural play, an excellent tempo, and a sense of discovery in a well-priced game. My biggest complaint is a compliment to the designers: I wish it came with more cards. I want to discover more when I play, but the base game ‘only’ comes with 214 cards.
That isn’t to say that I don’t have complaints with this game, but they’re more fractious trivia than real annoyances. For example, why is ‘Kick’ a super-power? What makes kicking more super-heroic than punching? Could I become a super-hero if I fought crime by kicking people? Superman gains bonuses for every different super power he performs in a turn. That seems about right. Superman always did have more super-powers than he could remember. But whenever I play Superman, I end up buying all the ‘Kick’ cards. Does it weird anyone else out that Superman is kicking like a Rockette throughout the game?
Other reviewers have complained that the flavor of playing a single super-hero doesn’t come across (It doesn’t. Though, I’ve seen worse flavor translations,) or that the game lacks depth. These reviews, however, tell me more about the reviewers than they do about the game they’re reviewing. They want a game that takes everything they’ve enjoyed so far about DBGs, and adds more to the formula. Or they want to be an active member in a DC Superheros experience. This isn’t that. Cryptozoic made a light game that can be played in between rounds at a Magic: the Gathering tournament, or something you drag off the shelf because you want to play a thirty minute game, and not a game that claims to be thirty minutes when you read the side of the box, but will take twenty minutes to re-familiarize yourself with the rules. Hey, you don’t have to take my word for it. Go check the reviews on the internet. The established reviewers are a mixed bag of pros and cons. But there’s a very large body of people playing this ‘New Deck Building Game’ concept they’ve heard about and are excited to tell you how the game works, as if explaining the rules of a game is review enough. The industry reviewers, who’ve played similar games, are caught in the minutia of the mechanics. The public likes the game. In the end, its the public’s experience that will shape whether a game is good or not.
That’s great news, too. I don’t know anyone who played Dominion in 2008 and thought deck building games would be a trend destined to blow over in a couple years. But not until DC Comics came out was there physical proof that Deck Building Games could be aimed at a general audience. Casual nerds. People who were excited about The Avengers movie after it came out. That means, for better or worse, we can expect to see deck building games by Hasbro soon. Possibly themed around Clue or Stratego. After they do that, maybe Hasbro will even make a DBG that’s fun to play. One can only hope.
In the meantime, since the DC Comics game is built for mass appeal, I think it’s interesting to see what choices Vaccarino put into Dominion that’s still present in modern interpretations of the genre.
Dominion features in common use by modern Deck Building Games:
♣ Players start with a limited deck of basic cards that have +1 value, and cards that supply +0 value. Many games vary the numbers, or what abilities should be on the basic card. DC sticks to Dominion’s original mix of seven and three.
♣ Players use (most) all of the five-ish cards in their hand on their turn to ‘buy’ from a central marketplace of cards. ‘Bought’ cards go to that player’s discard pile.
♣ Because players may play five or more cards on their turns, cards often have simple interactions, and limited text.
♣ When a player’s turn is over, they discard all their cards then draw a new hand.
♣ When a player can’t draw any more cards (typically after their second round), they shuffle their discard pile and continue to draw.
♣ While players aim to buy cards that are better, on average, than the rest of their deck, they also would do well to find ways to get rid of cards that are weaker, on average, than the rest of their deck. It’s often difficult for new players to grasp how important this is, but most games still employ it. I think it’s interesting to note that DC’s designers chose to make their three +0 value cards do nothing. In Dominion, those +0 value cards are worth a victory point at the end of the game. That can lead to some interesting strategic choices, but represent stressful baggage to new players who doesn’t understand which cards are ‘good’ and which cards are ‘bad’. Even if those players understand the principle of thinning their deck, how can they trash unneeded cards if they don’t know which cards are needed?
Dominion features set aside by modern Deck Building Games:
♦ Players buy one card per turn, unless they play a card that gave them +1 Buy. Many Deck Building Games have opted to forgo this limitation. If we removed this restriction in Dominion, the game would fall apart. It’s often better in the early game, for example, to have two silver cards in your deck that cost three, as opposed to one gold card which costs six. But that problem is solved by changing the game’s scale: Reduce the cost of gold to five, then price the rest of the game accordingly. Being able to only buy one thing per turn wasn’t a balancing factor. It was a self-imposed limitation that gave value to cards that granted additional buys. In a vacuum it looks fine. If future Deck Building Games had embraced the ‘buy one item per turn (some cards let you break this rule) rule’, players would have been accepted it. It’s easier, however, to endear players to your game by telling them what they can do, instead of telling them what they can’t.
♦ Players play one action card per turn, unless they played a card that gave them bonus actions. Again, this is another self-imposed limitation. Players draw five cards per turn. They want to use all five cards. If Dominion says you can’t play all your cards every turn, and another game says you can, many players will gravitate away from Dominion to that other game. I should also point out that eliminating these two mechanics shed a chunk of Dominion’s combo-rific nature. In the original DBG, it’s essential to craft a deck that can draw a lot of cards and grant a lots of actions. Players operated decks that revved like engines, but required patient maintenance to operate. Games like DC Comics’ DBG are more interested in a linear upward progression, with a potential for combo elements. Considering that the general audience for collectible card games also enjoys linear interaction, with occasional combinations, it seems natural for deck building games to fall into that pattern.
♦ Identical piles of cards in the marketplace. One thing that made Dominion fascinating was that players had access to all the cards from the beginning of the game. The reason why players weren’t paralyzed with decisions was because there were only ten cards to choose from, in piles of ten identical cards. Since decks outputted the same resources, but never in the same order, players bought different tools at different times, shaping each game they played into a different experience. Ascension, however, asked the DBG audience if that was necessary. It wasn’t.
In Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer, and games that follow its lead, we play with a marketplace of random cards that are replaced when purchased from a shared auction deck. There are benefits to both styles of play, as evinced by an even split in the market. Dominion’s limited number of identical piles gives a sense of fairness to the game, and rewards players who like to think, then act. It’s a reminder that, while luck is a factor, the person who plays best will likely win. Dominion also has an incredible replay value. The base game of Dominion came with 25 piles, but only 10 piles are used in any one game. A player can play the base game for years and never witness a particular intriguing set up. Under Ascension’s model, a player could win a game through sheer luck, but that allowed players with different levels of skill to play together. While Ascension only has one set up (not counting expansions or play variants), it too features a high replay factor, since most cards are individual, and some combinations rarely appear. A player could play Ascension for years, and gain an odd combination, leading them to build a unique deck. Ascension can feel repetitive. For it to work, most cards in the game must rotate around a central theme. The same could be said of Dominion, though. Since any one card in Dominion must be available as a pile of ten cards to the players, each card needs to play well with the rest of the game. Since each player has equal access to all the card, Dominion’s cards can stray further from the goals of the core game than can Ascension’s But, Ascension can feature individual cards that spin out fringe strategies. Piles allow diverse game play, while random cards create greater variations, but variations which must remain tethered to the central strategy of the game.
I should point out that there’s a Marvel: Legendary third option, where piles of themed cards are shuffled into a shared auction deck. Some games will feature Wolverine’s random cards, and some will not. Marvel’s method shares benefits and drawbacks with both approaches.
♦ No villain. In Dominion, the players build a more and more powerful deck until three piles in the central marketplace are depleted. Players then add up their victory points; the person with the most points wins. For many players (especially Americans), there’s no sense of accomplishment to this style of play. Where’s the good versus evil? Why was I constructing this deck in the first place if there’s no external threat? While it doesn’t bother everyone, few players complain when games confront them with an antagonist. DC Comics supplies villains as a resource you can buy and add to your deck. But the designers also felt it important that players could identify bad guys that their good guys must be fighting. The game features a separate queue of hard to beat Super-Villains cards. When the Super-Villains are defeated, the game is over.
♦ No story. DC Comics doesn’t feature one either. But it’s important to notice that the first alternative to Dominion, Thunderstone, featured a rules set which implied story. Players equipped themselves in town, recruited heroes, then marched into a cavern to fight an ever increasing wave of monsters. The game ended when one player retrieved a powerful artifact from deep within the dungeon called The Thunderstone. Marvel: Legendary deck building game also comes equipped with a number of plots, which gives the game a sense of story. It isn’t essential to the genre, but has become a weapon in the designer’s armory. In the future, I expect we’ll see a deck building game which includes an ongoing story, with adventure arcs for you and your friends to play over the course of months. It may take time before we see a combination of Dominion and Descent, but, when it arrives, I will play the cardboard out of that box.
♦ No individual identities for players. Most DBGs don’t feature them either, allowing players to take the role of a faceless manipulator of events. For example, I don’t know who is in control of my team of heroes in Marvel: Legendary. I think the players are supposed to be S.H.I.E.L.D. agents responding to threats by directing heroes. That fits the theme… except I don’t know many agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. that can recruit Nick Fury and tell him what to do.
DC Comics gives a random identity to each player at the beginning of the game. This helps define player strategy while making sure that each player’s best cards aren’t swept out of the auction zone before that player has a chance to buy them. The decision of whether your game needs avatars is more a sense of taste, but I can’t remember any game where players were excited to be a nameless nobody. Avatars add yet one more thing to remember when playing the game. But giving everyone a unique character is a chance for the game to be personal, step out of the box and say ‘Hi!’. DC Comics did this job well, giving players identities with simple, yet potent abilities. I only wish the base game came with fifteen or so heroes, instead of seven. Each avatar increases the replay value of the game multiplicatively for little cost on the part of the publisher.
It’s interesting to see what each game designer pulls from the previous game published, and how their decisions mold at production’s end. When designing Marvel Legendary, Devin Low must have taken Thunderstone’s ability to immerse players into its game with a sense of story, and, while it is unclear what role the players are supposed to take in the game, it is easy to imagine how the heroes and villains are interacting with each other, while not sacrificing the deck building core. When Matt Hyra and Ben Stoll designed DC Comics’ DBG, however, they looked at the deck building genre and decided what they needed to keep and what they could set aside, then came back and added some color with light brush strokes.
I’m sure the decision to simplify the genre was to make a game that could be pulled, stretched and abused throughout many expansions. Cryptozoic doesn’t plan to only make DC Comics themed expansions for this game, but to allow players to mix and match different intellectual properties, in a vein similar to Hero Clix or The Vs. System CCG. How successful Cryptozoic will be at this endeavor remains to be seen. DC Comics is an excellent launch point, though. If the quality remains on or about this level, then Cryptozoic is slated to make a lot of money. At the very least, they’ll be making a lot of money off of me.