The Game Genome Project

Stream-of-consciousness thoughts as I learn new games and use new insights to revisit, spotlight and refine certain aspects of my alternative classification of board games. Have the glossary open as a reference while you read the posts: http://www.boardgamegeek.com/thread/581158/an-alternative-classification-of-board-games-long
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Has Deckbuilding Arrived as a Genre or Mechanism?

David F
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Emeryville
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Luck in games, in measured doses, is the catalyst which enables shocking game-changers that you'll remember and talk about forever.
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The 3-tiered categorization I've put forth was never intended to be a Theory of Everything in board games. But even that Standard Model had some incompleteness, with the most obvious being lacking its own Higgs boson in descriptors for Dominion.

The Old Hybrid

This was 2010, or the year when Dominion copycats flooded the marketplace. With all these retreads of the same core engine, I was wary about creating a new entry to group together games which you know very clearly are peas from the same pod (Thunderstone, Ascension: Deckbuilding Game, Resident Evil Deck Building Game etc). Far more important to me was how to relate Dominion to the shoulders of other Eurogame giants. Hence, I attempted to deconstruct the "Deckbuilding" concept into the other descriptors I've laid out. Looking back, here's what I listed for Dominion.

Genre: EFFICIENCY ENGINE (Eurogame 101)
Mechanisms: TILE DRAFTING, DEVELOPMENTAL ACTION

Refusing to put any trace of deckbuilding into Genre was key, as back then, Dominion was so inseparable from "deckbuilding" that every person called it a "deckbuilding game", which confusingly blurs the line between genre and mechanism, like every single "auction game" out there (auctions are a mechanism, not a genre; there is no game out there where you try to win the most auctions, except maybe Trick Scoring, which is its own genre). I'm pleased to observe that the "Deck / Pool Building" BGG entry is rightfully placed under "Mechanic" and not "Category" (more on that later) - as opposed to "Auction", which is placed in "Category" instead of "Mechanic"..

This categorization of Dominion was my de facto template for all deckbuilding games. The EFFICIENCY ENGINE genome in Genre linked it to the large family history of Eurogames where you convert resources to VPs in an exponentially accelerating manner, while the mixture of those 2 mechanisms portrayed the "deckbuilding" mechanism: TILE DRAFTING because you are somewhat (albeit, very weakly) depriving your opponent of options with each purchase, especially at higher player counts (indeed, I'd like Dominion a lot more if it emphasized the tile-drafting aspect more by having the # of Kingdom cards scale with # of players); DEVELOPMENTAL ACTION, because of how weak the interaction of each purchase was, especially at lower player counts, and because buying treasure is a completely non-rival action.

The Catalyst

The next step came in the 2011 double-whammy of A Few Acres of Snow and Mage Knight Board Game, which crystallized "deck-building" as a mechanism, a means to an end, not the spirit of the game itself. This begged the question: can the previous categorization be melded into a single "deckbuilding" mechanism? Is "deckbuilding" different from a sum of its parts (TILE DRAFTING + DEVELOPMENTAL ACTION)? This creation of a new descriptor wasn't even conceivable before, because of my Rule of 3 -- to create a new descriptor, you need to name at least 3 examples -- which mitigates the creation of too many orphans without similarities to other games.

A difference in those two games pushes the case of a new mechanism. Where Dominion included both TILE DRAFTING and DEVELOPMENTAL ACTION, Mage Knight only has TILE DRAFTING in the "deckbuilding" process (usually 3 cards out at a time -- buy it and your opponent can't), while A Few Acres of Snow only has DEVELOPMENTAL ACTION (buy Empire cards from your private stash -- common pool elements like Location Cards and Native Americans are insignificant).* Yet it's firmly evident that Mage Knight and A Few Acres of Snow have more in common with each other mechanically than the former does with, say, Saint Petersburg and the latter does with, say, In the Year of the Dragon, canonical examples for TILE DRAFTING and DEVELOPMENTAL ACTION respectively.

* A better example is StarCraft: The Board Game, cited sometimes as the first game with "deckbuilding", which involves only DEVELOPMENTAL ACTION, since your upgrades are available only to you.

The New Mechanism

This only took so long, because it took me a while to try both games and confirm it.

DECK MANAGEMENT - Significantly, publicly alter the composition of your draw deck during the game.
- Starcraft: The Board Game, Dominion, Mage Knight: The Board Game, A Few Acres of Snow, descendants of Dominion

First, the name. I chose DECK MANAGEMENT instead of "deckbuilding", because the latter is too closely associated with customizable card games, a point further delineated by the clause "during the game". I remind you that customizable card/miniature games which are all about tweaking a deck beforehand and playing the metagame are not covered in my framework, since it's a form of game setup (like "modular board", which is also not covered); however, games with a well-defined setup phase and rules at the start of the game have their own mechanism, CUSTOMIZABLE DEPLOYMENT (e.g. Campaign Manager 2008, BattleLore, Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation). Too many gamers have been confused by the bleeding together of Magic: The Gathering and Dominion, and wondering why people would lump them together (you shouldn't; Dominion being heralded as deckbuilding-translated-into-a-board-game was just a sales pitch). Furthermore, it's MANAGEMENT because it's not always about building your deck, but also about getting rid of bad cards to increase the density of your deck (value per card).

Significantly, to differentiate this from rare, routine game effects like shuffling discards to form a new draw deck, cards that allow you to shuffle into or retrieve from draw deck, and incidental additions to the draw deck (if only Middle-Earth Quest had incorporated more of what it hinted at...)

Yes, this turns out nearly identical to the "Deck / Pool Building" Mechanic, except with more careful wording. It doesn't always, but the important thing is to question if it makes sense, and I hope you're convinced that it does.

Fitting into the Existing Framework

Each time I put in a new genre or mechanism, it requires a reexamination of the existing framework to see what games should be moved back-and-forth, and what wording needs to be cleaned up. There was one obvious issue to resolve, which is why I underlined publicly in the DECK MANAGEMENT definition. Previously, I had used the TILE DRAFTING + DEVELOPMENTAL ACTION hybrid to cover "building a private deck" , and DECK STACKING to describe "building a public deck".

DECK STACKING (old) - Gradually alter a set of outcomes such that random events favor you more -- "stack the deck" -- usually through seeding and/or weeding a deck of common cards. The event outcomes can benefit you either directly, or through your partial knowledge of the deck make-up, which you use to prepare for the outcome.
- Battlestar Galactica, The Settlers of Catan, Shadows Over Camelot, Through the Ages

Too confusing (questions always arise for The Settlers of Catan) and it became evident that it's not the public/common or private deck that matters. It's the knowledge. In true DECK MANAGEMENT games, you and your opponents all know what ingredients you're throwing into your deck-stew; in the "sabotage" games listed above, it's your private knowledge of what you put in that gives you a leg up on your opponents. Hence, it has been amended to:

DECK SEEDING - Contribute cards face-down into a deck, such that you benefit directly from event outcomes, or indirectly through your partial knowledge of the deck composition (which you use to prepare for the outcome).
- Battlestar Galactica, Shadows Over Camelot, The Resistance, Through the Ages

Further Questions

Do you think Twilight Struggle should have DECK MANAGEMENT? The deck being built here is the discard pile, which is reshuffled twice in the game (but low # of shuffles doesn't detract, as seen in Mage Knight). The main sticking point is how significant the discard pile management is. You're not really deciding over what specific cards to leave in the discard pile (instead, you try to stick as many of your events there as possible instead of removing them from the game), but more tracking what specific cards have been removed from the game so you no longer need to worry about them.

You can see all the clarification of DECK SEEDING did was to omit Catan. Do you think The Settlers of Catan should have DECK MANAGEMENT (obviously, the definition would be slightly generalized to include non-card examples if so)?. This is arising from how you build your settlements on numbered spaces, and good things happen if that number is rolled on 2 D6s, so you want to try and cover as many #s as possible so more results of the dice roll favor you. I have always believed that Catan and Dominion are milestones of board game design because they tap into this shared Monopoly-influenced board-gaming consciousness, involving the mechanical similarity of building your realm up so random events favor you better. In one case, it's random events from dice; in the other, it's card draws. Whether you think they are equivalent depends on whether you think die rolls and card draws are meaningfully different forms of randomization or two sides of the same coin (and this comes up a lot in other mechanisms). The statistical answer of course is that one is draws without replacement and the other is draws with replacement (e.g. if you draw a '5' from a deck numbered 1-6, you know '5' won't come up again on future draws).

Do you have any examples of games like The Settlers of Catan where you systematically, through the course of the game, try to make a die roll or card draw -- some kind of random event -- more likely to benefit you?

That brought me to an idea for a new mechanism, which I'm hoping won't turn out to be too general. How about games where you "cover more space" like in Catan, but do so in order to make it more likely that players use your stuff (not to cover more space with the random event)? Your opponent has to pay you to do something -- think Monopoly, but with the active player being able to choose whether to land in your space instead of getting there through a random event (dice roll). Obvious examples include Caylus and Genoa, but can you think of more examples with this idea?

Tier 2 examples include Puerto Rico and the related card games San Juan, Race for the Galaxy, Glory to Rome etc. You set yourself up so that when your opponent picks the role you think they will, you benefit. Once again, painting your opponent into a corner. This is particularly attractive to me, because I've always thought ACTION CHOICE DRAFTING for Puerto Rico felt incomplete (with some users pointing out that the everybody-gets-something-but-I-get-extra dynamic is different from the more common I-get-something-and-you-don't). I think combining ACTION CHOICE DRAFTING with this new mechanism hits the nail on the head. It's definitely a lot better than the mess that is the BGG Mechanic associated with Puerto Rico, Variable Phase Order, which is so loosely and generally defined (I play this card before that card, I move this guy before that guy; hey isn't all this variable phase order too?) that it has resulted in all kinds of disparate games to be tagged with it, without a solid underlying thread. Variable Phase Order is the worst BGG Mechanic I've encountered so far. It's even worse than Hand Management when it comes to conveying information about the game.

Names I've been considering for this mechanism include Leeching, Help-You-Help-Me, Mutualism and Shadowing/Drafting. Definition is something along the lines of "Develop the board or your personal play area such that when your opponent picks an action, he/she is also forced to give you a direct benefit (e.g. money, VPs) according to the rules."

EDIT: added the "according to the rules, just to make clear this is a direct benefit. Not something like "you attacked him, so now she's safe".
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