Deck-Building Games | Games, Gamers, & Gaming | October 15, 2012

Oneof the most popular forms of gaming is the collectible game. Whether miniatures (like HeroClix or Warhammer) or cards (like Magic: The Gathering or Yu-Gi-Oh), collectibles combine the thrill of the chase that comes with hoarding comics or baseball cards—finding that one rarity that everyone wants—and the personalization and customization that gamers crave.

Every game is different, every player can craft a unique experience, and there are multiple levels of excitement to be had. In collectibles, gamers purchase randomized packs of their game’s chosen medium and then construct their own deck of cards or team of miniatures to battle against opponents.

Unfortunately, collectible games are also the very opposite of democratic. To be competitive, participants must have the most powerful units in the game. This makes certain pieces very expensive and can create an intimidating entry point, especially for those who want to compete against the most hard-core players out there.

Many Magic enthusiasts have given up the game because their credit cards were smoking from buying high-value cards individually or packs of cards (often by the box) all in the hopes of building the perfect deck.

Libraries and collectible games, alas, don’t make a pleasant mix—the very nature of something like HeroClix or Magic goes against everything for which a library stands: democratic access to materials, cost-free participation in programs and activities, and good-natured fun (let’s face it: Magic players can get nasty!). Other than offering some basic instructional sessions using library-owned materials, it’s not a good idea to include collectible games as an option for your gaming events beyond providing local enthusiasts a place to play.

Fortunately, there is a way for libraries to provide a taste of the variety and surprises that collectible games have in store—get some deck-building games! There are lots of great
ones, but let’s look at one of my favorites: Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer.

Starting even

Ascension can be played by two to four players but works best with three (two is boring, four is tedious). As players’ skills improve, these factors will matter less. Unlike with collectible games, everything you need is right in the box.

Players start out on level ground; each person is dealt an identical starter deck, and there is also a community deck from which cards are revealed.

Players possess cards generating either runes or power, while the community deck is comprised of monsters and heroes. On a turn, players use any number of cards and work with the runes to buy heroes or use power to slay monsters from the community deck. When players buy a hero, it’s added to their discard pile; when a monster is defeated, the player earns “honor.”

During the setup, a pool of tokens is created. These represent the honor tokens that can be earned by slaying monsters. Once the honor pool is empty, players finish the current round (a round is completed once every player has taken a turn) and then tally their honor. Whoever has the most honor wins!

Special effects

Many heroes and monsters also trigger special effects when they are played or defeated, respectively. For example, some heroes generate runes and also give the player bonus honor. Some monsters give the player the option to buy a hero to defeat another monster for free when they are beaten. There are also special construct cards that are not discarded once played and allow players to trigger a special effect at any time during their turn.

The game quite literally changes with every action players take. No game is ever the same, and no player has the unfair advantage of being able to see into the future and plan a victory ten turns ahead. This is a game in which thinking on your feet and being prepared for any number of different strategies is rewarded.

In addition to being easy to learn, fair, fun, and ever-changing, Ascension also has a dark fantasy flavor that is absolutely cool. It’s not called “Chronicle of the Godslayer” for nothing! The community deck represents a dark portal through which hideous monsters are coming, and players take on the role of generals coordinating armies to crush the minions of the dark god ­Samael before he destroys the peace that has held for so long. It’s not a role-playing game, but the right group could extend the story and really have some fun with it.

Want more?

Deck-building games are nothing new. Ascension is one of the most popular, but it’s nowhere near the only option. Dominion, which has more of a medieval history flavor, and Resident Evil, which is based on the popular video game, are other popular contenders. For most deck-building games, there are also many expansions that add new cards—and ­surprises.

Next time, we’ll take a look at an adorable point-and-click adventure game that belongs on every computer in your children’s room. Until then, keep telling yourself just one more level!

M. Brandon Robbins About M. Brandon Robbins

M. Brandon Robbins ( is the Media Coordinator at Goldsboro High School in Goldsboro, NC. He's a member of the 2011 class of ALA Emerging Leaders.