My personal interest in the best deck-building board games started with Slay the Spire. I’ve been playing a lot of rogue-likes recently, and Slay the Spire’s card-drafting mechanics stood out among the ranks of twin-stick shooters and dungeon crawlers.
I loved how I had to build my strategy as I went, making adjustments with each upgrade and relic that came my way. When I finally got around to playing more board games, deck-building games quickly made it to the top of my “to-play” list.
If you’re interested in trying out the deck-building genre (or if you’re just looking for a few more games to add to your collection), check out our roundup of the 10 best deck builder games below!
What Are Deck-Building Board Games?
Deck-building board games are a subset of the engine-building genre. During the game, you’ll draw cards from a communal stack to make an effective deck of your own. The cards often define the actions and resources available to you, so customizing your deck to fit your preferred strategy (or vice versa) is a major part of gameplay.
Deck-building games generally contain some combination of the following mechanics:
- Drafting: pulling items (cards, tiles, dice, etc.) from a shared pool
- Cooperative: working with other players to defeat a shared threat
- End Game Bonuses: earning/losing additional points at the end of the game
- Hand Management: earning rewards for playing cards in a particular order
- Take That: impeding another player’s progress without eliminating them
- Variable Player Powers: players have special actions available only to them
- Variable Setup: starting game state may be different in each playthrough
Keep in mind that deck-building games are different than collectible card games (CCGs) — you don’t use card packs to build your deck on your own time, and you don’t face off against opponents and their own decks. Instead, you all use the same base deck and draw pile throughout the game.
10 Best Deck-Building Board Games
Now that we know what kind of games we’re looking at, here are our picks for the best deck-building games.
The best deck-building board game overall
Designer: Donald X. Vaccarino | Players: 2–4 | Duration: 30min | Difficulty: 2/5
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single player in possession of a few estate cards and a handful of copper pieces, must be in want of more cards to build his dominion. In Dominion, your goal is to claim new land for your kingdom by drawing and spending cards, earning yourself enough points to be declared the victor.
Dominion is the original deck-building game and inspired many of the other titles on this list. We’ve named it the best deck-building game overall because it remains one of the most popular options, even as the genre has evolved over time. If you’re considering breaking into the genre, this is an excellent place to start!
2. Aeon’s End
The best deck-building board game for a small group
Designer: Kevin Riley | Players: 1–4 | Duration: 60min | Difficulty: 3/5
Aeon’s End is a cooperative game in which you and your fellow players protect the city of Gravehold from the monsters that threaten it. Collect cards that represent new spells and abilities, then use them to defeat your nemesis. When your enemy’s health hits zero, you win!
Aeon’s End uses variable turn order to mimic the chaos of battle, but it’s still a game best played with a pretty small group. We consider it the best 2 player deck-building game, as the game incorporates some weird mechanics that slow down the pacing and bog down the game even more than a larger group already would.
3. Legendary Encounters: An Alien Deck Building Game
The best cooperative deck-building game
Designer: Ben Cichoski, Daniel Mandel | Players: 1–5 | Duration: 30–60min | Difficulty: 3/5
Legendary Encounters is a co-op deck-building game based on the Alien series. You and your fellow players take on the roles of prominent characters from the movies, recruiting cards and defeating Xenomorphs as they appear. When the alien threat has been eliminated, you win!
The cars you add to your hand will improve your chances of taking down Xenomorphs without losing any teammates. While the aliens are your biggest concern, you’ll also want to work together to complete different objectives (based on the events of the movies or following a script of your own) and survive surprise hazards and events.
If you like this game, consider checking out Legendary: A Marvel Deck Building Game for similar mechanics with a superhero spin!
4. Mage Knight
The best deck-building board game for advanced players
Designer: Vlaada Chvátil | Players: 1–4 | Duration: 60–240min | Difficulty: 4/5
Mage Knight is a complicated deck-building game that rewards careful analysis and planning. You control one of four Mage Knights and spend your turns exploring the board and filling your deck with army recruits, powerful spells, and game-changing actions. Your deck will help you conquer land in the name of your faction, so work on developing a strategy that will bring you the most returns at the end of the game!
Mage Knight can be played competitively, cooperatively, or solo. Keep in mind that it’s a very complicated and technically difficult game — you might want to try out a few other deck-building games before giving this one a try.
The best deck-building board game for mid-size groups
Designer: Paul Dennen | Players: 2–4 | Duration: 30–60min | Difficulty: 2/5
Delve into treasure-filled dungeons in search of riches. The furthest depths of the dungeons offer more valuable rewards, but only the greatest of thieves dare seek such tantalizing plunder. The dungeons are full of monsters that dog your every step, and waking the dragon that slumbers in the deepest reaches of the dungeon could mean that your loot and life are forfeit.
The goal is to steal an artifact and make it out of the dungeons alive, but you also want to collect more treasure than any other players who happen to escape. Build a deck that improves your thieving abilities and ensures you leave the dungeon with everything intact.
6. Star Realms
The best deck-building game for beginners
Star Realms is a game about combat strategy. You take on the role of a general building an army from several different space factions, generating Authority as your forces grow. Stay wary, though — your opponent is mustering their forces as well, and aims to take you down. Attack your opponent before they get you, and eliminate them until you’re the last one standing.
We talked about Star Realms in our roundup of the best engine-building games due to its combat. Fighting the other player is a hands-on process that involves careful hand management and knowledge of the different factions. Figuring out a strategy and building your deck accordingly is vital.
7. Thunderstone Quest
The most replayable deck-building board game
Designer: Mike Elliott, Bryan Reese, Mark Wootton | Players: 2–4 | Duration: 60–90min | Difficulty: 3/5
If you like the idea of a fantasy adventure but found Mage Knight to be too complex (and not adventurous enough) for your tastes, Thunderstone Quest might be the game for you. Follow a story of special quests and side quests, equipping your deck with heroes and gear to sustain them as you venture into dangerous dungeons for your rewards.
Since there are so many different quests available (not to mention individual heroes, monsters, and items), there are a ton of different ways to experience this game. We’ve ranked Thunderstone Quest as the most replayable deck-building game on this list, as you’re sure to have a fun and unique adventure each time you play.
The best casual deck-building board game
Designer: Hisashi Hayashi | Players: 2–4 | Duration: 45min | Difficulty: 2/5
Don’t let the plain packaging fool you — Trains is an interesting and casually strategic game that’s perfect for low-stakes fun. You play as a railroad company, building up your monopoly and staking your claim on the Japanese countryside by buying up smaller companies. Purchase cards and lay down new stations and railways to expand your influence and outpace your opponents.
Consider checking out this game if you’re a fan of Ticket to Ride. It’s got all the fun of planning routes and purchasing trains, but with a slightly more involved strategy.
9. Shadowrun: Crossfire
The best thematic deck-building board game
Designer: Mike Elliott, Rob Heinsoo, Jim Lin, Gregory Marques, Sean McCarthy, Jay Schneider, Rob Watkins | Players: 1–4 | Duration: 30–60min | Difficulty: 3/5
Shadowrun: Crossfire is a game for all the Cyberpunk 2077 fans out there. You and your fellow players will work together to complete missions, dodging the numerous threats that plague the streets of the Sixth World. The game exists on the edge of sci-fi and fantasy, blending neon lights and magical mayhem for the ultimate genre aesthetic.
Success comes from building an effective deck and earning enough Karma to fund your next cybernetic upgrade. Each new game brings new missions and new strategies, so working with your team is key to surviving the challenges thrown your way.
The best deck-building board game for a large group
Designer: Jeremy Anderson | Players: 1–6 | Duration: 45–120min | Difficulty: 3/5
Evils from beyond the Shadowrift are threatening Haven Town, and it’s up to you and your fellow heroes to stop them. Purchase new cards for your deck to arm yourself against the threat, building your arsenal and reputation until you go from simple adventurer to full-blown hero. Beware, however — some monsters are more aggressive and will attack Haven Town when you least expect it. Balance your strategy and work closely with your teammates to create the most effective defense and drive out the monsters for good.
Keep in mind that Shadowrift is a long, intensive game. You’re sitting down for a campaign that’s likely to last hours, as the game isn’t over until the last shadowrift has been closed. If you enjoy games like War of the Ring, Gloomhaven, or TTRPGs and are looking for something a bit more low-key, consider grabbing a group of friends and giving Shadowrift a shot — it’s the best of the best deck-building board games for larger groups.
High Ground View
That’s it for our roundup of the top 10 best deck-building board games — thanks for reading! If you have any suggestions for games or genres you’d like us to cover in the future, please let us know in the comments. Don’t forget to subscribe to our email list for more tabletop recommendations!
Also, we’d like to extend a special thanks to Farley Santos (and Creative Commons) for the featured image. You can explore their Flickr page right here.