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I never played Magic. I briefly tried the original Vampire: The Masquerade (V:TM) themed CCG (Jyhad?). I had some Illuminati: New World Order (INWO) cards. I bought and listlessly toyed with a deck of the A Game of Thrones CCG. I really, really tried to like HeroClix. But every single time, the collectible element drove me away. I just couldn't see the merits of the game outweigh the pressure that random buys would put on my completist nature.

Now, there are a number of games that seem to take the good parts of the collectible games and do away with the collectible part. Can anyone offer a compare / contrast thumbnail of what seem to be the big deck-building games out today?

  • Dominion
  • Thunderstone
  • Ascension
  • Nightfall

I'm an experienced RPG and boardgamer, so it's not like I'll be put off by some complicated rules or emergent complexity arising from multiple card interactions. And it's not like I can't hit BGG for some reviews. I just want to know what these games share and how they differ.

If there's another game like this, I'd be open to hearing about that, too. I'm not sure that the Fantasy Flight Games Living Card Games for A Game of Thrones and Call of Cthulhu qualify - aren't they just repackages of the old CCGs?

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@gomad: it would be great if you could expand some of the acronyms. As a former casual collectible card game player I would be interested in knowing what games you are talking about, but I'm not in the scene enough to understand any acronym beyond CCG. (For reference, see this answer on meta.) –  Erik P. Oct 29 '10 at 23:56
    
@Erik P - I expanded them. Sorry! –  gomad Oct 30 '10 at 5:51
    
Yes, "Jyhad," although it ran for several years afterward as "Vampire: The Eternal Struggle." –  Jadasc Oct 30 '10 at 13:33
    
@gomad: Thanks - no worries! –  Erik P. Oct 30 '10 at 15:35
    
The Fantasy Flight LCGs may be worth considering; while they are in a sense 'just repackaging CCGs', they remove the randomness. If the random buys are what drives you away, the LCGs should be considered. If the ever-increasing-card-game-size also drives you away, then steer clear. (Also, @Jadasc: Vampire was also revived by White Wolf and ran for many years since; in fact they've only just shut it down again this year. But that's an aside.) –  Tynam Nov 14 '10 at 19:48
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up vote 26 down vote accepted

Okay, I'll give it a shot.

First, what they have in common:

  1. Static Cards: They are all static (meaning not CCG) card games. Some (Dominion and Thunderstone) have expansions, but none of them require collecting or hunting down 'rare' cards to make the game better.

  2. Victory Points: They all use a Victory Point system to determine the winner. This is called "honor" in ascension (I think) but in essence, its still victory points. The person with the most at the end wins.

  3. Flexibility in numbers:They are all flexible on the number of players: Ascension is 2-4, Thunderstone is 2 - 5 (or 6) and I think Dominion is 2 - 6. Not sure on the numbers exactly because Thunderstone has a nice single player variant, and both Thunderstone and Dominion can be expanded to include more players by playing with expansion cards.

Now the differences.

  1. Deck Building:

    1. Dominion is focused on building a deck to buy victory points.
      While there are cards to interact and "attack" the other players, the game is centered around building a deck that will allow you to buy the most victory points.

    2. Thunderstone focuses on building a deck from a general pool of cards, and then using your hand to "defeat monsters in the dungeon", thus gaining your Victory Points from the defeated monsters. Some Victory Points can be purchased as well, but not usually enough to win the game, so defeating monsters is important to winning.

    3. Ascension is much more like Thunderstone than Dominion. In Ascension, you must also build a deck to defeat monsters to gain Honor (Victory Points) but unlike Thunderstone, the cards in the general pool are revealed one at a time. So you have a line of 8 cards, and when one leaves play (your deck, or the discard pile) another fills that spot.

All are fairly easy to pick up, especially if you have played CCGs before or one of the above.

Dominion is probably the most well known and most played, as it's been around longer and there are several (many...) expansions.

I like them all and while I played Thunderstone first, then learned the others, I think that they all can be quite fun. Most game shops will probably have Dominion on their "demo" shelf. Several around here have Thunderstone and Ascension as well.

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I'm a big fan of Dominion, and haven't played the others. I read the rulebook for Thunderstone, and it didn't really appeal to me. It looked like a dungeon-themed clone of Dominion. The limited supply in Ascension sounds interesting, though...I'll have to look into that. –  Andrew Vandever Dec 15 '10 at 3:53
    
re: "Flexibility in numbers" - Ascension and Thunderstone both have single player variants available as well. –  Jeff Nov 16 '13 at 6:53
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A few notes on Nightfall, compared to Dominion (the only two games on the list I've played).

Mechanically, the two games are pretty much the same. I'd played Dominion first and once I was able to associate the mechanics of Nightfall onto the corresponding aspect of Dominion, playing the game came naturally. Many of the same mechanics exist in both games, though with slight differences:

  • In Dominion, you win by having the most Victory cards, which are bought using Treasure. In Nightfall, the corresponding cards are called Wounds, which are the inverse of Victory cards. Just like Victory cards, there are a limited number of Wound cards in play and the game is over when the supply is depleted. The winner is the player with the least Wound cards at the end of the game. So, rather than buying Victory cards, you want to inflict wound cards on other players. This is done using minion attacks and other cards (more on this below).

  • Which leads to the biggest difference between Nightfall and Dominion. While Dominion has some attack cards, such as Witch and Thief, the players rarely interact with each other except to vie for the limited resources. In Nightfall, combat is key to game play. All of your Minions (vampires, werewolves, etc.) in play must attack an opponent player or players as a part of your turn. This is how Wound cards are inflicted on the other players.

  • You get new cards in Dominion by buying them with Treasure cards from your hand (including buying new treasure cards). You can gain more Treasure through Actions (more later), to use in the currentbuy phase. In Nightfall you buy cards with Influence, getting two Influence in your buy phase, but you can discard cards to get more influence during that turn.

  • In Dominion you start with the opportunity to buy just one card. By playing action cards (see below) you can gain more buy opportunities. In Nightfall, you can buy as many cards as your influence allows.

  • In Dominion you play action cards which give you certain benefits, like getting more actions, drawing more cards, gaining more buys or more Treasure to use this turn. Only the current player can participate in this action phase. In Nightfall, the corresponding phase is called "Chaining". Here the player will play at least one card from their hand, which can add minions to the game, attack other players, or gain some other benefit. It is also possible to chain additional cards from your hand, using a color-based mechanic. Finally, the other players can also add to the chain. Then all the cards in the chain resolve, in the reverse order in which they were added.

  • Both games use a hand of 5 cards, and at the end of your turn you always have 5 cards in your hand. In Dominion you discard your entire hand at the end of your turn and draw 5 new cards. In Nightfall your hand is persistent across turns, you just draw cards to bring your hand back up to 5.

  • In Dominion, none of the cards played in your turn persist to the next turn. When your turn is done, you have cards in front of you. In Nightfall, your minions persist from turn to turn, until they are removed as a part of the combat mechanics.

  • Both have similar models for discarding cards and removing them from the game entirely. Removing cards from play is fairly uncommon in Dominion, but occurs fairly frequently in Nightfall.

  • Because of the way players are for the most part isolated from each other, you can be planning your next turn as soon as you draw your hand. It also means there's little need for keeping your hand secret. In Nightfall, chaining on another player's turn lets you play cards dynamically, potentially changing your plans. The combative nature of Nightfall requires more aggressive and strategic thinking than Dominion.

    To summarize, the biggest difference between the two games is the combat mechanics in Nightfall. If you don't like competitive games, Dominion will more likely be a better fit.

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Nightfall's biggest failure is it strongly rewards card counting. Don't want to be bothered with games that encourage me to deal with that in order to compete :) –  Affe Jun 14 '13 at 21:14
    
What do you mean by "card counting"? I can't imagine you mean it as it used with regards to blackjack. That's all about inferring the cards remaining in the deck from those seen in play. That doesn't seem to apply here because the set of available cards in known. Do you mean counting cards in the other players hands? –  Ratt Jun 15 '13 at 12:49
    
primarily that the wounds get shuffled in and aren't publicly tracked. I've seen people lose plenty of games of Nightfall they could have won if they'd been keeping count and attacked the right people in the last few turns :) –  Affe Jun 15 '13 at 18:42
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The LCG's aren't strictly "just repackages". While some of the cards are subtly modified from the CCG, they are essentially the same. The rules are the current CCG rules yet have new gameplay elements present. The most important distinction is there is none of the traditional CCG randomness to the Chapter Packs. They are fixed card packs used purely to customize or expand your game.

However I would agree, in my opinion they are not "deck building" games (because you don't build a deck as a primary component of gameplay) but deck building is a component if the owner chooses to buy Chapter Packs.

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