Pool Builders – Observations & Innovations

Written by Matt Pavlovich

poolbuildersTo wrap up our mechanic archetype series on pool builders, I’m going to trace a history of builders and try to hit the highlights of some of the most important developments in builders. Naturally, it’s impossible to describe every single strategy game that has ever used a builder mechanic, but I’ll aim to analyze the modern builder lineage and try to anticipate some innovations in the future of the format.

Origins of Deck-Builders

mtgThe most important and far-reaching mechanical innovation of Magic: the Gathering was that it introduced both variance and a means to mitigate that variance in the same mechanic. In any format of Magic, you’re responsible for creating a deck and drawing cards at random from it during the game.

It was the original prelude to deck-building: the genius of Magic is that randomness is a core part of the game (as it is with any game where drawing cards is involved) but because you can decide what cards go into that deck, you control the likelihood of drawing any given card. Indeed, the biggest variations in how Magic is played even today come from how that deck is assembled, whether through a draft or sealed packs or your own invention at home.

Like poker (which shares an enormous overlap with Magic’s audience), Magic inhabits a fertile middle ground between perfect information games like chess and perfect randomness games like war, where dealing with variance is an important part of the game’s skill. Again, success in Magic comes not necessarily from being able to see six moves in the future or from how to react to a surprise card draw you didn’t see coming, but from thinking through how to manage the randomness and optimize your chances of coming up with the exact card that you need.

DominionIt might be trite to describe Dominion’s brilliance as “Magic in a box,” but that’s exactly the innovation that it brought to strategy gaming. Magic’s brilliance as a business model and source of frustration for many a potential player is the financial commitment required to play it competitively. We tend to focus on mechanical design in this blog, but the democratization of the deck-building model into one box from which all of the players can build their respective decks, rather than having to invest time and money to bring their own decks to the table, is surely one of the many reasons for Dominion’s strong following. In this sense, Dominion is a fantastic example of how collection value is every bit as important as balance or approachability in making great games.

proactiveMechanically, Dominion and other deck-builders face an important issue that Magic does not: they need to incorporate some way to build the deck from inside the deck, hence the introduction of the Treasure card type in Dominion.
Dominion’s other critical innovation was transforming Magic into what we’re calling a “proactive strategy” game.

As Alex mentioned in his article on Player Strategy, Dominion occupies the same quadrant of time-horizon/player-interaction space as other classics like Puerto Rico, in a part of the plane that we refer to as “expert’s games.” Undoubtedly a major reason for Dominion’s continued favorable reception among serious gamers (and constant residence in the BGG top 50, even eight years after its release) is that ability to plan a whole strategy in advance and test your ability to execute it as the game progresses.

And even though Magic paved the way for tabletop deck-building card games, Dominion’s success has opened the floodgates to an entirely new sub-genre springing up over the last ten years, characterized by games that scale well, set up fast, and carry the possibility of big turns yielding great satisfaction for the players who pull them off.

The Closest Descendants

Lewis & ClarkIt’s tempting to trace this lineage next to “hand-builders”; arguably the two most famous of these are Lewis & Clark and Concordia, which we jointly profiled in a previous Design Analysis article. There are parallels, of course: in both deck-builders and hand-builders, you spend resources to acquire new cards, and you cleverly play those cards to acquire more new cards, and so on. But there are some key differences that point to hand-builders being more of an offshoot of the pool-builder phylogeny than an intermediate on its branches.

First, and most importantly, a hand-builder is an extreme low-variance version of a deck-builder because there are no draws or shuffling. Therefore, hand-builders give players more exact control over their choices, and mitigating variance is not nearly as important as the tactical skill of properly sequencing the card plays in every round. There are important differences in the design logistics as well: as I talked about above, deck-builders generally include in-deck mechanisms to build up the deck, but in hand-builders, the cards are typically acquired by some other mechanic.

As a corollary, hand-building is less of a genre unto itself and more of a game-defining concept for games where it’s featured. In both Lewis & Clark and Concordia, the standard-bearers for the concept, the hands being built are central to advancing the ends of traveling through the Wild West and conquering the Mediterranean, but they are means to those ends rather than the end-in-itself deck-building in Dominion.

Wading into Pool Builders

quarriorsIf hand-builders are the component successors to deck-builders, then dice-builders and other bag-builders are the conceptual successors. Dice-builders innovated upon the concept by moving past cards as a variance-generating mechanic. Quarriors and Roll for the Galaxy feature mechanics where dice can be acquired, similarly to cards, and built up into a deck-like engine (that can then be fired to get more dice).

The fascinating part of using dice, rather than cards, is that dice are themselves inherently probabilistic rather than just part of a larger probability distribution. A critical part of the strategy of any builder is introducing components that are useful to you and eliminating ones that are no longer doing you any good. The decision-making can get a lot deeper in dice-builders, where you might build an entire strategy around a few high-variance dice (i.e., high-risk, high-reward options that you can roll over and over again, hoping for an outstanding result) or a flatter distribution of consistently useful dice that provide more normalized results.

In fact, I think the possibility of a “second dimension” of variance (both which components you draw AND what you get when you activate them are variable) represents a major source of potential innovation for the builder genre. Contrary to the static abilities of a card, a die (or other randomized component) can provide a different result every time you roll it, opening the door for even more finely tuned strategies–or for more exciting potential outcomes.

orleansFinally, one of the most recent branches to emerge from deck-builders has been the “bag-builder,” a generalization of the dice-builder to a wider variety of pieces coming out of the bag. Like hand-builders, the object of the game in bag-builders is not necessarily to build the biggest bag but to use your components to accomplish some other goal. Hyperborea and Automobiles are some early examples, but I’d like to focus on Orléans as a prototypical example of the bag-builder.

Orléans showcases a few noteworthy differences from other pool builders as the game lacks a traditional discard pile and it also deviates from a standard cycle for components. Components in the resource pool are pulled from the bag, used and recycled back into the bag when used. This means you’re never fully guaranteed to see that useful Monk you need in your strategy, or you may draw him at every opportunity.

The lack of a discard pile may seem like a reasonably straightforward mechanical contrivance, but its implications are profound in terms of the expected distribution of your components. By comparison, working through a deck in order in Dominion or Ascension means that you have to see all of your cards at least once before you can see a given card again. If we were to call this thoroughness a “standard” cycle in pool builders, it places less emphasis on any particular resource and greater emphasis on the total size of your resource pool.

automobilesAmong bag builders, Automobiles and Hyperborea generally follow this “standard” component distribution as you will completely cycle through your bag before replacing your pool of cubes back into the bag. Both games use the idea of adding unhelpful resource cubes into your bag which slow down your progress in the game. The higher a player’s top speed each turn in Automobiles, the more wear cubes the player will accumulate into their resource pool. In Hyperborea these cubes take the form of waste and players typically receive the burden of waste cubes into their resource pool when they acquire advanced technology cards.

Encumbrances – Weighing us down in Pool Builders since 2008

encumbrancesBoth Automobiles and Hyperborea took a very direct approach with encumbrances by asking players to manage these undesirable cubes alongside all the good stuff they’re typically using during turns. The idea is a delicate one in pool builders as too many encumbrances can lead to wasted turns, sluggish progress and elements of dissatisfaction we tend to be critical of in games.

Orléans skipped the possibility of truly lackluster turns by ensuring all the workers you might pull from your bag have some degree of utility. You can’t control exactly what you draw nor can you plan the current turn with certainty, but you’re generally able to do something you want or left within striking distance for the following turn.

The random draw can lead to some agonizing turns where you come up just short, but rather than a wasted turn where half of your options are stop signs you still have a pool of resources that can get you to a destination somewhere. Some turns can be reminiscent of those frustratingly endearing turns in Castles of Burgundy where you roll two dice and just try to do the best you can.

Orléans innovates by making the game’s allocation of workers its own means of mitigating variance and it ensures turns are a puzzle rather than a lost cause. If you really can’t use a particular worker in the near future, you can place that worker out of the way on your player board or dispatch him permanently to the “Beneficial Deeds” town board. Both methods remove that worker from your pool while allowing your more immediately useful workers to cycle through your bag more quickly in future turns.

dominionestateThe conversation about how players should handle encumbrances in games is far older than pool builders themselves and there is still not a single solution that any game can utilize. In particular, deck-builders frequently wrestle with how to handle encumbrances, often incorporating victory points as an in-game burden.

Dominion wisely embraced victory points as full-on card acquisitions to your deck which act as a hindrance when you draw them on your future turns. Dominion’s expansions introduced more varieties of green victory cards, but the base game offered players plenty of options in how they can handle encumbrances. The Chapel card offers a strategy where players can trash cards and manipulate an extremely thin deck while the Gardens card enables the collectors among us to accumulate as many cards as much as possible by building a comically thick accordion-like deck.

thunderstoneIn some ways Thunderstone tried to avoid encumbrances completely. Players conquer monsters using cards from their deck and add the monsters into your deck which often provide both end game victory points and some sort of benefit to you during future turns.

AscensionAscension took a multifaceted approach as some cards have end game scoring value, while others enable players to acquire tangible victory points from a pool of crystals all players may acquire from. These crystals are set aside, don’t slow down a player’s deck and act as an end game condition once all the crystals have been claimed.

valleyofthekingsEvery card in Valley of the Kings has potential end game scoring value, but only the cards a player has “entombed” count at the end of the game. At the end of each turn, a player has the option of “entombing” a card, removing it from their hand and setting it aside for final scoring. It can create some fascinating decisions, as the cards with the highest point value typically also have the best in-game abilities, so entombing a strong scoring card too early will remove it from circulation and weaken your deck for the rest of the game.

Timing in Valley of the Kings is critical and there is plenty of risk by waiting too long to entomb your best cards. Players usually have a rough sense of how many turns they may have left, but you may not have the luxury of entombing those really valuable cards on your last few turns. The game can always end earlier than you expect (and so you never even draw them again) or you could draw them all on the same turn (of which you may only entomb one card per turn).

tantocuoreIn the years between Dominion and Valley of the Kings, Tanto Cuore was a blend of the ideas we’ve seen so far. Victory point cards were purchased and placed directly into the deck, but by using actions on their turn, players could move these cards from their deck to a private chamber. Cards in the private chamber weren’t shuffled back into the deck, so they weren’t impeding your turns, but this decision did have some risk as other players can target cards in your private chamber and affect your final score. The cards scored regardless of if they were in your deck or your private chamber, so it was an interesting trade off of efficiency vs. safety.

Upgrading – the foundation for a better deck

dbupgradeBeyond the question of scoring cards, the nature of pool building involves acquiring new tools that are substantially better than our old ones. As the game goes on, our starting cards tend to become the lingering remnants of our past selves and simply get in the way of everything we’ve improved to be since.

Dominion gave players options to filter weaker resources from their deck as cards like Remodel and Mine allowed a player to get rid of a card permanently and exchange it for something better. Thunderstone was probably the first game to really design around this idea as the defeated monsters provide experience points players can use to upgrade their starting level I adventurers into level II. Players can purchase better adventurers in the game as well, but there is some additional value to replacing a weaker card rather than just acquiring something new.

bh2045Perhaps the home run solution is also the simplest like we’ve seen in Baseball Highlights: 2045, where your 15 card deck reflects your team roster. You’ll periodically acquire free agents which are new and better cards added to your deck. By virtue of the baseball theme, each new signing requires a roster spot and you must send one of your current cards down to the minors, getting rid of it permanently. Both simple and thematic, you usually end up getting rid of your initial rookies and so you can strategically build a deck to contend for the pennant while keeping it thin and manageable.

flipcityIf Thunderstone and BH: 2045 build around the idea of upgrading your initial cards into something more, then Flip City twists the whole idea on upon itself. Every card in Flip City is double sided, and as you use cards and place them in your discard pile, they can be upgraded on future turns by flipping them over into the better version on the reverse side. The concept is quite interesting and more elegant than constantly exchanging by adding and removing cards with your deck. The idea arguably has at least one downside, as the double sided nature of the cards means players need to be very conscious of the orientation of cards.

Flip City also allows players an unusual option to overcome those sluggish turns due to drawing an inopportune hand. In Flip City, players can choose to draw as many cards as they like on their turn rather than the confines of the Dominion standard five card hand. There is a push your luck element to it to add some intrigue to the card draw, but it is a refreshing find in a deck-builder and is another idea to allow players to hurdle encumbrances during the game.

pergamemnonOne final idea is the opportunity to combat opponents by adding cards to their deck to slow their progress. Plenty of deck-builders have implemented some variation of this idea but the most interesting example in terms of strategy might be in Pergamemnon. Rather than buy cards players on their turn, a player can attack an opponent. It’s a deck builder with plenty of direct interaction and after back-and-forth card play the attack phase will either end in a stalemate or with a winner. The intriguing aspect is that if there is a winner, they get to take all of the loser’s played cards and add them to their discard pile (to be shuffled into their deck) or into a separate pile for use as currency or scoring benefit later.

While the winner of a conflict can often end up stealing powerful cards in the spoils of war, a player can manufacture a loss and use combat as a means of ridding themselves of their weakest cards. Such a move would enable their deck to become more concentrated with the cards they need moving forward. Not all victories occur on the battlefield and Pergamemnon allows players to manage their deck composition in this unusual and interesting way.


So what’s next for the builder genre? Certainly, the recent success of dice-builders and bag-builders suggests that making bags full of new mechanics and components could be on the horizon. How about a territory builder, where you invest in bits of land and construct them into an empire as you draw them from your bag? Or an army builder, where you can recruit various chess-like pieces to accomplish different tactical goals on the battlefield?

afewacresofsnowThere has been some transition as pure deck builders have given way to deck builders that incorporate a board or spacial aspect. Trains, A Few Acres of SnowFantastiqa, Asgard’s Chosen and Tyrants of the Underworld each present interesting relationships between the deck you build and the world you compete over with your opponents.

mysticvaleMystic Vale presents an intriguing use of components where transparent card sleeves allow players to “craft” cards by adding new traits to existing cards. It has a fascinating card-building within deck-building sensation wherein you’re building the collective synergy of the cards in your deck while also building synergy among the powers on each card.

Altering our notion of the discard pile will continue to provide innovations in design as well. How much of your inventory do you need to cycle through before you can use a particular card, die, or worker again? Discard piles make the math more even and predictable, while resetting every turn increases variance but also increases chances of a big turn. Most of all, letting players come up with not only the identity of their components but also their rate of moving through them and their partitioning of them into various refresh cycles could lead to the development of some fascinating emerging gameplay.

starrealmsDeck-builders have included cards with ongoing or permanent effects as long as they are in play, as in Ascension (constructs), Star Realms (bases), Resident Evil (characters) and DC Comics (locations). These tableau -like elements offer players the ability to utilize an action or ability from one turn to the next, which can help to influence some of the strategies and actions players wish to pursue in the highly tactical turn structure of many deck-builders.

From time to time we like to publish extended thoughts on topics and we certainly weren’t able every idea in just three articles about Pool Builders. Alex will be sending out our extended thoughts in early November covering our lasting thoughts on pool builders like Xenon: Profiteer, Kashgar: Händler der Seidenstraße, Cthulhu Realms and several we only touched on briefly thus far.

The bonus content covers ideas of avoiding dissatisfaction in pool builders, the most interesting findings in how games approach resource acquisition and a few opportunities for the future of pool builders in board game design. If we can share these thoughts with you, please feel free to subscribe via email (on our sidebar) or help support us on Patreon.

Whatever comes next, we’ll be here to analyze it.


3 comments on “Pool Builders – Observations & Innovations

  1. Joe Pilkus

    Great article, as always! As we design our game’s first expansion, we’re looking at some of the elements which you’ve beautifully described, in great detail, herein.

    Keep writing!


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