I don’t know why, but the lesson game designers seemed to take from Dominion is that deckbuilding is cool, but it’s not random enough. Or perhaps that’s just what has risen to the top in popularity. Star Realms, Ascension, Clank, and now Dune: Imperium have all gained tremendous popularity despite utilizing what I find to be an increasingly annoying mechanism: a random card display.
I expected this to be my simple thesis, but upon further reflection it’s not as simple as I previously thought. Blame Mage Knight.
It’s not a universal rule, of course, but I think it brings down the four games I mentioned. Deckbuilding is about constructing a stack of cards, an asset, that is yours. You shuffle it, draw from it, hold it, and keep it in front of you. The cards you play from it are your cards, chosen by you. The deck is fickle on occasion because of the shuffle, but, of course, it was your shuffle. Part of what you’re building, hopefully, is a deck that contains synergies and combos–cards that work with each other to produce more value together than they would individually. A random display hampers your capability to access such tactics, for the cards required may never show up for you.
Furthermore, a random display makes purchasing a card risky in certain situations, because it populates a new card for the next player. If acquiring a card is marginal, you may choose to forgo the fun part of the game (new cards!) in order to prohibit your opponent from seeing a potentially powerful card from the top of the deck. In both games of Dune: Imperium I’ve played the card display has become quite static by the midgame with low-cost, low-power cards for this reason. It’s a decision point, yes, but one in which “do nothing” is a major possibility and that’s not very interesting.
Dune: Imperium has an additional liability in that the game is a maximum of 10 rounds, which is incredibly short for a deckbuilder. Borrowing from Star Realms, it has faction synergies, but you’re unlikely to be able to exploit them because any card you buy will probably only be seen a couple of times at most. Every card, instead of expressing promise, is immediately tossed into the abyss of your slow-moving deck. I don’t think Dune: Imperium is a bad game, but the deckbuilding is clearly the weakest part.
Mage Knght’s Solution
Mage Knight isn’t so different from Dune: Imperium in how its deckbuilding works, but the differences it does have create a completely different experience. Both games have a random card display (Mage Knight has two, in fact). Both games have the player go through their deck only a few times: in Mage Knight six times and in Dune: Imperium however many times you can over roughly 7-10 rounds. But Mage Knight is distinct in five ways, and each of them give the player more agency and more power.
1. Cycling. You cycle a card out of each display every round, helping it not grow stale. Over the course of a game of Mage Knight you’re going to see a pretty good chunk of each deck. For people who understand the cards well, that means they can plan ahead with some, but not complete information. For everyone else it simply means that you’re presented with a number of card options irrespective of how many cards are acquired.
2. No explicit synergies. While there are certainly cards in Mage Knight that work well together (one allows you to use movement in an attack, which boosts all movement cards, for instance), there are no explicit synergies–no “if you have x, get y” cards. This allows each individual card to have a lot of…
3. Power. The average card you’d gain in Mage Knight, particularly spells, is significantly more powerful than anything you have in your starting deck. In Dune: Imperium there are a variety of power levels for the cards, because there’s a cost function, but I only saw a few high-cost cards that offered a truly large amount of strength by themselves. This offsets the downside of only being able to use that card a couple of times because each application is memorable. Additionally, in Mage Knight you have more…
4. Knowledge. You know that you will get access to each of your cards each round in Mage Knight. Indeed, that’s how the duration of a round is measured. When I get a huge spell in round four I know I’m going to be able to play that card three times. If I spend a lot of money on a card in Dune: Imperium, especially late in the game, I don’t know if I’m ever going to be able to play it. This feels disarming.
5. Immediacy. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, when you get a card in Mage Knight it goes to your hand instead of your discard pile. You get to play with your shiny new toy right away, instead of tossing it face-down into a pile of other cards where it simply becomes one among many.* A new card in Mage Knight is a reward. In Dune: Imperium it’s a potential reward.
Randomness in board gaming is seasoning; it’s spice. Sometimes a lot works for a particular dish, and sometimes it needs to be subtle. But it’s an element that needs to be carefully controlled and considered in each design. Randomness on top of randomness multiplies on itself and is typically a bad idea (though I’m sure there are notable exceptions out there).
The meat of most games (to extend the analogy) is player accomplishment. The line between agency and arbitrariness is thin, and I’m convinced one of the most critical tasks of the game designer is to walk that thin line to create a thrilling yet strategic experience.
*I’m reminded of the gas station scene in No Country for Old Men. “Don’t put it in your pocket…Where it’ll get mixed in with the others and become just a coin.”