While I’m aware that this question is subjective, I think deck building games that have river-style markets are more enjoyable than deck building games that have non-river-style markets. This post is my way of exploring why I feel that way.

A Bit of Context

The premise of a deck building game is that players start with a small deck of cards that is fairly weak and over the course of the game they are able to improve the strength of their deck by acquiring better cards and potentially removing some of the bad starting cards from the deck. Different games may have players use their cards to pursue victory in different ways, but all of the deck building games I’m aware of have this basic premise. I want to focus on the mechanic of acquiring new cards and adding them to one’s deck. More specifically, the options available to a player when choosing which new card to acquire on their turn.

Types of Card Acquisition Markets

Dominion is a deck building game that has an open card acquisition market. During setup, players decide which unique cards will compose the pool of available cards to acquire or purchase during play. From the start, players know exactly what options are available to purchase and each unique card gets its own supply pile so that multiple copies of it can be bought over the course of the game. Clank! is a deck building game with a river-style card acquisition market. The difference here is that there is a deck of purchasable cards, but only six are available for purchase at a given time. If a player buys cards on their turn, cards are drawn to replace the ones bought at the end of their turn. In Ascension, cards are replaced during the player’s turn as they are bought so different games can vary in terms of rules, but the important part here is that new cards become available to buy that weren’t available before.

A Simpler Vocabulary

“Acquiring cards from a river-style market” is just too long of a phrase to use in common conversation. The group of friends I play games with had come up with the phrase “river drafting” to mean the same thing while being much shorter. It is important to note that “drafting” in card games is a completely different mechanic, but the appending of river in front of the word gave us the context we needed to understand the difference. I think the word river here is used because new cards are unveiled in a way that makes the deck flow like a river, but I always thought the term was a reference to the final card the dealer turns over in a hand of Poker, “The River”. Either way, river drafting is not a widely used phrase and there is no real companion phrase for non-river drafting deck building games. I suppose to keep the analogy going, it should be something like “lake drafting”. Perhaps if I use it enough, someday it will catch on.

The Benefits and Drawbacks of Lake Drafting

The biggest strength of lake drafting is that the contents of the lake are known and available during the entire game. This allows players to make a plan of what they want to do in order to pursue victory, essentially develop a strategy. Executing said strategy can vary based on which cards you draw from your deck and when, but for the most part the strategy is sound and remains intact. Another benefit that Dominion capitalizes on, is that the contents of the lake can be changed from game to game to provide variety or replay-ability. Or it could be kept the same and players can play again to put their strategy to the test with the same starting conditions. This is sort of like replicating experiments to find out if the strategy is consistently good or not. The downside of lake drafting is that player’s purchases don’t directly affect other players. People who are less enamored with the game may describe Dominion as four separate games of solitaire that has one winner in the end. This isn’t really true as there are cards that have abilities that affect other players, but the purchases are a bit solitaire-like.

The Benefits and Drawbacks of River Drafting

With river drafting comes player interaction. Purchasing a card on offer means that other players won’t be able to purchase that card. Since the contents of the river are changing every turn, players have different decisions to make from turn to turn. I’ve heard it described that this is an example of tactics rather than strategy. Tactics involve making an optimal choice in the current situation while strategy is more about the overarching plan. Some people may argue that the ever changing river ruins the player’s ability to have a strategy and that one can only live in the moment. This idea stems from the notion that flipping over cards that were previously unknown makes this more luck-based than they would like it to be. I’d argue that one can still have a strategy and make tactical decisions to support that strategy, but some situations may lead to a pivot in strategy. I’d also argue that despite the added element of chance, there are still ways for river drafting to be skill testing. Sometimes it’s an obvious choice to buy the card that supports your strategy, while other times it may be correct to buy a card that doesn’t help you, but it does keep it away from an opponent who would get a huge benefit out of it, I refer to this dynamic as “hate drafting”, or perhaps the cards in the river won’t help you right now and it is correct to not buy anything this turn. Knowing which choice to make is a skill and I like the challenge of making the best out of a bad situation. If some lucky flips give my opponent first crack at all of the best cards in the game, I change my goal for the game to be to figure out how well I can do despite the fact that I won’t win, or perhaps I’ll find a way to stage a comeback and surprise myself.

Why I prefer River Drafting

I think that the extra layer of player interaction that river drafting provides keeps me more engaged when playing. One has to pay attention and watch what other people buy on their turns to not only monitor how they are doing, but to keep tabs on who bought the card that you wanted. In addition, the element of chance that it brings doesn’t have to be seen as a pure negative. It can act as a way to level the playing field between players of different skill levels. It has the potential to give less skilled players a better chance to win. With that chance, they may be more inclined to keep playing and with more play they can get better at the game. In this regard it could be argued that river drafting games are better for introducing newcomers to the genre.

Obviously both types of deck building games have their place in the world of enjoyable board games and I don’t dislike Dominion. As the deck building game that created the genre, it deserves a lot of respect. I just happen to derive more enjoyment out of playing deck building games with river drafting.

More Bang for Your Buck

There is this idea around games that some people think they should get a certain number of hours of playtime or enjoyment out of a game to justify its price. A one-to-one ratio of hours to dollars is not unheard of. This is a notion that I disagree with because there exists short games with gripping stories that make the games worth their prices. For example, I really enjoyed playing Ori and the Blind Forest. It is a twenty dollar game that I finished in nine hours and I have no regrets about the purchase at all, quite the opposite. In fact, I’m really excited for the sequel that will come out in March.

Ori and the Blind Forest – Steam Page Image

For some reason, however, I find myself falling into the trap of this idea when it is in the game’s favor. For instance, I purchased Slay the Spire for around fifteen dollars in 2018, slightly cheaper than the current price because the game was in early access then. I’ve since played the game for almost three hundred hours and one could say I’ve certainly got my moneys worth. I want to be able to just say that I had fun playing the game and so it was worth getting, but I can’t help but want to support my statement by bringing my hours played into the equation.

Slay the Spire – Summary of One of My Favorite Runs

There are also the occasional games that I feel guilty about how little I paid for a game compared to how much fun I had. One such example is Hollow Knight. This mostly has to do with the developers of the game releasing multiple extra content updates for free since the game came out. Those updates had so much content that I found myself thinking that I would have paid for these updates in the form of a DLC. I look forward to this game’s upcoming sequel, not only for what I imagine will be another great game, but also as a convenient opportunity to pay the developers for the work they have done.

Hollow Knight – Steam Page Image

The “Protest”

Terraforming Mars is without a doubt, my favorite board game. I’ve bought every expansion and played it quite a bit solo and even more with friends while I was in Undergrad. I played it so much with those friends, that one of them is near burnt out on the game, saying that we play it too much. At the time, once a week, every week was enough to tide me over. Now that I’m in Grad school and have moved away from those friends, I’m in withdrawal with regard to playing the game enough. Back in 2018 when we found out a digital version of the game was being made, we were optimistic that we would have a good way to play the game together without having to meet in person. Myself and another one of the friend group got access to a beta for the game and long story short, we found ourselves disappointed.

Terraforming Mars – Steam Page Image

A digital implementation of the base game, with no expansions, a plethora of bugs, only some of which were game breaking, and no draft variant implementation led to us making a sort of pact that we called “the protest” where we wouldn’t purchase the game until we saw some major improvements. Where it was at and the twenty-five dollar price did not match up for us. Something that was interesting was that the first time a steam sale lowered the price, we noticed that the base price was changed to twenty dollars immediately after the sale ended. There was a specific sale last year that had the game at eight dollars, the cheapest it had ever been and yet even with bug fixes and adding draft functionality since launch, neither of us purchased the game. The “protest” continues to this day.

Kickstarting Expensive Board Games

More recently, I’ve started Kickstarting board games I’m interested in. It’s been an interesting new experience for me, because instead of purchasing something and getting it right away or shortly after, Kickstarting a board game is more akin to putting money down on a distant preorder. Divinity Original Sin the Board Game is likely the most expensive game I’ve ever bought. Pledging for the definitive edition set me back over two hundred dollars. And since the game won’t be shipping until at least October, it will be awhile before I can get the chance to find out if my purchase was worth it or not. I have a feeling it will be, but I can’t yet know for sure.

Divinity Original Sin the Board Game – Kickstarter Page Image

Miscellaneous Musings

As a tangent to the hours of enjoyment to money spent idea, I could certainly pay the price of a game to see a movie in theaters, with popcorn, get far fewer hours of enjoyment out of it, and not question the decision, assuming I liked the movie. I’m not sure why, but at least for myself the idea or fear of buyer’s remorse is more likely to show up with regard to game purchases, even if I rarely regret purchases I make.

Another thing of note is that the bulk of my points have been made from the consumer’s perspective. The developer’s of the games will likely have different answers to the question how much a game should cost. I think it is likely a difficult balancing act. On one side, they need to price the game high enough to make enough money to cover the cost of paying the people who worked on the game, or the material cost of components for board games, while on the other side they need to price the game low enough that people will actually buy it. This balancing act will likely leave the profit margins small which leads to needing a specific number of people to purchase the game before it is successful.

Unfortunately, I’m left thinking that the cost of games should vary depending on the game. I know that is essentially a nothing answer, but it is the best I have; a sort of gut feeling that can be put to the test by playing the game. I do think that this conclusion does bring into question why most console games are exactly sixty dollars. I think this one price fits all model is likely one that should be moved away from. Some games might need to cost more, while others have no business costing sixty dollars. Personally I think the collection of mini-games that is 1 2 Switch is still overpriced at fifty, which is probably why I never bought it.

1 2 Switch – Box Art Image From Nintendo’s Website