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.