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The roguelike board game in Inscryption. The player is holding a deck of animal-themed cards. The opponent is in shadow, with the whites of his eyes showing. He is holding candlesticks and looking menacing. Image: Daniel Mullins Games/Devolver Digital

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Struggling with deck building? Try these unconventional card games

In Dear Polygon, we’ve got answers for your questions

Nicole Carpenter is a senior reporter specializing in investigative features about labor issues in the game industry, as well as the business and culture of games.

Dear Polygon,

I love a good card game, but I struggle with deck building. I’ve tried lots of games from SteamWorld Quest to Marvel Snap, and while I enjoy the thrill of puzzling out how to play my hand, anticipating what cards I might draw and setting up a good deck from there has always been a struggle for me, so I inevitably leave the game behind. What can I do to tap into the other side of the coin here? Am I doomed to disappointment? Thanks.

— Card Confused

I’m with you, Card Confused. I wouldn’t have described myself as someone who likes card games until I played Marvel Snap, but now I am. But I’m still overwhelmed by deck building and planning out clever strategies in advance — but if I have a deck already made for me, I feel less intimidated by working out ideas. I would have absolutely recommended Marvel Snap if you hadn’t mentioned it. The way cards slowly unlock was helpful for me in not getting overwhelmed by the sheer number of cards I could pick.

I don’t know how to change the way you feel about deck building, or how to make that easier for you, unfortunately — especially if Marvel Snap didn’t do the trick for you. But maybe you just haven’t found the right kind of card game yet to keep you interested. It seems like card-based gaming is having a moment, and there are a bunch of card games that make the genre more approachable by adding different story elements and mechanics — it feels natural to experiment, too, without playing against actual humans.

Have you played Inscryption? It was Polygon’s game of the year in 2021. It’s a puzzle game, a roguelike, an escape room, and a deck-building game. The game’s narrative unfolds as you’re learning how to play the card game, which could be a motivator to keep you playing. The deck-builder is intertwined with the escape room it’s placed in, and is only one part of the game’s twisting story (though if you love it, there’s an expansion that lets you play the card portion over and over). There are a lot of layers to pick apart, like Polygon’s Cass Marshall said: “Inscryption is a game about games, centered around a narrative with as many layers as a Russian nesting doll.”

I’d also recommend Signs of the Sojourner, a game where the cards are a stand-in for conversation. You take the cards you’re dealt, using them to make friends (and enemies) through conversation. Each card has to match (or not) the “tone” of a conversation. Your deck changes as you make decisions about how to interact, and such choices shape the deck, and thus shape the way you can connect to others. It’s absolutely not a traditional card game, and that’s its big strength.

I also want to call out Stacklands, a village-building game using cards. You combine cards on a board as if it were solitaire, building out a village and making sure the villagers survive. You start with three cards with resources, but as the game goes on, you’ll get a bunch more cards — like fruit bushes, new material types, and even weapons and armor — that enable more complex stacks. It allows for a lot of experimentation, too; put two cards together and just see what happens.

There are two more games that are more complex, but don’t lock you into one specific deck: Griftlands and Slay the Spire. Griftlands stands out thanks to its story. You play as one of three characters in this sci-fi Western RPG, building two decks (combat and negotiation) as you cajole and fight your way through the town. RPG elements balance out the deck building: You can have item cards that heal or add buffs, you can also add NPC friends, and even pets, to your crew. And while Slay the Spire has some of the most challenging deck building of the bunch, it’s one of the most versatile. Because it’s a roguelike, you’re never locked into a strategy for too long, which means trying wilder builds (think Hades) and quickly learning how to get better at the game.

That said, both of these last two games feel less approachable than the others I mentioned here, which may not be what you’re looking for. That’s not to say that the games I named above are simple — they’re all complex in different ways, but make for more approachable deck building.