I have mentioned more than a few times on this site that my two most beloved games are Twilight Struggle and Small World. It is perhaps no surprise then that area control is my favourite gaming mechanic. There are plenty of other area control games that I enjoy, Mission Red Planet, 8 Minute Empire, Tikal, and more. Of late, however, I have been moonlighting with the drafting mechanic. In a dry strict sense drafting is a mechanic where players take resources from a common pool to gain an advantage. The nature of a draft is that you are presented with several resources, but only allowed to take one from among the selection. A key component of drafting is not just the selecting of a resource, but that it is a restricted choice that results in all resources being distributed among the players. Drafting is a concept that we are familiar with from an early age. In school we would line up for a game of football (or whatever team sport), nominate two captains, and those players would take turns selecting kids to be on their team. The drafting format was popularised in the gaming world with Magic the Gathering (MtG). In this format, players would start with three packs of cards, open a pack and select one card and then pass the remaining cards to the next player. This process is repeated until all cards have been evenly distributed. Since then games have taken this idea and brought it to the fore of their designs. Yet the more I examine the mechanic the harder it becomes for me to define which games are actually pure drafting games.
It may seem silly, but drafting games are not a clearly identifiable genre of gaming. As an example, many top ten lists of drafting games invariably contain the game Ticket To Ride (TTR). Yet I think defining TTR like this does not really reflect the core of the game. If I said I was recommending drafting games I would not say TTR would fall anywhere on the list. While drafting cards is an element of the game it does nothing to describe the feel or experience. It would be better to say that Ticket to Ride is a track laying game because it is the core mechanic that leads to point scoring. The goal of TTR is to build tracks across the country and connect train lines. The focus is on the board and the trains. I know many people who struggle with calling TTR a drafting game and I tend to agree. While my earlier example of Magic the Gathering fits the definition of drafting perfectly, no one would say that Magic is a drafting game either. This problem is replicated across the many games I looked at.
Marvel Legendary and it’s subsequent I.P.’s are a hugely popular series of drafting games. While drafting is necessary for gaining cards in these games, they are better described as deck builders. Deck building games similar to the draft style of play at MtG Tournaments. Marvel Legendary and MtG do contain a drafting element, but again the purpose is to build a player deck that you rely on for all actions you take within the game.
When considering drafting games 7 Wonders is an obvious selection as it has firmly established itself as THE drafting game. At least with 7 Wonders, the primary activity spent in game is drafting, but then you score based on how you build a tableau. As opposed to deck builders the cards are drafted into a tableau. Yet does this mean all tableau building games should be called drafting games? San Juan, Innovation, Glory to Rome are all tableau builders and recognised as such, but not necessarily called drafting games. At this stage, it might be worth saying that drafting is only a subset of other mechanics. Drafting is just about the acquisition of resources and then another mechanic determines how the resources are used. In my opinion, this leaves Sushi Go as a quintessential drafting game. Despite drafting into a tableau there is minimal activated abilities or complicated mechanics once the resource is acquired, unlike 7 Wonders, Elysium and Fairy Tale where each card triggers different abilities that interact with the game in specified ways. This might be the archetype that forms the basis of defining the mechanic, which leaves me wondering if drafting can really expect to be popular as it’s own mechanic. Sushi Go is essentially a lighter version of 7 Wonders and has found huge success, but how many games can focus on drafting cards and then just scoring different sets before people get bored and want more.
Despite the bleak nature of my questioning, what I have learned is how versatile the mechanic is in supporting games. It proves very useful for distributing resources in a way that causes players to agonise over choices and weigh risk reward while doing so. It has made itself a solid part of the Board Game Geek top 100 games finding its way into many of the top games including Through the Ages, Terraforming Mars, 7 Wonders Duel, Mage Knight, War of the Ring, Mechs Vs Minions, and Blood Rage to name only a few.
So far, however, we have only covered games that draft cards, but some games draft other resources. I would argue that many tile laying games are drafting games. Alhambra drafts buildings that score based on how you place them into a tableau. Of late we have seen the rise of dice drafting. Quarriors popularised this style of play that eventually was reshaped into the hugely successful Dice Masters series. Dice not only contain the advantage of drafting a resource, a die can be multiple resources with an unknown outcome. In Dice Masters the die acts as energy for drafting other dice and acts as the character you need for battle. Games that have taken the theme down other avenues include one of my personal favourites Blueprints. In Blueprints you are constructing buildings and trying to draft necessary colours and pips and looking to place them in optimal scoring positions. It’s like 7 Wonders where the die you draft will score based on what it is, what number is showing, and how you place it into your building. Other games to run with the versatility of dice includes Roll player and Sagrada.
Pure drafting seems too limited to support a game on its own. Games like 7 Wonders and Sushi Go are the stand out achievements, but it is questionable if a glut of games following the drafting mechanic as strictly as these games will occur. From my exploration, I think drafting will prove an invaluable mechanic for many games to come due to how versatile and adaptable it is as part of a system of mechanics. I suspect that dice and tiles will be only a few of the forms this mechanic will take in the future. But before I leave this discussion here, I want to offer some of my favourite drafting games as recommendations and why I enjoyed them. They are most likely games you have played before, but it may be a good reason to go get them to the table again.
Among the Stars: I only recently acquired a copy of this game. It’s inexpensive and offers a theme I find almost irresistible. Building a space station is fun and trying to get all the different types of buildings into my station requires careful consideration as I balance cards that score immediately, cards that score at the end of the game, overall objectives, and player abilities. It offers a great deal of depth with card placement while still making the draft the main focus.
Eminent Domain: This could easily be called a deck building game, but the drafting element is the fun part for me. Again the theme is one of my favourites. Set in space you are exploring worlds and forming colonies, conquering planets, developing technologies and much more. To perform your desired action for each turn you must draft the corresponding card to that action. This is great because the strength of your action is determined by the number of cards you play. For example, I want to colonise a planet and it requires 8 cards. I play 3 "Colonise" cards and must draft one from the centre resources proving me with an extra card to go towards my action. The more I draft the more I can do that action as I get those cards into my hand. This is great as you start to get a pace to your play. But this deceptive forced drafting mechanic also begins to clog up your actions each turn. To be competitive you will need to do more than just one action each turn and so getting other ability card str hand is important. Yet the forced drafting can clog your hand up and slow you down if you are not careful. It requires some careful play and provides for a great challenge.
Roll Player: is a wonderful dice and card drafting game where you are building the perfect adventurer. Throughout the game you will compete to get the best colours, right number of pips, and get them into the right spots on your player board. It may be a point salad game, but it is also a tricky brain burner and a great deal of fun.
Biblios: Is a simple game that is played over two phases. The draft phase is simple yet unique. Each player gets a card and you decide. One for you, one for the bidding pile, and one for each player. The only problem is that you can only draw one card at a time. As you draw you are trying to collect sets of cards, but you have no idea if the card you are taking is the best card you will draw or of the next card will be better. It creates great tension in the draft, but also adds a good mix of how information is shared. The second phase the cards drafted into the bidding deck are auctioned off. Now you know what cards you put in there, you know what cards you are collecting and you have some insight of what cards your opponents have from each of your turns. There is enough known information to make small deductions, but enough hidden information to make you question everything you know.
I hope that is impetus enough to go out and play some good drafting games. Of course, if you are looking for some great games our sponsor, TheBig Game Theory, can help you with all your gaming needs.