Deck hunting is an unsung mechanic that injects anticipation and unpredictability into card games like Go Fish, Fluxx, and Magic: The Gathering. Deck hunting isn’t listed in BoardGameGeek’s index of mechanics; it involves trying to look through a deck to find specific cards.

Go Fish is the easiest example. You’re trying to form pairs of cards, and if you can’t, you ask a player if they have a match or draw a card from the deck.

In the Fluxx family of card games, you typically win by having two cards (called Keepers) in your tableau that match the two cards on the current Goal card (this is the typical case, but there are exceptions). So the central mechanic to win is to hunt through the deck, either for a Goal card that matches your Keeper or Keeper cards that match a Goal card. Some of the types of cards that let you hunt through the deck:

  • Draw X Rule (e.g., “Draw 3”) – Let you draw the specified amount of cards (from “Draw 2” to “Draw 5”) rather than 1 card (the default) at the start of your turn. Drawing more cards lets you cycle faster through your deck to find the cards you need, but it’s a general rule, so your opponents will get to do the same thing to start their turn.
  • Draw X Action (e.g., “Draw 2 and Use Them”, “Everybody Gets 1”) – You set aside your hand and draw the specified number of cards, then act on them as described (e.g., “use them”, “decide who gets which”, “use some, discard the rest”).
  • Discard to Draw (e.g., “Goal Mill”) – You discard cards from your hand one-for-one to draw new cards. (Card list.)
  • Civscape-Code-of-Laws-victory

Many games that don’t have deck-hunting as a central mechanic will still have a card or two like the following:

  • Search Draw/Discard Pile – A player searches either the draw or discard pile for a specific card, or a specific type of card, then reshuffles. The card may require them to add it to their hand or to play it immediately. These let you dig deep, checking many cards, to hunt for a specific card you need.

I don’t think this style of card is great, as it often leads to significant downtime, while someone searches through dozens or even a hundred cards.

As a result, in Civscape, which was inspired by Fluxx, I limited such searches to looking through 5 cards instead:

  • Draw 5 Keep X (e.g., “Mine Silver”, “Aid from Persia”) – You set aside your hand, draw 5 cards and keep the specified number (2 and 3 respectively).
  • Draw 5 Keep 1 + 1 Per X (e.g., “Golden Age”, “Eureka!”) – You set aside your hand, draw 5 cards, keep a card, and keep an additional card for each of the specified types of cards you have in your tableau (e.g., Culture, Science respectively).

In addition, in Civscape your civilization’s economy is how many cards you draw at the start of your turn (1 card + 1 card for every 3 cards in your tableau), so that as you expand your city-state you can search further through the deck. This removes some of the ebbs and flows of Fluxx, which can make games drag on; in fact, in Civscape, often multiple players could have won within a turn or two when the game ends because of the way deck hunting scales over the course of the game.

I haven’t played the collectible card game Magic: The Gathering in over a decade, but it has hundreds of “tutors,” cards that let you search your own deck for specific other types of cards (artifacts, creatures, lands, etc.). For instance, the Enlightened Tutor card lets you search your deck for an enchantment or artifact card, which you show other players before reshuffling your deck and then placing the card you found on top of your deck. Tutors are often used near the end of a game to grab a card that will ensure victory or, conversely, to grab a card that will forestall defeat; another use is simply to play it if there is no better way to develop your board.

While deck hunting may seem like a pretty humble mechanic, suitable to take-that games intended for a broad audience (such as Fluxx and Civscape), its use in M:tG shows that there is a place for it even in hobbyist card games. The thrill of the hunt keeps such card games fun and engaging, as players constantly draw new cards to uncover new options, in a race against their opponents.

(For more on designing card games, check out my ebook, How to Design Card Games.)

Photo by Edson Junior on Unsplash.