General Strategy for Card Drafting Games
The card drafting or "pick and pass" mechanic has grown considerably in the last few years. With games like Sushi Go or Fairy Tale on the lighter end or Treasure Hunter and 7 Wonders featuring meatier gameplay, the mechanic has been explored by more and more designers. Inspired by the Magic: the Gathering limited format "booster draft", drafting games take the classic fun of sitting around a table with some friends, building your own pool of cards, and remove the pesky "play a separate game" component in traditional limited Trading Card Game formats.
If you are new to the genre, or are sitting down to play a new game for the first time, there are a number of high level strategies that can be applied to drafting games. You might be familiar with variations or game-specific versions of these concepts, and some games change the way these mechanics operate or can be evaluated.
Picks per Hand
When approaching any drafting game for the first time, there’s some basic information that you can begin to analyze the moment you’ve been handed your first set of cards. Right off the bat it is important to determine how many opportunities you will have to select a card from what you have been dealt.
In a 3-player game with a ten card hand, assuming one pick per hand, per player you will select 3 cards from your initial hand and receive the final card as your last pick.
This allows you to quickly understand the value you can assign to the density of synergistic cards in that hand. Cards that require multiple copies or synergistic types to produce points or a positive effect are often referred to as having an opportunity cost. There’s no benefit in recognizing a synergy between cards with a high opportunity cost if you don't have the ability to acquire them all.
In Sushi Go, a hand full of Dumplings doesn’t always mean you will be able to acquire a full set of 5. It might be beneficial to take the highest expected value card (perhaps a 3-point Nigiri) and keep on the lookout in subsequent hands to see if Dumplings exist in the proper density among all hands to make their expected value higher than other picks.
Expected Card Value
Every card drafting game has cards with a high intrinsic value (large points, relevant effects, easier opportunity costs). If you assume all players are rational actors, you can strongly assume that these cards will be picked highly. You’ll hear these referred to as "first picks," "bombs," or simply "the best card in the hand."
Other cards can be rated in "quality" based on their intrinsic value, strength of effect, or ease of opportunity cost. As such, you can assign an approximate value to each card - how many points, or how much closer to the goal will each card get you on its own, ignoring synergies and opportunity costs that are unknown. In the case of games based around collecting points, this can become pretty straightforward. A 3-point card is better than a 2-point card, and a 4-point card is better than either one!
In the poker game 5 Card Draw, it is often worth holding on to a lone Ace during when drawing new cards as it is both the highest-ranked card and will form the strongest pair. It has the highest expected value of any card in the deck.
"Deterministic Picks" is really just a fancy way of saying "The best pick for each player." Identifying Deterministic Picks generally requires an understanding of the mechanics of a game, and is often what you are trying to figure out on the first few playthroughs of a game. Once you can recognize how many high value cards are in a given hand, you can begin to deduce what might remain in the hand when it returns to you. This action, of correctly identifying a card that will be passed around the table and then making that pick is generally referred to as "wheeling" a card.
I don’t know how it happened, but the Time Walk wheeled around the table. There must not be any other players in blue.
Intentionally choosing a card of lesser value when there is a deterministically better pick is generally called an out-of-position pick, this can be used to attempt to manipulate the behavior of other players, or conceal your intentions. Similarly, getting to wheel a card or acquiring a high-value pick later than expected can be called a positive out-of-position pick.
Generally, in games where picks are public, the later in a round the more deterministic a hand will become. If you can identify the strongest pick for each player (perhaps one card completes a set, or synergizes well with another card they already have), it is often possible to manipulate these choices through out-of-position picks to disrupt their strategy or gain an advantage,
The strength of a hand is largely determined by game mechanics, such as point value or set alignment, and understanding expected card value is relevant to making a proper evaluation of the strength of a hand. However, there are some broad takeaways regardless of individual mechanics.
High-value hands (those with a lot of top or very good value cards) will often allow for medium-value cards to be picked later than they objectively "should" be picked. If you identify a high value hand, it may be worth selecting a lower value pick and leaving the hand full of high value cards to force deterministic picks and set up better value selections for yourself on the wheel.
In Sushi-Go, when dealt a hand containing multiple Wasabi cards (regarded as a very strong pick) and multiple Sashimi cards (a set-based card), you could consider leaving the higher value Wasabi in order to strengthen the odds of wheeling the set of Sashimi, or in an attempt to acquire a Wasabi as a far later pick than usual.
On the flip side, low-value hands (those containing lesser valued cards) are going to have cards picked purely on expected card value. If a low-value hand also contains cards with a high opportunity cost, you can take advantage of the fact that players are more apt to "play it safe" and select the low-value cards with no opportunity cost. This leaves you the potential to make positive out-of-position picks and gain more value from that hand than other players.
Quantifying Hidden Information
Drafting games are unique in that they often contain hidden information that is rapidly revealed over the course of a few turns, where at the end of a round or game players are acting based on near-perfect information.
In some games, once you have seen all the hands, you may be playing a round with near-perfect information. In these situations, there is an increased incentive to make picks that do not reveal your strategic intentions even if they are of lower expected value then picks that synergize or commit to a strategy.
You can also use the threat of hidden information as a tool. In early phases of a round, you may be able to make picks in a way to force a player to commit to a strategy while there is a large amount of hidden information remaining.
Early in a hand of Treasure Hunter, selecting the last non-colored card may force a player to use at least one pick on a colored card, without knowing the density of cards of that color in all the hands.
As hidden information is reduced through drafting or other game mechanics, the predictability of a player’s actions will increase. This can be taken advantage of through "counterpicking."
Simply put, counterpicking is the act of drafting a card that has little or no value to you, in order to prevent another player from acquiring that card. It is generally a defensive strategy, and is often only applicable after players have shown their strategy.
It is also worthwhile to consider counterpicking if you have identified a high-value card that you aren’t able to utilize, but could be picked positively out-of-position by another player. This is to prevent that player from gaining much better total value for the entire hand. Frequently this is a "dead" or worthless pick for you. Some games make it a more viable strategy by compensating for a low-value pick.
In 7 Wonders, a player has the option of discarding a drafted card face down in exchange for 3 gold. This allows for cards that are counterpicked (or just generally sub-optimal picks) to have at least a partial value, and can make the strategy more appealing if it blocks a player from acquiring resources they may need.
Though counterpicking is often a sub-optimal play, when the benefits outweigh most other potential picks or there are no beneficial cards left, it is important to analyze the information other players have revealed and make a defensive pick.
There are vastly more strategies and concepts card drafting games have to offer, and each game brings its own pantheon of mechanics and variations that can vastly change all these ideas. That’s part of the fun of picking up a new drafting game! Sometimes, expected value won’t be obvious. In other games, synergies are vastly more important for building engines. And many games allow previously drafted cards to impact and reshape your entire strategy as the game continues. Get out there and draft some cards!
- Sushi-Go - A great introduction to the deck building genre. Light mechanics and a fun theme makes it highly accessible for players of all skill levels and even non-gamers.
- Fairy Tale - A light game that adds player interaction and persistence to superb drafting mechanics. Quick to play, and has a very dynamic pace.
- Treasure Hunter - A medium-complexity game that expands the card drafting mechanism with player interaction. It explores fun areas like highly-variable card valuation and high amounts of hidden information.
- 7 Wonders - The classic drafting game. Moderately high in complexity, but well worth introducing to a group that has had their fill of lighter drafting games. It features persistence and highly synergistic mechanics.
- Magic: the Gathering - Card drafting is an alternate format and not part of the primary trading card game. It’s still great.
- 5-Card Draw Poker - Also known as Cantrell draw, a simple and widely-played poker variant.