Beyond Poker: Reiner Knizia’s Deck Buster
Beyond Poker reviews games which are not poker, but which scratch the same itch or exercise similar strategic muscles. In this series you’ll find games which involve hidden information and bluffing, probabilistic thinking, risk-reward estimation, or which simply apply poker concepts like the hand rankings in a novel context.
Earlier this month, I reviewed a simple poker-based game for iOS called Outs!; now I’d like to tell you about another, older game in the same vein, but with a bit more depth to it. It’s called Deck Buster, and is, to my knowledge, the first foray the German tabletop game designer Reiner Knizia made into the digital space, although many of his physical games have now had digital adaptations.
Knizia is a PhD mathematician, and it shows in the sort of games he produces. His creations are famous in the tabletop games world as being archetypical of “Euro style” design, meaning that they tend to be quite abstract in theme, with simple, elegant mechanics that nonetheless produce tons of strategy, and an emphasis on efficiency rather than direct conflict with opponents. He’s also incredibly prolific – BoardGameGeek lists over 450 products he’s connected to in some way – but some of his best-known games include Tigris & Euphrates, Lost Cities, Ra and Ingenious. I will likely be reviewing his card game Battle Line in a later instalment of Beyond Poker.
Unlike Outs!, Deck Buster is not free, but as an older title it is now selling for a mere 99 cents, and is a steal at that price.
I think I can guess at how Deck Buster came about: Knizia wanted to make a mobile game, and was told that casino-style games do well, so he began with the question, “How can I take video poker and make it more strategic?” That, in a nutshell, tells you how the game feels and may give you an inkling of how it plays, as well.
As with some video poker machines, Deck Buster can be played either straight up or in a wild card variant; these are known in the game as Deck Buster 32 and Deck Buster Wild. I will describe the rules for Deck Buster 32 for now, but Deck Buster Wild works almost identically and I’ll explain the differences at the end of this section.
You begin a game of Deck Buster with three empty rows to put cards into, each with five slots. The first card available to you is shown in the upper left, and below that is a counter showing the number of cards remaining until your game is over. By completing poker hands, you’ll be able to increase that counter, and the basic objective of the game is to keep going as long as possible.
You place one card at a time into any empty slot in any of the three rows. When a row gets filled, the hand is scored and, assuming you’ve done better than High Card, you score points and increment your card counter, from 1 card and 100 points for a pair, up to 16 cards and 1600 points for a Royal Flush. The full list is as follows:
Pair: 1 card / 100 pts.
Two Pair: 2 cards / 200 pts.
Three of a Kind: 3 cards / 300 pts.
Straight: 4 cards / 400 pts.
Flush: 5 cards / 500 pts.
Full House: 6 cards / 600 pts.
Four of a Kind: 8 cards / 800 pts.
Straight Flush: 12 cards / 1200 pts.
Royal Flush: 16 cards / 1600 pts.
When the bottommost row or rows are filled, they drop off the screen, the other rows slide down, and new blank rows are added to the top. Thus, you can keep going and completing hands for as long as your card count doesn’t drop to zero. (You receive bonus points for causing multiple rows to drop off the screen at once, but this is nearly irrelevant to your final score and you shouldn’t worry too much about it.)
This would be a reasonably strategic game on its own, but where things get interesting is with the “Golden Combinations” rule. Initially, every possible hand rank (Pair, Two Pair, etc. up to Royal Flush) is “golden,” meaning that you’ll get 5 cards and 500 points bonus the first time you form a hand of that rank. Thus, you’re always trying to make hands of a type you’ve never made before. Furthermore, if you manage to scratch every type of hand off the list, it resets, meaning you can once more score the bonus for each hand type a second time. Finish the list again and you get to do it a third time, and so on.
This is important, because it takes five cards to form a hand, but even a Flush only adds five cards to your counter, and anything worse is loss-making. Thus, without the Golden Combinations, your game is likely to end swiftly, so completing the list and resetting those bonuses is key to putting together a long run and chasing a high score.
Deck Buster Wild works identically to Deck Buster 32, except that Deuces are wild, Pair and Two Pair hands score nothing (and are not on the list of Golden Combinations), and two hand ranks are added: Five of a Kind (12 cards, 1200 points) and Four Deuces (20 cards, 2000 points). It complicated the strategy somewhat, in that making best use of your Deuces is critical, but if you know how to play one version, picking up the other is trivial.
As alluded to in my explanation of the rules, the focus of the game is on completing the list of Golden Combinations as quickly and as frequently as possible, as this is the only way to avoid depleting your counter and having the game end. It’s possible to forestall the inevitable by completing Flushes and better, but this is only ever a stopgap measure while you’re waiting to find the right cards to make whatever hand it is that you’re missing to complete the list and unlock a fresh set of bonuses.
Obviously, you’re rarely going to be missing a hand from the bottom of the list; most often, the last thing to cross off will be Four of a Kind, a Straight Flush or a Royal Flush. That, in turn, means that it’s important to focus on trying to make those hands whenever there’s an outside chance of doing so, as you’ll inevitably “back into” the other types of hands in the process. Your failed Straight Flushes will often end up giving you regular Straights and Flushes instead, while your failed Four of a Kinds will often become your Three of a Kinds and Full Houses, so it’s rare to be missing one of those hands when the rest of the list is complete.
One crucial thing to realize is that not all rows are equal. You’re much more likely to hit a hand that you’re building in the top row than you are when you put your cards in the bottom row, because filling the bottom rows adds new rows to the top, which lets you see more cards before you’re forced to spoil a hand by finishing it with a card you didn’t want.
If you had four cards to a Royal Flush in the bottom row, for instance, with the rest of the grid empty, you would get to see 11 cards before being forced to finish it (by filling up the top two first, before finally being forced to place the 11th into the remaining slot at the bottom). If your four suited broadway cards were in the top row, on the other hand, you’d get to see 21 cards in total, by filling up the bottom two rows, causing them to drop away, and then filling up the two new rows as well. What this means is that if you’re building a premium hand in the top row, you can be close to even money to get the exact card you need, provided you’re willing to sacrifice enough to get there.
The beginning of the game is pretty simple, then: Your top priority is making a Royal Flush, so you put the first broadway card you see into the top row and then do whatever you can with the other rows while hunting for the other four broadways in that suit. Things get more complicated as the game goes on, though, as you won’t typically be starting with an empty screen, so based on the cards that are already down, you need to decide whether it’s worth trying to go for a Golden Combination with what’s already there, or clear some rows with lower-valued hands to get yourself an empty screen to work with.
As your counter runs down, the consequences of going for a particular combo and missing it can be game-ending, so the question becomes when to take a longshot gamble on the last Golden Combination you need to complete your list, and when to settle for trying to make a few Flushes and Full Houses to buy yourself some breathing room. Perhaps you have 12 cards on your counter, a nearly filled grid, and 7-8-9-10 of Diamonds in the top row, then draw the Three of Diamonds. Do you use it to complete the flush, or dump it in one of the few other available slots and hope to catch a miracle Straight Flush? These decisions are at the core of the game’s strategy.
As I said in explaining the rules, the strategy for Deck Buster Wild is very similar, except that it’s much easier to “stay afloat” for a while with Flushes and Full Houses because of the help you get from the occasional wild card, but much harder to complete the list of Golden Combinations because now there are five “hard” combos to make – Four Deuces and Five of a Kind, on top of the Four of a Kind, Straight Flush and Royal Flush. The sorts of decisions you face are similar, but the correct decision more often becomes to take the easy hand and live to fight another day, rather than to gamble on the long shot.
I started this review by stating that Deck Buster is a deeper game than Outs!, so it should be no surprise that I’m going to recommend it. After all, I liked Outs!, and for me, more strategic depth in a game is usually better.
As with Outs!, I would say that Deck Buster bears more resemblance to Open-Face Chinese Poker (OFC) than it does to “real” poker; after all, there’s no betting, no opponent to outwit, and no bluffing or hidden information. It’s all about calculating probabilities and placing your cards most efficiently. Both games are good training tools for getting used to counting outs, calculating probabilities and assessing risk versus reward. In this last category, though, I think Deck Buster is the superior game and therefore the most useful for improving at poker.
A big part of fundamental poker strategy is, after all, taking a look at the investment you need to make in order to see additional streets, and compare that to both your direct pot odds and implied odds to determine whether it’s worth it. The risks and rewards don’t take exactly the same form in Deck Buster, but there’s similar thinking at work; the decision is often between cutting your losses, or taking a risk on a small chance of a big payoff.
The downside of Deck Buster compared to something like Outs! (or, indeed, many iOS games) is that it can take a while to play. Many games will finish within 10 minutes, especially if you fail to get through the Golden Combinations list once, but if you get lucky early, it’s possible to rack up a big buffer of cards on your counter, whereupon a high score run can potentially take you upwards of an hour, especially if you start spending more time on your moves once you’re doing well. Thus, while it’s not a time commitment of the same magnitude as playing a poker session, it’s not a bite-size experience like Outs!, either. In that regard, it’s not a game for everyone.
Assuming you can afford the time (and the 99 cents), though, Deck Buster is a pretty solid addition to any poker fan’s collection of mobile games. In particular, if you enjoyed Outs! but want something a bit meatier and with more staying power, this is a great little game, and one I keep coming back to over the years.
Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.