Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Eminent Domain Review

It was released in 2011 by Tasty Minstrel Games, and was designed by Seth Jaffee.  I was actually able to get a copy shortly after it came out at Gencon in 2011.  I got lucky and played a round in the game library and immediately went to go purchase my own copy.

Eminent Domain cooled on me, and was a game that like 7 Wonders, I got bored with early.  I almost passed it over completely after a handful of plays, but decided to go back to it, this time really looking for depth, as opposed to hoping the game would show it to me.  I was pleasantly surprised with what I found.

Rule Summary

In Eminent Domain, players will begin with a deck of 10 cards.  Each card has a role from the game printed on it.  A central board is set out, with 5 stacks of cards, 1 for each role.  Players will draw 5 cards from their deck.  On their turn they will get to play 1 card for the action printed on it.  Then they select a role card from the center, and support that role with additional cards from their hand.  Other players can join in on the role by supporting it with cards from their hands.  They may also dissent from the role, and draw a card.

The roles fall into categories that will be similar to anyone who has played Race for the Galaxy or Puerto Rico.  They are Colonize, Warfare, Produce/Trade, Research and Survey.  Survey allows you to draw planet cards.  Colonize and Warfare provide different means of establishing control over the planets you drew in Survey.  Produce/Trade allows you to earn victory points through production and trade on planets you control.  And lastly, Research allows you to gain powerful special cards.

Once 1 or 2 piles of role cards run out, players get an equal number of turns, and then the game ends.  Players then add up all their victory points from planets, trade and science.  The highest score wins.

Timelapse of play

How accessible is the game to new players?

All in all this game goes rather well with new players.  There seems to be constant confusion between actions and roles though.  Perhaps confusion isn't quite the right term.  Players get so excited to support roles, they tend to jump the gun and try to support actions instead.  But that issue aside, if the players are familiar with role selection or engine building games, they will understand this.

The roles

What I think deserves special mention is that the deck building aspect of this game isn't crucial.  You don't need to understand the concepts of deck building to play this game.  You can simply select the role that makes sense for you to take.  Then seemingly by magic, your deck has become more specialized in that role.  The downside is that you find yourself more and more forced into a certain role as well.  But thankfully, if people have been abusing a certain draw pile too much, it mercy-kills the game.

Science deserves special mention too, since the science cards you take during your science role go straight to your hand.  New players will see that, and are more inclined to use science to get a card for their next turn.  As opposed to getting a card, putting it in their discard, and then maybe seeing it at some point down the road.  It's a good system, and relatively unobtrusive.  Players will not need a thorough understanding of deck building concepts to work around the deck building in Eminent Domain.

What could have been done better?

One issue with new players however is that group think can quite quickly take over this game.  The natural inclination of this game seems to be for players to dog pile on one or two roles and end the game rather early.  Typically Colonize and Warfare.  Now this need not be the case!  But new players seem to intuitively want to jump into whatever other players are doing so they can support the role.  With no restrictions on how often a role can be chosen, this leads to games ending quite quickly.

Now Puerto Rico avoids this by simply allowing each role to be chosen once per round.  It also adds incentives to picking less desirable roles by placing money on them each round they are not chosen.  Race for the Galaxy doesn't have any strong limits on how often a role can be selected.  However, it won't end once a role has been selected a set number of times as in Puerto Rico with the Mayor role, and in Eminent Domain with every role.

This appears to be a transient property of Eminent Domain.  Eventually players learn to branch out more often, and the game becomes more interesting and diverse.  Sadly however, many gamers may never reach this level of play and dismiss the game early because of the group think problems.  Possible solutions could just be to adopt the incentives from Puerto Rico.  Place victory points on roles that haven't been selected in a round.  Or a similar mechanic.  Perhaps chips that can be cashed in as support for any role?

How does the new player versus old player match up go?

Overall the new players enjoy this game regardless of who they play with.  They will likely lose against an experienced player.  However they will always be engaged.  There aren't a great many tricks in this game that an experienced player can really pull on them.  It mostly comes down to better deck management skills, positioning yourself to support as often as possible, and managing to deny other players the chance to support.

The tech trees.  Could have used better names

The only real tricks an experienced player might have up his sleeve are gunning straight for certain technology cards.  The technology cards can be quite a game changer once you get into the second tier of them, and especially the third tier.  Also, picking a strategy that complements the technology path you've gone down can be a huge advantage as well.  There are three different technology paths, each tied to one of the three types of planets.  One path advantages Research and Trade, another focuses on Colonization and Production, and the last is all about Survey and Warfare.  Knowing which tech path your starting planet puts you on can be a large advantage.

What could have been done better?

I think making it more obvious what the various tech paths involve would have been helpful.  The reference material in the game just refers to them as Advanced, Fertile and Metallic technologies.  Not incredibly descriptive.  I think this would have been a simple fix of nomenclature.  Now it is easy enough to figure out, just from looking at the cards.  But still.  It's a level of the game which can alienate new players or just the flat out unobservant.  It's a piece of knowledge about the game which should be more obvious.  It feels cheap when someone uses this knowledge to beat you, as it's the sort of knowledge only the owner of the game is likely to have.

What are the feelings the game evokes and why?

The great thing about Eminent Domain is that you are always involved.  Being able to support other player's roles, or draw a card on their turn keeps you interested.  You'll be sitting there with a hand full of Warfare cards, hoping someone plays Warfare so that you can cash in and get some ships.  Most of the game is about trying to set yourself up to benefit most from other people's actions, and let no one else benefit from yours.  So you will be glued to what the other players are doing for a multitude of reasons.

Overall the game just feels good.  Everything synergies well with everything else.  The roles follow a rather tried and true model.  Supporting and dissenting breaks you free of having to follow a set pattern of roles in lock step.  The technology cards, as well as planets with special powers on them give you a feeling of meaningful forward momentum.

A player area at the end of the game.

At the end of the game you really feel like you accomplished something.  The game feels a bit more grounded than others in this genre.  Race for the Galaxy gets pretty abstract with the various cards and symbols.  Eminent Domain does a good job of giving you something to see and be proud of.  You'll have a stack of warships in front of you.  Or a huge array of colonies.  You'll be swapping out wooden resource tokens for victory points.  It's just a fundamentally satisfying time.

What could have been done to make the game more enjoyable?

All that being said, while Eminent Domain is less abstract than Race for the Galaxy, it is still a somewhat abstract game.  One area that could have used some improvement is the card art for the planets.  Having each class of planet only using a single piece of artwork is a bit of a let down.  Especially since the planets do have unique features.  Some planets increase your hand size.  Other planets have a built in support symbol for Warfare or other roles.  Some sort of unique artwork to make these planets stand out more would have been fantastic!  I would have loved to glanced at another players planets, and seen they were aggressively pursuing colonizing, not just because of the symbols on their planets which are tiny, but from the artwork on the cards.

These could have looked so much more interesting.

The planets lack any sort of meaningful names too.  Names like Srod Avein N2, Voson, Styku and Hanoj - T.  Names that are utterly forgettable, printed sideways down the card, on art that is incredibly samey.  I'll be honest, I didn't even realize the planets had names until I took a good hard look at the components for this article.  I've played the game 20 times and the names of the planets just slid into the back ground.  No one will ever groan "Oh god, look, Mark got out Srod Avein N2 again, we're screwed!"  Something which happens regularly in other card games.

So yeah, to wrap up, the game needed more unique artwork for the planets, and more memorable names.

Long term strategy, short term tactics, both or neither?

Broadly speaking, the strategy portion of the game is mostly contained in the deck building aspect, and the tactics are contained in the action/role selection, although there is some overlap.

This could be your best friend

The deck building is rather pleasant.  It's not the main focus of the game so much, however the players that pay special attention to it, instead of letting their deck do it's own thing will do better.  The deck building happens passively whenever you select your role, but also quite actively when you select science as an action or role.  As an action science lets you trim your deck, trashing up to two cards.  And as a role, science lets you add one of the powerful science cards straight to your hand.  The trashing ability of science can be quite powerful.  Especially in the beginning of the game if you straight up decide to never use one of the roles you start with.  Research is also pivotal to shifting your focus mid game, say from survey and colonize to produce/trade.

But for those of us who can deck build in our sleep, the core of the game will exist in the tactical role selection decisions we choose.  Players will be constantly trying to shaft other players out of taking advantage of their roles.  Quite common is using Warfare or Colonize as an action on your turn to flip your planet over instead of choosing it as a role in order to deny your opponents a chance to piggy back off this important act.  In fact the choice between whether to take a gimped version of the role as an action, and deny your opponents a chance to help themselves, or going full on with the role is an enormous part of the game, and will be the chief motivating factor in forcing playing to diversify their strategies.

Are the dilemmas the player is presented with of sufficient quality?

Players will constantly be wrestling with what's best for the deck building portion of the game, and what is best for the role selection part of the game.  Which is great, because it's not a dilemma if you aren't being pulled in at least two directions!  So far as the deck building goes, you will be constantly concerned with the balance of your deck.  Which is often at odds with what the most effective action this turn will be.  A specialized deck tends to only want to get more specialized.

For example, the best, most powerful action you can perform this turn might be Colonize.  But you already have a ton of Colonize cards, to the point where it is interfering with your ability to do much else!  It would be best if you could support someone else's Colonize, and not burn the supply pile out that much faster.

You don't want to get so many cards of your primary role in the deck that it becomes difficult to effectively utilize your secondary roles as well.  The trashing action of science, or the powerful science cards which have two support icons on them, come in very handy for tailoring your deck to be just how you want it.

Planning ahead to support other roles is tricky as well.  You need at least three Research cards if you plan on supporting it.  Survey is similarly card hungry, requiring at least two cards to support with, preferably more if you want a meaningful choice in planets.  However, survey and science, while crucial, are not where you will be getting the bulk of your points.  That honor goes to Produce/Trade, Warfare and Colonize.

So needless to say, you will feel a constant tug between all the roles, and the demands of your deck, on a very regular basis.

What could have improved the dilemmas?

The one decision in this game that is often a no brainer, is whether to support a role or not.  Almost 100% of the time, if you can support it, you should.  There will be some very rare times where you prefer to draw a card, even though you could have supported, because you have some sort of coup de grace planned for your own turn.  And you do feel exceptionally clever when you turn off the auto pilot of saying "Yes, I'll support that" in order to do something better.  But I still wish the decision were more engaging aside from leaping at the opportunity to support as much as possible.

Then again, with the decision being so easy, it keeps the game moving.  An average game of Eminent Domain probably lasts between 50-60 turns.  And if on each one of those turns, the other 2 or 3 players at the game agonized over whether to support the role, the game would never end.  So perhaps I should dissent from my own opinion on the matter and say perhaps things are fine just the way they are.  Although if an unobtrusive way could be found to spice up the support/dissent decision, I'd be all for it.  Perhaps a decision that is simultaneous so that even if it does take longer, everyone is doing it at the same time.

Physical component design and limitations?

I do enjoy the cardboard start worlds the game comes with, as well as the cardboard reference material.  I also appreciate how the reference material is handed out randomly, and one of them has the start player token printed on the back.  Very clever.  The ships are interesting to look at, although the dangley bits tend to get stuck on each other and tie the pieces together in a clump which is one of my pet peeves.

I have no clue which resource belongs on which planet.

I think the one issue I really have is that my color blindness acts up with the resources.  On the planets, it has a color and an icon.  I find, at least in my printing, that the color printed on the card only sort of aligns with the color on the wooden resource disk.  This results in all manner of confusion.  However, this hardly matters at all since the type of resource you produce doesn't matter 90% of the time.  The only situation it matters in is if you have two specific science cards that reward producing the same type, or different types, of resources.  So it's a frustration, but not much of one since the consequences just aren't there.  So the resources need better colors.  Perhaps stickers to put on them like in the reprint of Goa.

Long term prospects?

Eminent Domain exist is a tough space.  Towards the more abstract side you have the 800 lb gorilla that is Race for the Galaxy.  Towards the more thematic side you have a slew of amazing games, amongst which Core Worlds is my favorite.  Looking for a straight role selection game, Puerto Rico is the reigning champ. And towards the deck building side you have Dominion.  In many ways, Eminent Domain feels like a jack of all trades, master of none.

And yet, I want to play it more than any of those games.  Only one other person in my gaming group can handle complex symbology of Race for the Galaxy, or the intense thought that Core Worlds demands.  Dominion and Puerto Rico have both been thoroughly played out.  To the point where people have seen behind the curtain, and soured to the fact that certain cards will dominate the table when they come out in Dominion.  Or that the player to the left of the newb has a better chance of winning in Puerto Rico.  So far, nothing about Eminent Domain has really alienated anyone yet.  It could so happen that once we've played it as many times as we've played those other games, we will find something.  But as of yet it remains a fun, if underplayed, game on my shelf.

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