Sunday, June 2, 2013

Dominion Review

Dominion was released in 2008 by Rio Grande Games, and was designed by Donald X Vaccarino.  It proceeded to take the world by storm.  Dominion introduced board gamers to the concept of a deck building game.  Since then it's had 7 expansions, with a 8th on the way, and I, like many others, have purchased every single one.

Dominion was the 2nd board game I ever purchased.  Before a blizzard in 2010, I purchased Dominion: Intrigue.  I was hoping to explore it and other games I had just purchased, during a week being snowed in.  I remember reading the rules completely bewildered as to how you actually play this strange game.  At this point I had only played Carcassonne.

Finally I set it up, and a few turns into the game, the first time I shuffled my discards to form a new draw deck, I got it!  I honestly can't count how many times we played Dominion that week.  For the next year though, at least once a week I'd play Dominion during my lunch break.  Dominion got played regularly at night.  Every time people came over, they asked to play Dominion.

It's been years since Dominion came out.  A lot has been said about it, and many games have aped it.  But I'm going to take a look back at just the base game, without any expansions, and see how it holds up.

Rule Summary

To play Dominion, you start by setting up the Kingdom.  7 cards are in the Kingdom every game.  Copper, Silver and Gold, which are treasure cards.  Also, Estates, Duchies and Provinces, which are victory cards.  The last type of card which is always out are Curses, which hurt players.  Set these piles of cards within reach of all players.

After you have set out these 7 card piles, you randomly select 10 more, and set those card piles out as well.  These kingdom cards are usually actions.  You can also select 10 cards listed as a recommended set.  There are 5 recommended sets in the base game.  The Kingdom should now have 17 piles of cards.  7 basic cards, and 10 random kingdom cards.  This is now your Kingdom.

Once the Kingdom is setup, players begin with a deck of 7 coppers and 3 estates.  They shuffle their decks, and draw 5 of their 10 starting cards.  Then player begins.

On their turn, players get to play 1 action from their hand.  They then play whatever money they wish from their hand, and purchase one card from the Kingdom.  Each card has it's cost listed on the bottom.  The purchased card goes to the player's discard pile.  Players then put all played cards into their discard pile, and discard the rest of their hand.  They end their turn by drawing 5 new cards from their deck.  If a player's deck ever runs out of cards, they shuffle their discard pile to form a new deck.

The action cards allow you to do many things.  The basic abilities an action card may have are giving you extra cards, extra actions, extra buys, or extra money.  Some cards allow you to trash a card, permanently removing it from your deck.  Other cards have more intricate abilities, like allowing you to play an action card twice.  Some action cards are Attack cards, which usually have a detrimental penalty that is applied to all the other players.  Attack cards can usually be blocked or mitigated with Reaction cards, which you just reveal from your hand to get the reaction effect.

The goal of the game is to purchase as many victory cards as possible.  Estates are worth 1 point, Duchies are worth 3, and Provinces are worth 6.  Once the last Province is purchased, or 3 other card piles run out, the game is over.  Players add up all the victory points in their hand, discard and deck, and whoever has the most wins.

How accessible is the game to new players?

Deck building can be a bizarre and bewildering concept to new players.  It lacks that immediate feedback than many games have.  Many new players purchase a card, not knowing why, because it goes straight to their discard pile.  Thankfully, due to a small starting deck, it only takes 3 or 4 turns for that new card to show up in a new player's hand, and suddenly they get it!

The next thing new players always do is purchase one of every kingdom card available.  They don't buy treasure cards or victory cards, just lots of action cards.  As the game proceeds, the new player finds themselves with hands full of actions, and they can only play one of them per turn.  Then the game ends, and they likely have the same 3 Estates they started with, their last dozen turns being desperate attempts to get themselves out of the mess they'd gotten into.

You'll see hands like this a lot starting out
Eventually new players settle into a good balance.  They learn not to buy too many action cards, and keep a good balance of Treasure in their deck at all times.  They learn that trashing cards is a very good ability.  They will also pick up a good sense of the pace of the game.

They'll do all this, because even though their first game might be an unmitigated disaster, they will want to play again.  And again, and again, and again.  I've never seen a game where new players can fail so completely, but still be so captured by it that they are eager to just keep trying.

Why is Dominion so accessible?

The manual for Dominion is fantastic.  It's full of many examples, with lots of pictures displaying everything.  It even has a wonderful extended example of the first few turns of a game.  The example even shows how the cards you buy eventually cycle through your discard pile, to your deck, and eventually to your hand.

Dominion also comes with a lot of fantastic recommended sets.  The five sets included in the base game have a lot of good combos, and help promote various styles of play.  Even the introductory set has a variety of viable strategies available in it's kingdom card selection.  It's a fantastic and thoughtful thing to include in a game.

Lastly, Dominion has a full appendix, detailing every card's ability fully.  It even describes how certain rare card interactions should be handled properly.  I have never had a question this appendix didn't answer completely.

The manual does an amazing job, all it could possibly do in fact.  But the funny thing about board games is that most people don't learn from the manual.  It's going to come down to the person teaching the game and their ability to communicate.

Chapel's will become
your best friend.
When teaching this game, you need to emphasize that the cards you are purchasing are resources, that will be seen repeatedly.  This could possibly be the most difficult part of Dominion for players new to deck building.  The predominant assumption is that when you play cards, they are just gone, forever.  Many of us have been immersed in deck building for so long, we forget that before Dominion, that was how most games worked.

The next thing that can be done for new players is just to advise some basic strategy.  Simple things, like "Try to buy 2 treasures for every 1 action."   Or just emphasize how important trashing coppers can be.  It's remarkable what just a few simple tips will do for new players.  They can go from completely ruining their deck with too many action cards they can't play, to doing fairly well.

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

Dominion does have some luck to it.  A very close game can be decided by who gets a lucky hand of enough treasures to purchase that last Province.  But with a large experience gap, Dominion tends to be fairly deterministic.

Experienced players are better able to evaluate the available kingdom cards.  They'll be able to figure out the best card combinations.  They'll know immediately if chaining actions together is a viable strategy.  Perhaps most importantly, they'll have a good grasp of how to balance their deck.  Lastly, they'll know the right time to shift from building it up their deck, to snatching up victory points.

What could have been done better?

I'd say it's more likely than not that an experienced player will dominate a new player.  But the funny thing is, it doesn't matter.  While Dominion has been accused of being multiplayer solitaire, in this instance that is one of it's strengths.  Provided the experienced player avoids attacking too much, new players are going to have a great time, even if they lose.

However, I would strongly urge experienced players to go easy on the attack cards when introducing the game.  Let the other players use them, but abstain yourself, especially if there is a large experience gap.  I might even encourage players learning the game to not include attack cards in the Kingdom selection at all.  A game of Dominion that overly focuses on attack cards, without appropriate reaction cards can become a rather drawn out affair.

What are the feelings the game evokes and why?

Dominion is all about engine building.  As you get better at the game, you will be doing the best you can to construct a flawless deck.  It feels great when you can really get those pistons turning, and are knocking out Province cards left and right.

At the same time, you need to be watching your opponents.  You will feel a lot of pressure from them as they ramp up their own decks.  It may even become obvious partway through the game that they picked better Kingdom cards than you.

Downtime can be an issue.  You'll be ready and eager to take your turn for a few minutes before it's actually time to take your turn again.  Especially when players are using lots of actions that give them extra cards and extra actions, which they can chain for a while.  On top of this, the game always eventually jams up when it's someone's turn, and they are still shuffling their discard pile into a new deck.  Some people are just slow shufflers.

One thing that Dominion does which to this day still makes it unique, is that buying victory cards hurts your deck's performance.  Almost every other deck builder allows the victory point cards to still be functional.  That, or every card is worth some points.  But Dominion has a very unique pacing, in that there is a period of building up your deck aggressively, and then a period of watering it down with victory cards towards the game end.  It's a change of pacing I really appreciate, especially since most other deck builders seem to maintain the same tone and pace throughout.

Why is it so enjoyable?

Countless expansions and numerous awards don't lie.  Dominion is extremely enjoyable.  It was first of it's kind, and most serious gamers can deck build as easily as they breath these days.  Many other games have done deck building, but few have done it as well.  Although sometimes people complain that the theme in Dominion is very dry, which is fair to say.  When you play a card in Dominion, it's just this abstract entity you are playing for the card effects.  You rarely feel like you are utilizing a Chancellor or a Woodcutter.

I honestly cannot tell you why the Chancellor shuffles your discards
into your deck, or why a Woodcutter would give you an extra buy.

What really captures why Dominion is so enjoyable however, is that you are constantly trying to make your deck better.  There is a great sense of forward progress.  At first you can only afford cards costing 2, 3 or 4 coins.  Then you get up to purchasing cards costing 5 or 6.  Eventually you can buy Provinces that cost 8!  It actually feels like an accomplishment, every time you pull it off.

There is also a strong puzzle solving aspect to looking at the 10 Kingdom cards, and trying to figure out the best combinations.  Some people feel this means that Dominion is all about deciding on a strategy when you first see the Kingdom cards, and the rest of the game is just executing it, which is boring.  However I think that ignores all the player interaction in the attack and reaction cards.  It also presumes you will always have the best "solution" to the Kingdom cards, and you won't have to adapt to anything anyone else is doing better.  Something I've rarely found to be the case.

Some people also claim that certain cards dominate the games they are present in, forcing players to pursue similar strategies, which also gets boring.  However, every time I've thought a card is dominant, someone figures out how to beat it, using other cards in new and creative ways.  So I haven't found that to be a problem either.

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

Unless you are a fantastic card counter, there is a lot of strategy and tactics.  As I mentioned, there is a strong puzzle solving aspect to Dominion.  You'll formulate a core strategy based off your assessment of the 10 available Kingdom Cards.  You'll pick a few cards to revolve your deck around.  Everything else you purchase will being attempting to maximize the effectiveness of those core cards.

But you will be constantly adjusting and tweaking that selection.  You may find that you've bought too many actions.  So you decide to start picking up more money, or extra action cards.  Or maybe you may find yourself with more money than you can spend in one turn, so you get more action cards or extra buy cards to help spend it.

Dominion forces you to balance several resources.  The most important ones are your actions, buys and money.  Many other deck builders allow you to play as many cards as you want, and buy as many cards as you can.  However they usually compensate for this permissiveness by introducing multiple currencies, usually some variation of influence and force.  But to this day I still prefer the way Dominion handles it.  You start with 1 action and 1 buy, and must manage your resources properly if you want more.  I find it allows for more meaningful specialization between players' strategies.

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

Once you reach a high level of skill at Dominion, a lot of hands play themselves.  You have mostly money with one action, or a bunch of cards with extra actions, so you play them all.  However, when first starting, you frequently find yourself in a situation where you have to pick only one action card to play, out of several, and those choices aren't always obvious.  It gets even more interesting towards end when you may begin losing control of your deck completely.  But even so, for the most part, playing your cards is the easy part.

The hard decision that Dominion revolves around is buying your card for the turn.  You need to think about your current deck composition.  Think back to how many actions you bought the past few turns?  Maybe it's time to get some more Silver, or Gold if you can afford it?  You also need to consider what your opponents are doing.  It may become obvious they have pursued a superior strategy to yourself.  You need to adjust to either slow them down, or speed yourself up, or end the game early before they really get going.

Why are the dilemmas so good?

I think Dominion's dilemmas tap into our love of shopping.  We just love buying things, and attempting to get the most for our money.  How many of us spend time at online stores, trying to figure out the best way to get our shopping cart up to $100 for free shipping?  Or maybe we are constantly searching for that one perfect board game which will make out collections "complete".

Someone clearly balanced their deck very well.

In some ways, that is Dominion.  It taps into that same decision making.  How do you make the most of your money?  What is the one card you can buy which "completes" your deck?  The card play is interesting, but it's the shopping aspect of Dominion that seems to really give people satisfaction.  It's inspiration from draft tournaments of Magic shows.

Physical component design and limitations?

Dominion is just cards.  Lots, and lots, of cards.  Around 500 cards for each of the big box sets.  They are cards that get manhandled a great deal.  They get thumbed through, shuffled, thrown into piles, straightened out, then shuffled again.  Unlike some games, I've found the cards are of sufficient quality to stand up to the above average abuse they receive, showing only minor wear around the edges.

After about 80 plays this was all the
wear a common copper got.
Still, after 100 players, I made the decision to sleeve my copy of Dominion, and all the expansions.  All 2500 cards of it.  I'm at the point in my gaming career where I want Dominion to last forever, and this seemed to be the best way to accomplish that.  It also has the bonus of making shuffling easier for most people.  The cards just slide between one another and you don't have to bridge shuffle them.

One area that Dominion has let me down is the box insert.  At first it was fantastic.  Dominion comes with a molded insert for every type of Kingdom card, with a strip down the middle that has labels on it.  The problem occurs when you begin purchasing expansions.  There is no way to store them in the same box unless you throw out the insert.

What could have been better?

More and more companies are releasing their games, mindful of storing expansions inside the base game.  Even when they don't do that for the base game, they release expansions mindful of storing the base game in the new and improved expansion box.  Quarriors, Core Worlds, Thunderstone and Sentinels of the Multiverse are all good examples of this.

I really like Dominion

After 7, going on 8 expansions, there is no excuse for Rio Grande Games to not have done something about this.  Especially when so many other games, deck building games specifically, have found adequate solutions to the problem.

Long term prospects?

Like many wildly popular games, Dominion can be polarizing.  Some people swear by Thunderstone, with is Dominion with a dungeon crawling theme, and plays more thematically.  Some people love Eminent Domain, which combines Dominion with role selection.  Others love Ascension, which utilizes two currencies and drops the action limitation, and focuses more on tactics.  Sometimes the Penny Arcade deck builder comes up, which also utilizes two currencies, but sticks with Dominion's supply piles.  And you can't leave out Quarriors, which is Dominion but with dice.  Then every now and again you meet someone who swears by a deck builder you've never even heard of before!

Despite the explosion of deck building games, very few have broken out of the Dominion mold.  They can still be described as "Dominion with..."  And in my opinion, when it comes to a game about deck building, Dominion is still the best.  I've enjoyed many of the "It's Dominion with..." games for their creative use of additional mechanics over top of deck building.  But when I want to play a game that is just about deck building, Dominion is my only choice.  It's stood the test of time, and the formula has yet to be improved upon.

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