This week at The Thoughtful Gamer we’re celebrating what I would say is unequivocally a modern classic in board gaming–Dominion. Below is my review of the game. Tomorrow we’ll have mini-reviews of each individual expansion. Wednesday we have a massive podcast where we discuss our top 10 favorite Dominion cards, among other things. And then on Friday I’ll post a strategy guide to help people get past “big money” and into more advanced strategies.
Also this week I kicked off a Patreon campaign to help improve and continue The Thoughtful Gamer. If you enjoy what we’re doing here, take a look at the Patreon page. I think the rewards are pretty cool and every dollar helps.
What else is there to say about Dominion, a game that has, in some ways, helped define the last 10 years of board gaming? “Deckbuilding” is nearly as ubiquitous in board game descriptions as “RPG elements” is in video games. While some people may be tired of the genre Dominion created, I think it’s brilliant, and I think it’s inspired some amazing games.
The concept itself works because there are so many interesting decision angles built in. First, you must decide how to play the cards in your hand. In Dominion this isn’t usually a particularly interesting part of the game, but in some implementations of the genre (see: Mage Knight) it’s beautiful. Second, you have to decide which cards to purchase, which is the heart of Dominion.
For those who don’t know, you start with a few money cards and a couple of victory point cards in your deck. From those 10 cards you’ll build an empire of sorts, although it’s all contained within your deck. The point of the game is to get victory points, which are also cards, but you can also buy action cards (there are 10 types to choose from each game), and more money.
The decision every single turn of what kind of card to buy is hard enough, but choosing between the cards in the kingdom pile can be agonizing. You have to remember that each time you run out of cards in your deck, you shuffle in the discard pile and restart the deck with whatever new cards you’ve bought included. So what’s going to make your deck better the next time through? What might not be good now but will improve as the game progresses? Maybe one particular card is great, but if you happen to draw it at the same time as the card you just bought previously, it’ll be a dead card.
This combination of short term and long term thinking is so tough in Dominion, because while you want to think only about what will improve your deck immediately, you have to always be planning for the end game because it comes so quickly. A typical game of Dominion will last about 20 rounds. Your turns go by quickly but your deck will grow exponentially, as good purchases early game will allow better purchases mid-game, which will allow more victory point purchases late game.
Except, of course, for the fact that victory points are cards and will clog up your deck. In a recent podcast I called that my favorite game mechanism of all time, and while that list was somewhat hastily constructed, I don’t think I can think of any mechanism I like better. It’s a catch up mechanism of sorts–although it only affects the leader first, not any more significantly. So it slows down the snowballing effect inherent in building a deck, giving the people behind time to use alternative methods of gaining points that might not feel the pain of the deck weakening so much. It simultaneously makes you feel like you’re catching up, while also providing some time to actually catch up, if you play well enough.
Those are the obvious praises of the game that even I’ve spoken of before. Some other thoughts about Dominion:
- Especially once you get a couple of expansions, it becomes more of a platform than just a game. You can choose the kind of game you want based on which expansions you use. Want to get a lot of money and boost your production powers? Throw in some Prosperity cards. Want to slow down the game and become unpopular with your game group? Use Alchemy. Have some new players and want to play with some neat interactions? Seaside is perfect for that. Use Dark Ages or Adventures for meaner and more difficult interactions. The feel of the game changes so much depending on which expansion you use
- The feel of the game can also change significantly within just the base set. A game with chapel is so much different than a game with chapel. Gardens similarly fundamentally alters the shape of the game you’re about to play. Each set has cards like this, and together they create a maze of possible interactions.
- The art and theme in Dominion is often maligned, and while some of the art certainly isn’t great, I’ll stand up for the theme. I think the issue that many people have isn’t the fault of the thematic nature of the cards, but a side effect of the nature of the game. Dominion is a game about the text of the cards, more than most games with cards. All of the interactions and all of the decisions in the game are a result of that text (and symbology). Even from a graphic design perspective your eyes are drawn to the bottom half of the card. Unlike MtG cards, there’s nothing other than the name above the artwork. All of the important information is below the fold. All of that to say that there are some really fun and subtle thematic interactions hidden in there. Islands let you hide away cards. Rats will eat up your entire deck with a ravenous hunger. The knights fight and defeat each other as the game progresses. Forge lets you literally reforge cards you have into something else. If you look, the theme is there in often hilarious ways.
- There’s a lot more interaction in Dominion than a lot of people assume. The first few turns, in particular, can give you key insights into the strategies your opponents are pursuing, and you can often turn the game around by purchasing counters to their strategy.
- On the other hand, some set-ups are less interactive than others and no matter what your opponents do, there’s not much you can do to turn things around. These situations make Dominion into almost a purely strategic game, where your plan going into the game will determine how well you do. I prefer kingdom card set ups where there are no clear strategic paths–the ones that rely more on tactical turn by turn decision making.
- Speaking of strategy, there’s the famed “big money” strategy in Dominion where you simply buy money cards whenever you can, and then large victory points, ignoring the kingdom cards entirely. I love that this is part of the game, because it provides a baseline for your decision making. Particularly in the very first two turns, you have to weigh your potential action card purchases against purchasing a silver. It provides context to your decision making and valuation of the cards.
- I don’t know if enough is said about how easy and simple the rules to this game are, at least in the base game. Later expansions introduce much more complicated interactions, and there are some edge cases. But you can learn the game just by understanding that you have one action and one buy. You play your actions first, and then you play your treasures to buy things. That’s pretty much it, for a first time player. The meat of the game is in the cards themselves, so you really learn about the game as you play it and start to understand the potential interactions more.
- So many other pure deckbuilders that I’ve seen do away with the static display of kingdom cards that Dominion has, and I think this is to their detriment. A rotating display of cards to purchase introduces much more randomness to the game, and from a design standpoint it makes balancing the cards much more important. With Dominion it doesn’t matter too much how much the cards cost, because everyone has more or less equal access to them.
- Looking at a freshly randomized set of 10 kingdom cards before a game of Dominion is one of the best moments in gaming. While you may have seen all of the cards before, there are so many potential combinations and interactions waiting there. Each game is a new challenge to expand your mind and find new strategies. It’s an opportunity to do something you haven’t done before in a game of Dominion. Those couple minutes of silence are electric, and I love it.
There you go. There’s so much to say about this game and so much that has already been said. I think it’s a great game–still one of the best out there after numerous iterations on the the deckbuilding idea. I don’t think it’s perfect. Sometimes you get a dud of a kingdom pile, and some of the ideas in the expansions don’t work well. The base game by itself is great, but after 50 or so plays you will want to invest in an expansion. It doesn’t have the epic scope of some of the games I’d rate above this. But for what it is it’s great. And there’s no denying the influence it’s had on game designers since.
If you haven’t played it, consider this my full recommendation. You’re in for a treat. If you haven’t played it for a while, I’d suggest pulling it out again. We did in my game group after finding a better storage solution that cut down on set-up and clean-up time, and it hasn’t lost its magic. I think this is one of the few games from the last 10 years or so that is going to stick around a long time, and for good reason.
+Great sense of scaling up as your deck improves
+Infinitely replayable with an absurd number of potential interactions
+Each game is quick, and you’ll want to play multiple times
-Some of the art isn’t great
-Sometimes will have an uninteresting selection of cards
-If you fall too far behind there’s no catching up