Writing a strategy guide for Dominion is hard. The modular nature of the game and the fact that there are now hundreds of different kingdom cards means that a strategy guide can quickly turn into a guide of how to use specific cards in specific ways. Not so much strategy as memorization. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I wanted this guide to discuss strategy in broader strokes.
Even then I had a tough time narrowing the list down to even 10 points. The truth is that Dominion is such an immense game that any article like this is going to be incomplete. My goal is that people who don’t have a lot of experience with the game will find this a valuable resource to help them think about Dominion in a deeper, more strategic way. Enjoy.
1. Always take a moment to look over the kingdom piles first to construct a game strategy
One of the biggest mistakes I see from beginner players is that they’ll jump right into the game after a quick perusal of the kingdom cards, or even worse, without having read them all yet. Dominion is a highly strategic, rather than tactical, game. By that I mean that a large part of your success is going to be determined by the strategic path you decide to take at the beginning of the game. There are tactical decisions sometimes in how you play your cards, and you always need to be on the lookout for situations when you need to adapt your strategy or chart a different course (more on that later), but figuring out an overall strategy is key.
Much of this guide, therefore, is going to be about what kinds of situations you need to be looking out for during this pre-game strategic decision making time. But you can’t formulate a good plan without trying, so before every game take a minute or so to really look at the available cards and go into the game with a solid plan.
2. Look at the availability of +actions (more than 1) +cards (more than 1) and +buys in the game to determine what kind of pace and options are out there
Chaining decks, where you use action cards to cycle through a large number of cards to accumulate lots of money, are a fundamental deck archetype in Dominion. When done well they’re probably the strongest deck type. However, they rely on the player being able to accumulate additional action points (in order to play more cards) and a lot of card draw.
So the first thing I look for in a kingdom pile is the number of +actions and +cards available. Specifically I’m looking for any cards that grant two or more actions or cards. This is because a +1 card, +1 action card doesn’t actually improve your hand in any way. After you play one, you’re still left with a single action and the same number of cards in hand. It’s the same as if the card wasn’t in your deck at all.
Of course, there’s no card that only gives a card and an action (that would be stupid design). There’s always some benefit in addition to the replacement effect. Still, such cards aren’t good enough to create what I’m calling a chaining deck unless you get a lot of card trashing ability in the early game (see later discussion of Chapel). You need to be able to draw multiple cards, like with Smithy or Laboratory, and be able to accumulate actions, like with Festival or the Village cards. With enough actions, cards like Library or Minions can be very valuable because they can replenish your hand for a lot of draw.
The point is that you want to see what potential there is for a chaining deck that can go through one’s entire deck even if that’s not the strategy you want to pursue. This is because such cards will dictate the speed of the match. A kingdom pile with a lot of potential here can create very fast games.
You also need to see if there are any cards that allow more than one buy per turn. This is critical for formulating your strategy because you need to understand if your goal is going to be to buy one province per turn or if you want to try to acquire multiple at a time. The latter can be very strong, because you can disrupt the late game “I buy, you buy” pattern and because if you burst-buy provinces you’ll have fewer turns with provinces clogging up your deck. Some cards, like Remodel, can let you acquire multiple provinces in a turn without getting any +buy effects.
3. Look at the attack cards and determine if there are any effective counters on the board
Anyone who has played Dominion knows that attack cards can be devastating (and frequently annoying). Any pre-game perusal of the kingdom pile has to take note of what attack cards are available and if there are any effective counters to those cards. Familiar, for example, is a super annoying attack card that can load up an opponent’s deck with a lot of curses, but its impact is greatly diminished if there’s an effective trashing card in play. Even better, a card like Masquerade or Ambassador can turn the curse cards against them.
Dominion is smartly designed in that there are a lot of counterplays available to any given strategy. One might be best in a given kingdom pile, but there’s usually an alternate strategy available that will keep you competitive.
For example, I recently played a game online in which my opponent bought two militias early in the game. I started with a more draw and money-centric strategy, but I was having a hard time getting the money that I needed to start buying provinces. I countered by buying a couple of libaries, which became effectively +5 cards, while also making sure that I got mostly money on those draws.
4. See if there are any alternative victory conditions available other than getting the majority of provinces
Alternate victory conditions have always been present in Dominion, starting with Gardens in the base game. Personally, I love them, and they can be very, very powerful strategies. With a couple of exceptions, like Bishop, most alternative victory strategies work best if you commit fully. Duke, for example, isn’t going to work if you’re also trying to grab provinces and only end up with 1-2 Duchies.
Even if you decide against that route, you need to be able to understand how your opponent might plan to take that path and adjust your strategy accordingly to inhibit them or simply move faster than them.
5. Plan your first two buys very carefully for maximum efficiency and tempo
Dominion is a game of intentional snowballing. This means that whatever you buy first is going to set the tone for your entire game. You are going to get either a 3/4 split of money or a 5/2 split, and you need to choose what cards you buy very carefully. You’re going to get the 3/4 split 83% of the time, and the first key decision is if you’re going to buy a silver or not.
Most of the time I find that a silver is the right decision in the opening two turns, for a couple of reasons. First, you need to consider the possibilities for the next time through the deck. Either you’re going to get both of your new cards in the same turn, or you’re not. If you buy two action cards, and they’re both “terminals” (i.e. they do not grant additional actions), then you run the risk of drawing both at once, making one of them a completely dead card. When you want your deck to snowball quickly into better and better cards, this is extremely inefficient.
Second, the added buying power that silver gets you is significant. Let’s look at a basic example of a game where silver, Village, and Smithy are available. Village isn’t a terminal, so buying it and Smithy is certainly an option. However, regardless of how you play those action cards, unless Smithy is buried with the reshuffle (the bottom card of your now 12-card deck), you’re probably going to have only 7-9 money between your next two turns. Assuming the estates distribute themselves evenly, you’re looking at something like a 4/4 money split for those turns. That’s fine, but not ideal. What you really want is to be able to get a gold or a 5 cost power card.
On the other hand, if you buy a Silver and a Smithy, you’re going to be seeing 13 cards, but your buying power for those cards will be 9-10. That greatly increases the chances of seeing 6 money for that gold purchase, and guarantees that you’ll get at least a 5 buy. If you manage to get the gold, then the next time through your deck you’ve got 12 buying power in there, and you should still be able to get through it in 2 turns. Now you’re averaging 6 money a turn, and Smithy is probably going to make sure one of those turns is lucrative.
That’s the kind of thinking you’re going to want to do when strategizing your first two buys. Out of the base game, Militia and Silver is also a great opening, becuase it’s increasing the amount of money in your deck by 4, and it’s harming one of your opponent’s turns, crushing their tempo.
6. If chapel is in the game, you should almost certainly buy it
An efficient deck is so important in Dominion. You can buy a bunch of good cards and do well, but that’s not going to be as good as a similar deck with all of the chaff (your starting estates and coppers removed). Trashing cards is so important to nearly every deck construction in Dominion, and Chapel is the best trashing card in the game. You’re always going to be able to buy it in your opening two turns, and its impact is enormous.
The way to think about it is to try to increase the impact of the average hand coming out of your deck. Suppose you buy a Chapel and a Silver in your opening two turns. This doesn’t seem particularly money efficient, but it’s a strong opening. Ideally on your next time through the deck you’ll draw Chapel without the silver, and use it to trash the 4 Coppers/Estates you have. For the purposes of example we’ll assume it’s 3 Coppers and 1 Estate. You’ve reduced the total buying power of your deck by 3, but you’ve actually improved your average buying power.
Think of it this way. You start with an average buying power (ABP) of 0.7 at the start of the game. After you buy Chapel and Silver that increases to an ABP of 0.75 (9 money in 12 cards). After you trash 3 Coppers and an Estate your ABP remains at 0.75 (6 money in 8 cards), BUT it’s actually better than before because any money purchase has a bigger impact in the future. If we add a gold in the pre-chapel scenario (PCS….okay I’ll stop), our ABP becomes 0.92. After playing chapel, adding a gold bumps the ABP up to a flat 1. Remember, our decks snowball. Each increase in efficiency creates the potential for even more efficiency. And this is only looking at average buying power. The same principle applies for other things like card draw, action chains, and attack (AAP-average attack power?).
Bottom line: trashing is good, and Chapel is great.
7. Be wary of getting too many terminal action cards
This is the biggest mistake I see new Dominion players make. It’s the biggest mistake I made when I first learned to play Dominion. Terminal actions are powerful and enticing. That’s the point, though. They’re generally powerful because they have that drawback of being terminal. Remember, a terminal card is any card that does not provide at least one +action. We call them terminals because unless you’ve acquired additional actions some other way they terminate your action phase.
The lesson is simple. If you have more than one terminal card in hand and only one action, one of those cards, at the moment, is literally worse than a copper. It’s a dead draw, and that’s not efficient. Unless you can populate your deck with additional actions, you want to be very judicious with how many terminal action cards you buy.
8. Evaluate purchasing decisions against money as the opportunity cost
Dominion has a built in first order optimal (FOO) strategy, called “big money”. If you only buy money, and then provinces when you can, you’ll do surprisingly well, particularly against new players. This has lead to a lot of people thinking that this strategy is actually a broken part of the game, but to my knowledge, people who think way too much about Dominion have yet to find a kingdom pile in which pure big money is actually the best strategy.
But that doesn’t mean understanding big money isn’t valuable. New players often underestimate money because the action cards are so interesting and enticing. I already spoke of why buying a silver in your opening first two turns is often a good move. But this principle applies to the rest of the game too. I’ll be very hard pressed to buy anything other than a gold when I have 6 money, and I often make sure to get a couple of silvers in the early game barring any other means of money production through the kingdom cards.
Throughout the game you need to be asking yourself if the buy you want to make is actually better than the best money card you could buy. You only start with 7 money in your deck, so if you want your average turn to generate 8 money per turn, you’ve got to find a way to get that cash.
9. Plan for when you start to buy Provinces, and plan for when you have Provinces
This is something I still struggle with. Dominion has a fascinating decision everyone has to make towards the middle of the game: when to start buying Provinces? It’s as much a mind game as it is a purely mathematical decision, because once an opponent starts, you begin to feel the pressure to begin also.
Be careful, because while someone may have a good enough deck to get a couple of Provinces early, that doesn’t mean their deck is robust enough to sustain that for very long. Ideally you want your deck to be able to get 5 (or 4 in a 4-player game) Provinces very quickly to minimize the amount of time they spend in your deck. So don’t be afraid to hold off just a bit, even if you get 8 money on a turn, before starting down the VP path, or else you may find your deck withering out before the game is over.
10. Don’t be afraid to adjust your strategy to adapt to your opponent
I’ve seen quite a bit of criticism of Dominion that it’s a “multiplayer solitaire” experience, but I’ve never found this to be the case. It’s rare to find a kingdom selection that doesn’t have any interaction, and those cards are key. If you find yourself lagging behind in the engine building part of the game, you need, particularly in a 2 player game, to try to find a way to adapt.
I’ll give a prime example. I was playing a game once against a person I didn’t know, who was going for a big money strategy. I initially wanted to find a chaining combo, but I wasn’t doing well with that early on and I noticed he was accumulating Golds. I pivoted to buy a few Thieves (very similar to Bandits in the 2nd edition of the base game). It completely wiped out his strategy and helped me recover positionally and win the game.
Dominion is deep, and players who pay attention can recover from bad starts. Continuing a failed strategy guarantees your loss. Taking a moment to reevaluate your position and see how you might adapt could help you win. But in order to effectively do that you need to be paying attention to what your opponents are doing.
I hope this advice is helpful to you all. Like I’ve said all this week, I really do love Dominion and think it’s a great design. The expansions have expanded the scope of the game in such fun and interesting ways. I could play this game for the rest of my life (and I hope to do so!) and still be learning new interactions and new strategies. But in any competitive endeavor, understanding the fundamentals of solid strategy is, well, fundamental. I’d love to hear what your Dominion strategy tips are. Comment below!