More than any game I’ve played in recent memory, Eminent Domain truly feels like a game made for dedicated gamers. It’s not particularly complicated, it doesn’t take up a lot of table space, and it doesn’t require a group to set aside an entire weekend to play like many games that might be described as “for the dedicated”. On the contrary, it takes around an hour to play and can be taught fairly quickly.
What sets Eminent Domain apart is that rather than building a set of mechanisms to try to simulate or reference its theme, Seth Jaffee has created a game that attempts to reference and play upon other board game mechanisms. To someone like me, who has played Dominion, Puerto Rico, Race For The Galaxy, and a couple of Chudyk games, Eminent Domain appears almost as a refutation/love letter to their (and I’m sure other game’s) most interesting facets. Jaffee seems to have taken Jean-Luc Godard’s famous statement, “in order to criticize a movie, you have to make another movie” to heart.
To someone who doesn’t have that frame of reference…well, I’m not sure what they’d think. I suspect they’d have an easier time with it than I did. Because every pore of Eminent Domain seems both familiar and foreign, I had a bear of a time pinning down some key rules. Sadly, my first couple of plays were all but invalidated because I had misunderstood a critical portion of the game. Note for people playing for the first time: the tech cards aren’t shuffled into a deck, but open for anyone to purchase (if they meet the pre-reqs).
The two gravitational forces around which Eminent Domain orbits are deckbuilding and role selection/following. As is tradition, everybody begins the game with the same deck of basic action cards, but instead of allowing players to branch out into different strategic paths via purchasing from a variety of new and unique cards, here everyone’s strategy will primarily be determined by the way they compose their decks of those same 5 basic action cards.
This is made both interesting and possible by the fact that everyone begins with cards that allow you to trash. In most deckbuilders I’ve played trashing cards are either rare, expensive, or both, because of how powerful they can be in quickly shaping a deck. Eminent Domain wants you to radically and quickly shape your deck to what you want it to be. It’s an extremely strategic game where turn 1 decisions can have far-reaching consequences. The last time I played a game that made the early game so significant it was from Splotter-Spellen.
That doesn’t mean the strategies are obtuse. In fact they’re very clearly laid out. Victory point generation will be very familiar to fans of the “…For The Galaxy” games. There’s a produce/ship cycle and two different ways to acquire dominion over planets. As I said before, the broad strokes are going to look familiar, but they’re constantly twisted into new and interesting shapes.
Take, for example, card acquisition. In any other deckbuilder there’s a currency that many cards generate, and you spend that currency in a buy phase to acquire new cards. In Eminent Domain you get a copy of whatever card is associated with the “role” you’ve decided to use that round, whether you like it or not. So by the mid-game you’re going to be swimming in cards that you’ve used a lot, but you might want to try to pivot into something else, necessitating a lot of frantic card trashing. Or maybe you try to do more of a balancing act between two or three different actions and you have to carefully curate your mix of cards to try to craft the best draws possible.
Actions and Role Actions
All of this is disrupted by the role-following. When someone chooses their “role” action (distinct from doing an “action”, which is an optional play of a single card that does something tangential to its main “role” effect, and oh boy this parenthetical has gotten away from me…) everyone else has a choice–either follow that role by doing a slightly weaker version of the same action or draw a card. Since role actions are strengthened by playing multiple copies of the associated card, if you have a fair number of a particular role you might get, effectively, a free turn from this. But you are also draining your hand, which could make your turn anemic. However, since you’re only allowed, at most, one action and one role on your turn, you’re probably not going to be using a couple of those cards anyway. But if you give up that card draw you could be forfeiting an even better version of that role than you’d get by following. The deckbuilding heuristic that it’s better to have one great turn rather than two mediocre turns is dissected and put to the test, repeatedly, throughout any one game of Eminent Domain.
A good test for determining if you might like Eminent Domain: there are two ways to acquire planets–colonization and warfare. Colonization sets aside cards from your hand until you have enough to colonize the planet. Great! That thins your deck out while you accumulate enough. Warfare cards give you little ship tokens that you can later spend to attack a planet and conquer it. The cards never leave your deck, but you can obviously use them to follow a warfare role from an opponent and get more ships. You also don’t need to have an unconquered planet ready to go in order to get a stockpile of ships. If exploring the strategic implications of these subtle differences excites you, then this might be your kind of game.
If that does not excite you, then there’s not a lot else that might draw you in. The art and presentation is rudimentary at best. The tech cards provide snippets of narrative immersion, but just barely, and they can’t be acquired before you have a certain number of planets. It feels like the game could be more immersive and expansive, but with the stoicism of a stern schoolmaster it snaps at your knuckles to get back to work calculating deck construction ratios and plotting modest tech paths.
But despite its rigidity I can’t dislike Eminent Domain. Every time I play I get pulled into its technical way of thinking. After every game we’ve had a great discussion about the different strategies we used that game and how we might have modified them to perform better. But we’ve also had some of our biggest disagreements ever over how to think about this game.
In particular, Matt and I had a dispute over whether or not it’s possible to find something interesting but not enjoyable. At first I held that things I find interesting are, almost by (my own) definition, enjoyable. After thinking about this more, I think Matt might have a bit of a point. We played a number of times over a few weeks, but have since moved on to other games, and I don’t really miss Eminent Domain that much. I haven’t had an itching to play it again despite knowing in my mind that I found it, at the time, to be one of the most intriguing games I’d played in a very long time.
I’d absolutely play it again, and I think it’ll stay in my collection for now, but as much as I appreciate this design, playing it does feel somewhat like work. On the other hand, I have no doubt that there are game groups out there where this has become a fixture; where they’ve plunged into its depths and found a rich, complicated strategic delight.
Review copy provided by publisher.
+Forces you to think about what in other games would be high-level strategy
-Presentation isn’t great
-Not particularly exciting