Thursday, October 11, 2012

[Design Review] Dominion

What is Dominion?

This is a “deck building game”, a relatively new concept in game design. Trading card games like Pokémon or Magic: The Gathering have allowed players to build their own decks to bring to their games for some time, but the idea behind a deck building game is that players build their decks from a common pool during play. Here is how it works:

In Dominion, each player takes on the roll of a monarch looking to build a bigger kingdom than all of his rivals. The assets of your kingdom are represented by you deck of cards. There are three broad categories of cards. Treasure cards, including Copper, Silver and Gold, represent monetary assets. Players use treasure cards to purchase other cards for their decks. Victory cards, including Estate, Duchy and Province, represent land that you control. You can’t use these for anything during the game, but at the end of the game these cards are worth victory points. The player with the most victory points from victory cards in their deck wins the game. Most of the rest of the cards are kingdom cards. These represent more nuanced assets and features of your dominion. Kingdom cards can be things like a Feast, Market, Mine, Village, or Workshop. Each of these kingdom cards has one or more special effects that take place when you play that card from your hand.

When the game begins, each player has a deck consisting of seven Copper and three Estate cards. The Copper are worth one coin each, and the Estates are worth 1 victory point each. You shuffle your deck and then draw five cards. On your turn, you can play one action card from your hand. These are typically kingdom cards. When you play an action card you apply any special effects on that card. Then, you play any number of treasure cards from your hand to buy one card from the common pool. Each card has a cost, which is the total number of coins you must have from cards you’ve played this turn in order to purchase that card. Cards go into your discard pile when you buy them. After buying, you discard all cards that you’ve played and any cards still in your hand. Then, you draw five new cards from your draw pile and the next player begins their turn. When you run out of cards in your draw pile, you shuffle your discard pile and it becomes your new draw pile. In this way, cards that you buy will eventually come into your hand on a later turn.

That’s basically all you’re doing. You play one action (a kingdom card), buy one card (if you have enough coins this turn), discard everything, and then draw another five cards. You do this until a certain number of cards have been depleted from the common pool, and then the game ends. Everyone tabulates the number of victory points in their deck, and the player with the highest total wins.

Of course, it gets more complicated than this when you start looking at the special effects on the kingdom cards. Some allow you to draw additional cards, some allow you to play additional actions, some allow you to buy more than one card on your turn, some grant extra coins, some force your opponents to discard cards, and so forth. The key to the strategy of this game really is in which cards you buy for your deck – building a deck that works more efficiently than your opponents’ to buy up more victory cards than they can before the game ends.

So, the Game is really all About Deck Building?

Yep, that’s basically it. If you play trading card games or collectable card games, and you enjoy the deck building aspect of those games, you’re going to love this. The difference here is that you’re building a deck in the midst of the game, rather than as a separate activity before the game.

Building an efficient deck is both important and difficult, requiring a good deal of forethought. Ultimately, you want your deck to contain a lot of victory cards. However, victory cards generally don’t actually do anything for you during the game. As you get deeper into the game, there is a risk that you’ll draw a hand of nothing but victory cards and you’ll have nothing to do on your next turn. So, timing is important. You don’t want to start buying victory cards too early, but you don’t want to wait too long either. Once somebody gets a victory point lead, it can be hard to catch up to them. Really, you have to find ways to get around this. Padding your deck with kingdom cards that let you draw more cards and gain more actions makes it less likely that you’ll get stuck with nothing you can use on a given turn. Cards that let you buy more than one card in a turn can accelerate the rate by which you can acquire victory cards. And more offensive kingdom cards, like a Militia or a Thief can slow down your opposition. Also, since all of the players are buying cards for their decks from a shared limited pool of cards, a valid strategy could be to snatch up the best cards for your deck before your opponents can get their hands on them. Between actions, coins, buys, victory points, offense, and defense, there is a lot to balance as you build your dominion.

Variety is the Spice of Life

Beyond the basics of game play, one of the neat things about Dominion is the variety available in the game. When setting up the game, you choose ten different kingdom cards to go into the common pool for players to buy from. There will generally be ten copies of each of those kingdom cards in the pool. However, the base game comes with twenty-five different kingdom cards that you can use, so each time you play you can have a different pool of cards to buy from. Several expansions have added even more options, so that now there are over 180 different kingdom cards to choose from when setting up your game. When a playing with a group of experienced players, turns can go blindingly fast and a game can be over in half an hour or less. This makes it easy to play several games in an evening, trying out different combinations of kingdom cards each time. What’s more, even with a single set of ten kingdom cards, there are different approaches you can take to building a deck from those cards. You may find that you favor a certain subset of those cards, ignoring some of the available cards completely, while you’re opponent is snatching up those other cards as quickly as possible – and you may both be building effective decks!

Everything the Light Touches is Our Kingdom

Here are just a couple of things that make Dominion an exceptional game, in my opinion. First, the whole deck building thing. Before playing this game, I had enjoyed building decks for TCGs and CCGs, but I had never seen a game like this where building your deck was actually the focus of the game play.

Second, would have to be the low learning curve and the quick game play. I’ve seen people who had never been into hobby gaming before pick up this game pretty quickly. The basics are incredibly simple, and it doesn’t take long to understand it well enough to begin formulating a winning strategy. And, like I mentioned before, once everyone has a few games under their belt rounds go by very fast, so the game stays quick and exciting the whole time.

While I do enjoy competitive games, I like that this game is very low on the head-to-head competition. Depending on the kingdom cards being used in a particular game, players may not interact with each other at all during the game, except to perhaps buy cards up that their opponents’ were hoping to get. This makes the game very relaxing and low-stress compared to many other games. I believe it also makes it less intimidating to new gamers.

Another interesting feature of this card game, is that you discard every card in your hand at the end of each turn. This means that on each turn you are simply focused on how you can get the best use out of the cards in your hand right now, instead of thinking about which cards you should hold onto for a future round. Again, I think this adds to the relaxed atmosphere that the game engenders.

Overall, I think Dominion is a very fun card game. While I have seen other deck building games crop up since Dominion came out, I had never heard of an idea like this before Dominion. So, I would venture to say it’s a pretty original concept. The theme is neutral enough to appeal to most people, but really has very little impact on game play. It is great for a casual game night, whether you’ll be playing with experienced monarchs or up-and-coming noblemen.

These are my general thoughts on Dominion. I’d love to read any observations you may have about the game and its design, or any thoughts you might have on my own observations.


  1. Replies
    1. Good! Then you can look forward to some further coverage of Dominion on this blog in the coming weeks. ^_^