Dominion: the original deck-builder. For some people it’s still the king of deck-builders, whilst others think it’s had its day. This month Modern Classics takes a look at the whimsical world of Dominion.
Dominion takes place in a vaguely defined setting that looks a lot like a late-medieval / early modern Europe, but could just as easily be a nonspecific Fantasy setting. Players are rules of small independent areas looking to expand their power. Each set in the series is introduced with an entertaining little narrative that provides a vague overview for the theme, and never fails to make me chuckle.
The fundamental principles of Dominion are remarkably simple. You start with a hand of 5 cards. If you have any action cards in your hand, you can play 1 of them. You can then buy 1 card, which goes into your discard pile. At the end of the turn, any cards you have played, along with anything else left in your all go to the discard pile, and you draw a fresh hand of 5. Any time you need to draw cards from your deck and there are none left, you shuffle the discard pile to form a new deck, and draw those instead.
You start the game with 7 Coppers and 3 Estates. Coppers are the lowest currency element in the game, costing 0 to buy, and producing 1 money. As the game goes on, players can acquire Silver (costs 3, produces 2), and Gold (costs 6, produces 3) to increase their purchasing power.
Estates are the entry-level rung on the “Victory card” ladder – they cost 2 and provide 1 Victory Point (VP from now on). At the end of the game, the winner is the player with the most Victory points, so it is important to acquire Duchies (cost 5, 3VP) and Provinces (cost 8, 6VP).
These cards, along with a pile of Curses (-1VP) are common to any game of Dominion. The variable aspect is the “Kingdom Cards.”
For each game of Dominion, you select 10 piles of Kingdom cards. The vast majority of these are action cards, although some may be additional Victory or Treasure cards (or even cards which combine multiple types!) each pile contains 10 copies of an identical card, and these can offer a number of effects:
“+X Card(s)” – draw X additional cards
“+X Action(s)” – you may play X additional action cards this turn
“+X” (in a yellow circle, representing gold) – you have X additional money to spend this turn
“+X Buy” – you may buy X additional cards this turn
Unique card effect described longhand on the card – does what it says
The original game of Dominion came with 25 different kingdom cards, offering players lots of different set-ups for how they combine the cards.
There are 2 ways for a game of Dominion to end – either when the pile of Provinces is exhausted, or when any 3 other piles are exhausted. This means that the length of a game will depend not only on the cards in play, but also on how people play the game, and what they buy – even with the same set-up, it’s likely that the game will play out quite differently.
Dominion has had many, many expansions over the years – the total number of Kindgom cards has expanded to the point where even the obsessive folk who play the game hundreds of times each year will never exhaust all the combinations. Successive expansions have also offered new themes and/or mechanics to change the way the game plays:
The first expansion to Dominion, Intrigue came with additional copies of the base cards (treasures and victories), making it playable by itself. That said, it was also an expansion, in that it offered new Kingdom cards that could be combined with your existing stock for more variety.
One of the most common complaints I hear of Dominion is that it’s “multiplayer solo” – that too much of the time, I’m building my deck, and you’re building your deck, and we never actually interact. I don’t think it’s all that true – even when cards don’t interact directly, you have to be aware of what your opponent is doing – do you buy the card you want the most, or the other card that you kind-of want, and which your opponents are buying up like they’re going out of fashion?
At some point during a game of Dominion, you need to shift from buying cards that generate resources, to cards that give you VP – knowing how close your opponent is to triggering end game is vital for making that call correctly.
Whatever your feeling on the initial set, Intrigue contained a much higher proportion of Attack cards, the ones which actively targeted your opponent’s hand/deck and even the non-attack card often had effects designed for more interactive games. For us, this tended to make the game a bit too aggressive, and negative, but for others, it made it a strong favourite.
Taking a nautical lead for the theme of the expansion, the main mechanical innovation for Seaside was the introduction of “Duration” cards – ones which did something now and something next turn. There were some fun cards here, but also some that felt very out-of-whack, and able to end the game all too soon.
The “magic” expansion for Dominion, Alchemy introduced a new starting Treasure card – the Potion, and various cards which had costs that combined normal currency and a potion.
Alchemy was definitely my least favourite of the expansions, and it generally seems to have been the most divisive set released: people either love it or hate it. Most of the magic cards in this set were just a bit too fiddly to pull off: by the time you’d bought a potion, and managed to get it in the same hand as enough money to buy the card you were after, the effect was generally anti-climactic (or else it was so powerful that the first person to get one just won the game immediately). The nature of the potions (which have never re-appeared) means that you either need to put lots of Alchemy cards in a set up or none (or use one of the very small number of cards from this set that didn’t have a potion cost), and I generally find it easiest not to bother.
Prosperity is the Big Money expansion: it included new basic Treasures – Platinum (Cost 9, produces 5) and Victories – Colony (Cost 11, 10VP), with the Colony pile providing an alternate game-end trigger if it gets emptied.
Aside from these, this expansion introduced lots of other treasures which were either more interactive, more valuable, or triggered conditionally – these treasures all counted towards the 10 Kingdom piles, and this was the first expansion to introduce a requirement for treasure cards to be played in a specific order.
Cornucopia was all about variety – lots of cards in this set which rewarded you for having as many different cards in hand or in your deck. Set to a rustic/harvest theme, I enjoyed the idea of this one – encouraging players to branch out and be a bit less focused on one or two very specific card types: for this stage in the game’s life, something which pushed you towards less-familiar cards was good.
That said, you will get random set-ups where there are some interesting Cornucopia cards on offer, but other piles of Kingdom cards that just offer a much faster, more powerful strategy. When that happens, it tends to feel a bit of a waste, as the Cornucopia option invariably gets left behind.
Guilds was thematically centred around jobs and, as befits a nonspecificprobablymedievaleuropean theme, the guilds which administer them. Mechanically, it introduced the concept of over-spending when you buy a card, in order to gain an additional bonus – it also had coins which could be saved up to spend later.
Did the Dark Ages really exist? Or is it just a fictional trope? Who cares, in Dominion land they definitely happened, and this is the expansion for hard times: plagues, barbarians, and lots, AND LOTS of Rats. Trashing was a major theme of this expansion, along with Ruins that you could give to other players in order to mess them up. It wasn’t all bad though – there was also a strong sub-theme of upgrading cards, moving on to better and more powerful things.
Hinterlands saw Dominion turn its attention to the exotic things that lay beyond your borders. The mechanical innovation departed slightly from the thematic, with a focus on cards which did things as soon as you acquired them.
Heading off an adventure, this expansion was a bit more of a mixture than some of the previous sets: Duration cards, which hadn’t been seen since Seaside made a surprise return, there were Reserve cards which you could sit on until later, and Events.
Events are one of the most significant innovations we’ve seen in Dominion to date – unlike a Kingdom pile which you buy from a finite pile and have to draw in order to play at an opportune moment, Events sit in play, and can be paid for any turn. Typically you will only want 1 or 2 Events in play per game, but as these come in addition to the 10 piles of Kingdom cards, they allow options for completely shifting the dynamic of a game that uses an otherwise familiar set of cards.
Empires is the most recent expansion and, in a lot of ways, it functions as an expansion of the expansions – it revives a lot of the Big Money themes of Prosperity, continues the revival of the Duration cards from Seaside, and expands the stock of Events found in Adventures. In terms of new mechanics, it introduced debt tokens, which allow you to acquire powerful cards now, but penalising you until you could pay off the debt), split piles – 5 basic cards stack on top of 5 related more powerful cards (handy for Cornucopia strategies that want lots of different cards in your deck) the Unique “Castles” stack, and Landmarks, Event-style cards which sit in play and have a passive effect. I did a review of this one for Games Quest, so you can read the full details there if interested.
So, that’s 8 big boxes (25 Kingdom cards a time) and 3 smaller boxes (a dozen or so cards a time) for well over 230 Kingdom Cards (of which, remember, you’ll be selecting 10 per game). Offhand, I can’t even remember the mathematical equation I’d need to work out the number of possible different combinations, but it’s a fairly safe bet to say that it’s “Many.”
The crazy thing is, that there are people so into Dominion that even if they haven’t played with every possible combination (I don’t feel like that would be possible), they’ve certainly played with every card, and done so enough times to have opinions on most, if not all, of them.
Overall, I’d say that Dominion feels like a game that had been fairly well play-tested: by and large, they’ve dodged the bullet of the things which make no sense or are obviously broken. That said, no amount of playtesting can compare to a mass-market release, and when you consider that over 50,000 people have rated Dominion on BGG over the last 8 years, it stands to reason that the designers feelings about those original cards might have moved on.
It certainly didn’t seem unreasonable to me then, when they announced a couple of months ago that they were releasing 2nd editions of Dominion and Intrigue. Intrigue is now just an expansion (i.e. no basic treasures or victory cards), and in each of the re-vamped boxes, a handful of cards will be jettisoned entirely, whilst others will receive minor wording tweaks.
Once current stocks sell through, only the second editions will be available, with the old cards confined to the dustbin of history. For a short while at least, “upgrade packs” will be available to existing owners who want to acquire the new cards, but there has been quite a lot of fuss kicked up about the “minor” changes, and just how minor they are, with some complaining that they are being forced to buy the whole new edition, in order to get a copy of Throne Room that says “you may play that card twice” instead of just “play that card twice.” (Don’t bother looking the threads up unless you want to get sidetracked into a really long and pointless discussion about gender-neutral pronouns…)
Overall, whilst I didn’t particularly see any problem with some of the cards which have been removed, I’m fairly happy that Donald X Vaccharino knows what he’s talking about and that replacing 6 cards after 8 years is hardly a scam or a rip-off.
Personally I haven’t bought an expansion for Dominion since Cornucopia (although I’m periodically tempted), as my wife isn’t a massive fan of the game, but I really enjoy it, and will be putting my name down for any more expansions that Games Quest want reviewed. Overall, I think Dominion is a worthy “Modern Classic” – a great game in its own right, as well as the father of a whole genre of others.