Dominion, by the new designer Donald X. Vaccarino, has been a smash-hit amongst eurogamers since its publication last year, rising quickly to its current position at number 6 in BGG’s rankings; an impressive debut for Donald! Last weekend I finally got to play my first game: an impromptu three-hander with Martin and Lucy, who themselves had only played it a couple of times before. In the interests of full disclosure it is probably best that I reveal at the outset that I pulled off a slightly surprising win!
The game comes in an alarmingly large box for a card game, but then it does have an alarmingly large number of cards, which the box insert does a very smart job of organizing. The ruleset is relatively slight and refreshingly straightforward, and benefits from being intuitive and easy to teach to new players. Sorting and stacking the cards before and after each new game does require some effort, but is not complicated.
The cards come in three primary flavours: Kingdom, Treasure and Victory. In turn the players draw a hand of five cards from their deck with the hope of being able to use Kingdom cards (which generally represent actions that give players additional abilities) and spend Treasure from the hand to buy an additional card (of any type). At the end of each turn all these used and acquired cards go into your discard pile, which will later be reshuffled into a new draw deck. At the end of the game, however, the only cards that matter are the Victory ones, but these are expensive, so the game is a matter of using your opportunities and resources wisely to build your deck, adding a mix of card types, constantly cycling through these to repeat the process of buying new cards.
It’s a genuinely novel mechanic, and is elegantly executed. In each game the Treasure and Victory cards are the same, but only 10 types of Kingdoms are used, from a stock of 25 different varieties. The rules suggest some pre-designed sets of Kingdoms that can be used together, but players can either collectively decide on which 10 to use or choose randomly. The way in which players choose to build their own decks in an attempt to exploit combinations of these Kingdoms is the heart of the game.
Maths alert! There are precisely 3,268,760 ways to choose 10 Kingdoms from 25!
What’s fun about it is the fact that however you stack your deck, you can never be sure which combination of cards is going to turn up in each hand. By buying multiples of a particular card a player can make it more likely that card will appear in later turns, but can never be sure. And the only way to win is to buy Victory cards, but adding these to your deck dilute the Kingdoms and Treasure cards available in later hands!
It seems to me that a big part of playing well is judging when the ‘tipping point’ has been reached: that is, the point in the game when players stop enriching their deck with Kingdoms and Treasure and start making a ‘dash for the cash’ and acquiring the limited number of Victory cards. This is (I’m certain!) a simplistic view, and one that ignores a myriad other strategies, but it was certainly a source of tension in our game. Martin started early buying the big Victory cards, and seemed set for an easy win, but his strategy was unsustainable, and both I and Lucy caught up (the big 6-point Victory cards were split eventually evenly between us at the end of the game).
I had one rather lucky hand which in retrospect seemed key to my win (although I cannot claim that I had designed the possibility of this hand into my deck deliberately!). We were playing the so-called ‘Big Money’ set of Kingdoms given in the rules, which included the Throne Room (which allows another single action to be executed twice, something we all agreed was a Good Thing) and the Feast (which we all looked at in a rather bemused way at the start of the game). The Feast costs 4 Treasure, and can be converted (when played in a later turn) into any card costing 5 Treasure. This seemed to us a rather poor investment, but revealed it’s utility to me when I was able to play a Throne Room and a Feast in combination in a single turn. The medium 3-point Victory cards cost 5 Treasure, so I was able to ‘trash’ my Feast and acquire two of these. Since the Victory cards are limited (and there were only a few left) this single play made a big difference to my fortunes relative to the others.
Although this is a rather simple example, the game is all about creating the possibility for these sorts of combinations, and the ways in which some actions allow one thing to be converted into another, upgrading the value of your deck.
Overall I liked the game, and enjoyed the ‘discovery’ of seeing particular cards reveal their value, either alone or in combination with others. This ‘shock of the new’ would wear off with repeated plays, of course, and then the enjoyment would be based on using a deeper understanding and feel for the game to try and best not only your opponents but also your own previous success and strategies.
Having said all that it may seem a rather trite criticism to complain that Dominion could be labelled (if only with a rather small label) as ‘multiplayer solitaire’. There is competition, but it is not a game (at least when played with the combination of Kingdom cards we used) with a great deal of direct player interaction. There is some brinkmanship in judging when the tipping point occurs, and it is certainly not clear whether there is necessarily a ‘first mover’ advantage when going for the big Victory cards. And since the timing of the endgame is determined by the depletion of the card stocks (and hence by the collective actions of the players) there is some brinkmanship there also.
Martin pointed out that the game as published represents only a subset of a larger game system that has already been extensively mapped out and tested, and so greater direct interaction may well be introduced in the inevitable expansions. In this context it makes sense for the publishers to start where they have, and introduce complexity later for those players who want it.
Dominion is an elegant and extremely thoughtful design, providing a light-to-middle weight gaming experience boosted by excellent production values. The simple core mechanic makes it an easy and relatively quick game to introduce to new players; the way in which this mechanic has been expressed and expanded means there is plenty of depth to explore for the more committed gamer.
The thing is, I do not feel compelled to go out and buy my own copy. I enjoyed the experience of playing — and I certainly enjoyed my surprise win! — but for all its elegance and appeal, it’s not quite my cup of tea. Your mileage, as the Americans say, may vary.
- Excellent design and production values
- Intuitive core mechanic
- Rewarding middle-weight strategy
- Quick play
- Fun and surprising
- Could be played as ‘multiplayer solitaire’
- Set-up and put-away a little time-consuming
- The planned expansions mean that it’s not a one-off purchase