Advent reviews: Dominion

Today, I’m reviewing a household favorite: Dominion. It’s no accident that we have all but one expansion for this game (nor is it an accident which one we haven’t bought). My SO in particular is fond of it, and used to play it extensively on the free on-line service, Isotropic. That service has sadly closed, and has been replaced by an inferior commercial version, leaving us to play only the physical game.

What kind of game is this?

When biologists talk about a certain species or type of animal, they may refer to a “type specimen”, by which they mean the one used to define the type or kind of organism, and the yardstick by which you determine which other specimens belong to the same kind. Well, Dominion is the type specimen for the kind of game called a “deck-building game”.

In Dominion, each player starts with his own small deck of ten very basic cards. Throughout the game the game, players will add cards to their deck from a selection of cards, called “the supply”. In the supply is three types of money cards (gold, silver and copper), three types of victory cards (estates, duchies and provinces), one type of bad card (curses) and ten so-called “Kingdom cards”. The Kingdom cards vary from game to game, and includes some very different cards. Most of the cards are action cards that allow you to do things on your turn, like draw, play or buy more cards, but there are also special kinds of money and victory cards that change the way you buy cards or score at the end of the game.

The list of things you do on your turn is deceptively simple. On your turn, you:

  1. may play an action card from your hand.
  2. may play as many treasures as you want from your hand,
  3. may buy one card from the supply, depending on the money you have received from the action- and treasure cards you have played. Bought cards go to your discard pile
  4. put all played cards on the table, as well as any unplayed cards in your hand, in your discard pile, and draw five new cards.

…but of course it’s not that simple. Many action cards allow you to play more cards in your action phase, or they allow you to buy more cards in your buy phase, and so, you will often be playing five or ten action cards in your turn, before you play any treasures. Some cards allow you to do things to other players, while others allow you to react to things happening to you, even on other players’ turns. Many cards will tell you to “trash” (remove) cards from your deck, something that is an important element in many strategies.

The game ends when the most valuable victory card has sold out, or when three of the other piles of cards have sold out. Then you count all the victory points in your deck – the person with the most points is the winner.

How many people should you play this with?

According to the box, the game plays with 2-4 players – and I’d gladly play it with 2, 3, or 4 players. Playing with two players is in many ways a more strategic game than playing with three or four, but I would say it plays equally well with two, three and four players. You can also play it with 5 or 6, but I think I might recommend splitting up into two groups instead.

What do I think of this game?

If somebody asked me to point to a beautifully designed game, I might point to Dominion. The rules are simple, yet the depth of the game is immense. Despite the more than 200 different kingdom cards, all the cards interlock in neat and easily understandable ways. The designer of the game, Donald X. Vaccarino, has apparently stated that there is only one combination of cards that he would have prevented had he known of it. That is a testament to the thorough design of the game.

Playing Dominion can be very much a cerebral challenge. Even if you own all expansions and all 200+ different cards, each game will start with a set of ten different kingdom that you can use to construct your deck. As such, the main challenge in any game of Dominion is looking at the available cards, spotting synergies between different cards, and developing a strategy that will allow you to gain more victory points than your opponent.

An important part of advanced Dominion strategy is what is called “deck control” – controlling which cards are present in your deck. Adding a card to your deck means that card is more likely to appear in your hand, replacing other cards – so you must make sure each card is replacing less useful cards, instead of more useful cards. As such, trimming cards that are no longer useful can be a very strong move, as this improves the odds of drawing useful cards. 

All in all, for a 20-30 minute game, Dominion is a very deep game that has entertained us for many, many hours. The basic game is pretty simple to learn, but particularly once you start adding some of the more advanced expansions – like Dark Ages and Cornucopia – there is a lot of options to explore and experience with. But despite the multitude of different cards, the setup of the game limits the number of different cards you have to deal with at a time. While this game is definitely not for everyone, for those who like it, it contains hours and hours of gameplay.

A few interesting things to note

  • The game was one of five Mensa MindGames in 2009.
  • There are a few recurring themes throughout the expansion. Each expansion has at least one type of card that serves a similar function to the “Village” card of the original Dominon-box. Most of them have “village” in the title, like “Mining Village” or “Fishing Village”, while others are called “Hamlet”, “City” etc.
  • A number of expansions change the basic setup of the game. Prosperity adds another tier of money and victory cards (“Platinum” and “Colonies”) while Dark Ages changes the cards you start the game with, and some of the cards require particular cards be added to the setup that can’t be bought, but only gained in ways specified on the cards (“Spoils”, “Ruins”, “Mercenary” and “Madman”).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: