Dominion (2008)

You can find our accessibility teardown here.

I would forgive you for thinking that this is an entirely unnecessary review.  Does anyone that is likely to read this blog need me to tell them what I think about Dominion?   Probably not.  Is there anything original I can add to the dozens of reviews that are out there?  I doubt it.   Am I going to offer a uniquely personal perspective that only I could deliver?   I would be as amazed as anyone were that to be the case.

Dominion box

The box that launched a thousand boxes

It’s not even as if the teardown is going to be particularly insightful.  We’ve discussed deck-builders there before, both Star Realms and Paperback can in for attention on that score.   The issues that Dominion raises won’t deviate significantly from those, although there are some interesting (to me at least) nuances.   The teardown though is not going to be earth-shattering.

Really, we’re reviewing it here just because of the focus of Meeple Like Us.  We’re not a blog that slavishly worships in the cult of the new, we’re a blog that focuses on the landscape of accessibility.  As such, we have a slightly odd rubric for choosing the games we do – the more people know about them, the more benefit we provide in adding them as data points to our master-list.   That obviously has to be tempered with familiarity – just because a game is popular, it doesn’t mean we know it well enough to comment.   As such, the games we talk about are an eclectic mix of ‘things I thought worth buying’ and ‘things that I thought were really interesting from an accessibility perspective’.  And, of course,  ‘games so well known that even people that have never seen any game of any form in their lives will be able to meaningfully play’.  Dominion falls into the latter camp.

You’ll notice I haven’t done my usual ‘see how the game is played’ thing for this review.  If you want to know how a deck-builder is played, read the Paperback or Star Realms reviews.  It plays pretty much exactly like that, just better.

Dominion’s status in the tabletop gaming landscape is immense.  It bestrides this little world of ours like a colossus, representing as it does one of the few games that can legitimately claim to have invested a new gameplay mechanic.  YES, MECHANIC.  I refuse to bow down to the denialism of linguistic descriptivism that plagues this hobby.  I will call it a mechanism over my dead body.  And yours.  And yours.  ALL OF YOU.

There were card games before Dominion, of course.  And there were card-games where the construction of decks was an important element.    Magic: The Gathering was released in 1993, and remains the single thing keeping the vast majority of local game stores in business.   Collectible card games long pre-date Dominion’s 2008 release.   Dominion though did something genuinely new.  In most of the contemporary games involving deck-building, it was a meta-game process of buying booster packs, hoping you’d find a rare and powerful card, and using those cards to pre-construct configurations powerful enough to dominate your opponents.   Dominion sacrificed all of that to provide everyone with the same opportunities to acquire the cards, and made that acquisition the core to the actual game loop.  It was extraordinary and visionary, and we’re all paying the price for it.

Perverse popularity is great for the game to which it attaches.  According to my extensive research, Dominion has sold somewhere  in the region of eleventy billion copies, with that many again being sold in terms of expansion packs, t-shirts, mugs and bespoke sex toys.  It’s an industry in and of itself, and it has become part of the cultural vocabulary of tabletop gaming.   In the process, it has inspired a legion of successors that have cleaved tightly to its formula.   It’s contributed to a sense of generalised burn-out on deck-builders, certainly in myself and others.     Were I reviewing Dominion when it released, I would be entirely effusive with praise.  The best I can manage now is an objective acknowledgement of its excellence, and only the weariest begrudged resentment when it comes to actually playing.

But anyway…

Dominion has numerous game features that have never really been bettered.  Many of the deck builders that exist, including the aforementioned Star Realms and Paperback may have varied the formula but in the process they have managed to miss out on a number of the elements that made the original so addictive.   At best what these games have done is accomplished a more successful marriage between theme and mechanics.  Dominion, for all its mechanical cleverness, has no real theme of which to speak.

What you do get in a box of Dominion though is a bountiful possibility space of meaningful card-play.  Just look at what you get in the base set:

Inside the box

This is what genius looks like

Dominion handles game-play in three phases.  In the first, you pick an action card and execute its instructions.  Then, you spend whatever treasure you have on purchasing new cards.  Then you clear away all the cards in your hand and draw a new hand of five from your deck.  If your deck is empty, you shuffle your discard pile into it.   I would say it’s standard stuff, but remember Dominion isn’t following this standard.  It invented it.

There are some cards you’ll play with in every game – duchies, provinces, estates, and the three denominations of currency.  The rest you’ll only be playing with in subsets.  You pick ten of those cards, perhaps according to a fixed set as outlined in the manual, and that’s your game.

Starter deck

Three parts crud to seven parts currency. Like the post-Brexit British pound.

This is one of the things that puts Dominion, even now, head and shoulders over its legions of imitators.   Every game can be different not just because of playing strategies, but because of the fundamental card synergies that are permitted and encouraged.  And brilliantly, there are at least in the base set no combinations that create a fundamentally unplayable game.  All the combinations work, and they all create meaningfully different textures to the game experience.

Synergy is at the heart of deck based games – it’s all about how one card will influence the way in which your deck works for you.  Setting up chains of cards is what drives the tactical impact of the decisions you make.  You can influence deck composition, which is pretty much the only thing you can do in Star Realms, but you’re at the mercy of the draw of your cards unless you can make those cards work for you.   By limiting card synergies to only a sampling of the available cards in the box, Dominion fundamentally alters the market forces of the card economy in subtle, and not so subtle ways.

Dominion, like many deck builders, is driven by your ability to curate your deck.  You buy cards from the supply making use of treasures in your hand, and they become available at some later point in the game.   You can gorge yourself on an endless parade of good things.  In the end though what really matters is the composition of your deck – the proportion of cards you’d want to draw versus cards you wouldn’t.

This model of delayed gratification and straight-forward limited draw means that you have one key task in play – to maximise the benefit that comes from the five cards that you get.  That means getting rid of bad cards (by trashing them, which removes them from play) and leveraging abilities that permit you to draw beyond your normal hand limit of five.   Dominion provides abundant opportunities to do both.  At least, it does across the whole set of cards.  The particular combination of options in the supply for the game in front of you may not be quite so generous.

Moneylender

Using a moneylender makes you richer. Just like in real life.

Some of the cards you buy will have actions on them, and you can perform one of these per turn from a card in your hand.  Well, it’s usually one.  The actions are what drive your deck curation – they let you convert poor cards into better cards, or just entirely get rid of cards you no longer want.  A lot of what you do in Dominion is architect an engine, and after a while those things you needed to scaffold your own progress are just getting the way.    That’s where the card setup becomes so clever – the mechanics and tipping point of utility shifts as cards drift in and out of availability. In a game that contains a chapel (trash up to four cards in your hand), you can be pretty liberal with picking up suboptimal cards if they’ll give you a fractional and temporary advantage.  It’ll be easy to get rid of them.  On the other hand, if you’re playing a game where no cards have a trash ability… well.  You’d better be sure you want to keep everything you buy because each purchase is an iron-clad commitment.

Mine

Where a million diamonds shine

A game which contains a mine (upgrade a treasure card into a better treasure card) will lead to rapid inflation, but that won’t be very useful if none of the cards available let you double up on buy actions.   You can only buy one card per turn, usually, and nobody seems to know how to make change.

Lumberjack

Why does a lumberjack make it easier to buy things? Why? WHY?

Some card combinations lead to escalations of acquisition that terminate in a crescendo of buying power.  Some lead to incredibly tight, frugal games where every single thing you buy has to be carefully considered.  It’s genius, really.

Your game

This is your game. There are many games like it, but this is yours.

And that’s not the only place where real genius is found in the Dominion rule-set.

In our Paperback review, I talked about how I believed there was a fundamental breakdown in mechanics when the victory card points you could buy also served as wild-cards for word construction.  Essentially, while they didn’t earn you money they hugely simplified the task of making longer words.   I said at the time that I thought Paperback should have adopted the Dominion model, and I still believe that’s the case.

You see, victory points in Dominion are purchased just like any other card.  They come in the form of estates, duchies and provinces in ascending order of cost and value.  Everyone begins with three estates in their hand.  And do you know what victory cards do?

They do absolutely nothing.

And that’s incredibly clever!  All they do is crud up your hand, robbing you of precious momentum.  You need them in order to win, but when you buy them you throw a spanner into your own economic engine.   They’ll just keep circling into your hand, taking the place of a card that could have done you some actual good in the here and now.  But you are loathe to trash them because they are the only thing that matters for actual victory.

A crudded up hand

A hand that is 2/5ths crud

There are only a certain number of each of the victory cards in the game, and when the last of the province cards are gone the game is over.

Victory cards

Keep your eye on the prize

And that’s the other area of pure, unadulterated genius.   While you won’t worry too much about someone buying up estates and duchies, you’ll suddenly get very anxious when a province disappears into someone’s hand.   The game ends when any three supply piles are empty (that’ll take a while), or when the province cards are all gone.  When someone picks up a province then, the game lurches 1/8th of the way towards its termination.  Provinces are valuable too – one province is worth two duchies in terms of scoring.  The immediate, visceral reaction to someone claiming a province is to gasp, do an ‘oh no he ditn’t’ finger snap, and then start buying up all the victory points you can get your hands on.  And then everyone is doing it.  And suddenly all that’s happening is that your economic engine is crudding up just as you need it the most, and just as the contention over the few scant remaining provinces becomes its most intense.   In other words, the game ends a few short, tense turns after someone, anyone, starts to get bored.  That’s a game mechanism (GOD, OKAY) that’s closer to magic than anything else – what game designer wouldn’t want their game to end before someone asks the question ‘Are we nearly done with this yet?’.   It gives the game the perfect length, because fundamentally the end-game is triggered at its most optimal phase.

Dominion is more dynamic than Star Realms, offering as it does an important element of ordering in how actions are to be carried out.  Some cards will just end your action phase right away.  Others will let you chain together card draws and additional actions.  Playing them in the right combinations is key to maximising the benefit of your hands.   And since Dominion has that beautiful balancing between victory points and economic components it has greater depth even to the buying phase.

Dominion is more interesting than Paperback, because the cost of winning is to give up short-term flexibility for long-term return.   The victory cards represent logistical burdens, and the point at which you start to build them into your deck is strategically important.   Buying a victory card is always to the net loss of your economic productivity.  In Paperback it’s an accelerant.   Fundamentally too the cards you’re picking up are more powerful, and have more involving effects.

Dominion is more varied and replayable than both, because only a subset of the cards are available per game and the specific combination has a hugely important impact on the available strategies you can adopt.

It’s tight, yo.  That’s what the kids say, right?  They say things are tight?  Why does nobody say wizard any more?

However, there are problems.  For all the cleverness of the mechanics, it often feels like there’s not a lot of point to any other players being there.  It’s a game where you are intently focused on what you are doing, and beyond the starter pistol of the first province card being purchased you’re indifferent to everything else.   Some games do offer a chance for some very limited PVP, such as what is permitted via the spy:

Spy

This is how real life spies work too

Or the witch, who allows you to play curses into your opponents discard pile.   Incidentally It’s very telling that the key power the witch has is to basically fill your hand full of negative victory points.   It’s not the penalty that stings, it’s the fact the card is in your deck at all.

These though are only the shallowest implementations of player interaction.    Dominion is a game of being a selfish lover – the only thing you’re really interested in is your own satisfaction.  That makes downtime feel especially frustrating.  You’re not eagerly assessing the impact of your opponent’s  actions, you’re just thinking ‘I wish it was my turn again’.  That’s especially pronounced because of the decisions that a hand will put in front of you, and the evaluative optimisation that will need to be carried out.  It can take a while to make the magic happen, which isn’t a huge deal of fun if people are tapping their feet and looking meaningfully at their watches.

Dominion is also as bland as a Weetabix smoothie.  The theme, such as it is, is almost soporific and implemented with such casual indifference you have to wonder why it’s there at all.   You’re a monarch, trying to create the largest and most powerful kingdom.  Or so the rulebook tells you.  I don’t believe a game needs a good theme to be worth playing, but a bad or half-hearted theme is worse than no theme at all.

I may not be the most reliable source of views on Dominion.  I’m not a huge fan of deck-builders, and Dominion is the reason.  It was like no game that had come before it, and yet no game has really seriously made an attempt to experiment with the format beyond a few eccentricities here and there.  You can almost always describe the lineage of these games as ‘It’s like Domnion, but with…’.  Star Realms is ‘like Dominion but with HPs and factions’.  Paperback is ‘Like dominion except with words and wildcards’.   Quarriors is ‘Dominion, with dice’.  Trains is ‘Like Dominion, but with a board’, and so on.  It’s easy to become jaded when you see a new and exciting game only to find out it’s a deck-builder you’ve already played a dozen times before.

Deck-building is to tabletop gaming what first person shooters are to video games – a convenient default that works for almost everything.    Dominion’s is not to blame for that, and it’s also not fair to blame it for how burnt out I am on the deck-builder mechanic.  We do not live in a fair world, though, so blame it I do.  It’s not the fault of Monty Python that endless repetition by legions of the least funny people on the planet has diluted the original comedy value to homoeopathically ineffective levels.  It doesn’t make me cringe any less when I see the Knights That Say Ni on a television screen.

Nonetheless, I have to acknowledge the brilliance and elegance of the design.  Dominion is every bit as good as people say it is.   It’s worth every award it’s garnered and every penny it has generated in revenue.  It’s easy enough for novices, and deep enough for experts.  And when you get tired of it, there are ten or so expansion packs you can use to inject fresh new novelty and game mechanics.    It’s often emulated, rarely equalled, and hardly ever surpassed.  If you’re going to dip your toes into a deck-builder you won’t have reason to regret purchasing Dominion.  Just… don’t ask me to play it too often, ‘kay?


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