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You Know What Would Be Cool?

A game of chess, checkers, etc. where you decide all your moves beforehand. 

Dominion

Between the years of 2012 - 2016, I was addicted to the most dangerous drug on the planet currently known to humans. It invaded my family life, my social life, my work life, my school life, my personal goals - everything I once valued was held second in comparison to those wonderf- terrible pieces of paper. My wallet was drained, my brain was high on dopamine, my desire was fueled. And then I quit. Enough is enough! Never again will I touch another Magic: the Gathering card. You may have gotten four years out of me, but now you’ll have to find someone else’s life to screw up. Two years after this bold proclamation that definitely happened and is 100% real, I still found myself itching from time to time. Sometimes it would be a small tick, other times a hallucination I would try to shrug off as the result of dehydration or poor sleep. I tried satisfying my insatiable cravings through other means - other card games, strategy games, social games, long games, short games, crazy games, stupid games, old games, new games, this game, that game, anything - to no fruition. I still longed for the addictive deckbuilding nature of Magic. For the rich lore and trove of debates and discussions online and in person. The infinite combinations of cards, the satisfaction of winning, the thrill of losing a good game because it meant that game was over so I could play another round. For two years I was restless still thinking of Magic: the Gathering. And then I found Dominion.

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Dominion is often credited as being game that made deck builders popular, and is still revered as being one of the best in the genre, even after 11 years. To see if it actually deserves all the hype it gets, I’ll first briefly go over how Dominion is played and then discuss some other popular games in the genre and how they compare to the big boy. I’ll then go over what I feel are the strong and weak points of Dominion and my overall opinion of the game. That’s a lot to do, so let’s get started!

Gameplay

Dominion always looks the same at the start of the game: 16 stacks of cards in the center of the table. 3 of these stacks are Treasure cards (Copper, Silver, and Gold, in ascending order of value and cost). 3 are Victory cards (Estate, Duchy, and Province, in ascending order of value and cost). The remaining 10 stacks are Kingdom cards which allow players to perform additional actions, buy more cards, accrue more money, draw more cards, etc. There are 26 unique Kingdom cards included with the base game, each having 10 copies of each. As only 10 of the 26 cards are used in each game, you can choose how you want the game to play: randomly select 10 cards for a surprising assortment, or choose one of the rulebook’s recommended setups for a more thematic, synergetic selection. Additionally, each player starts with the exact same hand: 7 Coppers and 3 Estates.

The objective of dominion is very simple: to have the most Victory cards when the game ends, which is when either when all the Provinces have been purchased or when any three stacks of cards are depleted. To do this, players will look at the Kingdom cards being used for the game and try to identify which combination of cards they think will build the best engine for them to achieve the goal more efficiently than the other players. Should you play the fast game and attain cards as quickly and as cheaply as possible, ending the game before your opponents can really get their engines running? Or should you play the long game and only go for Provinces and powerful Kingdom cards? Maybe you’ll try to fill your deck with Gold so you can buy the really expensive cards before anyone else? Deciding a strategy and sticking with it may seem difficult, but once you do, the game becomes all about implementing it and seeing if it proves more efficient than your opponents’ strategies.

Other Deck Builders

There are a bunch of other deck builders out there, but I’ll only be going over two of the more popular ones here: Ascension and Clank! Ascension seems to have a little more theme than Dominion and may be more fun for players because there is more player interaction. Whereas in Dominion the goal is just to accumulate a bunch of Victory points and then the game ends, in Ascension you are actually attacking someone (your opponent), so there’s a little more reasoning behind what you’re doing. That being said, there is more random chance involved and what the game offers in flavor and theme, it lacks in strategy (although I’m sure others would disagree with me). To its credit, Ascension is smaller and cheaper than Dominion and so might be a good option for someone who’s never played a deck builder before. I recommend reading about it some more or watching some videos before deciding if it’s for you or not.

Clank! is a favorite for many. It has a great theme, has fun cartoony art, and isn’t about constructing a great big engine like in Dominion, but rather is, at its heart, a racing game. Players use their cards to explore underground monsters, killing monsters and gathering treasures on the way. All the while, players must be careful to not make too much noise on the way or they’ll wake the dragon slumbering somewhere hidden. The choice in this game mainly resides in whether a player should grab the first treasure they see and return to the surface or push a little deeper and grab a more valuable treasure before returning to the world above, knowing that this is more risky and has a greater chance of not escaping the dragon. Clank! is also not solely a card game - it utilizes a board, which is what sets it apart from other deck builders. This board helps you visualize everything that’s going on and gives you a character to move around in a physical space. While I have never played it myself, I would love to try Clank! I think it would probably also have a wider appeal than Dominion simply because it’s less dry and the objective is more appealing than just getting the most points.

Hits

#1. I really like how every game of Dominion starts the same. Aside from the 10 Kingdom cards, you know exactly what you’re getting into every game and start with the same hand as everyone else. The winner of the game is always the player who can look at the Kingdom cards and most quickly identify the three or four cards needed to build a killer engine to cycle through their deck quickly and obtain as much buying power as possible. 

#2. Dominion is almost impossible to win on your first play because you’re still figuring out how a turn works and how cards complement each other and so on. But the rules of the game are super simple - you only ever do the same three things, and always in the same order. This simple but intricate design rewards players for playing more and testing out new strategies. The more experience you gain, the more you learn which cards work well together, which cards look great but actually slow down your deck a whole lot, and so on. It’s also fun to find that perfect balance of just how many Victory cards you should be buying, because - while you do need them to win - they just sit in your deck taking up space until the final scoring actually happens. Usually a find that a learning curve is a negative for me, but I appreciate it here.

#3. With 26 Kingdom cards, Dominion offers a lot of replayability in its own right. But there are also a plethora of expansions available. Most of these expansions are focused around one core theme or mechanic, so you can purchase the one that will make your game play the way you want - Intrigue, Prosperity, Seaside, and Hinterlands are popular choices for your first expansion or two. Additionally, a Second Edition of the base game was released last year updating some of the card text and replacing several of the cards with new ones. Intrigue was also given the Second Edition treatment, or both Intrigue and the base game are available together in a Big Box Second Edition which also includes extra cards to accommodate 5-6 player games (the base game only allows for up to 4 players). If you play with the same group regularly, you can have one person buy the base game and have everyone else buy one expansion - this will allow you to play Dominion for a good long while without getting bored of it and won’t force anyone to break the bank, either.

#4. I went over this in #1 already, but I just want to emphasize how much I love the strategic opportunity in this game. Usually winning in games that rely heavily on a deck of cards can be attributed to a lucky draw or something like that. But in Dominion you literally choose everything  that goes into your deck. Can’t afford any cards? Get more Treasures! Deck’s too fat? Buy more cards to slim it down! Not drawing the cards you want often enough? Buy more cards that let you draw extra cards! And so on…

Misses

#1. While not a deal breaker for me, I feel Dominion passed up on its opportunity to implement a strong theme here. The names and art of the cards contribute absolutely nothing to the gameplay or players’ enjoyment of playing. If the gameplay of Dominion could be combined with the fun theme and art of Clank!, I don’t think the world would ever need another deck builder.

#2. At $30-35, Dominion is a fair price for the hours of entertainment it will provide. However, after a while you’ll likely want an expansion or two. This can get really expensive really quick. Also, the boxes for these games are larger than you’re probably expecting. While not a problem with just the base game, I could see it causing problems if you owned more than an expansion or two. A possible solution to this, as I mentioned earlier, is to buy just the base game and have your friends (whoever you plan to play regularly with) buy one expansion each and keep them at their homes.

#3. The amount of expansions available can be daunting. There are currently eight large and two small expansions for Dominion. With this many options to choose from, it may seem intimidating choosing where to start or deciding which ones you don’t really need versus which ones would align well with your needs. This may require you to do some research before you finally sink your teeth into an expansion once and for all.

#4. In my opinion, Dominion plays really well with 2-3, and holds up pretty well at 4 as well. However, I wish it could fit more. Sure you can buy more Victory and Treasure cards to allow for more players, but at that point the downtime will be too long and I’d rather be playing a different game.

Final Thoughts

While there are a few drawbacks to Dominion, none of them are potent enough to deter me from loving it. It rightfully deserves its title as the father of deck building games and will likely remain one of the best for a while longer. The clever design paired with the simple rules are a recipe for an elegant yet sophisticated game that just keeps giving and giving.

For me, Dominion has even replaced Magic: the Gathering (probably an unpopular opinion) because here it doesn’t matter which player is the richest or has been collecting cards since the ‘90s, but who is best able to identify and implement an engine to buy the most Victory points before anyone else. Plus, only one person needs to own Dominion for up to 4 to enjoy the fun.

A great game in its own right and an even better deck builder, Dominion has stayed alive and strong for over 10 years now for good reason. If you’ve heard about this game but have been putting off trying it, I recommend going for it and snagging a copy of the Second Edition. If this is the first you’re hearing of it, I encourage you to do some more research or ask my any questions you have before pulling the trigger, but I think you’ll find that you won’t be dissatisfied with your purchase if you get this game right away, either.

Be sure to let me know if you have any questions, comments, or concerns. The next and final post of the month will be on August 31 and will be a deviation from my regular reviews. See you then.

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