Dominion is a card-based board game (as a self-contained base set, with many expansions) that is widely credited with popularizing the “deckbuilding” mechanic, where you play with a deck of cards that is built during the course of the game rather than beforehand. You’ve possibly heard of this mechanic, or even played some recent games that use it, such as Star Realms or War of Omens.
The game’s designer, Donald X. Vaccarino wanted to capture the addictive, exciting nature of playing trading card games but without the investment of time, money and energy required to purchase and build pre-constructed decks to bring the gaming table. He helped develop the ingenious mechanic that we now refer to as “deckbuilding” (somewhat confusingly, since sometimes trading / collectible card games have been called “deck-building games” before).
It’s clear that Dominion started a wave of excitement around this new mechanic, launching many copycat games. Yet looking at Dominion now in 2015, is it still a good game? Read on to find out…
Dominion is a bit of a strange game, at first glance. There appears to be a bewildering number of cards inside when you first open the box – nearly 500 cards, just in the base set alone! If you’re a regular player of any TCGs/CCGs, this isn’t going to phase you; you’ll probably be more excited than overwhelmed. “All these cards I can build decks with! Awesome!” Well, yes, but… hold your horses. This isn’t quite that kind of game. Dominion is something altogether different, yet comfortingly familiar. Pull up a chair, sit down, and prepare to fall in love with this game.
Before you can play, Dominion requires a fair amount of setup. This is probably the biggest barrier to getting started in the game, but once you know how to play, setting it up and taking it down gets quicker each time. Soon you’ll be doing it in less than a minute – like a pro.
Your starting Kingdom is 10 sets of “purchasable” cards: each stack of cards is usually of the same effect text, and usually at exactly 10 copies of the card. There are some variations to these rules, but you won’t find them until you reach the expansions so don’t worry about that just yet. The variation in Dominion comes from the fact that your starting 10 card types can be just about any ten types you like from any Dominion game you own. That’s a crazy amount of combinations if you factor in all of the expansions.
The goal of Dominion is to have the most amount of victory points in your deck at the time the game ends, which is at the end of a turn when any three piles of cards have been depleted, or when all of the Province Victory cards (the most expensive and most valuable card) has been depleted – whichever of these two conditions occurs first.
Players start off with a deck of ten cards: 7 Coppers and 3 Estates. Each turn, you draw 5 cards and play your turn in this order: Actions, Treasures, Buy, Cleanup. Your turn has one free “Action” and one free “Buy”. Playing an Action card uses up that action point, and after playing your Treasure cards, you’ll normally only have one Buy with which to use them. Very quickly, the cards in the game alters these basic rules: cards will give you more Actions, more card draw, more Buys and so on. This leads to come crazy chains and combos of playing cards, such as in the following image.
The strategy for Dominion is extremely variable depending on the selection of Kingdom cards, but after a number of games it will all “click” in place and you’ll start to learn how to “read” a set of Kingdom cards and how best to approach that particular game. Each Kingdom set is a puzzle presented to you to work out – where are the best “engines” that help oil your deck to be a fast, efficient, lean machine? Which cards will help advance your cause, and are there any that can help slow down and block your opponents from progressing? Each game of Dominion is so different that it’s nearly impossible to provide strategies that will help you win every single game.
What I can say is that the game is as much about what you keep out of your deck as it is what you add to it. Buying a cheap card each turn just because you can’t afford better, more expensive cards might make your turn feel useful that round, but it might be harming the effectiveness of your deck in the future. Cheap cards clog up your deck towards the end of a game, so they have limited use more towards the start of a game.
Trashing is also a very important part of strategy. This is where cards will allow you to remove other cards from your deck permanently. It’s a vital ability that you’ll need in most games, but some Kingdom sets will intentionally leave it out to frustrate you and force you to work around not being able to trash. I enjoy both kinds of games, but I particularly enjoy games that allow for a lot of trashing, because you can make your deck so lean and smooth that you can literally draw and play the whole deck from start to finish in each of your turns. The feeling of satisfaction you get from doing this is impossible to understand until you’ve done it yourself, but when you have, you’ll know the feeling.
There are many, many expansions for Dominion now, since the game has been out for a number of years. The game continues to get better, like a fine aging wine. Each expansion tends to build upon a particular mechanical theme or introduce a new element to the game, while still focusing on the same kinds of core strategies to win. I’ll briefly mention and point out which expansions I think are a must-have:
- Intrigue – This is the first expansion and probably the best one to get into if you want to ease yourself into new mechanics. It also officially expands the game to a capacity of up to 5 or 6 players (but I advise against games of this size, because it can get boring waiting for so many rounds before it comes back to your turn again).
- Prosperity – This is said to be the most popular of the expansions. It focuses around “Big Money” style games, adding Platinum (worth $5) and Colony (10 Victory Points) cards. Lots of high-cost cards with powerful effects.
- Dark Ages – This is a big one, nearly 500 cards, but that makes it perfect for a single expansion purchase if you’re not looking to get into all of the sets but want something expanding the base game with a lot of replayability. This set focuses a lot around trashing, which is one of my favorite things about Dominion, as well as some interesting new card types like Shelters and Ruins, and even transforming cards. This is my favorite expansion, personally.
There are many other expansions. Some are large sets, others are small sets. I’ll leave it up to you to fully explore these, but the three listed above are my top three picks for anyone’s first expansion purchases due to their large size, replayability and variety of interesting new mechanics and cards.
I absolutely love Dominion. It’s one of my favorite physical games that blurs the line between collectible card games and more traditional board games. It’s a game that I keep coming back to over and over because it’s just so satisfying to play, especially with 2 or 3 other people. There have been many deckbuilders since its original release, but there is something about Dominion that the imitators have never been able to surpass in design. The game should be considered to encompass all of the expansions as one large game, but even the base set alone has been known to be more than enough for people to replay many, many times over.
The only real criticism to talk about here is that the game has been charged with being fundamentally more of a solitaire game that several people are playing together rather than a truly interactive, multiplayer game. I think this may have been truer towards the start of the game’s life span, but with such a large variety of expansions released that have included many, many interactive elements between players, I think the game has outgrown most of this criticism.
Ultimately, you’ll have to see for yourself, but there is a reason it’s one of the most popular games in the hobby market in recent years, a game that so many have imitated in the years since: Dominion is just downright addictive. Once you’ve had your first taste, you’ll want to keep coming back for more.
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