Thursday, January 12, 2012

Dominion Game Critique

Formal Elements:

Dominion is a deck-building game designed by Donald X. Vaccarino which centers around players expanding a small starting hand of cards into a large deck of various cards with differing effects. Two to four players are supported, with several rules (such as quantities of certain cards in play) changing according to the number of players. Dominion Cards are the only physical objects in play (no board, tokens, etc.) and they come in different categories: Treasure, Victory, Kingdom, and a small handful of cards that were not used in the variant I played such as Curse cards. Treasure cards are used as currency and come in three denominations. Victory cards grant victory points at the end of the game if they are in the player's deck. Kingdom cards have a variety of effects which are listed directly on the card. All cards types, including currency cards, can be purchased with currency and added to the player's deck. Each card has a certain cost which is listed on the card. Not all card types are used in every game type, for instance only 10 of the 25 available Kingdom card sets are used in a single game.

Turns are taken one at a time and consist of three phases (taken in the order listed): Action, Buy, and Clean-up. Players use action cards from their hand during the Action phase, buy cards during the Buy phase, and during the Clean-up phase discard their hand and the cards they played, finally drawing five new cards from the deck. The players can only play one action card and make one buy per turn, but many action cards increase this limit. Cards that are bought during the turn immediately get discarded. When a player runs out of cards in his deck, his discard pile is shuffled and is placed face down as the new deck.

The game ends when the supply of any one type of victory card runs out, or any three card supply piles run out. At this point each player counts the number victory points in their deck. The player with the most victory points is the winner.


The rules of Dominion could be understood in a few minutes, while the strategy of which cards to buy took much longer to understand. The two strategies I considered during my first game were buying lots of Kingdom cards and buying lots of currency/provinces. The former would allow for effective "chaining", where the first kingdom card played during a turn allows the player to play/draw additional kingdom cards, sometimes allowing the entire deck to be in play on a single turn. The downside is that this strategy only becomes effective in buying provinces towards the end of the game. The currency/province strategy would involve buying lots of silver and gold, making it easy to buy expensive provinces throughout the game. This would allow the player to stockpile victory points early and attempt to deplete a province pile, ending the game before the other players could buy many provinces. The downside is that province cards have no effect until the endgame, meaning they just take up space in the deck (a sort of negative feedback loop). Both seem viable ways to play, although I'm sure other effective strategies exist.

I also noticed that choices (what cards to buy/play) were relatively limited during the early turns, but the number of options continued to increase as the game continued. This made early turns fast and later turns slower with more thought involved.

Finally, I thought it was interesting that the number of victory cards a player owned was not visible to everyone, but all card buying was public. This means you don't exactly how many points a player has (barring some difficult card counting), but have a rough estimate of how well each player is doing.


At the beginning of the game, I had no idea what any of the kingdom cards did or which cards to buy. I started out simply buying one of each card to see how it worked. While a bit daunting at first, the player quickly gets a feel for how each card functions. I felt playing with experienced players was actually helpful in this case. Since all moves are made in full view of the other players, modeling other players' behaviors seems to be the quickest way to learn the game. I thought the design decision to make all moves public knowledge worked well in making the game accessible to new players.

Unlike many games, Dominion has a very limited "chance" element. No dice are involved and all players start with identical hands. The only variability comes from shuffling the cards when the deck runs out. This means doing well is almost completely dependent on strategy instead of "luck". This might have the effect of removing variation from the game, but the designer included a set of 25 kingdom cards, while only 10 are used in a single game. Variation is achieved by using a different set of kingdom cards each game.

Representing kingdom building through cards instead of a traditional board (like Carcassonne) resulted in a more abstract concept of a kingdom. The artwork on the cards was impressive and detailed, adding to the aesthetics. The endgame acted as an "unveiling" of the player's kingdom, in which all the victory points are laid out and tallied. It wasn't until this point that I felt the "kingdom building" aesthetic really hit home. More traditional kingdom building games allow the players to see the kingdom as it slowly expands, but this moment is saved for the very end in Dominion. While I still prefer the traditional approach, the "hidden kingdom" approach makes the endgame much more exciting and suspenseful for the players.

I felt Dominion was a well-designed game with simple mechanics that lead to deep strategies. Having never played a deck-building game before, I found it to be a unique experience. I look forward to playing it again and would recommend it to others.

1 comment:

  1. I think you've hit some really good points here, Lyle. I think the negative feedback loop created by Victory Cards is one of the best parts of the game.

    Like you, I enjoy Dominion, but I find the abstractness of the kingdom-building to be a tad unsatisfying: it feels more like getting points than like building a kingdom. Other deck-building games have incorporated variations to overcome this. For example, Seth Jaffee's "Eminent Domain" is a deck-building game that also includes a tableau of explored and settled planets: as the game goes on, you can clearly see your (and your opponents') collection of planets growing.