Gaming Unplugged: Eminent Domain is truly stellar

December 2, 2011

Somewhere in the unlikely Venn diagram overlap of Dominion and Race for the Galaxy rests Seth Jaffee’s Eminent Domain, a Kickstarter-funded project published by Tasty Minstrel Games. In this deck-building game, two to four players are each given a starter deck of nine role cards and one politics card (a one-shot effect that replaces itself with a role card of the player’s choice) and one randomly-dealt start planet tile.

The remaining role cards are arranged on the central card display, along with the planet cards, fighter tokens, resource tokens, and influence (VP) chips — eight of which are colored differently to indicate one possible game end condition. Stacks of technology cards are also kept nearby, sorted by planetary requirements if not by actual cost. Each player is also given a player aid tile; the back of one of these tiles indicates the start player, in an inspired piece of design.

Each player’s turn consists of one optional phase and two mandatory ones. A player may use one of the cards in hand to execute that card’s action; possible actions include settling/attacking a planet in their Empire, producing/trading a good, or drawing/removing cards. Then that player chooses a role by taking one of the cards from the central display (if the corresponding one remains, otherwise they just take the role); they may boost this role by playing additional cards showing matching symbols and/or from any symbols indicated on face-up planets or technologies in their Empire. Other players then have the option of following the role in the same manner as boosting, although the current player receives a “leader” bonus (on most roles; some do not give a bonus until the stack of cards has been depleted); players not wishing (or able) to follow the role instead draw a card from their deck, giving them more options for future turns.

This role phase — and the boosting/following/dissenting — is what makes Eminent Domain a distinct and interesting variation on the growing deck-building genre, keeping players involved in other players’ turns really keeps the game moving and allows for potentially rapid cycling through a player’s deck. The final phase, cleanup, also facilitates deck cycling. As normal, players refill their hand back up to five (plus whatever bonuses are granted by worlds) after putting all cards played this turn in to the discard pile, but they may first discard any number of their remaining cards — or keep some, in a departure from just about every other deck-building game. If a player somehow winds up with more than their limit in hand they must instead discard down at the end of their turn.

Success in Eminent Domain first requires opting for a planet-acquiring strategy. Each planet has an attack value and a settle value printed on the back (along with an indication of what type of planet it is). Attacking the planet requires an accumulation of fighters via the Warfare action/role, then using the Warfare action (or the leader bonus on the role) to actually attack it. Settling works in a similar fashion, with Colonize cards being placed underneath the desired planet until enough are present to meet the requirement, then using a Colonize action (or Leader bonus) to settle the world — returning the colonize cards back to your discard pile. Having the colonize cards sitting under planets makes settling a more difficult path, but settle costs are generally lower than attack costs.

Once a planet is claimed, it is worth influence points and will also provide one or more other benefits, like production capability, boosting symbols, or adding to that player’s hand limit — unless it is a Prestige-type planet, which is just worth a ton of points. The other planetary types are needed for the Research role, which will allow a player with sufficient symbols and planetary types to add a technology card to their hand or Empire. Technology cards provide a range of benefits; the cards that go into your hand are mostly enhanced actions as well as multiple boosting symbols, while the permanent cards added to your empire each have their own unique ability. Permanent technologies are double-sided; claiming one of these forces a player to choose one of the sides, thereby eliminating the other side from the game completely.

Additional planets are gained through the Survey role, the leader looking at a number of cards from the planet deck equal to the number of symbols generated then adding one of the drawn planets to their Empire face-down and discarding the rest; following players get to look at one less card, so having only one symbol is basically a a waste. The final role is to Produce or Trade, which is fairly self-explanatory; followers are restricted to the leader’s choice of specific role for these cards. The type of good traded does not generally matter (barring certain technologies), with each traded good being worth one influence.

The second step to success is deck management. Using the Research action allows you to remove up to two cards from your deck (including the Research card being played, oddly) and is key. Not using this option will result in a bloated, directionless deck that will probably have difficulty doing much of anything. A player wanting to focus on Colonizing will have little use for Warfare cards, and the reverse is also true. Produce/Trade cards and Survey cards are also often mutually exclusive, although not always, and one could even choose to eliminate Research cards once settled into whatever groove they wish to achieve.

How you wish to tune your deck might heavily depend on what the other players are doing. Acting alone can make life difficult — especially since Actions happen before Roles, which often requires a multiple-turn investment to convert a planet. On the other hand, however, too many players doing the same thing(s) will quickly deplete the role stacks. Besides depleting the normally-colored influence tokens, the game can also end when one or two stacks of role cards have been exhausted (one for two or three players, two for four players — although a two-stack, three-player variant is included). In either case, the game continues until each player has had the same number of turns, at which point face-up planets, influence chips, and high-level technology cards are added up to determine final scores.

A session of Eminent Domain typically lasts about 45 minutes, although as mentioned that will sometimes depend on the strategies of the players involved. There are a diverse selection of strategies available, and the relationships between the various planets, technologies, and roles can be intricate. A little bit of uncertainty as to which planets will become available to you and your opponents’ actions will limit the effectiveness of a predetermined strategy, but having a plan will pay off more often than not.

Eminent Domain retails for about $40, which might seem high for a deck-building game, but the plastic fighter tokens add a nice aesthetic addition — even if the actual rules treat all three sizes as equivalent (most groups treat them as values of one, three, and five). The box is way too big for the contents, but that’s something I’ve come to expect by now. All in all, Eminent Domain is distinct enough to set it apart from the rest of the deck-building crowd and a solid addition to any game library.