Gaming Unplugged: Dominion

September 23, 2010

When I talked about Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer last time, I made constant reference to Dominion, the first such “deck-building” game to gain popularity. For those who haven’t experienced Dominion, this column is for you. I’m not going to cover any of the expansions, as I have not played them; this will only cover the base Dominion game. 

In Dominion, up to four players start with a deck consisting of some copper Treasure cards (which also exist in silver and gold for more purchasing power) and some Estate victory cards (which, along with the upgraded Duchy and Province versions, are the only way to score at the end of the game but are otherwise useless). Stacks of these six types of cards are available to purchase during the game, as are ten “kingdom” cards. These cards are selected (either randomly or according to a suggested arrangement) from the twenty-five different types available. The last type of card are “Curse” cards, which are negative-VP cards inflicted on players by one of the kingdom cards. (The box’s “500 card” count includes 40 additional cards that are either blank or placeholders.)

On a player’s turn they use the five cards in their hand to execute one action and one buy (purchase), in that order. An “action” is playing a kingdom card to generate some effect (more gold, additional action[s], drawing extra cards, additional buy[s], etc.); some actions are “attacks,” which affect other players in the indicated ways unless a given player has and reveals a “Moat” (reaction) card (which has its own action use). A “buy” is using Treasure (and other coins gained via actions) to acquire a single card from the matrix and add it to your discard pile for future shuffling into your deck. Once these two phases are complete, the player discards any remaining cards in their hand and draws five new cards (reshuffling his discard pile as necessary).

This continues until one of two endgame conditions occur. Once three of the kingdom piles are exhausted or all of the “Province” cards have been purchased, the game ends on that player’s turn. At that point, each player determines the value of all of the VP cards in his deck with the highest total being declared the winner. Ties are broken by whoever took the fewest turns, although it is still possible for the game to end in a tie.

While Dominion is a very solid game which has won a large number of awards in the last few years (including the 2009 Spiel des Jahres), it has a few flaws that keep it from being a favorite in my group. The first and most obvious is the need to have essentially-blank VP cards taking up valuable slots in your deck. It’s not impossible to have a turn that consists of a five-VP draw and is essentially wasted. The other obvious problem is the default limit of one buy; should you somehow draw more cash than you need, the excess is also wasted. The one action/one buy nature of the game has several other ways to result in a less-than-optimal turn; on the other extreme are the turns that go on forever as one player keeps chaining cards that give additional draws and actions — often ending without being able to buy anything worth all of that effort!

There are other potential problems with the game in its base state, especially if you use a random assortment of kingdom cards (having a lot of attacks but no Moats gets ugly fast, for instance), but I don’t want to give too much of a negative impression here. Dominion effectively opened the doors of the deck-building game genre, and is still popular for its ease of play; it’s currently the #7 overall game on BoardGameGeek, after all. I’m told the various expansions address many of the base set’s issues, and a few are capable of being played by themselves without the base set. I’m still not a fan, but I do respect Dominion for paving the way for its genre.

Dominion is available for $44.99 at local game stores or around $28 on Amazon.