Saturday, January 2, 2010

Board game review: Dominion

If MMORPGs could be called the gaming craze of the first decade of the 21st century, the gaming craze of the 90's was trading card games. But while trading card games had great strategic possibilities, their business model ended up being quite expensive for the the players, and inherently unfair: While having the larger collection of cards didn't guarantee you victory, it sure helped, and skewed the game in your favor. Both from a point of fairness and cost it would be much better to have a card game in which all players are using the same pool of cards, but without losing the strategic options of building a deck and playing with it. Dominion by Donald X. Vaccarino manages to pull of that trick, and won a long list of "best board game" prices in various countries in 2009.

Dominion is sold as a board game in a box, even if it is played like a card game. There are currently two different base sets, Dominion and Dominion : Intrigue, and one expansion, Dominion : Seaside, with two more expansions announced for 2010. But already the base game has over 3 million possible combinations to play through, as it comes with 25 different stacks of kingdom cards, and you only use 10 stacks of kingdom cards per game. (For the math geeks: The number of possible combinations with the base set is equal to (25!)/(10!*(25-10)!) = 3268760. Using all three sets and the 2 promo cards the number of combinations is over 1 trillion.)

A game of Dominion starts with every player having a deck of 10 cards, of which 7 are copper pieces (worth 1 coin each), and 3 are estates (worth 1 victory point each), thus the game is completely symmetrical and fair. All the other cards, consisting of 10 stacks of 10 kingdom cards, three different sorts of coin cards, and three different sets of victory point cards, plus curses if needed, are in the middle, and can be bought for coin during the game.

In every turn a player can play kingdom cards, usually just one, unless the kingdom card he plays gives him more "actions". After that, the player uses the coin he has in hand, or gained by kingdom cards this round, to buy a card from the stacks in the middle of the table. He puts the bought card in his discard pile, as well as all the cards he used this round, and all the cards he didn't use, and draws a new hand of 5 cards. Then it is the next player's turn.

As you can see, players cycle through their deck quickly, but the deck is growing thicker while playing, due to the cards being bought. Thus the "deck building" happens *during* the game in Dominion, and not before the game, like in trading card games. The game ends if either the stack of the most expensive victory point cards is empty, or if three of the kingdom card stacks are empty. At that point every player takes his whole deck, and sorts out all the victory point cards. The player with the most victory points in his deck wins.

Even with one given set of 10 kingdom cards, there is a variety of different strategies. Obviously you need to buy victory point cards to win the game. But during the game any victory point card you hold in hand is dead weight. So you first need to buy kingdom cards that help you (or hinder your opponent), and coin cards that are worth more than the copper you start with. Choose the right kingdom cards to buy, and with some luck of the draw you can pull off neat combos. But if you spend too much time building those up, somebody who started earlier to buy victory points might end the game and win.

Dominion would be already a good game if it came just with one set of 10 cards. But the endless combinations of card sets provide infinite replayability, and different sets can lead to games having a very different feel, as well as different strategies. Many cards affect only yourself, and if you only play with such cards, Dominion is a relatively peaceful game in which players race each other to the win with little direct interaction. But other cards are attack cards, which do something bad to other players, and there are reaction cards to counter such attacks. Play a set with lot of attack cards and Dominion becomes more of a direct battle of players against players. Dominion also changes in speed and strategy depending on whether you have a lot of cheap kingdom cards, a balanced set, or a lot of expensive cards. There is a list of recommended sets, including one for the first game, but there are also placeholder cards which you can use to create random sets, or to invent other ways to create sets with players choosing cards to include or exclude.

Dominion is very easy to learn, and thus can be played even with children, but still provides a lot of fun for the veteran gamer, and that for a very long time. Although if you play it a lot, wear on the cards might become a problem, as there is a lot of shuffling involved in playing Dominion. One more reason to buy the other base set or expansion. :) Be aware that prices vary a lot, you can find Dominion from as low as $27 / € 20 for the first base set to over twice that. Recommended!

FTC Disclaimer: I have no material relationships with any of the companies making or publishing Dominion.

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