As mentioned in my intro to board games last week, I first dipped my toes into the pool of strategy board games with Dominion.
Categorically, Dominion is a deck building game. Thematically, it transforms you into a medieval monarch racing to collect land before your peers can lay claim. Introduced in 2008, this 2009 Spiel des Jahres winner is noteworthy not only for its fun factor, but also because designer Donald X. Vaccarino actually invented the deck building mechanism. Seriously. If you, like me, are fascinated with this kind of something-from-nothing creativity, I highly suggest reading his thoughtful article on the origins of Dominion.
For beginners, I’ll start with the basic mechanics of the game. For people who have already played Dominion and are just here for my pretty pictures and review, feel free to scroll ahead for my final thoughts.
Time: 30 minutes
BGG Rating: 7.7/10*
Baby Brown Bear Status: Owned (base set plus Seaside and Alchemy expansions)
The goal of Dominion is to buy and use treasure (money) and kingdom (action) cards to acquire land (victory point) cards: Estates (1 point), Duchies (3 points), or Provinces (6 points). The game ends immediately when all Province cards are gone or when any three card piles are empty.
*The top-ranked games have ratings of ~8.3/10.
The following image demonstrates the setup for a two-player game.
As shown above, the “supply” refers to all of the cards in the middle of the table, between both fanned-out hands. The green cards to the left (read the designer’s interview above to learn why they are green!) are the land (victory point) cards. The gray cards with illustrations are kingdom (action) cards. The gold cards are the treasure (money) cards.
Kingdom cards come in a few flavors. Some are straight action cards, some are action-attack cards (like the dreaded Witch, who gives you curses), one is an action-reaction card (the Moat, which protects you if in your hand when being attacked), and one is actually another victory card (Gardens). There are 25 different types of kingdom cards in all.
To begin, players must choose 10 sets of kingdom cards (of which there are typically 10 cards each). The rule book has a great recommendation on which cards to use for the first game and suggestions for subsequent games as well. After you start to get a feel for the different cards and how they interact when played together, I suggest using an online Dominion card randomizer. That way, you can input which expansions you have, if any, to help you get the most out of your Dominion experience.
In the above picture, you’ll also see a purple card. This is a curse card (and, in this example game, was the bane of my existence). Though used with other cards in the expansions, the Witch is really the only card in the base set that requires the curse card.
Each player starts the game with minimal resources: just seven coppers and three estates. Each player must take his or her cards, shuffle them, and place them face down. These face-down cards are the player’s deck.
For each turn, a player will draw five cards from the deck to form her hand (let’s use feminine pronouns today, shall we?). Even as she procures more cards, she will always deal five cards to form her hand. More cards may be called into play depending on action cards used, but we will get to that in a second. After she is done with her turn, the player will discard her hand to a face-up discard pile.
Unless you must “trash” something, your cards are yours until the end of the game; they are not consumed like in other games. This includes treasure cards. Once your deck is empty, you shuffle your discard pile and start again.
There are three parts to each turn:
- Action phase. The player may play one action card (potentially more if that action card leads to more actions).
- Buy phase. The player may buy a card (again, potentially more).
- Clean-up phase. The player must discard both played and unplayed cards into her discard pile.
While players can plan privately, they must lay their hands down and show their cards as they play their turns. It keeps that player honest and organized and helps the other players stay engaged.
Each kingdom card has a rather complex and beautiful illustration. It also says what that card actually does.
For example, when played, the Woodcutter gives you an additional buy and adds two monies to your hand. The Village, on the other hand, gives you an additional card and two additional actions.
So if you are dealt the Village and the Woodcutter, you want to play the Village first since it will allow you to play the Woodcutter as well. If you play the Woodcutter first, you can play no other actions.
Early in the game, you will have a small deck. That means two things: 1. Your three Estates will pop up frequently and dilute your hand. 2. You will have to reshuffle your discard pile quite frequently. So if you want to really get full use out of a particular action card, you may want to buy it early on so you can actually use it a lot (without waiting for the entire deck to run out).
My standard Dominion strategy is to load up on treasure cards. This almost always helps me win because I’m able to buy Province cards before anyone else can afford them. However, you have to be careful when you use that strategy because cards like the Thief allow your opponents to steal your treasure cards. In this particular game we did not include the only real defense card, the Moat, so I was forced to choose Papa Bear’s favorite strategy: buying a lot of action cards.
This is the kind of hand I dread since it is almost entirely diluted with victory points (and a curse). I have no action cards, and there are only a few cards that only cost two monies, so I cannot do much.
Any time you have eight or more monies, BUY A PROVINCE CARD. Even if you have 11 monies and only one buy. Trust me.
After each turn, deal yourself the next turn’s five starting cards. If you can only deal yourself one card (like above) because the rest are in the discard pile, deal that card first. Then shuffle the discard pile and deal the remaining four cards.
My final tally for this game. Unfortunately my opponent’s Thief stole too much of my money for me to recover in time. It wasn’t that big of a point difference, but it did remind me that I need to vary my strategy occasionally when the cards are what they were.
Dominion will always hold a special place in my heart because we received it for our wedding and because it was what made us interested in exploring the world of strategy games. But I’ve said that. So what else do I think?
Let’s start here.
- Weak combat. It’s a pretty lighthearted game overall, so if you like games that have a lot of battles or head-to-head combat, this isn’t one for you. There are attack cards, and they can feel a little personal sometimes, but there’s no physical representation of the attack so it just doesn’t feel as menacing (as in, no one places a pawn in your territory and makes your stomach lurch).
- Routine. Once you’ve played enough, your turn can be played in 10 seconds or less. Even though we play face up, this can make it easy to tune out what other players are doing.
- Player count differences. There are certainly some small differences when playing with two, three, and four players. However, I really enjoy when a game makes me play completely differently depending on how many people are playing. This just isn’t one of those games. I think it’s largely because the action-attack cards that you use to affect your opponents are typically in their hands too. So while each player has a different deck, the cards that can affect other players are also going to be used on you and ultimately you’re still just racing to buy the most victory points.
- A lot of expansions. Now, this is kind of a pro, but there are so many different expansions that I feel like I will never get to them all.
- Speaking of expansions, we have Alchemy and Seaside. Of the two, I prefer Alchemy (even though it’s not the popular opinion) because Seaside has too many delayed effect cards and little components (like coins and player mats) for my liking. I just can’t keep track of those things in a card game.
- I’ve also played Prosperity and really enjoyed it–my favorite strategy is to get rich, after all.
- Note: The Dominion seen here is the base set. However, Dominion: Intrigue acts as another base set. Then there are six large (e.g., Seaside) and three small (e.g., Alchemy) expansions. See? SO MANY OPTIONS!
Here’s what I really like about the game.
- Length. It’s short, consistently clocking in around 25-35 minutes depending on the number of players. Because of this, we often use Dominion as what my game group calls a “filler” game, meaning it’s a good, fun option to play between long, less lighthearted games.
- Replay value. The base set alone comes with so many kinds of kingdom cards that you never have to play the same game twice. Like I mentioned already, I typically use the same money-grabbing strategy and it usually works well for me. However, different combinations of cards make me get out of that comfort zone and I like that.
- Widely known and respected. This game is pretty old by board game standards, meaning a lot of people know how to play it by now. That means a lot of potential teachers for beginners or a lot of fellow board gamers willing to jump in and play right away. As the first in its category, it’s also highly respected (case in point, its high ranking on BGG).
- It’s approachable. Once you understand the basic mechanics of the game, it’s easy to play. Yes, there are a lot of different cards, but they are self-explanatory once you know what the terms mean. This makes it a hit for everyone, but is especially appealing for beginners. After all, it’s nice not to have to consult a rule book every five seconds before you grab a card. The info is right there!
It’s pretty obvious, but I would highly recommend playing Dominion if you haven’t already. It’s an easy-to-learn, fast-to-play option for experienced board gamers and newbies alike. It’s the kind of game that we play whenever we’re not sure what else to play because: 1. It’s short; 2. We know it will be slightly different from the last time we played; and 3. We know we have fun playing it.
As a bonus, many other games nowadays (like Lewis & Clark) include some kind of deck building mechanism. Why not first learn and master it with Dominion?
Join the conversation. Tell me in the comments what YOU think about Dominion.