Dominion: A Board Game Review

As mentioned in my intro to board games last week, I first dipped my toes into the pool of strategy board games with Dominion.

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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.

The Basics

Time: 30 minutes 
Players:
2-4
Ages: 
8+
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.

Setup

The following image demonstrates the setup for a two-player game.

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The supply

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.

Player hands

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.

Turn summary

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:

  1. Action phase. The player may play one action card (potentially more if that action card leads to more actions).
  2. Buy phase. The player may buy a card (again, potentially more).
  3. 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.

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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.

Example hands

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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.

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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. 

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Any time you have eight or more monies, BUY A PROVINCE CARD. Even if you have 11 monies and only one buy. Trust me.

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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. 

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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.

My Thoughts

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?

Well…

Cons

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!

Pros

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!

In short

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.

 

 

An Intro to Board Games

Both Papa Bear and I grew up playing board games. In fact, when asked if he liked growing up with three brothers, he says, “Yes, because we always had a perfect amount of people for games.” I’m sure he likes his brothers for other reasons too, but it’s hard to say.

As an only child, I prefer to think that I was just super creative when I wanted to play a game and couldn’t wrangle together anyone else. After all, playing by oneself is almost a surefire way to win.

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I’m also going to lose, unfortunately.
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Though we grew up with games like Mastermind, Scrabble, Life, and Monopoly (So. Much. Monopoly.), our tastes have changed in recent years. It all started when a good friend gifted us with Dominion for our wedding.

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More on this later.
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Any good game involves a certain level of strategy, but what Dominion introduced us to was a whole new world that took those strategies to the next level. (For what it’s worth, bad games involve strategy too, but the goal is usually to end the game as soon as possible. Here’s looking at you, Candyland.)

In this new world, games are more complex. When I asked my game group to describe what makes these games different, they said that, unlike Monopoly or Life, for example, these require “meaningful decisions.” Because there is much less left to chance (e.g., rolling a die or spinning a wheel), you are responsible for your outcomes. Each action must be carefully planned as it can greatly affect your and your opponent’s future strategies. In turn, each time you play is very different from the last.

Now, I don’t mean to sound snobbish. There is a time and a place for games like Monopoly and Life. To me, one of the greatest things about board games is that they encourage conversation and interaction. Nearly any game allows for fun interchange, even those where “fun interchange” may be better described as “contentious debate.” Plus, many of us grew up playing these games. Playing them later in life can be fun for purely nostalgic reasons. Furthermore, they are great for teaching both kids and adults how to play board games. They introduce turn order and help people learn how to read game rules, win and lose with grace (sometimes), and generally have fun playing games.

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These faces strike a chord with my sentimental heart.
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Let me step back, though. Before we go too far down the board game path, let’s start with some basics.

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A Quick Board Game Primer

A board gamer’s best friend: BoardGameGeek

Simply put, BoardGameGeek is a database for board games and it pretty much contains anything you’d possibly want to know about any game. I like to use it to research games before we buy them, read forums for recommendations of what to buy next in any certain category, search for rule clarifications, and log my game plays. If you think that’s a lot, you should see how Papa Bear uses the site. He basically lives and breathes “BGG.”

Board game categories

BGG helpfully classifies games in a few ways: type, category, and mechanism. Here are BGG’s “types” of games:

While these categories and descriptions are generally helpful, and will earn you points if you use them correctly in the gaming community, it’s important to remember that some games span across categories. So if you think you only enjoy party games, you may be surprised to find out that some of your favorites are also considered to be thematic games. You may be a bigger board game geek than you thought!

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This guy is so excited about games that he decided to dress up as a blue meeple at the beach!*
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Where to begin

Based on the above descriptions, you may be drawn to a particular kind of game. You’ve likely already played a party game in recent years. If you have any friends who like to play games, ask them to play. I’ve never met a board game fan who will turn down a game night. If you don’t know any game lovers, check out a local board game store. For me, it’s the Chicagoland Games: Dice Dojo on Broadway and Bryn Mawr.

Going to your local store is great for a few reasons: 1. Any purchase would help support a local business; 2. They usually have demo libraries full of games you can try before you buy (with no pressure to buy at all); and 3. They typically host open game nights. The Dojo, for example, hosts an open board game night each Wednesday. There, you can meet like-minded people and try your hand at a new game. You are most likely not the only person unfamiliar with the game, so the environment is very conducive to learning and asking questions.

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Open game night at the Dojo. You can see a sliver of the demo wall on the right. They have so many games to try.
[Source: Me, after participating in a great open game night at the Dojo]

Now, since I tend to like strategy games (and party games) best, and since that’s kind of what I started off talking about here, I’d personally recommend starting with Dominion. Admittedly, I have no other frame of reference, but I think it’s a fun game that’s easy to learn and play in a relatively short amount of time. Another popular starting point for strategy games is Catan, formerly known as Settlers of Catan or “Settlers.”

Learning to play a new game

I’ll admit, when we first started playing Dominion, I found the eight-page rule book to be rather daunting. Now, I find eight-page rule books to be refreshingly short.

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“Time out. I don’t want to read eight pages of rules. What else can I do?”
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There are several ways to learn how to play a new game. Over time I’ve realized that, in order of preference, I like to:

  1. Play with someone who already knows the game;
  2. Watch an overview video; and/or
  3. Read through the rule book.

Playing with people who know the game. Assuming your friends are somewhat articulate, it’s easiest to learn how to play a game from people who have already played it, especially if they’re played more than once. After a brief summary of components and rules, I often find that it’s easiest to just start playing and asking questions along the way. Sure, you may not be able to form a solid strategy yet, but there’s no better way to improve than by making mistakes. Plus, if you totally suck it up the first time, imagine how surprised they’ll be when you dominate the second time around.

Watching an overview video. Now, let’s say you know you’re going to play a game but you don’t own it and your friends aren’t with you yet. Save everyone the time and energy of having someone explain it by watching an overview video first. Good ones (like the Watch It Played series) will provide a succinct review of the basic game play and may even throw out a few ideas for strategy. The Dice Tower also has some nice videos.

Reading the rules. Finally, it never hurts to learn a game by simply reading the rules the designers took so long to write. In my experience, they become easier to understand the more games you play and rule books you read.

Regardless of how I initially learn a game, I find it to be very insightful to read through the rule book again after playing once. With a basic understanding of the game down, it’s easier to understand some of the intricacies of the rules. It’s also helpful because you realize what you did incorrectly the first time. Oops.

Ready to Play?

Enough talking about what kinds of games are out there and how to learn how to play them. It’s time for you to just start playing!

Have no friends? There are several solo games. Have a lot of friends? Grab a party game. Have just a medium amount of friends? You’re in luck, because there are a gazillion for two to four players.

Because I talked up Dominion a couple of times throughout this post, look for a follow-up that gives a little more detail about the game and why Papa Bear and I like it so much.

(Edit: Here’s the Dominion review.)

Again, the best part of playing games is the social element (although I do love a good mental challenge and some healthy competition). So while you (eagerly) wait to learn more about Dominion, feel free to ask questions or comment with your personal favorites.

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Yes, I’m using a Monopoly board as the final image on a post where I kind of bash Monopoly. 
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*A meeple is a little wooden figure used in board games.