Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Dominion

The other game Matt and I played on Monday was Dominion, the new euro deck-building game that has been such a hit. Mike had taught me this game at Chris' Tuesday session the week before, and Matt was interested to learn it, so off we went. 

I admit that hearing that Dominion was a deck-building game gave me some pause. I've dabbled in CCGs in the past, and swiftly been overwhelmed by too many card choices in deck-building. In contrast, the collectible tile game Vortex was a huge hit with me because the choices were much more limited and there were never waves of expansion cards to make things more complicated. I also admit that I had purchased Dominion before learning the game simply because as a host I feel I should have the really good games on hand when people come over to play, and this game has had great buzz. 

For those living under a rock who haven't yet played, the game is fairly simple. You have a series of cards in essentially three types: VP cards, Money cards, and Kingdom cards. You always use the first two, but the last set is made up of 10 of 25 different types of cards that all do different things. The ten Kingdom "suits" you use is what will give this game tremendous replayability and freshness over a long period of time, as the various combinations will lead to different play styles and strategies. 

Every card has a cost to buy during the game, even the money cards. The Kingdom cards are, for the most part, useful only for the actions they allow you to do, although how you combine these in your personal deck will dictate how the game plays out for you. For the most part, the game is multiplayer solitaire with a number of interactions via "Attack" actions dictated by how many of these cards players pick up over the course of the game. Play is very quick, and the biggest disadvantage is that you spend a lot of time shuffling cards. I'm tempted to sleeve my copy, although as Mike pointed out you would spend about as much on sleeving (and make it much harder to handle the cards) as it would cost to buy a replacement game, so for now I'll hold off. 

Game play is very simple, enough so that I'd actually consider teaching my wife to play in social situations. Those of you who know my wife know that she refuses to play any non-party game that a) she can't blame her loss on bad luck, b) must contain no more than three rules, and c) must be explainable within about 30 seconds. Dominion actually meets these requirements, although learning how to play *well* does require a little more awareness. For Mel, though, it's the entry costs that are important, not the time spent learning effective play during the game. 

Each player begins the game with seven copper cards (each worth 1 point of money) and three 1VP cards. While it is the VP cards that win the game, they are useless for the most part during play - note the word "most", as there are ways to use these cards to help advance your position. This forms the basis of your personal deck, from which each player draws five cards to start. Each turn you do three things: First you may play one action from one of your Kingdom cards (you start with none), then you may buy one card with the money in your hand which goes into your discard pile, then you discard the rest of your hand and draw back up to five cards. The next player then takes their turn, and so on. Once either the 6VP cards are exhausted (there are eight in the pile in 2 player games, twelve if three or four), or three of any other pile (ten cards in each Kingdom pile) are exhausted, the game ends. 

It is the interaction between the kingdom cards where things get interesting. These cards have a wide variety of actions, often increasing the number of actions, buys, money, and draws you get during a turn. For example, if you play a Market card as your action, you would first get to draw an extra card (+1 Card), then play an additional action if you wished (+1 Action). Then you would get to buy an additional card (+1 Buy), which is always possible because the Copper money cards have a cost of 0, but since the Market also gives you and extra +1 coin, you'd at least have one buck to spend. Some action cards have varying combinations of these basic extensions, but others allow you to do specific things. For example, the Remodel card allows you to trash (or discard out of the game) a card in exchange for a different card costing 2 more bucks. Since the 6 VP cards have a cost of 8 and Gold has a cost of 6, you can trade the Gold cards for 6VP through this action, but only if you have the Gold card in your hand. The Militia, on the other hand, gives you a bonus to the money for the turn and forces other players to discard down to three cards unless they can show they have a Moat card to counter it. 

It is these combinations that players need to look for. In general, it is important to focus on getting effective Action card combinations early, plus perhaps some coin, then later focus on the VP cards as they are mostly useless (although cards like Cellar allow you to draw extra cards if you discard, and give an extra action as well). Since you often want specific combinations of cards in hand, as mentioned above, it's often useful to keep your deck relatively small, although a deck full of nothing but VP cards will tend to stall near the endgame. If you play with the Garden cards, though, you get VP for having cards in your deck! The nature of the game changes as you change the mix of Kingdom cards, and it is this element that brings the best elements of CCGs to a game that doesn't require a second job and weekends spent searching for specific killer cards to enjoy. The author has promised expansions, which will only improve the game over time, a la the original Cosmic Encounter (right up until the Moons. Please, no moons for Dominion). 

This was Matt's first exposure to the game, so we played the First Deck set recommended by the rules, which ended with me having the 1 VP card that made the 2 point difference. For our second game, we played the Big Money deck, which added mostly new cards and some really intriguing combinations (Throne Room allows you to play a second action card and then implement it *twice*, making the Market particularly powerful). I managed to take the fifth 6VP card one play before Matt would have, which would have resulted in a tie otherwise. When the games are that close, they're definitely more fun. 

I admit that I was terribly impressed after my first game with Mike and Ben last week (Mike cleaned up, having more points than Ben and I combined), but seeing how different the game became with different Kingdom cards simply blew me away. If this game doesn't win the Spiel da Jahre award (and a billion others) I'll be astonished. For those of you having trouble justifying paying $50 retail for a big square box full of cards, no board, and no bits, get over yourself. This game is, to my mind, the killer app of Euros at a time when I buy perhaps one or two euro titles a month - my last purchase other than the Race for the Galaxy expansion was Agricola. When deck-building *is* the game, we all come out winners. 

5 comments:

Greg W said...

You can actually end the game by running out of any three supplies so Curses or Treasure count as well.

The insert on the Dominion page at Rio Grande is really handy for sorting the cards. I suspect Mike already told you about that though...

I really like Dominion. Definitely a lot of fun. I enjoyed the deck building aspect so much that it reinforced my belief that the best way to play Race is preceded by a draft with the expansion. Playing best two out of three with the same personal decks and shared goals is really satisfying.

Dug said...

I knew about the treasure and curse cards running out, but figured that the odds of that happening in a given game were so low as to be worth ignoring.

I've considered the insert, but it sounds like considerably more trouble than it's worth, but I will give it a look. It's too bad they didn't have a pre-cut form that would have fit in the box, but I'm not really complaining. I just sort the cards alphabetically.

Greg W said...

The curse cards aren't too surprising, especially if vicious use of the witch is applied (Throne Room/Witch? :D). Copper is probably the most likely to run out if you've got a lot of extra buys and Gardens...

The inlay is pretty simple. Just print it out on a color printer and trim the sheet. Fits right down the middle of the box. Almost like they forgot to include it... I guess I should have thought to alphabetize the cards. :D

dave said...

"the best elements of CCGs"

No.

But Dominion appears to be a fine Euro.

Dug said...

Thank you for the well-spoken rebuttal, Dave McSmartypants.