Review: Dominion

Every so often a mechanic comes along that takes the gaming world by storm and in 2008 Dominion introduced the concept of deck building. This is a mechanic whereby players start with a small deck of cards and add to this deck by acquiring cards that all have new abilities and effects. Deck building is now everywhere and has become a game genre of its own so let’s have a look at the pioneer in this field.

Dominion is a card game for 2 to 4 players. It typically takes an hour to play and is relatively quick to set up. Thematically the game has players taking the role of feudal lords who are expanding their kingdom by acquiring lands. This theme adds flavour to the cards but it isn’t binding; this game could easily be about space pirates or building a badger sett. The first thing to note about Dominion is the remarkable level of presentation. The cards are good quality, full coloured and the artwork is well done. There are a few cards where the artwork is a bit off but you’ve got to look closely to notice. What really stands out however, is the packaging. Taking pride of place in the box is a simple piece of vacuum formed plastic and a coloured reference card that keeps the entire game organised. It’s so simple but it’s so nice to see that Rio Grande Games have considered what you do when you’re not playing.

The supply
A game of Dominion uses 17 piles of cards, typically referred to as the supply. This is made up of three types of treasure cards, three types of victory cards, one pile of curse cards and ten piles of kingdom cards. The treasure and victory cards are the same in every game but the kingdom cards can be chosen randomly, selected by the players or taken from a suggested list of cards. Kingdom cards are mostly actions but can include defensive options and victory point modifiers. There are 25 different kingdom cards in the base game, with ten different cards drawn each game this leads over three million different combinations of cards. This means that every game of Dominion is different but you may find a couple of key cards can end up taking over any game in which they appear.

The beautiful box keeping everything nicely organised.
The mechanics of Dominion are simple to the point of genius; each player starts with a deck of 10 cards from which they deal themselves a hand of 5 cards. Each turn a player can play one action card and buy one card for their deck. They then discard the rest of their hand and draw a new hand of 5 cards. The game ends when either the supply of province cards (the most valuable of victory cards) or three other supply piles are used up. Whoever has the most victory points in their deck at the end of the game is the winner. That’s it, Dominion is that simple.

Where Dominion’s interest and complexity lies is in the action cards. Each pile of cards in the supply has a different effect. Some give you a second action or allow you to buy two cards in one turn. Some actions remove cards from the game or give bonuses to other cards. Some directly affect your opponent by making them discard cards from their hand or take a curse; a special form of card that gives the player -1 victory points. As the game progresses your deck grows and so do your options. Later in the game it is possible to string together a long list of actions. Any card that directly affects the other players is identified as an attack card, to counteract this there is also a defence card that gives players a chance to react to an opposing attack.

I need more treasure!
Dominion is a game all about management. The most crucial behaviour is that of managing your deck to make it as optimised as possible and to work against your opponents decks. A good example is the victory point cards. These are necessary to win the game but during the game they do nothing, they are just empty cards clogging up your hand with useless baggage. Too many victory cards too early in the game and your deck will be crippled, buy too late and all the high point cards may already be gone. You could buy ‘Cellar’ that allow you to discard cards in exchange for drawing more from your deck or you could buy the ‘Chapel’ so you can trash the low victory point cards and lean down you deck into just the high value cards. These methods change in every game depending on the supply available.

Those with mild OCD will love keeping their cards neat and organised.
There are some that criticise Dominions’ deck building mechanic, accusing it of being little more than multiplayer solitaire. This is certainly an issue if the supply cards chosen don’t include any attack cards but this can be remedied by players making sure at least one attack card is used in every game. For some players this may still not be enough. Hardcore gamers or those that thrive on direct combat may be better of looking into alternative deck builders such as Nightfall or Ascension.

There’s a reason why Dominion won Spiel Des Jahres in 2009 and why it currently sits at the top spot of the 2011 Dice Tower People’s Choice and that’s because it’s wonderful. It is true that many other deck builders have come along since to try and steal Dominion’s crown but it’s easy to learn rules, smooth gameplay and fun but light player interaction make it a winner. Gamers who are in love with heavy theme or complicated gameplay may take a dislike to Dominion; it’s a game that works because of its simplicity and light theme. These combine to make a game that is easy to learn, fun to master and the combination of cards available means you’re never going to have the same game twice.
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