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Shelf Wear Review #3: A Seasoned Look at Dominion

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Welcome to the third installment of our Shelf Wear series. We began this series with a desire to look more in-depth at games we’ve played a lot. In order for a game to be considered for this series, we must have played that game more than fifty times–a tall order in the saturated hobby board game market of today. The first game we looked at was 7 Wonders, and we followed that with a look at Ascension. Today we’ll look at my most-played game of all time: Dominion.

Love at First Sight, or, My First Exposure to Dominion

You may not remember your first play of your favorite game, but I remember mine vividly. Futurewolfie and I were working for the same company, and we realized for the first time that we both really liked board games. So we met occasionally to play games over lunch, and one fateful Friday, Wolfie brought Dominion for me to try.

Now, my brother-in-law had told me about Dominion. He referred to it as “deck-building,” where the game is essentially what you do before you play a CCG. He said the game was fast–20-30 minutes–and addictive. In the game you add cards to a personal deck, and when you have no more cards to draw, you shuffle your personal discard pile so that the cards you add to your deck get mixed in. I didn’t see how it could be addictive: it seemed to me that if the game just includes the deck-building aspect, you leave out the best part of the CCG experience, which I was eager to replicate.

But Wolfie brought Dominion. And I played. And while I didn’t win, my eyes widened at the possibilities for this simple game system.

I usually have a rule when acquiring board games. I don’t have a large (or, now that I have children, any) budget for board games, so to make my money stretch, I don’t buy games that I already have access to. If my friends own it, that’s good enough for me.

I bought Dominion. I had to.

If my relationship with 7 Wonders was akin to the dependable confidante whom someday you realize you can’t live without, my relationship with Dominion was the obsessive love at first sight kind, where after meeting her, we were spending every waking moment together, finding out more about each other, and ready to commit to a life without separation. 7 Wonders was Emma; Dominion was Romeo & Juliet, but without the family strife and poison. It was a Heathcliff and Cathy obsessive, creepy, “death shall not separate us” kind of bond.

And in those first “getting to know you” games, Dominion began to reveal to me her secrets. First, copper. I (and most people) love getting something for nothing, and that carried over to Dominion. I remember saying in my first game, “Why would you ever not buy copper when you have the extra buy?” I don’t remember the response, but I do remember I didn’t win that first game. The key here is that you’re building a deck that you want to do something. You only get five cards per turn, so you want each of those five cards to be a show-stopper. If you dilute your deck with the worst cards, you’ll have less probability of drawing the best. This makes sense if you’re not blinded by immediate love.

Second, chapel. No, not where Dominion and I would get married. (You can’t marry a board game, silly.) Chapel lets you trash up to four cards from your hand if you play it as an action. My response? “Why would anyone ever buy that card? Oh, I guess with curses.” I pushed the card out as a single-application precision tool–nice if you need it, but useless in most situations. This, of course, was a ludicrous idea.

Dominion was a box of delights, full of new revelations with each play. Workshop isn’t as good as it looks; chapel is much, much better than it looks. Villages can string together and annoy your opponents, but they don’t do much good on their own. Throne Room is cool, but you have to work to pull off the combo. Buying better money is a necessity. All of these are things I learned, but I learned them gradually, sitting across the table from my many opponents, and opponents were plentiful in those early days. They may not have been as enamored of the game as I was, but they agreed: there is something special there.

Love in a Laboratory, or, a Short Analysis of Why Dominion Works

Analyzing love is something we’re always advised against. Similar to Lady Bracknell’s pronouncement on ignorance, love is like “a beautiful, exotic fruit: touch it, and the bloom is gone.” But since Dominion isn’t really a person, and this is what I usually do in my reviews anyway, let me tell you, briefly, why I think Dominion works.

Dominion works because of three things: agency, balance, and simplicity.

First, agency. In other words, player choices matter. If you lose a game of Dominion, you can usually point to a choice that made it happen. Sure, you may have been “unlucky” not to have drawn the gold you needed in that last hand to swipe the final province, but you know what would have made you draw that gold? Not buying that extra wishing well or estate. You can see the impact of your choices while you play. As you reshuffle your personal deck of cards, you immediately get a sense of the new mix of cards available to you. You immediately realize, “I bought too many actions,” or, “I have all this money and no way to buy extra cards,” or, “Why did I buy the duchies as soon as I had five coins to my name?” The game offers players feedback as they play. This feedback may not always be actionable–if you’re playing against a good opponent, they may already beaten you before you can buy that first silver–but it is always helpful. Your choices matter.

And part of what makes your choices matter is the balance in the game. While the game has luck (you shuffle a deck of cards), Dominion minimizes luck by evening the playing field in every other way. All of the cards in the game are available for all players at all times. The ten kingdom cards available to me are the same ten kingdom cards available to you. The eight (or twelve) provinces open for me are the eight (or twelve) provinces open to you. Again, because the game is balanced, this highlights the importance of player choice. Players look at the cards available to them, formulate a strategy for how to best use those cards to get the best point cards first, and then enact that strategy, reacting to their opponents along the way. Some will argue that there is one optimal strategy for each set of ten cards, and while that may be true, it certainly doesn’t seem that way at the start of any game, and unless you have a computer with you to figure it out, you probably won’t know it for sure. (And if, in fact, your opponent has a computer, suggest that that opponent plays the computer in the next match instead.) Dominion is a balanced framework for foes to meet on an equal battlefield. There are few excuses except choice for players to hide behind.

But agency and balance–most good board games have some mix of that. So why does Dominion stand out? Aside from being ridiculously clever, Dominion is simple. Elegant, even. A turn follows a simple procedure–Action, Buy, Clean-up. ABC. Even my mom, who has a tendency to forget rules while we play games, can remember that. There is some necessary terminology to learn in the game–buy, card, trash, gain, action–but it’s learned soon enough, and the terms are so consistent that once you know the terminology, you can immediately view a new board and know what all the cards do. The game is built on a simple premise: the only cards that matter at the end of the game are the ones that do not help you while playing the game. In other words, player decks get worse as they get more valuable. So players must determine how to get the cards that matter without ruining the system they’ve built for acquiring those cards. This dichotomy is almost endlessly exciting, and it provides the backbone of the game.

So Dominion is great because player choices matter because players are on an even playing field, and the game further levels the playing field by making the cards and rules simple to understand so even new players can comprehend the system. Brilliant.

(Oh, and there are plenty of other reasons why Dominion is great, but three seems tidier, don’t you think?)

Where Did We Go Wrong?, or, Dominion Fatigue

Not long after Dominion was released, other games tried to get in on the fun. Thunderstone took the approach of “Dominion’s theme is boring; let’s make it fantasy,” and in addition it added multiple currencies, an expanded game time, and a whole lot of boring (…). Ascension took the Dominion concept and said, “What if all of the game cards were always available, but in random order–oh, and still with the multiple currencies?” (And minimized the importance of deck-building.) Quarriors wondered, “What would Dominion be like if the cards were dice?” (Answer: TOO RANDOM AND UNFUN.) Then came more and more and more, on and on and on, etc. etc. etc., until the world seemed awash with deck-building games. And as a result, the overriding consensus of the board game elite seems to be, “Deck-building! That’s so 2008.”

I remember a day when I liked Creed and Nickelback (I’ll own it–you probably did, too, at least if album sales numbers are to be believed), but then there was a wave of bands who sounded exactly like them. And you know what? Once I knew every band could sound like Creed and Nickelback, the originals lost their luster.

So I get it, folks.

I also get it that Dominion released expansion after expansion, and it’s hard to keep up with a game that has such a relentless release schedule (see also: any LCG). I get it that after a game has been analyzed to death, with charts showing each card’s effectiveness, with forums discussing best combos ad nauseum, and with the flood of copycats, you can get tired. Weary. Worn out.

I get it.

But I still say, for the money, hands down and without qualifier, Dominion is the best deck-building game on the market. Not only was it the first; it is the best, and very few deck-builders have come close, especially in combining player agency, balance, and simplicity. It is the best, and each succeeding expansion (with the possible exception of Alchemy) has been testimony to this truth.

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Expansion Anxiety, or, Where to Begin

Expansions are simultaneously the best part of Dominion and the worst. They are the best because of variety. One of the fascinating things about Dominion is that each card is so situational: depending on the kingdom cards included in the game, a card can be indispensable one game and not purchased the next. So because variety impacts the game so much, each expansion infuses new life into it. Each expansion is lovingly crafted to highlight one or two concepts that force players out of their comfortable modes and strategies. There’s Goons and Counting House, which suddenly make buying copper not such a bad idea. There’s Baker and Nomad Camp and Noble Brigand, which change the composition of the first two turns (no guaranteed 5-2/4-3 copper split). There’s King’s Court, Forge, Expand, and Bank, which make those 7-money in-between-gold-and-province turns a little more lucrative. There’s platinum and colonies, which supersede gold and provinces as the top money and land. There are duration cards that carry over to your next turn, and treasure cards that do more than just increase your buying power, and cards that let you overpay, and cards that do things when you trash them, and cards that give you free stuff when you get them–on and on and on. And because the game is so simple, each new concept can be strapped onto the last set, so that the game grows and grows like a Rube Goldberg machine. And just like a Rube Goldberg machine, it’s fun to see the progress from the beginning to end.

Of course, with all the expansions, there is also expansion anxiety, especially if you’re just getting into the game. And if you already have the expansions, then you know the completionist’s problem: where in the world do you store it? I haven’t quite figured out a good solution to the second problem, but in the interest of performing a public service, let me give you some advice for the first one.

First, only expand when you need to. That is, don’t buy expansions too soon. Love the set you’re with. Use it, learn its cards, combine them in whatever way you see fit, and then, when one day you think, I’ve seen all this set has to offer, then you can get the next one. Then play that set, by itself and with your other set(s), until you tire of it, and then add another, and so on. Because each set you already own is a new set once you add in another one. What you thought you knew about it is obsolete once the brand-new cards are out of the pack. That’s the genius of Dominion: concepts are simple, so they’re easy to mix (with, again, the possible exception of Alchemy).

Second, …well, really, expand when you need to is as far as my advice goes. But below I’ve included a table, which lists all nine of the Dominion sets and how I rank them* in terms of necessity, fun, and simplicity (most necessary, most fun, and simplest sets are at the top of the table).

NECESSITYFUNSimplicity
Dominion (base)ProsperityDominion (base)
IntrigueHinterlandsIntrigue
ProsperityIntrigueProsperity
SeasideAdventuresSeaside
AdventuresSeasideCornucopia
HinterlandsGuildsGuilds
GuildsDark AgesHinterlands
Dark AgesDominion (base)Alchemy
CornucopiaAlchemyDark Ages
AlchemyCornucopiaAdventures

* I rank Prosperity so highly because you feel like a high roller the entire game, and that is an awesome feeling. I rank Intrigue so highly because it’s great fun with lots of sneaky cards, but mostly because it includes several new victory cards, which open the game in new ways all by themselves, in addition to the other cards in the set. Feel free to disagree in the comments.

I Play Solitaire with My Friends, or, Against Multiplayer Solitaire

Dominion is often accused of being multiplayer solitaire, a game that people come together to play but one in which they need not interact with one another. And I reject this claim as utterly bogus.

While it’s true that there are very few direct attacks in Dominion (though there are some in expansions, most notably Pillage), the game is interactive in other ways because players share all of the potential supply piles in common. This may not seem like a big deal at first, but it really is. Because each supply pile has only ten cards, and because player strategies will often overlap, and because player strategies often won’t overlap, players have to monitor what the other players are doing. Is Duke on the table? If someone is buying duchies like mad, you might have to drop what you’re doing. Is Gardens on the table? If someone is filling their deck with all conceivable junk, you might have a problem on your hands. As Wolfie mentioned in his Alchemy review, did someone buy Possession? You better liquidate your coin tokens, and fast.

“These are situational!” you might say. “What about in every other game where these combos aren’t present?” Well, Dominion is always a race, and in every game it’s obvious where the timer is set. You can always count the province pile, and in games that involve lots of trashing and gaining, you might be monitoring other piles as well. The point is, the players control the timer for the game, and depending on where the timer is and where you think you are, you might have to adjust your strategy. There is also the matter of monitoring provinces. How many does each player have? Should you buy some alternate victory cards to bolster your score, and if so, how will that affect your deck composition? How can you affect other players’ deck composition, either through adding junk like curses or ruins or through attacking them by means of Swindler, Saboteur, Jester, and so on?

The game is not a raucous affair, with players hooting and hollering over one another’s turns, nor is it a game that encourages outright spite (though it can feel like it when your opponent deprives you of the cards you need somehow). But to call the game multiplayer solitaire is to miss the point. And if you think it’s multiplayer solitaire, that what you do has little bearing on the other players, you’re probably not winning.

Dominion Dominates, or, Conclusion

I mentioned at the start of this retrospective that Dominion is the game I’ve played the most, and that’s true. I’ve logged nearly 100 face-to-face games (and I started logging plays after my obsessive phase of sitting every person down to try it), and like my Pokemon time stamp from my Game Boy days, I’m embarrassed to say how many solitaire games I’ve logged against the AI in Androminion. Dominion is a game that I still enjoy and still look forward to every opportunity to play. Other deck-builders have attracted my attention, but none (save perhaps Star Realms) has the legs that Dominion has. Even if I like other deck builders, I still acknowledge that Dominion is the best, and not in a way that I acknowledge Settlers of Catan is a great game. I want to keep playing Dominion, whereas Settlers I’m content to admire from afar.

It’s fashionable these days to be “over” Dominion. Been there, done that, bought the expansions. But Dominion is truly a powerhouse game, one that casts a long shadow and still outshines the competition. It deserves the awards it has won, and it deserves its place in my and most other game collections.

I'll try anything once, but my favorite games are generally middleweight Euros.

Discussion12 Comments

  1. Great retrospective on an incredible game! I agree that Dominion is still the best deck builder out there and in my personal top 5. The thing that really amazes me with Dominion is the amount of depth that it has despite what initially seems like a light game. I played it for a couple of years without really delving too deeply into the strategy of the game. I was worried if I analyzed it too much that the optimal strategies would suck all the fun out of the game. You could probably say that about the base game but once you add in some expansion that idea falls flat. I was pleasantly surprised to discover Dominion’s tactical and strategic layers especially in a 2-player game. I would go as far as saying that any given kingdom does not in fact have an optimal “solution”.

    As far as the Fun scale is concerned, everyone’s ratings will vary but man does it make me sad to see Cornucopia at the bottom (even under the base set)! I personally find it to be one of the most challenging sets because the concept of variety is in direct opposition to what you generally want to do. I know it’s a small expansion but it has a roster containing some of my favorite cards: Horn of Plenty, Menagerie, Hamlet, Fairgrounds, Hunting Party, Remake.

    • Thanks! You’re right: the depth in the midst of simplicity is the truly amazing thing (something I was thinking but don’t think I got across completely).

      Cornucopia is an okay diversion for me, but the “variety” proposition isn’t my favorite. I like Cornucopia’s cards in isolation (or, rather, mixed in with other sets), but as a set, I’d much rather play one of the others. You’re right that it’s challenging, but the challenge in it goes so against the core of the game that it doesn’t interest me much. And I don’t care for the idea that Tournament set in motion, of one-of-a-kind special cards available through a back-door means. I prefer balance. But hey, different strokes for…different people.

  2. I think you did a good job of conveying it even if it wasn’t the focus of the article. I was highlighting it specifically because I was convinced that Dominion lacked depth to the point that I refused to play it competitively. I saw an article praising the game after hundreds of plays so I decided to dig deeper and was really glad I did. I still enjoy focusing on creative strategies over efficiency when I play Dominion but I know it’s a game that can be taken seriously. Because of that I value sets that encourage creative play which is why I pointed out Cornucopia specifically. This also means I like Dark Ages a lot, another one that was lower on your list. I know it’s all relatively and being low on a list of things you like just means you don’t like it as much as the others.

    On a related note I absolutely hate Tournament but there are several cards that I dislike from each set so I try not to hold those against the sets. Similarly, I love Prosperity just like you but hate Goons.

  3. Great retrospective. I agree wholeheartedly. Dominion is still the king of deck-builders and your three points articulate why VERY well. Especially its elegance. It is a simple and tight design with lots of fun, strategic possibilities.

  4. Here’s a reason that Dominion works for me: it constantly provides short- and long-term gratification. There’s the psychological switch that gets hit when you can constantly gain new things in rapid order, then the satisfaction of seeing those things come together in a larger synergy. Now that I forced myself to write this thought down, I suppose there are a lot of games that provide this. I guess they just don’t do it the same way as Dominion.

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  6. Am I doing something wrong? I bought Dominion after reading glowing reviews of it all over the place, but it isn’t as fun as I read it to be. My siblings and I don’t enjoy it as much as I thought we were supposed to (we prefer 7 Wonders a LOT more). Is there something we’re missing?

    • Is Dominion your first deck-building game? How many players are you playing with, and which set do you have?

      I doubt you’re doing something wrong. Despite most people liking Dominion, a lot of people don’t like it at all. So if you decide you don’t like it, you’re not alone. And that’s okay. 🙂 There are lots of games that people rave about that I don’t like at all.

    • While I enjoy it and will play it and recognize that it’s great design, I’m also not NEARLY as hot on it, either. The reasons are the theme is weak, some turns take forever while a player cycles through nearly their entire deck, and there are way too many expansions which makes it difficult for casual players like me to stay on top of things to be competitive with a seasoned player who owns the entire franchise and knows every card like the back of their, well, hand.

    • I ended up trading my copy away after a couple of years. Like Jason, I moderately enjoyed it but never saw the “greatness” that other people saw. There were so many other games I liked more. I can understand why it’s popular, but that doesn’t mean the every popular game is for every person. Play what you like!! Life’s too short to do otherwise.

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