Magic: The Gathering really is a fun game. Really. If you’ve tried it, you probably enjoyed it. If you haven’t… take my word for it. There are a few issues with Magic, though, that prevent it from being a general-market success. First of all, the thematic nature of Magic (dueling wizards) is pretty hardcore geeky, which does not appeal to many people. It is also prohibitively complicated; so many cards, so many rules to learn. And finally, the reason that I do not own Magic cards or play the game; it takes a lot of effort, investment, time, and research to really build a good, competitive deck. They key to success in that game is having a deck whose cards work together, and knowing what is in your deck, so it doesn’t even really work to simply borrow your best friend’s deck – he (or she) will beat you every time, with a few lucky exceptions.
Fortunately, one man named Donald X. Vaccarino came up with Dominion.
How It Plays
Dominion distills the complicated, time-consuming, and costly undertaking of deckbuilding into a single, thirty-minute game.
During the game, each player has their own deck of cards, which starts out rather pathetic – a few coins and a few worthless pieces of land. Over the course of the game, you will build up your deck (thus the term, “deckbuilding game” by purchasing from a limited selection of cards from the Kingdom supply. These cards will be more valuable coins to increase your purchasing power later, action cards that let you do more things such as draw additional cards into your hand, buy more cards at once, or remove cards from your deck that you no longer need, and finally special Victory cards that award you points, but do nothing for you during the actual game. The actual set of action cards available to purchase is made up of 10 unique piles of cards, accessible by any player, and drawn from a set of 25 included in the base set (with many more available in the expansions).
With a very simple series of steps (play 1 Action card, Buy 1 card with your treasure, Clean Up – it even fits the A, B, C acronym) each turn and a wide variety of action cards to obtain featuring special abilities, you will eventually control a significantly more powerful deck to purchase the ever-so-valuable Province cards.
The game ends when a certain number of Kingdom piles runs out, or when all the Province cards have been claimed.
Does It Dominate?
Dominion, simply put, is an amazing game. It does so many things so right, resulting in an engaging, balanced experience with essentially infinite replayability.
I want to say “the thing that makes Dominion so amazing is…” but really it’s not limited to one thing.
The game is essentially perfectly balanced. Since every card is available to every player, there is no ultimate “god” card that guarantees victory. Even if there was, everyone could get it, so it would all balance out. In addition, everyone starts in the same, very weak position, so no one will have a distinct advantage based on the Kingdom cards in play in any particular game.
The simple framework of the game allows the rules to get out of the way, and strategy to really shine. You would be surprised at the variety of action cards there are based on that framework, and the single currency. Whereas some games force you to keep track of money, attack power, defense, etc. etc. etc., Dominion basically comes down to one thing: treasure. You need to get as much treasure in your hand as you can. But there are so many ways to manipulate your deck to do that. Some action cards let you draw more cards; which is great, it gives you more chances to get the money you need. Some cards simply provide more treasure all at once, so you need fewer cards to get what you need. Some cards let you remove cards from your deck, getting them out of the way so you have better access to the cards you want. Some cards allow you to play more cards afterwards; some do not. There is so much variety available, and the simple framework allows incredible depth in the choices you make and the cards you use.
There is randomness in the game – the cards you buy (and use) go into your discard, and the discard gets shuffled every time your deck runs out. These means you can’t predict what order the cards will show up, or guarantee that two cards that work really well together will appear in the same hand. But the game is all about deck management – if you add the right cards, they’ll be there when you need them. You have freedom to choose and your choices matter. Sure, luck might make the difference between winning and losing occasionally, but better choices will always beat out luck-of-the-draw.
There isn’t a lot of meanness to the game either. A few cards are “attack” cards which hurt your opponents by forcing them to discard, or to add useless cards to their deck. But these attacks are limited in nature, and a player who over-does it on attacks will find themselves losing to players who focus on building better, treasure-rich decks.
It takes a few rounds, or a game or two, for new players to start to figure out what’s going on. But once they do, the game clips along at quite the rapid pace. Half the time it’ll be your turn again barely after you finish shuffling, so there is very little downtime. It means no waiting in boredom for your next turn to come around; and even with a relatively slow or new player, you won’t have to wait long. The game is also pretty short, landing at around 30 minutes most games, with a few card combinations pushing the game upwards of 45 minutes. The very nature of the game and it’s ending conditions prevent the game from dragging on and on, even on slower games.
I love the sacrifices the game forces you to make in order to win. To get the most points, you need Victory cards. Which means buying them and adding them to your deck. But Victory cards don’t do anything for you during the game; they’re essentially blank cards. You need them, but they hurt you to take them. That makes it oh-so-important to decide when to start buying out provinces. Ideally, your deck will be able to handle the addition of 3-4 provinces and still be able to provide strong hands. But usually, another player will start buying Provinces before you feel ready; you don’t want to fall behind, so you have to start moving towards Provinces as well. Again, it’s all about deck management; getting bigger hands, better treasure, and superior actions. However, the first player to get a Province won’t necessarily win; that province inherently slows them down, giving other players a chance to catch up. It’s very, very balanced.
There is a bit of a learning curve to Dominion. The rules are easy enough to teach; once a player learns the 5-6 keywords (gain, buy, trash, discard, etc.) they will be able to read and interpret cards for themselves. A few rounds of play, or sometimes a whole game, will help them see how cards work. However, the overall strategy can be hard to grasp, and an experienced player will almost always emerge victorious in a landslide. It’s tempting to go for a lot of fancy action cards, or grab certain action cards that look great but aren’t as useful as the newbie things. Different cards are valuable at different times in the game or in different circumstances. Entire websites have been dedicated to Dominion strategy; we even have a multi-part strategy guide on this site. It can be tough for a newbie to jump in, but it is, at least, very enjoyable to play, in part because the game is more about building your own deck than hurting others.
On that note, some people do complain about the lack of interaction. It’s true; most of what you’re doing is self-contained. You add cards to your deck, and this does not affect anyone else. However, multi-player solitaire this is not. The interaction is subtle; and while, except for attack cards, you can’t affect the other players, you do need to pay attention to what they are doing. If someone starts buying provinces; or targets a particular set of action cards, you may need to react. If you wait too long after the first province buy, you’ll be too far behind to catch up. If you let one person get a whole slew of a certain action card to his or herself, it may make their deck an unstoppable force. You also need to pay attention to purchases of lower-point VP cards, which can break ties, or if certain piles of cards are running low and could result in a premature game end. There’s a lot to watch for, and it sounds overwhelming at first, but it’s not so bad once you start to play.
Dominion is simply a brilliant game. It has essentially invented the “deckbuilding” genre of games, but has packed a huge punch with all it has to offer. It is so strategic, so balanced, so much fun. Give it a try, and you’ll soon be arguing about the best cards in the supply, and which cards work well with each other, and itching to play just one more time. And it gets even better with expansions.