Dominion is my favorite game (and the one I’ve played the most), so I’m always excited about new expansion releases. I recognize that after many, many, many expansions, it can be exhausting to think about adding another one to your collection, especially if that involves sleeving new cards. But if that’s you, don’t tune out just yet. You still might need Empires in your collection.
How It Works
The first new concept is debt. Some cards now either cost or give debt tokens to players. Debt tokens may be paid off at any time during a player’s buy phase, but that player may not purchase anything until all debt tokens are paid off.
Empires introduces split piles, where several piles contain two different cards that interact in some way with each other. The first five cards are on top, and players may only purchase the top card of the pile.
Empires includes victory point tokens (seen earlier in the Prosperity expansion), which some cards grant to players. There are also new “gathering” actions that place victory point tokens on certain card piles and include some way for players to take the points on the piles.
Associated with victory point tokens, Empires includes landmark cards, which offer additional global scoring conditions for the game.
Bigger and Better, or Crushed Under Its Own Weight?
Empires is the second Dominion set that was not part of the original release plan. And much like Adventures, it changes the game quite a bit from previous sets. And much like Adventures, it is awesome.
The aspect of Empires that changes the game the most is landmark cards. Landmarks offer alternate scoring conditions beyond the usual estates, duchies, provinces, and colonies. Some landmarks offer end-of-game victory bonuses or penalties (like Wall, which loses a player 1 point for each card beyond fifteen in his or her deck, or Wolf Den, which penalizes players for having only one copy of a card), some offer victory points when players do something in-game (like Tomb, which grants 1 VP when you trash a card), and some receive points at setup that are depleted throughout the game, making a mini-game race to collect the points before other players do.
It’s hard to overstate how much I love landmark cards. LOVE them. In prior rankings, I listed Intrigue as the most essential expansion for Dominion because of all the additional victory cards it added. In my opinion, the best way to add variety to Dominion is to change the goals for victory. I don’t think Intrigue is obsolete, but Empires does the most of any set thus far to change the goal of each game. Not only do the landmarks make it a new puzzle every time, but they also inject a lot of fun into the game. It’s fun to race the other players to score “free” points, and it’s fun to try to win in ways that weren’t really viable without the extra boost. The landmarks are a game changer for Dominion.
The new event cards also offer new ways to score points. I loved the victory point tokens when they were introduced in Prosperity, and here they are working harder than ever. There’s Conquest, which gives a player two silvers and 1 VP for each silver that player has gained this turn. (Imagine the fun you can have with this and Hinterlands’ Trader.) There’s Salt the Earth, which gives you victory points in exchange for trashing victory cards from the supply. And then there’s the trick shot Dominate, which costs 14 but grants a player a province and 9 VPs. The events let players make cards more expensive through debt or allow players to buy cards cheaper (and take debt instead). Again, events change the game, and the events introduced in Empires are so much fun to use.
I love the concept of debt, which is kind of a reversal of coin tokens from Guilds. Both debt and coin tokens allow a player to control the flow of money in their decks, at least to an extent. Debt allows players to buy better cards on credit while mortgaging the usefulness of later turns. Most cards that cost debt are amazing and can be purchased turn 1…but it’s not usually not worth it to do so. (City Quarter lets you draw cards if you have actions in your hand; Royal Blacksmith lets you draw five cards, but you can’t keep any coppers in your hand.) I find this to be a brilliant balance. Debt doesn’t hurt you at the end of the game, so if you can find a way to use it to your advantage, you can get cards as the game ends and, essentially, not have to pay for them. (Capital is a great example: it’s worth 6 coins, but you take 6 debt when discarded from play.) But if the game doesn’t end when you think it will, you might have a big bill coming due. I was expecting debt to play a bigger role in the expansion, and I’m a little disappointed it didn’t. I like what’s included, but it seems like there’s still some design space to be explored here. (Maybe it will make a return in a future expansion.)
I was initially cool on the split piles idea, but after playing many games with them, I find them to be a fun addition (more than the novelty of the traveler piles in Adventures, which I’ve cooled on a bit). Split piles pair two five-card supply decks into one pile, and you can’t get the bottom deck without the first being gone. There’s the Gladiator/Fortune pile: the Gladiators help kill other Gladiators to get to the Fortunes, and then Fortune, when you buy it, rewards you for having Gladiators. There’s Catapult/Rocks: Catapult allows you to attack other players when you trash the right cards, and Rocks is just the right card to trash. I like the split piles because the cards on the bottom are, in general, very desirable, so players are trying to manipulate the game in such a way as to get to those better cards sooner. Again, this is a fun way to change up the game, and I like that each game with a split pile has at least one combo that newer players can spot and exploit.
I was surprised by the new “gathering” cards, which increase the interaction in the game without adding attacks. When I initially read the card previews for Empires on Board Game Geek, I thought these seemed kind of lame. In practice, however, they add a lot to the game. Gathering piles work similar to the landmarks that have victory points on them at setup except that points accumulate and are disbursed due to player actions. There’s Temple, for example, which allows players to trash cards and gain VPs, but it also places VPs on the Temple pile. When you gain Temple, you get the VPs on the pile. This is tricky, because while Temple is a desirable card to use, after you have one, it’s not necessarily a desirable card to gain. So you have to weigh whether it’s worth it to add a card you don’t want to your deck simply to gain the extra VPs. Wild Hunt offers a similar tough choice: either draw 3 cards and place a VP on Wild Hunt, or gain an estate and seize the VPs on Wild Hunt. It might be easy to pass up at first, but as the game progresses, it becomes harder and harder to ignore.
I’m not very good at timing my purchases or actions to gain what’s on the gathering piles, and I feel like other players are much better at it than I am, but I love this mechanism. It injects the game with friendly competition. No one is being outright attacked, but you have to monitor what other players are doing if you don’t want to miss out on these points. I’ve always said that Dominion is not multiplayer solitaire, but Empires makes my claim more tenable with doubters.
There are plenty of other curios in Empires to enjoy. There’s Villa, which when bought goes directly into your hand, gives you another action, and returns you to your action phase. There’s Crown, which plays a treasure or action twice, depending on what you need. There’s Enchantress, an attack that makes the next action card each opponent plays a +1 card/+1 action vanity. And then there’s the castle pile, where each card in the stack is a new victory card that interacts somehow with the rest of the cards in the pile. Simply, there’s a lot of fun cards to explore in this set.
Usually, when I get a new Dominion set, I’m not a fan of the mix of cards if I use just the new set. Seaside, for example, feels a bit out of control on its own. Mix it with any other set, and I like it a lot. But on its own? Too wild. Empires is an exception here, like Prosperity and Intrigue before it. Yes, the card mix is a bit quirky if you use only Empires cards, but it avoids the main sin of being annoying. The games I’ve played with just Empires do tend to take a little longer, especially as players familiarize themselves with the cards. This is to be expected, to some degree: one of the chief temptations of Dominion is to buy the “fun” cards and forget about how you win.
And Empires is a set with a lot of somewhat complicated effects on the cards–complicated, at least, for new players. Empires is not nearly as fiddly or complex as Adventures or Dark Ages, but it’s a step above Prosperity (probably about equal with Guilds) and the victory tokens are more fiddly than in the earlier set. So I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that new players jump right in here. But aside from the complexity warning, I don’t have anything bad to say about the set.
The components here are quite good. The illustrations for this set are some of the best, and they are more consistently good. There are also a lot more of them: several piles have two different cards in them, and each event and landmark has its own illustration. The included metal tokens are also hefty and serve their purpose well. They’re a huge upgrade from Adventures’ hard-to-read, darkly printed cardboard ones, and the metal victory point tokens are more distinguishable at a glance than Prosperity’s. (I have mine mixed together, but I might separate them out: the Empires ones really are preferable.) The card quality here is back to normal. I wasn’t fully upset with Adventures’ mismatch in feel with earlier Dominion sets, but it was noticeable. Empires, at least from my tests, is indistinguishable from earlier sets.
It may be too soon to say, but Empires is at least on trajectory to become my favorite Dominion set. It takes what I love about my two former favorites–the high-roller money hands and powerful (read: expensive) cards of Prosperity and the sneaky alternate victory conditions of Intrigue–and blends them in one expansion while also introducing novel concepts and fun new puzzles. What Adventures did in challenging dogma in actions, Empires does for victory conditions. The beautiful thing about Dominion is that all former sets still work, and still work well within the system. But these latter expansions, Adventures and now Empires, might provide the best bang for your buck and are certainly among the most fun to play. Empires is a complete game changer for Dominion, and it proves that even after eight years and eleven card sets, Dominion is still the freshest thing in deck building.