[Editors note: The following is a Nemesis Review, featuring opinions from our in-house eurogamer, @Farmerlenny, and his deadly enemy the thematic space-loving @Futurewolfie. Make sure to read both opinions to get a better overall picture of the game!]
Eminent Domain from Tasty Minstrel Games, until just recently, was the largest board game success story on Kickstarter. It more than doubled its funding goal and attracted a lot of attention along the way. But lots of things can succeed in hype. The question remains: is the game itself any good? The short answer is yes, it is good. The long answer? Check out our detailed review below.
How It Plays
Eminent Domain is labeled a deck-building game, and while each player has his own deck that he adds cards to, it really seems to be more about role selection. The goal of the game is to end the game with the most “influence” (victory) points, which are earned by producing/trading resources, conquering/colonizing planets, and researching tech upgrades for your empire. Player turns follow three phases: Action (optional), Role (mandatory), Clean-up (mandatory).
The action phase involves playing a card from your hand. Each card in the game (with the exception of a few techs and the planet cards) has an action associated with it, whether the action is drawing cards, settling planets, amassing fighters for your fleet, surveying new worlds for your empire, or removing cards from your deck.
The role phase is where the game gets most fun. There are five face-up stacks of cards in the center of the table. The stacks hold role cards for the Survey, Warfare, Colonize, Produce/Trade, and Research roles. Choosing a role means adding that role card to your deck after performing it, so as play progresses, players become better at the roles they select more often, which rewards players for continuing to choose that role. (For example, our friend Blake likes to be the tyrannic despot no matter what game we play, so he usually chooses the Warfare role. By choosing this again and again, he becomes more efficient at the role until conquering planets is an easy task.) Each role also has a leader bonus that only the person who chooses the role may use. (This is similar to bonuses/privileges in Race for the Galaxy and San Juan.)
The active player then has the opportunity to “boost” the role he has chosen with cards from his hand that bear the same symbol. Boosting an action makes it more powerful, which, again, rewards players for choosing the role again and again.
After the player has executed his role, each other player has a chance to dissent or follow that role. By dissenting, the player draws a card. By following, the player may play any number of the role’s symbols from his hand to execute the role. (Some planets also have symbols on them, so players can boost and follow using those as well.)
Once every player has dissented or followed, the active player “cleans up”—he may discard any number of cards from his hand and then must draw or discard to his maximum hand size (five cards to start with, though there are planets that increase the limit) and play passes to the left. This continues until all of the loose influence points are gone or a number of stacks are depleted (dependent on the number of players).
Over the summer I saved my budgeted allowance so I could buy something at GenCon. My allowance isn’t much (and I’m not great at saving), so by the time GenCon rolled around, I had just enough to purchase one new game. Before GenCon, I had my sights set on Eminent Domain. I talked myself out of it, saying, “Let serendipity and whim be your guide; don’t lock in too early.” But when I reached GenCon, the siren call of the Tasty Minstrel booth and Eminent Domain in particular was too strong to resist. And after playing several times, I can’t say I regret my decision.
One of the things I really like about Eminent Domain is the design/layout. The game is fairly simple to learn (one of my criteria for what makes a great game), but where Eminent Domain stands out is in its simplicity of use. Each card that can boost or follow an action has the role symbols at the top left of the card—simple. A quick glance at my hand can tell me whether I should dissent or follow another player’s role. The iconography is simple and beautiful. It won’t take players several games to learn it (as in Race for the Galaxy), and it allows almost instant enjoyment of and immersion in the game itself. One of my grievances against some designer games is that the game mechanics are designed well, but the graphic design is ugly (El Grande, I’m looking at you). I cannot accuse Eminent Domain on this score. Seriously, well done, Tasty Minstrel.
I also like the common supply of tech upgrades. The same tech upgrades are available in each game, but only one of each is available, so if there’s an upgrade you want, you have to move early; if another player takes it, you’re out of luck. Even though every card is present in every game (one of my early concerns about the game was replayability), each game is different because you probably won’t get every card you want.
I really like the balance of this game as well. Even if a player wants to dominate the galaxy through warfare, there’s no way to get new planets to conquer without surveying; there’s no way to get new techs without researching. And the planets in a player’s empire play to strengths and determine what kind of techs are available should the player choose to research. This makes it so that a player must be well-rounded in order to have the best chance at winning. Becoming good at a role can be a blessing and a curse. Yes, it’s great that you can easily collect fighters; however, it’s bad when all you draw are warfare roles. (Thankfully, the research role card played as an action lets you remove cards from your deck.) And the balance seems to work well since each game I’ve played the players had divergent strategies, yet we were all fairly close in score.
This game is also more interactive than either Race for the Galaxy or Dominion. Each player has a decision to make on each other player’s turn. Obviously, this is present in Race for the Galaxy as well, but it feels more interactive here, perhaps because the decisions are not simultaneous.
My only real complaint about the game (and it’s not much of a complaint) is the insert. Perhaps I am being too picky, but after the functional insert included in the Dominion games, it’s hard not to judge other games by its standard. The Eminent Domain box is large enough to house all of the components, but there is unused space, and it’s not clear exactly where all of the pieces should go. (See my photo for how I arranged it.) Again, if the insert is the biggest complaint I have about the game, that’s a pretty good indication that the game is good; I just wish there were a better system for organization. (If expansions are released, I’ll probably rig something up.)
Eminent Domain is fun and worthy of its Kickstarter success. It scratches a different itch than Dominion and is friendlier to newbies than Race for the Galaxy. The game can be played over a lunch hour and packs a lot of interesting decisions into its play time. Tasty Minstrel has hit a success with this one.
(A few brief notes: I’ve been told this game is akin to Glory to Rome, and after reading the rules to GtR, it seems so [especially the dissent or follow mechanic]. However, having never played GtR, I can’t verify that. Also, the two-player game I played was less fun than the three- and four-player games, though this might be because I played with my wife, who, as I’ve mentioned before, does not care for space-themed games. Take that with a grain of salt. And we tried playing with the Utopian/Prestige planets. They add something to the game, but I almost like it better without them. Also, no rules were included with these, but they seem pretty self-explanatory…though I suppose we could have been playing them wrong [we used the Utopian planets as wilds]. There has been some shipping delay on this game, so it’s not readily available yet. I guess it didn’t really debut at GenCon, but that’s all the more reason to move on this one quickly. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.)
I really enjoy this game. There, I said it. Pretty simple. Pretty straightforward.
Eminent Domain is deceptive in a way. What I mean is it has excellent design—both in it’s classy, modern graphics and its clear, easy-to-understand icons and layout—that makes it seem almost simple, with not much depth. But this is just a surface presentation, and as you play, you begin to realize that this game has a lot of depth and a bit of a learning curve before you can truly master it.
As @Farmerlenny mentioned, you get more powerful at any role you choose during your turn. However, you will not emerge victorious if you focus on only one or two of the roles. You have to balance everything you do with everything else you do, and everything all the other players choose to do as well. The follow/dissent mechanic is excellent—even if someone chooses a role that is of no use to you, you can still gain a benefit by increasing your hand with more potentially useful cards. But not only do you dissent on useless roles, sometimes you dissent on a role because it would be better for you to take that role yourself—you have to decide.
And while invading planets seems all well and good, you won’t get far without surveying. Production and trade, while easily ignored, can also provide you with those last few points you need to push you over the top (and are the most equalized roles when following—there is no leader bonus for production or trade, other than the extra card you take to do so.) Research offers more powerful actions in addition to cards that can boost multiple roles, giving you more and better choices—especially when you get up to the more powerful cards you can research. But, of course, getting those cards requires occupying multiple planets of the same type, bringing the circle back around. And though both colonization and warfare are viable roles for planetary expansion, it’s probably best to invest in both to take full advantage of other players’ chosen roles. (This is an unconfirmed theory, but from my experience it seems likely to be true.)
The point of all of this is to say that every role is connected and it seems very well balanced. I was worried that Warfare would be overpowered compared to colonization, but after testing that theory directly, it turned out pretty well balanced.
Choosing roles is fun, and because you automatically take a card when you pick a role, you never get stuck unable to do anything. I also love the terminology—”dissent”—for some reason it just feels pretty good to go against the powers that be by “dissenting” instead of… i dunno… some other boring word.
The plastic ships are a great inclusion too. While basically representing glorified counter tokens, the varied ship designs allow for a bit of imagination as you build your fleet and conquer planets.
The learning curve may be a turn off to some people, though as I mentioned, the overall graphic design is very appealing and friendly—unlike a similar game, Race for the Galaxy (which I do quite enjoy), which is packed with a wall of intimidating icons. However, an experienced player—especially one who knows what kind of technology is available for research and can plan a strategy accordingly—will have a distinct advantage over a newbie.
I love that the game forces you to make choices, but rewards the choices you make. It has a more “expanding into the wonderful universe!” feel than “desperately struggling to stay alive!” feel. Both have their place, but I think the “desperate struggle” tends to get a bit more screen time, so it’s nice to have a change-up.
If you like space games, if you like role-selection, if you like a game that rewards you instead of punishes you, Eminent Domain comes highly recommended. Especially if Race for the Galaxy seems too intimidating, or you want a little more control over what cards you have in your deck.