Dominion: Deck-Builder Extraordinaire
+ Easy to learn, hard to master.
+ Right blend of lucky draws and clever strategy.
+ Huge variety in game setups.
- Occasional rules murkiness in very specific situations.
- Price point of expansions a little high.
- Does not come with back-rub functionality or free chocolates.
Dominion is a deck-building card game produced by Rio Grande games in 2008. Over the next couple of years it won a boatload of awards, sold over a million copies, was translated into eighteen languages, spawned half a dozen expansions and you can even get a mobile version in the App Store. That is a bloody impressive list of achievements. However, I was given it around 2012 and, after losing a couple of games, I pretty much ignored it for two years until I met a special someone who shared my liking for board games and I dug it out once more.
It’s been our go-to game ever since. We’ve played it on rainy afternoons, out in the garden on sunny days, and just to fill half an hour before we need to catch a train. We played it solidly for a year, three or four games, every couple of weeks, working through the rule book’s suggested game setups and then shuffling the cards to randomly generate our own.
It falls into the German-Style category of board games; easier to pick up for a new player than Chess or a wargame, but requiring more planning and setup than “party games” like Cards Against Humanity or Trivial Pursuit. You know the types: Settlers of Catan, Carcassone, Ticket to Ride, all that business. It hits my favourite game criteria, across all platforms, of “easy to learn, hard to master”. Anyone can come into the game and see that “Village” is a good card, but to play with “Gardens” properly, you need to have been through a few decks.
If you’re the type to put a story behind things (I know I am) then you’ll be pleased to hear that Dominion sets you up with a bare bones narrative: you are the inheritor of a small and pleasant kingdom, but you’re way more ambitious than your parents. You want more land, bigger estates, shinier things and flunkier flunkies. That’s the appetiser, now here’s the main course.
The core mechanic of the game is drawing a hand of five cards at the beginning of your turn, and discarding them at the end, shuffling your deck when you run out of fresh cards to begin anew. You start off with ten cards: seven Copper-type Treasure Cards used to buy Action or Victory Cards, and three Estate-type Victory Cards, which have no playable use in the game turns, but are needed to win once the game ends – whoever has the highest points in Victory Cards is the winner.
During a turn you may first play an Action Card if you have one. These cards are the bread and butter of the game (sorry for all the food metaphors), and may either give you more Actions, let you draw more Cards from your deck, or interact with other players at the table, either by stealing money from their deck, forcing them to discard part of their hand or inflicting a Curse Card upon their deck – negative Victory Points. Those more attack-based actions can by blocked or have their negative effects eventually removed by other cards.
Once the Action phase is over, you may buy additional cards with the Treasure you have in your hand. Gaining a new Copper Card is free, but buying up to Silver and Gold is something of an investment – Gold being worth three Coppers, but requiring a total of six Treasure to purchase. Purchasing too many Victory Cards will glut your deck with unplayable cards, so you have to balance getting all the Victory Cards before your opponents, against weakening your overall buying power for the end-game land-grab.
The game features many expansion sets which add new cards and strategies, blending together Action and Victory Cards to make them more useful, introducing new Action Cards that stay in play outside of the turn, and as recently as April 2015 they brought out the “Adventures” expansion. Only “Intrigue”, pictured above, doesn’t require the base game to play, but you’ll need it for the rest of them. Bear in mind I’ve yet to play them yet when I say that I think the price point for some of the expansions – equal to the base game – is a bit high, especially when they can’t be played as standalone. But that’s just my gut feeling and Yorkshire thriftiness.
In summary, Dominion is an ace game and well deserving of its accolades. If I were to scratch for a negative thing to say about it, then I’d really have to dig deep. After the amount of play I’ve gotten from this game it is no surprise that the edges of the Treasure cards are looking a little rougher, but you should take that as an endorsement – you’ll play it into the ground.