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Dominion, a review.
blaisepascal
Imagine if you will that you are a ruler of a small dominion, surrounded by other small dominions, all with large ambitions. There is a lot of unclaimed territory, and a lot of useful resources available -- but it'll cost you to acquire them, and not everything can happen at once. This is the basis of the game Dominion.


Dominion is a "deck building" game; at game start, there's a tableau sitting between the players, containing 16 stacks of cards. Some cards represent money, some land, and some people/events in your "Dominion" which help provide you with valuable resources. Each card has a price attached. During your turn, if you have enough money to spend, you can buy a card and add to your deck. Your deck is initially small: 10 cards, a mix of money and land. As you buy cards, your deck gets bigger and more powerful.

During your turn, you go through 5 cards (more or less) from your "draw pile", playing them and discarding them to your "discard pile". Your piles, separate from the decks the other players are building. When you've gone through all the cards in your deck, you pick up your discards, shuffle them, and you've got a new draw pile to continue with. The game ends when resources are used up -- when 3 piles out of the 16 are empty, the game is over.

The way to win the game is to collect the most "Victory Points" (VP) in your deck by the end of the game, but VP is only available on land cards which cost money but don't provide any useful resource actually during the game, they just clog up your deck. If you draw a hand of 5 Provinces, there's a decent chance you'll win the game, but you don't get to do anything during your turn.

The 16 resources consists of 3 types of land (worth 1, 3, and 5 VP), 3 denominations of money ("treasure") (worth 1, 2, and 3 coin), and 10 Kingdom cards, which provide actions you can take during your turn. For instance, if you have a "Mine" action card in your turn, you can play it to exchange a Copper treasure card in your hand for a Silver treasure card (or trade an Ag for and Au), permanently increasing your deck's ability to produce money. Or you could play a "Militia" card, requiring all other players to discard down to 3 cards, but giving you 2 coin you can spend this turn in addition to whatever you drew. Your deck has whatever Kingdom cards you bought in the game (or acquired another way). There's a trade-off, however. A large deck has lots of things it can do, but since you go through all the cards in groups of 5, it can take a while to get to use any particular card. A small deck doesn't have a lot of actions it can do, but what it can do, it can do more often.

Dominion isn't a single card game; it's 3268760 subtly different card games, all in one box. The game comes with 25 different types of Kingdom Cards, but only 10 are used in any given game. There are a few sets of 10 which are suggested, but an extra card, with a different colored back, is provided for each Kingdom Card. Shuffle this mini deck of blue-backed cards, and deal out 10 cards, and you have 10 Kingdom cards for this game. Since there are 3268760 ways to deal 10 cards out of 25, it's likely you will never have played that particular set of 10 before, and the game balance will be slightly different than any previous game.

Dominion has expansions. "Alchemy" introduces 12 Kingdom Cards themed on magic and potions. "Prosperity" introduces 25 Kingdom Cards with a monetary theme. The base game and these two expansions are sold separately, or in a package called "Dominion: Big Box" (which I just bought). The expansions add a few new game mechanics, and clarify some rules so that the new mechanics work (in the original game, there's no need to be concerned about the order certain cards get used or discarded, not so in Alchemy and Prosperity). It's still fundamentally the same game, or fundamentally the same 210 billion game variants. There are a total of 7 expansions. If you have them all, you can choose 10 Kingdom cards out of a set of 200 different Kingdom cards, for 22 quadrillion game variants. That'll fill up a weekend.

Enough about the game itself, how does it play?

It's a good game. It has a decent mix of strategic thinking and random play, as you are limited on each turn by what cards are in your hand, but you get to choose the pool of cards that can be in your hand (which evolves over the course of the game). There isn't a dominant strategy, although after a few dozen games you might think there is. A common complaint I've seen in searching for reviews is that the game is broken because one particular strategy is dominant and will mostly win. A site specializing in Dominion describes the strategy (which it calls "Big Money") in detail, but as a baseline strategy -- if your strategy can't beat Big Money, it's not worth considering as a strategy.

It's a fast game. The box, as big and complicated as it looks, claims 2-4 players, 30 minutes. That seems about right. I can play a computerized version a friend wrote (as a way of learning Haskel) against 2 AI players in about 5 minutes.

One complaint mainly true about the original set is that it feels like the players are playing simultaneous solitaire. While they share a resource pool, that pool is initially fairly deep, so it's only near the end that resource crunches affect other players. Only 5 of the base 25 Kingdom Cards allow for player interaction. Other expansions add more interaction cards, and ultimately out of the full set of 200, at least 45 involve player interaction. Still, I didn't realize the lack of player interaction until I started playing the computer version. General table-talk and game speed was good enough that I didn't feel I was sitting around waiting for my turn to come back.

It's an expensive game -- or can be. The Dominion base game and each expansion seems to list for $45 each. For the base plus all 8 expansions that's $405 (less discounts from your game provider), before taxes. One advantage of the Big Box is that it is a substantial savings over getting the base and the two expansions. But the base set is all you need to play. Or the Dominion:Intrigue expansion, which is packaged as a standalone expansion. Getting it and the base means that the game has enough treasure/VP cards to support a 6-player game.


Would I recommend it? Yes, definitely.

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I signed up for a raining slot of this at dexcon, so it'll be my first time.

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