Dominion Review

My gaming group and I play a very big variety of games. We started with Munchkin (that was our gateway from Monopoly and Risk into the expanded world of tabletop gaming) and since that time (five or six years) have jumped into dozens of games like Gloom, Thunderstone, Pandemic and Carcassonne. Our collection now numbers in excess of 100 games – and growing every time something catches our eye.

Throughout the entire time our group has played together deck-builders have been one of our favorite types of games. Star Realms, Ascension and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey are on our list of games we find ourselves playing repeatedly. We enjoy the decision making involved in building your deck as well as the ability to try different strategies – or even mixing strategies – to see if we can yield a better result. And the innate variability in the draws means even playing the exact same strategy can yield a different outcome – it’s all about adjusting to what’s available, not necessarily what you want.

[ If you’re not familiar with a “deck-builder”, here’s a quick synopsis. All players typically start off with the same low-value cards which they then use to buy new, better cards or obtain special “abilities” (like forcing other players to discard their hands, or being able to put a newly-purchased card into play immediately). The objective is to build the best deck of cards, balancing the number of cards with the power of those cards. It’s not about quantity – having a lot of cards is usually a bad thing – but you typically have to build your deck up quite a bit before you can get the really powerful cards. They almost always start off very slow, but once they get going they can get very intense very quickly. ]

But through all the years for some reason Dominion never made my list of “must try” games. I’m not sure if it was the size of the box or the sheer number of cards to start with (500+!) that kept me from carrying it up to the counter, but for years I’ve always found myself passing it over in favor of other games, like Munchkin: Zombies or Hero Realms. For that I’m sad – I’ve dozens or even hundreds of opportunities to play an excellent game with tons of replayability. But we rectified that last night and broke open the shrink-wrap on what is a very fun deck builder.

Pros:

  • Well-written instructions with suggestions for first-time players
  • Very easy to setup and learn
  • Tons of replay value (outside of the normal deck-builder replay value)
  • Limited action and buy mechanics force a different way of managing your deck

Cons:

  • It’s a deck-builder, so it starts slowly
  • The sheer size (large box, 500+ cards) can seem overwhelming
  • Mistakes can compound themselves quickly with the limited action mechanic

My gaming group last night was three of the normal crew plus my girlfriend who was joining us for the second time. I was a little concerned Dominion was going to be a heavy/complex game to learn deck-building on (she’d never played one before), but I needn’t have worried – she had it down pat and a strategy formed after just one round. And it’s not just because she’s smart, either; the first thing I noticed about the game (besides the sheer number of cards available) was that it is not a highly-complex game.

We read through the entire instruction book to get going since that’s how a couple of our players learn. The instruction book was clear and easy to follow, and the game play itself (as explained via the instructions) is simple enough to understand.

Once we’d separated the shrink-wrapped cards into the handy sorting bin that comes with the game setup was easy. Everybody received 7 copper and 3 estates, then you set out the “core” set of cards that you’ll find in every game of Dominion – your different coin value cards, your different victory point value cards and the curses (negative victory points). The last step in setup is to figure out which 10 Kingdom cards of the 26 that are included in the based game you want to include as your “supply cards”. Thankfully the instruction booklet suggested a set of 10 we should use if it’s our first play, so we took that approach.

If I did my math right, there are over 5 million possible starting combinations of cards for the base game alone. Throw on all the expansions and that number grows exponentially. So while you could start the game the same way every time if you wanted, you have a plethora of options to easily mix it up simply by swapping 1 (or all) of the starting cards.

The game started off slow as pretty much every deck-builder I’ve every played does. But because of the way Dominion is set up the game picked up pretty quickly. With Ascension (which I love) I’ve played a number of games where you were five or six hands in before you could buy anything beyond your basic building blocks. But with this Dominion setup there were two (Cellar, Moat) cards you could buy right off the bat for two copper – something you’re guaranteed to have in your first hand – and a number that only cost three. So you could start to seed your deck with decent cards right from the get-go.

But the mechanic I liked the most about Dominion is the limitations on choices. In Star Realms (another favorite deck-builder) you can play and buy as many cards as you can afford. Not so in Dominion – until you start to cards in your hand that modify it you’re limited to a single action each turn (playing one card) and a single purchase. There were a number of times I had to pick between playing the Smithy (and drawing 3 cards, hoping to get some more copper) and turning my copper into silver via the Mine. There wasn’t an “and” option – I only had one action to play. The same applied to buying – I could only buy one card so I had to choose between an 8 coin VP Province to build my victory points or a 6 coin Gold Piece to build my wealth (and then forfeit the other two coins).

The end of the game trigger is simple: either you run out of Province cards (the highest-value VP cards) or you run out of three of the initial “supply card” stacks (those are the ten you pick when you setup the game). My initial thought on the end of the game was we’d run out of Province cards long before we risked running out of three of the supply cards, but I was incorrect – perhaps due to our newness we ended up running out of the Moat, Cellar and Marketplace cards before Province.

Ultimately it took us about an hour to get through the first game. Part of that was learning the game, and part of that was one of our players (who shall remain nameless) whose turns took about three times as long as the others because he kept second, third, fourth and fifth guessing his decisions. Putting that aside, however, I have no doubt 30 minutes for a game is absolutely achievable, and because of that you could easily get several games in even during a short game night.

In the end I needn’t have worried about my girlfriend adjusting to a new style of game – she promptly mopped the floor with the entire group’s tears, winning with a final score of 28 (vs 24, 18 and my lowly 9). My strategy of trashing cards to optimize my deck (a staple approach for me with deck-builders) was well-intentioned, but unlike some other deck-building games I’ve played because of your limited actions it’s very easy to overdo it and find yourself suddenly down so far you can’t catch up. I didn’t adjust well to that mechanic and by the time I realized it she smelled the blood in the water.

All told it’s a great game that’s going to find a lot of play time on our table top.

 

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