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Designer Diary: Eminent Domain

Seth Jaffee
United States
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Board Game: Eminent Domain
I have been working on and playing Eminent Domain for more than a year. Since the game is finally in production and due out July 2011, I thought people would be interested to read some of what went into the game's development. For more info you could check out my game design blog on the subject, but here's a summary of the design and development of Eminent Domain.

Roots and History

In 2008, I saw this thread pop up on the Board Game Designers Forum. Evidently Queen Games was looking for designs utilizing its patented cube tower. Near the end of that thread is a post of mine from late 2009, more than a year after the thread started:

I never did work on the ideas I had for the Queen cube tower – as I recall my favorite idea was to use the tower mechanism to resolve actions at which you could get better... the better you are at the action, the more of that action's cubes you throw into the tower... the more cubes that come out, the more potent or effective your action!
I really liked the idea of taking training actions or getting better at parts of the game over time. The concept of getting better at the actions that you do comes from Dungeon Siege, a video game I never played but that was explained to me as follows:

Video Game: Dungeon Siege
Dungeon Siege is a role-playing game, but you do not have a character class to start off. Everyone can cast spells, pick locks, and swing swords, though none of it terribly well. Every time you fight something, you get a little better at melee, and every time you cast a spell you get a little better at casting spells.
So a player who likes to hack and slash will become a fighter-type in no time, neglecting his spell-casting and lock-picking skills in lieu of using his fighting skills. Once that happens, as you come to more powerful monsters, of course you're going to continue to swing your sword at them rather than casting some low-level spell! Similarly, if you spent your early game casting spells, then later it will seem much better to cast more spells because your fighting skills would be weak!

I have wanted to capture that dynamic in a board game for a long time. When Eminent Domain came around I realized I could use this dynamic in it, and I think it worked out beautifully! The cube tower thing could be represented by a deck of cards, which seemed a lot more convenient – especially if not designing a game specifically for Queen.

Originally I thought each action would have a standard effect, and you would flip some number of cards (two to start) to see whether your action was bolstered by the correct type of card turning up. For example, an action could be "Collect Wood: You get 2 wood, plus 1 wood per Wood card flipped." or "Fight with strength X, plus 1 per Attack card flipped."

You'd have basic cards such as "Wood" and "Fight" in your deck to start, and you could get better cards such as an Axe, which would have both a Wood symbol and a fight symbol (because you could use it to chop down trees to collect wood, or to hit some guy in the face). So if you flipped the Axe, it would help boost EITHER the Wood action OR the Fight action.

One type of action you would be to train one of your action types, thereby getting better at it. When training an action, you would take a card of that type and add it to your deck. Another thing you could do would be to train in general, allowing you to flip additional cards when taking any action (potentially getting better at all actions).

When I started thinking about really using this mechanism in a game, I realized that flipping cards was the same as having a hand of cards (that is, you flip them before you choose your action), and I liked the sound of that better as it allowed a player to plan ahead – knowing which cards would "flip" allows you to make more interesting choices. If, say, you flip two Stone cards and no Wood cards, you could choose between collecting the standard two wood and collecting four stone. If you really need the wood you might want to take them, while if you don't need them too badly you might choose the stone because there's more of it. Rather than taking a specific game action in order to "train" your actions, I figured you could simply get better at the actions you do, as in Dungeon Siege.

Board Game: Dominion
Creating a game in which your deck of cards changes over the course of the game is similar to the deck building from Donald X. Vaccarino's Dominion. But I never intended to re-invent the deck-building wheel – I was trying to do something different here. I wanted to use deck building as a mechanism in a larger game that is not simply about building your deck. It was important to me that some specific, significant things worked differently in Eminent Domain than in Dominion:

• In Dominion you decide which card you want in your deck, then you put it in your deck. In Eminent Domain your deck changes as a result of an action. Sure, you could Survey just to get a Survey card into your deck, but more often if you're Surveying it's to get a planet, and your deck changes as a result. Sometimes this is a drawback – you want another planet in your empire, but taking the Survey role means YET ANOTHER Survey card in your deck, which may already be heavy with too many Survey cards!

• In Dominion you must discard your hand every turn and draw five new cards for next turn. Nothing ties one turn to the next except the overall configuration of your deck, limiting the ability to plan ahead for next turn and the ability to build up to a bigger action later. In Eminent Domain you may discard any of your cards at the end of your turn (holding onto any cards you want) before resetting your hand. This allows you to build up to a big Role, such as storing up a couple Research cards while waiting to draw one more to afford that juicy technology card you've had your eye on.

• In Dominion when you buy a card it goes into your discard pile, and you will not be able to use it until your deck cycles through and you draw the card. In Eminent Domain, when you use a Research role to obtain a Technology card (with a fancy new action on it), it goes directly into your hand, allowing you to make use of it right away if you like, or giving you the option to discard it at the end of your turn if you don't plan to use it until later.

• In Dominion, useful cards in your deck are not worth points, while things that are worth points are generally useless and make your deck less efficient. In Eminent Domain, there is an element of "useful stuff being worth fewer points", but it's generally not tied to your deck. If you concentrate on deck management, then in the late game you don't have to be drawing poor hands chock full of VP cards. Of course, if you neglect deck management, then in the late game you may have trouble drawing the cards you really want, but at least the cards you draw will have useful action on them. (This last point was not one of my big considerations, but I thought I'd include it anyway.)

So you see, I don't feel like I've made a "deck-building game" so much as a role-selection game with deck building in it. Choosing your action every turn, then boosting from your hand evolved fairly quickly into a Lead/Follow mechanism as in Glory to Rome, but I thought it was important that you be able to choose any Role you want rather than needing to have a particular card in hand.

Board Game: Eminent Domain
"Remaking the world..." – artwork for Terraforming

Entering the Space Race

While I had thoughts about this "training actions, getting better at actions as you do them, cube tower" idea rumbling around in the back of my mind, I was having a conversation with Michael Mindes, owner of Tasty Minstrel Games, about Twilight Imperium (Third Edition). Michael loves that game, and I would like to love it, too, but it's far too long and fiddly for me to enjoy playing it. We joked that I should make a TI3 card game, and I went home thinking about how I would do that. That's probably the moment that Eminent Domain was actually born. I thought maybe I could make a card game that felt like what I wanted TI3 to feel like. This is why Eminent Domain is set in space, and why it includes roles called "Warfare" and "Politics".

Any game that attempts to be a Twilight Imperium card game will likely share a lot of similarities with Race for the Galaxy. TI3 is a role-selection game not unlike Puerto Rico, and Race for the Galaxy is sort of a card game version of Puerto Rico. I knew going in that comparisons between Eminent Domain and Race for the Galaxy were inevitable. I tried pretty hard not to use the same terms as Race for the Galaxy because I didn't want to feel like I was ripping off that game, but in the end there are clearly some similarities, a result of a similar theme. I originally used the term Harvest instead of Produce, because I didn't want to associate as closely with RftG, and because I liked the sound of it – thematically you would harvest resources from the planets into your Empire, then you would trade them to gain Influence. Many people seemed confused by the term "Harvest", saying that to them it implied taking a resource OFF of a planet, not putting a resource ON it. RftG designer Tom Lehmann agreed that "Produce" was a better term and told me I shouldn't worry about using it.

Unlike Race for the Galaxy, though, I didn't want the planets to be inherently worth more or less than each other, so the resources had to all be equivalent. This has been a source of confusion for players who haven't yet read and digested all of the Technology cards in Eminent Domain. They often ask, "What's the difference between Food and Silicon?" The answer is, "Food comes from Fertile Planets and Silicon comes from Advanced planets". A deeper answer could be that Silicon is more rare than Food, which is discernible if you study the planets a little bit but not really very important to know. But until you get some specific level 2 technologies, all the resources in Eminent Domain are equivalent. The following technologies which make the resources matter:

-----• Genetic Engineering – extra points for each TYPE of good produced
-----• Diverse Markets – extra points for each TYPE of good traded
-----• Specialization – choose a resource, that resource trades for 2vp this turn instead of 1.

I intended this all along, allowing a player with diverse planets to do strong trading, or in the last case, a player with a bunch of the same planet to pursue a trade strategy. There will inevitably be comparisons to RftG, but I think the Role/Follow mechanism in Eminent Domain feels significantly different than the simultaneous role selection in Race for the Galaxy, and I believe the games play out completely differently.

Board Game: Eminent Domain
A Fertile planet worth two influence, with a Production icon in the upper left and two resource slots (Food and Water) in the lower left.

The Cards

I had planned from the beginning to have six different Roles in the game, each with its own icon. Three planet types would each specialize in two of those roles, meaning that those icons would appear only on those particular planets. There are Metallic planets with Warfare icons and with Survey icons; there are no Metallic planets with Trade icons. Originally the Planets had abilities on them, but that seemed a little too crazy. I wanted the planets to be incrementally good, not crazy good. I moved the abilities to the tech cards, which were too weak and disorganized originally. They're much better now...

The tech cards were always intended to be like that "Axe" card in my example above. I remember being in the shower and working out the combinations of icons on the cards and how they should be distributed. Originally the tech cards were in one big pile, and you would research them the same way you Survey for planets. That seemed very poor in practice because the technologies are intended to shape your strategy, and as such it's important that players have access to the one they want when they want it rather than having to choose from some subset of cards to add to their deck, which could theoretically be a BAD thing. ("I don't want any of these cards in my deck!")

So I decided that there would be a tech deck for each planet type, and that deck would have cards in it with the "native" icons for that planet type. Every card in the Metallic tech deck has either a Survey icon or a Warfare icon, etc. I figured there would be one card for each combination in the deck. Later, when I added the Action effects to the tech cards (instead of the planets), some were more strong than others so I decided to create three tiers or levels of technology. Like a tech tree, the level 1 techs would be more generally useful but not too powerful, like better versions of the standard actions in the game. The level 2 technologies would be a little harder to get and would be more powerful. Level 2 techs are the ones that really help define your strategy, so I tried to supply ones that would be good for all types of strategic paths I could think of. Because they were harder to get, I wanted a player to be rewarded for going after the tech cards, so I added a small number of points to the level 2 cards.

Level 3 techs were intended for the player who really concentrated on Research, and for their big, late game play they get a level 3 tech into play. I made them 5vp, which is a lot, so they could act as a late game scoring opportunity, but I also thought it would be fun if they had a really good ability on them. You wouldn't get them until late in the game, so you'd be hard pressed to abuse the powerful ability. In thinking of really powerful abilities, I decided these tech cards could stay in play and have a static effect. All of the level 3 tech cards are very strong.

Board Game: Eminent Domain

About Those Double-Sided Techs

Originally I wasn't going to have any double-sided or stay-in-play techs, I was just going to have them all go into your hand and therefore your deck. Then some of the first draft level 2 techs were pretty weak and never chosen. The level 2 techs are the ones that define and support strategies, so it was important to me that none of them be so bad they're never bought. I also didn't want any of them to be bought first every time at the exclusion of all else. The only one that was like that was Data Network, but once everything else was adjusted I didn't think that one was too good anymore. In an attempt to improve the bad ones I thought it might be good if their effect were static, so I made them come into play and stay there. I rearranged things a bit so that three techs stayed in play, one of each type. That worked very well and I liked it. I already had the Level 3 techs coming into play, so I didn't feel it was a stretch to have one of each level 2 techs also stay in play and in fact maybe it makes the level 3 techs feel less different. I played with it that way for a while and was happy, thinking the techs were basically done – but I always wanted to revisit them and make sure they were all good and interesting. I started putting the stay-in-play techs in clear sleeves so they didn't get shuffled into decks accidentally.

At some point I started thinking about the level 3 techs and whether the first drafts (which I was still using) were all appropriately good. I talked to some people and came up with potential alternates... and I ended up with more than three that I liked, so I thought about making two of each. Two problems with that: I was already at a card count maximum – we wanted to use three sheets of cards, so I couldn't add more – and also if there were two Level 3 techs, the guy who gets the first one can probably easily get the other and that would be a lot of VP, I didn't like the sound of that. So I decided to put them on the backs of the Level 3s, making them double sided. I liked that. Once the level 3s were two-sided, I decided to think about three more level 2 techs to put on the backs of those other cards. The ones with the icons were basically, "I can't think of anything else right now. What about some icons?" I thought they might be too good, but after playing with them I thought they felt appropriately powerful.


I would have liked to add a political aspect to the game – every good civ game needs a political aspect, right? – but I ended up keeping my ideas for it out of the game, mostly because they didn't seem necessary. The game worked fine without them.

I did include a Politics card as a sort of "wild", so I could pretend like there was a political aspect at least thematically. I took my thoughts about politics and reserved them for a potential expansion. I finally got around to trying that segment of the game out, and I think it may eventually work the way I'd like it to. In a future expansion, the Politics aspect will likely add Agendas to the game which will affect each player equally, and each player will have some say in whether it comes into play or else what effect it has. As inspiration I may look to Warrior Knights – I like the how that game handles politics.

Seth Jaffee
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