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Subject: Dominion after 200 plays rss

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Tim Seitz
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Dominion is the Hot New Thing to come out of Essen this year and all the cool kids are playing it. Usually games like this are reserved for the elite cool kids of the gaming universe. You know who you are: with your German visa stamps, Essen Geeklists, toting your stash of Duck Dealer, Le Havre, and displaying your #6 covered copies of BSG. But Dominion is different. Because the game became available on BSW almost simultaneously as it was released, the barrier to entry for being cool dropped so low as to include almost everyone. Okay, not really. We’re still not cool, but at least now we can play enough Dominion to at least fool ourselves into thinking we are hip gamers sporting the latest fashions.

So I have gotten to play quite a bit of Dominion lately. Much of it on BSW, but because I actually do know some people who really are cool, some of it has even been face-to-face. In fact, I have played over 200 games, which might seem like a lot. Well it is a lot, since my next most-played game is Caylus, with a mere, insignificant 83 plays. At least it may be enough that I might have something interesting to say about this game. Maybe.


I. Pros. Here are the things I like about it: It…

+ Is built around an innovative mechanic. This game is all about deck building. Deck building is something you do to prepare to play another game, not unlike painting miniatures, or clipping counters. While, this is a new concept to me, and maybe a lot of other Euro players, Magic players are familiar with it. I hear it’s a skill to construct Magic decks but I would have never guessed you could make a game of it. I suppose that is what makes it so unique. And kudos goes to Donald for designing slick interpretation. If you want to consider how unique this game concept really is, just imagine next year’s game based on painting Warhammer figures.

+ Remains true to its design. Dominion manages to do something that even Race for the Galaxy could not do, and that is remain true to it’s design. Dominion is a card game, and thus all it needs are cards. The Treasures are cards, the Victory Points are cards, and even the Curses are cards. There are no extraneous bits to take away from the simplicity of the game. This is excellent design purity.

+ Has lots of replayability. In Dominion, you have 25 types of kingdom cards, but in any one game you will only ever play with 10 of them at a time. This means that if you never play the same set twice, you will have to play some 287502394802 games in order to exhaust this game’s potential. And if you somehow manage to squeeze in that many games, Donald apparently has some 500 cards already designed.

+ Plays quickly with no downtime. Well, as fast as this game plays, you might be able to actually play all of those card combinations. On BSW, games with experienced players can be as fast as 4 minutes. With real live players, you will do a lot of shuffling, but the game will still be pretty fast, usually 20 minutes or so. This means you can now play a good strategy game as a “filler.” Perhaps more important than the playtime is the fact that turns are very short, so there is little downtime in which to contemplate what else you could be playing.

+ Scales well from 2-4 players. The game also plays very well with any number of players within its range. The strategy may change somewhat, and some of the cards may be increasingly more valuable, but the game will feel very similar with 2 as it does with 4.

+ Doesn’t require large time investment. Different from a game like Race for the Galaxy, you are not required to invest a lot of time to be proficient with this game. Yes, it does have a learning curve, as you gain experience in judging the worth of certain cards, or the potential for powerful combinations, but it does not require memorization of hundreds of cards, nor calculating the probabilities of the arrival of the ONE card you need to make your plan come together. Everything you might encounter is right in front of you.

+ Has interesting decisions. I consider myself primarily a strategy gamer, therefore I assess games mostly on what kind and how many interesting decisions I get to make in the course of a game. Dominion is chock full of decisions, some are interesting, and some are not. As you learn the game, the decisions become less interesting and more automatic, but that is true of any game.

Initial analysis of random sets. Similar to hand analysis in Agricola, you are typically faced with a newly drawn, random set of 10 kingdom cards. The first part of the game involves analyzing the set and forming your initial strategy. For me, this is the most interesting part of the game, and one of two strategic points of the game. Alexfrog posted a great first article on http://bgg.cc/thread/354729 that is worth reading a few times.

Tactical buying decisions. As you play, however, you are limited on what you can do on each turn by the makeup of your current hand. Initially, you have no actions, and later on you will have a few, but the order of actions played will be pretty automatic, e.g., play the Village first, then the Smithy. Once you have played all of your actions, you will generally spend all of your available money and buy the best card available for your strategy. The more you play, the less interesting these decisions become, because there is usually a “right” answer for your strategy, e.g., you almost always want to buy gold when you have 6 coins (unless there is an Adventurer or Thief available).

Timing of the rush for VPs. The second strategic point in the game is to recognize when enough is enough, and to stop building your hand and start collecting Victory Points. This is important, because as you begin collecting Victory Points, the well-oiled, smooth-dealing, big-money deck you have created will begin to get clogged with nasty green Victory Point cards and you will find it more and more difficult to buy the expensive ones as the game nears its close. Often I have eked out a victory over an opponent who had a better deck, only to pass them for the win because they bought Victory Points too soon, and could not finish out the game with the same steam. These kind of victories are thrilling, but more rare as I other players gain more experience.

But not all is rosy in my fair Dominion. After 100 plays the game started to sour on me slightly and I started to notice things that did not have that fair smell.


II. Cons

- Can play out on auto-pilot. This is a game you can play while checking e-mail. (I love that on BSW the game has a big DING DONG sound when it is your turn.) I play my action cards and buy my Silver or Gold, or Festival or Market, or whatever I can afford. The tactical buying decisions I mentioned previously just aren’t that interesting anymore. Now, for me, the game is all about getting my hands on the cards I want as quickly as I can. It’s rare that I have to choose between one action card or another. Usually the choices are just so obvious as to make the action-card playing and buying automatic. For example, on the first turn, I buy a Silver and then on the second turn I buy the 4-cost card that fits with my strategy (Smithy or Militia maybe). On turn three I hope for a good draw to get a Gold.

- Is eventually impaired by luck. The most depressing thing I have discovered is that amongst players of relatively equal skill, the game is most often decided by the luck of the draws. If a player gets an early 6 coin hand, they can get a Gold card, which then leads to them getting more Gold and more Gold and soon an overwhelming win. We have noticed that the first player to get a Gold has won roughly 90% of our games. We can almost always call the game by turn 5 if a player has gotten two Gold buys in a row and the other player hasn’t gotten any. The only way to come back from that kind of deficit is with some lucky use of the Thief (but even a pure Thief strategy is not effective against early Gold in 2-player) or if the leading player spends too much time gathering and then fails to point out to end the game. But with players of equal skill, this is exceedingly rare.

For awhile it is as much fun as you can have playing a game. Once you learn your way around though, the gild starts to come off the lily. It remains a deep strategy game, and the better player will win, but the threshold to become a decent player is not all that high. Once you learn to avoid certain mistakes (like over-valuing villages) you will regularly beat up the average player. However, amongst the good players, the games may often be decided by a few lucky hands.

What mitigates this to some extent is that the games are very fast. If you get some bad initial draws and lose quickly, well you can always play again. Eventually, the luck will turn your way. Yes, it will. But do I really want to spend my time playing a game that is predominantly decided by the random nature of the card draw?

I know: the art of deck building is all about creating a deck that maximizes your odds of success with each hand; unfortunately, if the other player gets some lucky draws, your game can be completely shot before you’ve had any chance to modify your starting hand to a significant degree.

In Race for the Galaxy, luck is also present, but that game is more about adapting to the random events as opposed to merely being victims of them. Agricola is the same way. The luck comes first, then you can adapt your strategy. It is not so with Dominion. If you buy the Chapel, but never get it in play with more than one card worth trashing, it doesn’t work out so well.

- Requires lots of shuffling in the meantime. The final negative is the extreme amount of shuffling this game requires. It requires so much shuffling that there are dozens of threads that discussing shuffling techniques, shuffling variants, appropriate card sleeving, and even recommendations to buy multiple copies for when the cards wear out. Sheesh. Is it really all that worth it?


III. Conclusion:

Dominion is a great, innovative game that shows there is still a lot of room for creativity in such a crowded market of games. Dominion really does stand out for its mechanics, its graceful design, and its quick, exciting gameplay. Since games can be played in a few minutes, I will probably continue to play it casually online. And if someone pulls it out to play face-to-face, I may join in just to show off my 1337 skillz (like the chapel-library deck!) but I will probably wish I could get back to that game of Agricola or Through the Ages. Or dare I say it, Race for the Galaxy!

I love the potential this game has, though, and I hope that this type of build-your-civilization-while-slowing-down-the-points-leader mechanic can be employed in a future game with more strategic depth.

My initial rating was a 9.5 with thoughts of going to 10. But now, I have down-graded it to a 9. 9 is good though, right?

(9/10)


Update: I am surprised that no one has commented on my lack of comments regarding player interaction. Dominion is a racing game, so it's not surprising that there is not a ton of interaction evident; there is some, despite the nay-sayers, but for me, player interaction isn't always a necessity, and was not relevant to my opinions on the game one way or another.

Update 2: There is another good review that sort of restates my viewpoint from a different perspective. A small snippet:
Quote:
More importantly, both games involve the player being given five cards and then asked to make a straightforward purchasing decision based on a memorized or intuited priority schedule. Feedback is quick and direct. Both games play quickly and with almost no effort, yet 'feel good,' especially for players with basic knowledge of good strategy, and thus have an addictive nature. At a certain point, players in both games need to decide when to cash out, either cutting their losses or deciding they've peaked. This decision is based on the same type of factors in both games, and in both cases I'm being generous by pluralizing 'factor.'

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Jesse Dean
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Despite, disagreeing with you about downtime (I think there is too much for a game of this type) and ultimately coming to a slightly more negative take (I eventually pushed my rating down to a 7 because of the points you listed as Cons + the downtime issue) I think this was an excellent review and probably makes it unnecessary for me to write my own review. Good show.
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Dylan Shakespeare
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out4blood wrote:
II. Cons

- Can play out on auto-pilot. This is a game you can play while checking e-mail. (I love that on BSW the game has a big DING DONG sound when it is your turn.) I play my action cards and buy my Silver or Gold, or Festival or Market, or whatever I can afford. The tactical buying decisions I mentioned previously just aren’t that interesting anymore. Now, for me, the game is all about getting my hands on the cards I want as quickly as I can. It’s rare that I have to choose between one action card or another. Usually the choices are just so obvious as to make the action-card playing and buying automatic. For example, on the first turn, I buy a Silver and then on the second turn I buy the 4-cost card that fits with my strategy (Smithy or Militia maybe). On turn three I hope for a good draw to get a Gold.

- Is eventually impaired by luck. The most depressing thing I have discovered is that amongst players of relatively equal skill, the game is most often decided by the luck of the draws. If a player gets an early 6 coin hand, they can get a Gold card, which then leads to them getting more Gold and more Gold and soon an overwhelming win. We have noticed that the first player to get a Gold has won roughly 90% of our games. We can almost always call the game by turn 5 if a player has gotten two Gold buys in a row and the other player hasn’t gotten any. The only way to come back from that kind of deficit is with some lucky use of the Thief (but even a pure Thief strategy is not effective against early Gold in 2-player) or if the leading player spends too much time gathering and then fails to point out to end the game. But with players of equal skill, this is exceedingly rare.

For awhile it is as much fun as you can have playing a game. Once you learn your way around though, the gild starts to come off the lily. It remains a deep strategy game, and the better player will win, but the threshold to become a decent player is not all that high. Once you learn to avoid certain mistakes (like over-valuing villages) you will regularly beat up the average player. However, amongst the good players, the games may often be decided by a few lucky hands.

What mitigates this to some extent is that the games are very fast. If you get some bad initial draws and lose quickly, well you can always play again. Eventually, the luck will turn your way. Yes, it will. But do I really want to spend my time playing a game that is predominantly decided by the random nature of the card draw?

I know: the art of deck building is all about creating a deck that maximizes your odds of success with each hand; unfortunately, if the other player gets some lucky draws, your game can be completely shot before you’ve had any chance to modify your starting hand to a significant degree.

In Race for the Galaxy, luck is also present, but that game is more about adapting to the random events as opposed to merely being victims of them. Agricola is the same way. The luck comes first, then you can adapt your strategy. It is not so with Dominion. If you buy the Chapel, but never get it in play with more than one card worth trashing, it doesn’t work out so well.

- Requires lots of shuffling in the meantime. The final negative is the extreme amount of shuffling this game requires. It requires so much shuffling that there are dozens of threads that discussing shuffling techniques, shuffling variants, appropriate card sleeving, and even recommendations to buy multiple copies for when the cards wear out. Sheesh. Is it really all that worth it?

thumbsdown
EDIT: The thumbsdown is not because I agree with you.
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Chris Handy
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Great review. I appreciate your pro/con perspectives.


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Tim Seitz
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Abstractite wrote:

thumbsdown
EDIT: The thumbsdown is not because I agree with you.

So... does that mean you disagree?
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Jens Hoppe
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Great review, Tim. It certainly beats all the "review of the components" or "review after half a solo game" articles we get here.

Compared with you I only have very limited experience with the game, but your pros and cons certainly fit my initial impressions.

However, I think it is worth keeping in mind that you have played the damn thing TWO HUNDRED TIMES before getting to the point where you are now! Almost no eurogame holds up to that amount of replay without becoming stale. Seen in that light, I think Dominion is a hit, even if you're beginning to tire of it by now.
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Peter Hein
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Very good review! I've played around 50 games now (most of them on BSW) and I think I agree with almost all your points. I'm beginning to notice the auto-pilot problem as well, especially when the Cahpel is around. I think the Chapel deck is about as boring as it is powerful.

The only thing a disagree somewhat is the isue of downtime. You must have some very fast fellow players. Even on BSW, I find the downtime in three or four-player games sometimes agonizing.

So I wouldn't rate this higher than an 8, but I can see myself easily getting past 200 plays.
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Peter Folke
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spellengek wrote:
Very good review! I've played around 50 games now (most of them on BSW) and I think I agree with almost all your points. I'm beginning to notice the auto-pilot problem as well, especially when the Cahpel is around. I think the Chapel deck is about as boring as it is powerful.

The only thing a disagree somewhat is the isue of downtime. You must have some very fast fellow players. Even on BSW, I find the downtime in three or four-player games sometimes agonizing.

So I wouldn't rate this higher than an 8, but I can see myself easily getting past 200 plays.


But if Chapels are boring, just take them out of your random card mix
With my limited experience, this seems like a very good house rule. There are still a few million different set-ups even if you do take it out..
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Excellent review! It sums my up my own impressions perfectly. The only thing I disagree with, is the downtime issue. I think there can be serious downtime issues in the endgame. That's why I give it an 8 instead of your 9.

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Jesse Dean
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jens_hoppe wrote:

However, I think it is worth keeping in mind that you have played the damn thing TWO HUNDRED TIMES before getting to the point where you are now! Almost no eurogame holds up to that amount of replay without becoming stale. Seen in that light, I think Dominion is a hit, even if you're beginning to tire of it by now.



You don't necessarily need to hit 200 for it to get stale. It reached that point for me at about 55. When you compare that to the total amount of time it takes to get stale for other, longer games, it does end up being stale somewhat quickly. Not exceptionally so, but quicker than I would have liked.
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Joe Grundy
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An excellent review. Thanks.

out4blood wrote:
The most depressing thing I have discovered is that amongst players of relatively equal skill, the game is most often decided by the luck of the draws.
As a matter of curiosity... between "players of relatively equal skill", what do you want the game to be decided by?

I am aware of only two possible responses to this question.
1) Have no (balance effecting) random elements at all in a game, and the result comes down to a measure of the merest margin on who played how well on the day.
2) Allow some (balance effecting) random elements. If the balance effect is at all noticeable, then if the players are playing "equally well" then necessarily it comes down to who had the random elements on their side in that play.


Personally, I kinda prefer the second version. Though it does mean that the ebb and flow of a game must of itself be interesting regardless of the outcome.
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Thomas Staudt
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doubtofbuddha wrote:
jens_hoppe wrote:

However, I think it is worth keeping in mind that you have played the damn thing TWO HUNDRED TIMES before getting to the point where you are now! Almost no eurogame holds up to that amount of replay without becoming stale. Seen in that light, I think Dominion is a hit, even if you're beginning to tire of it by now. :)



You don't necessarily need to hit 200 for it to get stale. It reached that point for me at about 55. When you compare that to the total amount of time it takes to get stale for other, longer games, it does end up being stale somewhat quickly. Not exceptionally so, but quicker than I would have liked.


Have you actually played any other game 145 times although you already found it became stale?
That has to say something about the appeal of the game.
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Jamie Pollock
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200 plays. Wow! No wonder you're beginning to find it stale. I'd be surprised if any game could last 200 plays and still offer what you've found with Dominion. Based on that alone, I'd say that's actually a pro rather than a con!



Still, I enjoyed the review.
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Michael Longdin
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out4blood wrote:
II. Cons
- Can play out on auto-pilot.

I think I have probably only played two games more than 200 times - San Juan and St. Petersburg - and both of them I can pretty much play on auto-pilot. I suspect most card games, fall into this category. Certainly I found that with traditional card games when I used to play the likes of Bridge / Hearts (which if I counted when I was young are probably closer to the thousand mark)

out4blood wrote:
II. Cons
- Is eventually impaired by luck. The most depressing thing I have discovered is that amongst players of relatively equal skill, the game is most often decided by the luck of the draws.


So in a game that isn't "impaired by luck". What factor defines who wins when players are of equal skill? Unless you allow draws in a game then either the better player wins or some random factor occurred that decided the outcome.

Well written review. Thanks.
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Jeff Kunkel
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100%Blade wrote:
out4blood wrote:
II. Cons
- Is eventually impaired by luck. The most depressing thing I have discovered is that amongst players of relatively equal skill, the game is most often decided by the luck of the draws.


So in a game that isn't "impaired by luck". What factor defines who wins when players are of equal skill? Unless you allow draws in a game then either the better player wins or some random factor occurred that decided the outcome.


I think his point is that when luck determines the winner it happens fairly early in the game and is easily spotted by the players. I'm not sure how often the "lucky" early gold buy happens, but it's certainly possible. Say you buy a silver in your 1st or 2nd turn, there's a chance that on your 3rd of 4th turn of drawing that silver + 4 coppers, which nets you a gold. Getting a gold that early, with such a small deck, can be a pretty big advantage. I can see how that would be frustrating for some.

For me, I haven't seen it happen too often and the game plays quickly enough that it doesn't bother me much when it does. It doesn't seem to bother the OP too much either. 9 's out of 10 isn't exactly a slam of the game.
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clemens kremer
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i am playing this game on autopilot at the moment.
1) run through the actions in my hand (the right order is pretty obvious)
2) check gold available
3) buy apropriately (6-7 -> gold ; 8 or more -> VP otherwise just stick to whatever strategy you chose)

it is still fun but rftg has not gotten stale (even after twice as many plays). i am going to make a 'wood token' version to easy the shuffel pain somewhat.
i see this game as a filler while rftg is a meatier game with more 'staying power'.
good review in any case!
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Michael Longdin
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jeffk wrote:
100%Blade wrote:
out4blood wrote:
II. Cons
- Is eventually impaired by luck. The most depressing thing I have discovered is that amongst players of relatively equal skill, the game is most often decided by the luck of the draws.


So in a game that isn't "impaired by luck". What factor defines who wins when players are of equal skill? Unless you allow draws in a game then either the better player wins or some random factor occurred that decided the outcome.


I think his point is that when luck determines the winner it happens fairly early in the game and is easily spotted by the players. I'm not sure how often the "lucky" early gold buy happens, but it's certainly possible. Say you buy a silver in your 1st or 2nd turn, there's a chance that on your 3rd of 4th turn of drawing that silver + 4 coppers, which nets you a gold. Getting a gold that early, with such a small deck, can be a pretty big advantage. I can see how that would be frustrating for some.

For me, I haven't seen it happen too often and the game plays quickly enough that it doesn't bother me much when it does. It doesn't seem to bother the OP too much either. 9 's out of 10 isn't exactly a slam of the game.


A bit like the first turn Mistress of Cermenonies in St. Pete then? If I'm playing against someone who gets this, it's usually my cue to come off auto-pilot and try harder to win
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Having also crossed the 200 plays mark, I generally agree with your review.

I do think your portrayal of the "whoever gets to Gold first" problem is a bit exaggerated- Gold, while more important than beginners realize, is nonetheless not the end-all-be-all of success at Dominion. Don't get me wrong the luck element is present, but I don't think it's so influential as to render the contest moot among players of equal skill.
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Jesse Dean
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ashman wrote:

Have you actually played any other game 145 times although you already found it became stale?
That has to say something about the appeal of the game.


I have played Dominion 64 times. I expect to play it more because I don't actively dislike it, instead merely considering it to be "okay" to "decent."
 
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Froggy McFrogface
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Any game that can be played 200 times and still receive a largely favorable review is a good game in my book. I'm convinced.
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Mark Crane
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A good review, but one that could only be made possible with BSW. It will take me about two years or more to get in 200 plays, at which point the game will have payed for itself or there will be expansions that speak to some of these problems. Other than chess and Go, what other games have 200 plays in them? Magic the Gathering?
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Great review and not only because it is exactly what I was thinking after three plays!

If early treasure buys are making the game too predictable, you could think about instigating a house rule that said no buying silver in your first two turns and/or no buying gold in your first X turns.
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Allen Doum
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craniac wrote:
A good review, but one that could only be made possible with BSW. It will take me about two years or more to get in 200 plays, at which point the game will have payed for itself or there will be expansions that speak to some of these problems. Other than chess and Go, what other games have 200 plays in them? Magic the Gathering?

I agree.

And while the BSW player goes on auto-pilot, he will be having less fun playing those across the table, who haven't mastered it yet.

This is not the first game that has had this reaction to BSW play.

Play on BSW if you must, but tell the "noobs" that you already know the game to the point that you are becoming disenchanted.
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Nice review; thanks for posting it. But this:

out4blood wrote:
Deck building is something you do to prepare to play another game, not unlike painting miniatures... If you want to consider how unique this game concept really is, just imagine next year’s game based on painting Warhammer figures.


strikes me as a very strange analogy. Deck building is directly comparable to army building in a miniatures game like Warhammer, but I see almost literally no point of comparison between deck building and painting the miniatures.
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