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Jonathan Degann
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DOMINION
by Donald X. Vaccarino

The following review appears in the Journal of Boardgame Design

If some games resemble a blend of old wines in a new bottle, Dominion is a tasty young wine which seems unlikely to mature greatly.

Dominion has become an overnight hit, and so many readers have already played it to death since its recent release. I've played it only once, but what stands out about it is its originality despite its simplicity.

The goal is to collect the most and best victory point cards into your deck. Each player has his own deck of ten cards - seven with (1) money ("treasure") and three with (1) VP. He draws five cards from his deck and can use the treasure cards to buy either more treasure, more VP's or any one of ten special power cards ("kingdom cards") which are arranged in a display. Cards so purchased are placed into his deck for future draws. After the player has used a power from one of his special cards and purchased a card using his treasure, then both used and unused cards from his hand are placed in his discard pile - to be recycled when his draw deck has been used up. In this way, players are consistently drawing five cards, taking actions, buying new cards, and then drawing more. Cards used - or not - are continually being recycled, but at a slower pace as his deck grows in size. When sufficient cards have been purchased, the game ends and the player with the most points in VP cards wins.

This feature of continually drawing and renewing one's own deck, and building that deck on the fly is very original and the game plays like no other Eurogame. Because a player must, as a default, draw exactly five cards a turn and work with only those cards at any given time, the game requires a player not to maximize his assets with the most extensive display of powers possible. Instead, the game is about concentration. How can a player build a deck such that a random assortment of any five cards at a time be most powerful most consistently? What we see is that the cost of adding treasure cards to his hand is disproportionately high with higher values of treasure. Treasure cards valued at (1) have no cost; those valued at (2) cost three, and those valued at (3) cost six. This seems counterintuitive until you realize that normally a deck consisting of all (1) value treasure cards could never buy anything costing more than five (and then only rarely), while a deck of (3) value treasure cards can much more easily accumulate brawny values used to purchase big VP cards or strong powers.

In any given game, there are ten different kingdom cards to choose from, but the game comes with 25 unique decks, so that the smorgasboard of choices may be different with each game. Examples of powers in the set I used were ones that gave players extra actions and/or extra opportunities to buy cards. There were powers which allowed a player to add three cards into his hand (remember, they all recycle, so this is an alternative way of concentrating your hand), and ones which permitted treasure cards to be upgraded to the next higher level.

Player interaction is very limited and from what I saw came in two forms. One is that there are a few cards which enable a player to "attack" others, for example by forcing them to discard down to three cards, and other cards which enabled players to defend against such attacks. In my game, these were used sparingly because they don't really help you advance your agenda, and even a defensive card needs to "just happen to be" in your hand at the time of an attack for it to do any good. The other form of player interaction concerns the pace of the game. A strategy which relies on gradually building up a killer hand and then collecting VP's can be counteracted by a strategy which attempts to buy lots of cheap cards and end the game quickly. In practice, I don't believe that players gain from building up large decks because their powers are not cumulative. You're still drawing only five cards at a time. The value of a large powerful deck is that it is less diluted by VP cards. But an opponent cannot surprise you by ending the game. If other players switch into "collecting VP cards" mode, you can shift gears quickly.

Certainly, the dynamic deck building of Dominion is original. Adding to the freshness of the game is the way that 25 distinct decks of kingdom cards can be mixed and matched to create unique situations for the players. However, many players have compared this game with Tom Lehmann's "Race for the Galaxy"- with many fans stating their preference for the latter. If Dominion is unique - is the comparison reasonable? Looking at the ways that each game works sheds some light on what makes each game special - and also how very different mechanisms can be brothers under the skin.

Like "Race for the Galaxy" and its predecessor "San Juan" by Andreas Seyfarth, Dominion is an economic game based entirely in cards. Each player collects cards which enable him to buy yet other cards, which add to a player's collection, giving him new powers and more victory points. One glaring difference which drives different approaches in each game is that in Race for the Galaxy, players are purchasing cards for a permanent display in front of them, while in Dominion, purchased cards simply enter a player's deck. The Race for the Galaxy player has assets which are continually growing, as each purchased card accumulates powers on top of those already present. Every new asset is a good thing. In Dominion, only a few cards are operating at any one time, and then they are quickly recycled and the player moves on to another set. It's good to have lots of kingdom cards because a hand dominated by VP's can't purchase anything new. It is also possible to select a variety of cards which are likely to interact in productive ways when they show up together. But the effectiveness of any deck is going to max out quickly as the best you can do is to get a handful of productive interactions and then move on to the next draw. Dominino requires a new kind of thinking - one in which more isn't always better.

In Dominion, players begin the game by selecting ten different decks of power cards and those become the fixed choices throughout the game. In Race for the Galaxy, there is a single deck used in all games, but players must make choices from the cards they randomly draw throughout the game. The argument for replayability in Dominion is that with ten out of twenty five possible cards being used in a game, there are 3.3 million different possible combination. In Race for the Galaxy, there's only one. Yet Dominion has a hidden weakness. It lacks sufficient ability to surprise the players and force them to react to unanticipated challenges and opportunities. When a game forces a player to keep on his toes and potentially change his strategy substantially, I call it a Nervous System. In Dominion, the experienced player can survey the available cards, map out his strategy, and execute it. The degree to which cards interact in his hand will force tactical decisions, but not generally a rethinking of the plan. In comparison, Race for the Galaxy has only about 100 cards, but they are all (or nearly all) different, and their appearance at any time is entirely unpredictable. A player can set off down a particular path... and discover opportunities in his cards which tickle him into straying down a new path. Furthermore, because the player's actions depend both on his own choices and those of his opponents, he may find himself with unexpected opportunities to exploit.

Dominion is a sufficiently short game that it isn't crippled by the lack of surprise. You can lay out a set of ten cards to start with - and for the next thirty minutes, maybe that's all the surprise you need. But it is a limitation that's in the game's structure. Like a mechanical dog which has dozens of interchangable parts, there is lots of potential variety, but after a while I suspect that players may find that underneath it all, it still always barks to the same cues. Time will tell.
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Matthew Chua
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Re: Dominion - An analytical review
Ditto.

Exactly what I felt about the game except much more eloquent.

As such, Dominion is a game I will continue to play on BSW but doubt will feel the need to own.
 
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Jeff Wolfe
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Re: Dominion - An analytical review
You say "gold" when you mean "Treasure". There are three types of Treasure cards: Copper (costing 0 and worth 1), Silver (costing 3 and worth 2), and Gold (costing 6 and worth 3). Since "Gold" has a specific meaning in Dominion (i.e. the most expensive Treasure card), you can't use it as a synonym for Treasure.
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Surya Van Lierde is pure Eurosnoot and proud of it!
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Re: Dominion - An analytical review
While each time I play I feel there's not much more to get out of the game, I keep on enjoying playing Dominion. It's not very deep or extremely strategic, nor varied from game to game, but it's just plain fun.

I do enjoy Race for the Galaxy a whole lot more though!
 
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Brad
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Re: Dominion - An analytical review
Pretty good review, but I found the following to be a bit misguided:

Jonathan Degann wrote:
I've played it only once...

followed by
Jonathan Degann wrote:
Player interaction is very limited and from what I saw came in two forms. One is that there are a few cards which enable a player to "attack" others, for example by forcing them to discard down to three cards, and other cards which enabled players to defend against such attacks. In my game, these were used sparingly because they don't really help you advance your agenda, and even a defensive card needs to "just happen to be" in your hand at the time of an attack for it to do any good.


Italics are mine to note that the attack card was the Militia from the basic setup.

There are plenty of attack cards which help advance one's agenda. For example, the Bureaucrat adds a silver to the top of your deck while doing its thing, and the Thief steals treasure directly from the other person's deck and puts in your own. Sure, moats have to "happen" to be in your hand to defend against an attack, but wouldn't that happen more often if you bought more moats? Dominion ain't multiplayer solitaire--there's quite a bit of interaction once you have enough experience to tune your deck in response to your opponent's buys.
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Re: Dominion - An analytical review
My gaming group consists simply of family and a few friends. These people do not logon to BGG, and are unaware of ratings and top-ten lists. Of all the games I have in my collection - this game is the one that keeps getting requested. No deep or hard thinking is required. Rules are simple. Fast flowing. Fairly easy to setup. Gameplay is reasonably variable. Etc.
The topic of expansions has come up already ... the group can't wait to add more cards.

I do enjoy playing it, and can understand why it gets requested so often ... the problem is I can't get RftG to the table anymore.
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Klaus Knechtskern
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Re: Dominion - An analytical review
ideogram wrote:
There is the Dominion system with the card buying mechanic, and the cards in the base set.

A lot of people fail to make this distinction and criticize the Dominion game based on the cards they see in the base set. There is no limit to the complexity and surprise that can be added to the play by adding new cards. For instance, you could have a card that said "trash this card to swap an action card pile in play with an action card pile from the base set" (although I suppose that would be difficult to play-balance).

As I've said elsewhere, you really need to be familiar with the history of Magic expansions to see the possibilities.


I can totally agree here.


Furthermore I might comment that despite 200+ games I think I only scratched the possibilities and still can not evaluate the relative value of a card in relation to the 10 kingdom cards on display.

 
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Jamie Pollock
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Re: Dominion - An analytical review
I like Dominion for all the reasons posted above. It's simple to learn, fun to play and has great replayability, so is it really surprising that Dominion has become a favourite to bring the table?

The strategy is all about deciding when to stop building your deck up with treasures and kingdom cards, and start racing for VPs. Yes, in that sense, it is fairly one-dimensional, and it's certainly not in the same echelons of strategy and brain power as an Agricola or a Puerto Rico. But... it doesn't have to be to be good.

I must admit, I am suspicious of reviews by people who've only played a game once. How much do you really know about a game after one play? One of Dominion's qualities is in the variety of the Kingdom cards that can be in play. The possible combinations are numerous and some setups in particular can lead to very different games. Try a low +action set, or a heavy attack-action set for example.
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Gary Bradley
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Re: Dominion - An analytical review
Quote:
Certainly, the dynamic deck building of Dominion is original.


Magic the Gathering and its many deck-building-on-the-fly variants totally passed you by then? Much as I like the game, the last word I'd use to describe Dominion is "original".
 
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Gary Bradley
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Re: Dominion - An analytical review
Surya wrote:
While each time I play I feel there's not much more to get out of the game, I keep on enjoying playing Dominion. It's not very deep or extremely strategic, nor varied from game to game, but it's just plain fun.


Most people would say the same of chess. Only a select few have the ability to see further. I'm not saying I am one, by any means, but I think the strats in this game will run deeper than most people will ever see or understand. Even if it's just increasing your chance of buying a "whatever" on the next draw by 0.7612%, some people will achieve that kind of level at this game, I suspect.

Put it this way, if you play a random game, and I shout "pause" about 10 minutes in. Would you, without looking, be able to tell me:

a) The total number of cards in your deck and what they were
b) The significant cards remaining in your current draw pile
c) Same (a) and (b) as the above for the opponent's cards

Unless you could answer all the above off the top of your head, I'd say you are nowhere near mastering this game.
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Re: Dominion - An analytical review
This mechanical dog may well seem to bark the same one day, but by that point I will have already enjoyed the game immensely and easily been rewarded for the money I spent on it.
 
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Re: Dominion - An analytical review
GaryB wrote:
Quote:
Certainly, the dynamic deck building of Dominion is original.


Magic the Gathering and its many deck-building-on-the-fly variants totally passed you by then? Much as I like the game, the last word I'd use to describe Dominion is "original".


Originality is relative. Dominion is blatantly original when contrasted with the countless CCG clones and variants that have come and go over the years. Nobody thought to have us build the deck during the game before now.
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Re: Dominion - An analytical review
GaryB wrote:
Quote:
Certainly, the dynamic deck building of Dominion is original.


Magic the Gathering and its many deck-building-on-the-fly variants totally passed you by then? Much as I like the game, the last word I'd use to describe Dominion is "original".


Speaking as someone who's played Magic for over a decade ('96), yes, all those deck-building-on-the-fly variants totally passed me by.

What's common in your circles is not necessarily common everywhere.

And yes, I'd call Dominion quite original.
 
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Re: Dominion - An analytical review
Asmor wrote:
GaryB wrote:
Quote:
Certainly, the dynamic deck building of Dominion is original.


Magic the Gathering and its many deck-building-on-the-fly variants totally passed you by then? Much as I like the game, the last word I'd use to describe Dominion is "original".


Speaking as someone who's played Magic for over a decade ('96), yes, all those deck-building-on-the-fly variants totally passed me by.

What's common in your circles is not necessarily common everywhere.

And yes, I'd call Dominion quite original.
 
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Dominion - An analytical review
Quote:
I must admit, I am suspicious of reviews by people who've only played a game once. How much do you really know about a game after one play?


Admittedly, a limited amount. The goal of my review is to discuss the game's mechanisms for what they are, hopefully to reveal something about the game and the way game mechanisms work. It is not really meant to be an evaluative buying guide.

Hopefully, irrespective of my limited experience with the game, my observations hold up. If the game is fantastic, I'd like to hear what makes it so in spite of what I observe, or else why my observations don't hold.
 
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Re: Dominion - An analytical review
GaryB wrote:
Surya wrote:
While each time I play I feel there's not much more to get out of the game, I keep on enjoying playing Dominion. It's not very deep or extremely strategic, nor varied from game to game, but it's just plain fun.


Most people would say the same of chess. Only a select few have the ability to see further. I'm not saying I am one, by any means, but I think the strats in this game will run deeper than most people will ever see or understand. Even if it's just increasing your chance of buying a "whatever" on the next draw by 0.7612%, some people will achieve that kind of level at this game, I suspect.

Put it this way, if you play a random game, and I shout "pause" about 10 minutes in. Would you, without looking, be able to tell me:

a) The total number of cards in your deck and what they were
b) The significant cards remaining in your current draw pile
c) Same (a) and (b) as the above for the opponent's cards

Unless you could answer all the above off the top of your head, I'd say you are nowhere near mastering this game.


I could probably tell you a) and b) (on BSW I could definitely tell you a)), not a chance on c) at this point. I'm a fan of the chancellor when its in play, and that's gotten me in the habit of doing b), so I know whether I think its a good time to use the chancellor's ability.
 
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Re: Dominion - An analytical review
Quote:
You say "gold" when you mean "Treasure".


Noted. I changed this in the review on the Geek, and I'll change it on the Journal tonight.
 
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Re: Dominion - An analytical review
I have only played RftG once but here is my analytical review.

Boy it's just not very interesting after playing San Juan. Let's compare it to a different game. Lots of people like this other game more. In that other game you have more control and it's more accessible. Therefore I conclude that RftG fails for not having enough control and not being accessible enough. I am able to conclude all this after one play of RftG. The fact that many people actually like RftG more than the other game and rate it highly has no bearing.

In conclusion, RftG is exactly like a Texas longhorn steer. A point here, a point there, a lot of bull in between. Furthermore, the bull is dressed as spiderman playing bingo while pleasuring itself and humming a little tune. The tune, I expect, will not be music to most gamers' ears.
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Re: Dominion - An analytical review
GaryB wrote:
Quote:
Certainly, the dynamic deck building of Dominion is original.


Magic the Gathering and its many deck-building-on-the-fly variants totally passed you by then? Much as I like the game, the last word I'd use to describe Dominion is "original".


Is there another game out there where building the deck is the mechanic of the game?
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Re: Dominion - An analytical review
Jonathan Degann wrote:
Hopefully, irrespective of my limited experience with the game, my observations hold up. If the game is fantastic, I'd like to hear what makes it so in spite of what I observe, or else why my observations don't hold.


Clearly the BGG consensus is that the game is fantastic - it is ranked #8. Thus the burden of proof rests with those of you who feel that it is not fantastic. Quite possibly you will conclude that for you it is not fantastic. At that point you will have to convince thousands of us that we are wrong in how we feel about the game, or simply accept that yours is a minority viewpoint.
 
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Re: Dominion - An analytical review
Well, one play of a game which takes only around 20 minutes is ... a little bit cheap.

Once more (this was already answered on another review where the reviewer played two games of Dominion):
You'll have to adapt your strategy while the game is ongoing, otherwise you'll loose (at least against players which played it more than one time).

And there is also more player interaction than simply those 'Attack' cards. Look what other players are doing - build your deck accordingly and adjust your pace. In MtG this was called the 'Metagame' - here, the Metagame evolves during the playing time.
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Re: Dominion - An analytical review
Jonathan Degann wrote:
Yet Dominion has a hidden weakness. It lacks sufficient ability to surprise the players and force them to react to unanticipated challenges and opportunities. When a game forces a player to keep on his toes and potentially change his strategy substantially, I call it a Nervous System. In Dominion, the experienced player can survey the available cards, map out his strategy, and execute it.

Wow, really? You can make this conclusion after one play with a preset deck? You can also conclude that the game isn't very interactive when you've not experience all the game has to offer? And what's with all the comparison to Race for the Galaxy when they are completely different games?

Jonathan Degann wrote:
Quote:
I must admit, I am suspicious of reviews by people who've only played a game once. How much do you really know about a game after one play?

Hopefully, irrespective of my limited experience with the game, my observations hold up. If the game is fantastic, I'd like to hear what makes it so in spite of what I observe, or else why my observations don't hold.


I must say I share the concern included in the quote you cited, and I would have the same concern if your review was more positive. I played Race once and didn't enjoy it at all, I even traded away my copy. I would never have had the nerve to submit a review of the game, especially one under the pretention of being an "analytical review." There was no way, after that first game, that I really understood Race and all it had to offer. Thus, I was not prepared to review it effectively.

I do enjoy Dominion and I enjoy it for all of what you did not have a chance to experience in only one play. For the variety of the game's set-up, for how I have to adjust to what the other players are doing, for games where my approach and adjustments work perfectly, and for games where my strategies and reponses fail, causing me to learn how to better play. Most of all, as others have suggested, Dominion is fun to play. There is a difference in sitting down to play a game with friends to see if you like it and sitting down to play a game with the goal of reviewing it - I expect the latter is less likely to be fun.

It sounds to me like you haven't experienced Dominion - you've played a single game of the hottest new game so you could put a review up on your blog. I know the game isn't for everyone and I wouldn't suggest it is. Your review isn't overly negative at all, nor do I have any problem with negative reviews on BGG - I think they are needed. But I personally just don't feel that this review has presented an effective or complete view of Dominion.
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Re: Dominion - An analytical review
beezle wrote:
Well, one play of a game which takes only around 20 minutes is ... a little bit cheap.



I had one round take 3:23 last night on BSW.
 
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Re: Dominion - An analytical review
What makes it great is playing a series with an evolving random set. A single play isn't much different from not playing it at all.
 
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Re: Dominion - An analytical review
One of the reasons I enjoy Dominion so much is that my wife and 9 year old daughter love to play it too.

Last four games:
wife : 3 wins
daughter : 1 win
me : 0 wins

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