NOTE: My full review of Dominion will be published shortly. What follows is an abbreviated version.
Dominion by first-time designer Donald Vaccarino has been the most talked-about and anticipated game released in, well, perhaps ever. That is due in large part due to the very public presence of the game’s two main developers, Valerie Putman and Dale Yu. Both these fine folks publish a weekly column on the Boardgame News website, and attend just about as many game conventions each year as the American car companies total in vehicle sales. The big question was, of course, was the game worth the wait and anticipation?
Having played numerous times both before and after its official release, I can reply with an emphatic "Yes!" Is it the best game ever? Probably not, but that’s not to take anything away from it, as it is quite good and original.
First, Dominion is a card game. That fact along may cause many to ignore it, but they do so at their own detriment. The game consists of cards and cards alone. No board, no player aids, no mountain of cardboard chits. Just cards. There are over 32 varieties of cards, all lavishly illustrated on sturdy card stock. A BIG plus is the insert, which has space to keep each type separated and in place. The only things missing are room for the expansions, which will undoubtedly be forthcoming, and a sheet identifying the cards in each slot. Fortunately, a generous gamer has already designed this insert, which can be downloaded from the Boardgame Geek website.
The theme of Dominion is nothing new: monarchs are trying to expand their kingdom, but come into competition with neighboring kingdoms that are attempting to do the same. Victory goes to the player who is the most successful at expanding his kingdom. How this is accomplished during the game, however, is significantly different than any other game I’ve ever played.
Each game has an assortment of money (copper, silver and gold), territory (estate, duchy and province) and curse cards available. Curse cards only come into play if the "Witch" is in play. In addition, ten types of buildings are also available. These can be selected randomly, but the game does provide some recommended combinations. Only the territory cards earn victory points, so the ultimate goal is to collect the greatest value of these cards. To accomplish this, players will acquire more currency, and use that currency to purchase buildings, which will give them greater flexibility in their actions. Deciding when to begin land acquisitions is key, as otherwise these cards will clutter a player’s hands and often reduce his future options.
Players begin with seven copper coins -- worth 1 point apiece -- and three estate cards, which are worth one victory point each. Each player shuffles his deck and draws five cards into his hand. The game begins.
The rules and sequence of play is actually astonishingly simple. Generally, a player only has the five cards in his hand at his disposal, but cards acquired during the game will usually give the player greater flexibility. A player’s turn has three phases, conveniently labeled "A" for action, "B" for buy, and "C" for clean-up.
Action Phase. The player may play ONE action card. Action cards are building cards, and once purchased, these actions vary wildly based on the building being used. The powers granted by the building can allow a player to draw more cards into his hand, play multiple action cards, make multiple purchases, give a player more money to spend, discard and replace cards, etc. All but a few of the buildings in the set solely affect the active player, which have led some to complain that the game is low on player interaction. That is a valid observation, but for me, it does not detract from the game’s appeal or fun derived.
It is the action phase that gives the game its flair and flexibility. A player can survey the buildings available, and tailor his strategy accordingly. The vast array of possible building combinations will give each game a different feel, while not adding to the complexity.
Buy Phase. Generally, a player can make one purchase during his turn, using the money cards he has in his hand, along with any bonus money granted by the action card(s) he has played. Some action cards allow the player to make multiple purchases. Early in the game, players will try to increase their wealth by purchasing more valuable silver and gold coins, as this will increase the likelihood of having more funds available on a turn. Purchased cards go to the top of a player’s discard pile.
Clean-Up. A player discards all of the cards he played this round, along with any cards remaining in his hand. He then draws five new cards into his hand. The discard pile is shuffled only when a player’s draw pile is depleted and he needs to draw a new card. Thus, cards in a players deck will eventually recycle, but the more cards a player acquires, the less frequently this will occur.
Acquiring territory cards is the only way to earn victory points, but they have no other function during the game. Thus, these cards are unplayable during a player’s turn, so acquiring too many of them early will clog a player’s hand and reduce his options.
That’s the game. Each player goes round-and-round taking these three steps. A player’s turn is usually completed in just a few seconds, but sometimes it can take longer if a player is able to play multiple actions and make multiple purchases. The game ends when all of the province cards are purchased (there are 12 in the deck) or any three of the stacks are depleted. A full game takes about 30 minutes or so to play to completion -- sometimes less.
What is so appealing about Dominion? The flexibility in choosing one’s strategy based on the buildings available in a particular game is a great attraction. I have never played Magic: the Gathering or other Collectible Card Games that are heavily dependent upon deck-building, so this concept is fairly new to me. Folks who are CCG veterans will readily appreciate this mechanism and flexibility. The game’s quick play time will also be appealing, as is the ease of learning the rules and game play. This will make the game attractive to family and folks who are just casual gamers. Further, the game will have appeal to those who enjoy formulating a plan and then working that plan to its conclusion without being hindered by outside events or interference from their opponents. While a few buildings do allow players to target their opponents, for the most part, the game is relatively free of such occurrences. Further, the game is quite original, and radically different from most games outside the CCG arena. Originality and novelty will be a big draw.
Dominion is the type of game that could be big -- VERY big. It casts a wide net in terms of audience appeal. Its simplicity and lack of player interaction may be a deterrent for a few folks, but the vast majority of folks will find much here to thoroughly enjoy.
The building mix we selected was as follows: Cellar, Woodcutter, Village, Throne Room, Bureaucrat, Remodel, Smithy, Festival, Library and Market.
Rhonda spanked us -- plain and simple. She was the first to begin the purchase of land, and never looked back. Ryan and I tried, but we could never match her monetary flexibility and keep pace.
Finals: Rhonda 50, Greg 33, Ryan 18
Ratings: Ryan 8, Rhonda 8, Greg 8