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Subject: Dominion after 30 Games rss

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Tom Lehmann
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Dominion (lead publisher: Rio Grande Games); Designer: Donald X. Vaccarino; Developers: Valerie Putnam and Dale Yu.

Here are my tentative thoughts on the deck-building game Dominion after about 30 games, all face-to-face, 2-4 players, and, due to the holidays, mostly against experienced players from various parts of the US. As a result, I've been exposed to different play styles and a bit less group-think, I believe, than if I'd learned the game with just a local group.

So far, I'm enjoying Dominion quite a bit. It feels innovative, though it reminds me of tuning dynasty decks for Legends of the Five Rings. In that CCG, players had two different decks, one for actions while the dynasty deck was primarily (ignoring events) all about efficiency and growth; getting the "mostest", the fastest. That's Dominion in a nutshell.

Your deck starts with seven Copper (each worth 1) and three Estates (each 1 victory point). Your goal is to end with the most VPs, typically by buying more of the limited supply of Provinces (6 VPs each) than anyone else. Provinces cost 8 and you draw only five cards each turn (after discarding all unused cards from the previous turn), so one approach is to buy Silver (cost 3, worth 2) and Gold (cost 6, worth 3) cards, so that your draw of five cards will hopefully include eight or more money (since everything you buy, spend, and discard gets reshuffled together whenever you need more cards).

In addition to draw five and buy one card each turn; there's also one action, where you play and resolve a Kingdom card that you previously bought and have now drawn as one of your five cards. Each game has 10 stacks of different Kingdom cards on offer (out of 25 different kinds in the game), in addition to the treasure and victory cards.

Some Kingdom cards, such as Smithy or Moat, let you draw more cards, increasing the odds that you will draw eight or more money in one turn. Buy too many of these cards, instead of silver and gold, and you may just clog up your hand with unusable action cards. More expensive versions of these cards, such as the Laboratory, provide both card draws and another action, allowing you to play several of them as a "chain" of actions to both draw cards and avoid this "clogging" problem.

Other Kingdom cards, such as Chapel or Moneylender, let you "trash" a card, discarding it from the game instead of to your personal discard pile. These cards allow you to prune your deck of your initial coppers and estates, giving you a lean, "dense" deck of just silver, gold, and Provinces that rapidly recycles, often buying a Province a turn. Cards like Mine, Remodel, or Feast let you upgrade a card you trash, also resulting in dense, though not smaller, decks.

To counter these "draw more" or "slim down/upgrade and draw better" strategies, some Kingdom cards, such as the Witch, Bureaucrat, or Thief, allow you to clog up your opponent's decks with -1 VP Curse cards, or force opponents to redraw a victory card on their next turn (remember that victory cards are good only at the end of the game; before then, they just clog up decks), or to trash or even steal opponents' treasure cards.

The effects of attack cards on an opponent can be blocked if he or she reveals a Moat card in hand (assuming Moats are in the game, were bought, and drawn) and these cards -- like all Kingdom cards -- have an opportunity cost (you could have bought a treasure card for your deck instead). Thieves can also be partially blocked by buying Kingdom cards, such as the Woodcutter or Market, that provide money when resolved, but which aren't treasure cards that can be lost.

Some cards, such as the Village and Festival, provide two actions, allowing players to play multiple Kingdom cards. With several of these cards chaining off each other, you can potentially build a "Rube Goldberg" machine with lots of actions, card draws, and other effects, sometimes drawing your entire deck (and therefore all your treasure) and getting multiple buys, allowing you to possibly buy several victory cards at once. When this works, you're a genius; but if you draw your randomly shuffled cards in the wrong order, you might be looking at a bunch of mostly unusable cards that don't buy very much... Dominion is all about overall deck efficiency in the face of random shuffling and your opponent's actions.

One criticism I've heard is that too many cards are just variations on each other, at different costs. Of the 25 kinds of Kingdom cards, seven provide card draws in various ways; six either slim or upgrade your deck; five are attacks; three provide improved buying power; three give multiple actions; and one is another victory card.

This oversimplifies matters a bit, as a third of the cards, particularly the attack cards, really do two things. The Witch, in addition to clogging opponents' hands with curses, gives two card draws; the Bureaucrat produces a Silver for your next turn as well as possibly clogging up your opponents' hands; the Festival provides both multiple actions and improved buying power; and so on.

That said, many cards are variations on each other. However, in some cases, a seemingly minor variation can produce an entire strategy, as well as being tactically interesting. Remodel is a good example. Remodel decks use lots of Remodel cards to produce an upgrade progression of Estate->Remodel->Gold->Province, while a single Remodel card can be bought in the early game to upgrade Estates or Copper or in the late game to provide a final Gold->Province upgrade (once your deck gets too diluted by victory cards to reliably buy a Province outright). Unfortunately, only a few Kingdom cards appear to be this versatile (but my relative lack of experience may be showing here).

Another criticism I've read is that Kingdom cards are dominated by treasure cards -- why buy a Kingdom card instead of a Silver? I don't agree with this. Having a high opportunity cost is a feature, not a bug, in my opinion. Therein lies much of the game. True, many Kingdom cards are only somewhat better than buying a Silver -- and often worse depending on circumstances -- but this makes for tough decisions. Decks with a few well-chosen Kingdom cards tend to consistently beat decks with just treasure cards, even though a deck stuffed with Kingdom cards will often die under its own weight.

Some say that after your initial buys, your strategy is mostly set and the game becomes mostly tedious shuffling and obvious, almost automatic decisions. I think there's some, but not a lot, of truth to this. Certainly, there are some "pure" deck types, such as Workshop-Garden, Remodel, or a straight-forward Chapel deck, where I feel my midgame actions are pretty much pre-programmed.

But even in these cases, there are some interesting decisions: How do you react when other players start buying Gardens? What do you buy with your Workshops when all the Gardens are gone? How soon do you start remodeling Remodel cards into Gold? If you keep drawing your Chapel with your good treasures and not your cruft, do you buy a second Chapel? When do you stop buying Gold and start buying Duchies (cost 5, 3 VPs), if you draw six or seven money (not eight for a Province)? As your deck starts getting diluted with more victory cards, should you buy a card drawing power or more treasure cards?

The tough decisions in Dominion are not when your deck is working, they are when your deck isn't quite working: What do you buy with five, not six, money during the early mid-game? What do you buy with seven, not eight, money during the late midgame? What, if anything, do you buy with a terrible draw? How do you respond to your opponents' having good luck? Do you buy an attack card? Which one? When? (An early Thief often helps your opponents by removing Copper from their decks; a late Thief may be too slow to affect them.) How do you respond when an opponent starts buying attack cards? What do you do in the end game when your deck gets diluted with victory cards?

I first played Dominion last year in prototype form at the Gathering of Friends. I played twice, seeing only a sample starting set of cards. With just this limited experience, I wondered if players should be getting some card besides coppers and estates in their opening hands, to speed up the first few turns. Now that I've seen and played the published game, I think the developers did a fine job. What I am most impressed by is how well Dominion plays with 10 randomly dealt (out of 25) stacks of Kingdom cards. It is truly amazing to me and I do hope the expansions are able to retain this property (even as the variance in card setup distributions increases with more Kingdom cards).

My one real criticism of the game as published is with its final turn, where the game ends immediately once the last Province is bought or if three stacks are empty due to buys. I do think the first player does have a real advantage, not only in getting more turns on average, but also in typically getting attacks off earlier (if the first player buys an attack card) and typically being hit by attacks later during the crucial early going. I don't believe that the later players being able to see what the first player chooses to buy compensates for these advantages among reasonably experienced players.

I understand what the designer is trying to do by having the winner go last in the next game and I can see how this scheme can work for a fixed group playing successive games. However, Dominion, in my experience, is often played as one of several games at once, with players rotating in and out of Dominion as other games end and start.

Our house rule is to determine the first player randomly and play, if the game ends on Province cards running out, with equal turns and "ghost" Provinces being available for players' final turns (using the blank cards to mark them); ties being a victory for the last tied player (in turn order). If a player ends the game by exhausting three (non-Province) stacks, then the game ends immediately (as ending the game that way often costs the player ending it victory points), with ties still going to the last tied player. So far, this seems much more satisfactory than the published rules (we're keeping track of how often it makes a difference).

My long-term concern is that Dominion's overall strategy space seems a bit sparse, with draw more, slim down/upgrade and draw better, interfere with opponents, and exploit multiple actions being the four major types of decks, plus a few specialized decks such as Workshop-Garden or Remodel. For now, as of 30 games, I'm still enjoying exploring this strategy space and trying to improve my play. We'll see if this lasts. For me, the big question is whether Dominion's expansions will contain mostly variations on what we've already seen, or completely new features, or more "dual-use" cards, like Remodel, that lead to new deck types while still working with existing decks. Enjoy!
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Gregory Curtis
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Good review.

Ive probably played about 25 or so games of Dominion and still enjoy it quite a bit. Its mainly been me and my son playing so we are not min/maxing to win. We are trying all sorts of combinations etc to HAVE FUN.

Ive seen the people posting (read "THE Post") the articles like the only buy Silver and maybe 1-2 of 1-2 other cards. In all honesty I understand what people are saying but is that really fun? I mean I guess if you were at a shop and wanting to flex your epeen or something ok...or playing in a tournament for money etc.

But if in a casual gaming group I just dont understand how playing that strategy would be fun. Just me I guess.

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Tim Seitz
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Winning is fun! And fun is winning! cool

Really, if you have no intention of making some effort toward winning the game, then why bother playing strategy games in the first place? Play some mindless like LCR or Gnip Gnop. And if it's just a matter of taste, then there's no reason to denigrate people who do enjoy flexing their mental muscles competitively. It's immature and comes off as sour grapes.
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I have a question: Is there any story you can tell about "Dominion"? I am talking about something like: "...and then when his Militia attcked again I had a nasty surprise for them: A town wall!"

For me the "story" (experience of playing) is more important than winning.
out4blood wrote:
Winning is fun! And fun is winning! cool

Really, if you have no intention of making some effort toward winning the game, then why bother playing strategy games in the first place? Play some mindless like LCR or Gnip Gnop. And if it's just a matter of taste, then there's no reason to denigrate people who do enjoy flexing their mental muscles competitively. It's immature and comes off as sour grapes.
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Mark Haberman
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Excellent review, thanks!

Like you, I'm really interested in where the expansions take the game. It seems like there is a lot of room to add new ideas to the game, and completely change the way the games plays.
 
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1603-1714
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Nice review. Very thoughtful. A lot of people seem to mention Dominion in the same breath as Race for the Galaxy, but you don't mention Race. Are you familiar with Race for the Galaxy? If not, you should really give it a try.
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Jesse Dean
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Uh. You do know that Tom Lehmann is the designer of Race For the Galaxy, right?
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Tim Seitz
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doubtofbuddha wrote:
Uh. You do know that Tom Lehmann is the designer of Race For the Galaxy, right?

pwned
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out4blood wrote:
Winning is fun! And fun is winning! cool

Really, if you have no intention of making some effort toward winning the game, then why bother playing strategy games in the first place? Play some mindless like LCR or Gnip Gnop. And if it's just a matter of taste, then there's no reason to denigrate people who do enjoy flexing their mental muscles competitively. It's immature and comes off as sour grapes.


Winning is fun but isn't necessary for many of us. It's just funny sometimes listening to people get all wound up like they were working on a cure for cancer and not getting the most vps....


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Jeff Brown
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out4blood wrote:
doubtofbuddha wrote:
Uh. You do know that Tom Lehmann is the designer of Race For the Galaxy, right?

pwned


I'm pretty sure he's aware of that fact. It's so hard to do sarcasm on the internet, and smileys kill the joke I think.
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Gregory Curtis
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out4blood wrote:
Winning is fun! And fun is winning! cool

Really, if you have no intention of making some effort toward winning the game, then why bother playing strategy games in the first place? Play some mindless like LCR or Gnip Gnop. And if it's just a matter of taste, then there's no reason to denigrate people who do enjoy flexing their mental muscles competitively. It's immature and comes off as sour grapes.


Some others already basically said what I would have said but still....I even acknowledged the strategy and all that. I just made a note to in casual games why some people seem to think there is no other way to play but to min/max on the Silver strategy.

Only point Ill make is I didnt insult anyone calling them derogatory names or anything like that. I only said I didnt understand how in a casual setting that would be fun. You were quick to "denigrate" me calling me immature and not able to think and play competitively.

Read my post again...I said nothing to directly insult anyone or thier playstyle....only that people who say the game is basically broke because you can use the Silver strategy and win 98% of your games against people....I guess if that is fun so be it.

Regardless...I understand your point of view.

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Jesse Dean
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Yeah, I consider the possibility, but decided I just had to comment...
 
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Tekkor wrote:
Ive seen the people posting (read "THE Post") the articles like the only buy Silver and maybe 1-2 of 1-2 other cards. In all honesty I understand what people are saying but is that really fun?


Is chess fun, if you play openings that you've studied in a book? It seems to be, to chessplayers.
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DaviddesJ wrote:
Tekkor wrote:
Ive seen the people posting (read "THE Post") the articles like the only buy Silver and maybe 1-2 of 1-2 other cards. In all honesty I understand what people are saying but is that really fun?


Is chess fun, if you play openings that you've studied in a book? It seems to be, to chessplayers.


Hehe, I would think winning chess strategies would be a bit more complex then the Silver strategy in Dominion...but point taken. Again..I was not in any way insulting anyone...just saying I didnt understand it in regards to other posts where people almost brag about it hehe.

But again...point taken.
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Quote:
Our house rule is to determine the first player randomly and play, if the game ends on Province cards running out, with equal turns and "ghost" Provinces being available for players' final turns (using the blank cards to mark them); ties being a victory for the last tied player (in turn order). If a player ends the game by exhausting three (non-Province) stacks, then the game ends immediately (as ending the game that way often costs the player ending it victory points), with ties still going to the last tied player. So far, this seems much more satisfactory than the published rules (we're keeping track of how often it makes a difference).


+1 thumbsup

Thanks for your insights on this great game. I'll expect Donald's review of RftG tomorrow.
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eisenphx wrote:
I have a question: Is there any story you can tell about "Dominion"? I am talking about something like: "...and then when his Militia attcked again I had a nasty surprise for them: A town wall!"

For me the "story" (experience of playing) is more important than winning.

Not really in that sense of a supposed theme. You can remember and talk about specific events in the game, as game events: People tell stories about clever plays or lucky card draws. E.g. my regular partner and I talked with interest about the events in the first game where we tried the radical Chapel strategy of destroying most of your starting hand - "Wow, you destroyed 4 of your cards on your 3rd turn!") ... But I've never heard anyone take such stories seriously as somehow simulating real medieval city construction or warfare or whatever is supposedly happening in this game according to the theme. The thin theme is simply convenient art and flavor text.
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Great review Tom. Thanks!

It really makes me wonder where expansions will take this game. As you point out, a lot of the existing cards are a bit "samey," and while there is enough distiction at this point, it's hard to imagine adding 10-15 more variations of +buy/+action/+.

There are a whole bunch of interesting ways that expansions *could* go, with more interactivity being the most obvious. Some way of reacting to other people's plays during their turn could be interesting. Right now there is only the moat and it is purely preventative.

No real point, just thinking out loud. That is what the Internet is for, right?
 
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cferejohn wrote:
Great review Tom. Thanks!

It really makes me wonder where expansions will take this game. As you point out, a lot of the existing cards are a bit "samey," and while there is enough distiction at this point, it's hard to imagine adding 10-15 more variations of +buy/+action/+.

There are a whole bunch of interesting ways that expansions *could* go, with more interactivity being the most obvious. Some way of reacting to other people's plays during their turn could be interesting. Right now there is only the moat and it is purely preventative.

No real point, just thinking out loud. That is what the Internet is for, right?


Oh, a little birdie that's played this 250+ times tells me there is a WEALTH of good things coming.

I do have to say though, 30 plays isn't a lot for this game. I hear the word "samey" and think that many people feel that way; and most of those will have to dig deeper to see the true differences.

I think the "samey" is also intentional. It creates a base for everything to come, and introduces us thoroughly to the base concepts of the system. That's something that base sets of CCG's try to do, and I do not feel they accomplish it very well.
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David Brain
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My reaction to Dominion after the initial learning games was almost the same as with Race - "where's the other half of the game that is obviously missing?" (I even sat down after my first evening playing Race and wrote my list of what I thought was missing, and was gratified to find a fair bit of it in Storm...)

I rate this much higher than Race in accessibility terms - there's much less risk of inadvertent misplays and almost all the concepts can be explained in moments. But I rate it much lower in longevity terms - the limitations of the structure mean that those combos that exist aren't particularly sophisticated or subtle. (As opposed to, say, Agricola, where the design means that there are many times more different cards and so it takes much longer to see how they fit together.)

But it's a lovely piece of design and will make a perfect gateway game to tempt people into Magic etc (Heck I shall use it to get people to play Blue Moon...) I look forward to seeing the next iteration on this particular road.
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tim
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Tekkor wrote:

Ive seen the people posting (read "THE Post") the articles like the only buy Silver and maybe 1-2 of 1-2 other cards. In all honesty I understand what people are saying but is that really fun? I mean I guess if you were at a shop and wanting to flex your epeen or something ok...or playing in a tournament for money etc.

That strategy alone will not beat an experienced player. Knowing about it is like knowing the opening move combinations for chess as someone mentioned in another post. Someone knowing an opening chess strategy will probably beat noobs, someone knowing the "silver test" in dominion will probably beat noobs. Experienced players will crush the "silver test" strategy. I've played 18 times FTF, and 42 on BSW.
 
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My Wife and I have played Dominion about 30 times now, sometimes with another couple sometimes not. I have yet to see a flawless strategy and the Sameness of the game is still not there for me. With the number of different card sets you can play it has alot of possibilities. I learned this from playing "random "games on BSW. Witch cards and no chapel or remodel is a nightmare.

Overall I think the quickness of play and the laughter I get from the game make this one of my all time favorite card games.Race for the galaxy I am still trying to decide on.
 
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Tom, you're a class act.

You've made me want to try Dominion some more. After 10 or so games, I haven't really been impressed. I see there's a decent game there, but I just don't think it's the game I've heard so much about here on BGG.

Making a comment about Race is, of course, unnecessary, so I'll just say that it is fantastic and leave it at that.
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Tom,

Great review. Having witnessed your concerns after the prototype play ,and sharing some of them, I need to also concur with the developers' success after a similar number of games. I see the game in two very positive ways.

First, there is a clear and consistent foundation which will allow for more variance in future card selections (as cards like the witch and garden hint at in my mind). I agree with you that it will be interesting to see how this variance is managed as the set expands.

Second, it is such an elegant distillation of an idea that I am certain we will see aspects of this start to creep into other games as a part of the overall game structure. You indicate that Lot5R, which I have never played, has this aspect. It is easy to envision a next generation of games coming in future years where the personal 'investment' deck that cycles through money and actions to precipitate events in a larger context borrows from the experience of this game.

For the second reason alone I think the game is a success. So the enjoyment and interest of the game as it stands is for me purely a wonderful bonus.
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George Leach
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You might argue that Combat Commander shares some of the same factors described above. The decks are cycled through (slowly admittedly) but are filled with slightly differing distributions of the same small number of cards.
 
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