Gavin Cooper
England
London
flag msg tools
badge
Avatar
mbmbmbmbmb
There have been a number of reviews of Dominion - both positive and negative, given the game's curious polarisation of the community. I'd like to add a review of my own, having only gotten into the game recently, looking at both the original box and the newly released expansion: "Dominion: Intrigue". I'd like to take a slightly different tack, though, comparing it to a subject I'm a bit more knowledgable about - videogames.

I think many people would agree that European-style boardgames are enjoying a surge of popularity at the moment - and as more people are exposed to these kinds of games, I suspect that games like Dominion will continue to do well. The comparison I intend to draw is between the views of hardcore videogamers and boardgame enthusiasts, and where both differ from the influx of a new, "mainstream" audience. If you accept the comparison, the question this review will then ask is: "Is a popular game automatically a good game?

WHAT DO WE MEAN BY HARDCORE?
----------------------------


This is a tricky one to answer - most people have an idea of what "hardcore" means to them, but it's a relative term a lot of the time. "I'm not hardcore, you should see that guy", etc.

My own personal opinion is that a significant number of the most popular boardgames currently in circulation are hardcore. That is, they aren't simple. They're complicated, they have a lot of rules, and you can't just jump in and expect success. There are still videogames that fit this pattern (EVE Online, anyone?), but the economics of the industry have forced videogame designers to pander to a mainstream audience - big budget titles have to draw in more sales than just the hardcore gamers if they want to turn a profit, which is why you won't find any big-budget blockbusters that don't make it as easy and as quick as possible for a new player to get into the game and start feeling like a kick-ass ninja.

Boardgames haven't had the evolution of the tutorial sequence, they don't have skirmish modes where you can practice against AI - they just throw you in and expect you to swim.

Now, this isn't inherently a bad thing. For the right kind of person, learning a new game system is half the fun of experiencing a new game. But for a mass-market audience, who tend to view failure or lack of understanding as a negative experience, rather than a natural part of the learning experience, that kind of introduction to a game can be a huge turn-off. And that leads to less sales, and less popularity outside of the "hardcore" (for want of a better term) community.

I played Agricola for the first time a few weeks ago. It's a fantastic game, and it's an excellent fit for our little gaming group. But I went into that game understanding (and being explicitly informed by my friends) that the best way to play it is to write off your entire first game as a learning experience - you can't really grasp what the game is, how it works and the flow from start to finish until you've played it through at least once. And they were absolutely right (next time, though... Oooooh, they're so gonna get it!). I'm a smart game, and I make a living out of understanding game theory and game systems - but that still can't make me magically understand a game and all its complexities from looking at the box and skim-reading the rules. Games are meant to be experienced.

Videogames are a rapidly evolving medium, and they've gone through this stage. It's been a long while since the old days of Quake, where jumping into your first deathmatch server was a confusing, disorienting affair. Even if you'd played the single-player game, there were elements at play in the public arena that you wouldn't be prepared for - rocket jumping, strafe jumping, the sheer level of skill to be found online, mouse-look. These things would never have been explained to you beforehand, and your first game would be guaranteed to be punishing as hell. Compare that with more modern games: Tutorials, even for the multiplayer modes. Tighter control systems (bugs notwithstanding). Skill-matching (hugely important). Everything that can be done to make your first experience of the game as enjoyable as possible is done.

SO, DOMINION...
---------------


Dominion has a number of things going for it in terms of making your first experience with it a fun one:

GAME LENGTH: Dominion is a quick game to play. A lot of people don't like this, and that's fair enough. But like videogame players, most of the audience are adults. We have jobs, lives, responsibilities - our gaming time is precious to us. A new game that takes half an hour to play, as opposed to 2+ hours, gives us a few good things:

Opportunity - You can play this game more often, in time slots where you couldn't fit a full-on 2+ hours game. For example, I'm currently playing Dominion every lunchtime at work.

Less "wasted" time - It's not perhaps the best wording, but if you say that your first game will always be a learning experience, then having it take half an hour to figure it out as opposed to a whole evening is a big win.

Layered learning - With Dominion, I can play my first game, learn a load of stuff, then play my second game straight away and put what I've learnt into practice. Agricola, by comparison, took an entire evening, and it will be some time before I can put what I learnt in that first game to use.

Easier to infect others - the game length makes it an easier job to get others to try it. Like us, they're adults, and are much more likely to have a go at something that takes half an hour than something you have to organise an entire evening around. Assuming the game is good (and of the 8 people I've tried to infect so far, 2 have bought it and 3 intend to buy it), you end up with more people to play against, which means you play it more, which means you inevitably end up delving deeper into the strategies of the game. More fun - more potential customers.

This, too, is something present in videogames. There are a number of games that take a LONG time to play (Civilisation, Heroes of Might and Magic, MMOs), but by far and away the most popular ones (except, perhaps, one specific, mould-breaking MMO that I'm sure most of us are at least aware of) are those that can be played in small bursts. 10-20 minutes is about your usual length of a Halo/Unreal/Gears of War match/Worms game. Or just about any driving game you care to mention. In single-player games the use of checkpoints and autosaves has evolved to the point where the game is essentially broken down into 5-10 minute chunks. If the phone rings, the baby cries or you just get bored, you're only going to lose a little bit of the time you've already invested in the game. You can come back, load last checkpoint and be pretty much straight back into it.

Success and failure are short term affairs - you can spend an entire night playing, and chances are (with modern matchmaking services) you'll win roughly half your games. You won't have played only a single game for the entire night and lost, you'll have had at least SOME success. And generally, success makes you want to play more, whilst failure is a turn-off.

SIMPLICITY: In essence, Dominion is a simple game. You have one action, one buy, definitions of "discard", "trash" and "gain" and the layout of your play area. The complexity comes from the rules on the cards, which aren't hidden away in a manual in the box - they're right there in front of you.

I think it's significant that Pandemic - another recent and highly popular game - is a pretty simple experience too. Four actions, a handful of action types, and only one person really needs to know the exact rules of what cards get picked up when (thanks to it being a co-op game).

By comparison, Agricola is NOT a simple game. Race for the Galaxy is hugely not simple. Arkham Horror? Positively anti-simple. These are all good games, to be sure, but they are not opening their arms wide to the new player and making it as easy as possible for them to learn and get into the experience. They're a long-term investment of time and energy.

Dominion hides its complexity - 50 different cards in the two boxes, but you only ever need to think about 10 of them at a time. The more you play it, the fewer new cards you have to figure out. But there is depth there for those who look for it, in terms of figuring out the interacting/combining abilities of the cards.

Again, if we hold up the mirror of videogames, we see that this too is a defining feature of the most popular videogames. Complicated games like Civ, most simulations and so on tend not to sell as well as those that pick a simple set of mechanics and run with them. Polish and execution count for a lot, but The latest Civ game is as polished a game as you could hope for, but it still can't touch the amount of money Gears of War has made. And compare Diablo II's numbers (and its continuing playerbase, years after its release) versus the more complicated RPGs such as Baldur's Gate and there's no comparison at all.

EVOLUTION: Videogames are a rapidly evolving medium, and its rare to come across a videogame that doesn't crib mercilessly from its forebears. It's just the way of it, unfortunately. It's a lot easier to sell a game if you can compare it to something the player already knows and enjoys. Gears of War is pretty much any other shooter, but with one major difference - cover. Burnout is a pretty average racing game, but with one difference - crashes. And so on. In the industry these are called USPs, and are usually delivered as a variation to an existing theme. Getting brand and marketing to buy into an entirely new type of game is incredibly difficult (maybe less so in certain territories, to be fair) because getting the public to buy into an experience they have no context for understanding is difficult - which means less sales, which means less popularity.

Dominion's hook is that anyone who's ever spent a lot of time with a CCG building their own decks already understands the principles of the game. That opens its potential market enormously. A huge playerbase (how many people have played Magic: The Gathering?) that can relate to and understand your game very, very quickly. And like I've said, accessibility makes your first experience with the game much more positive, so you're more likely to end up playing it again.

LUCK: At the end of the day, Dominion is a card game, all about drawing cards. And so luck plays a part. Luck is an excellent aspect to a game that can be played at different skill levels. Luck means that there's always a reason to try - you won't just have the same person winning over, and over, and over again. Even if luck won't let you beat them, it may let you get closer to them in terms of score. Maybe you'll beat this other guy for a change. Maybe one good player will just have an absolute mare of a game. Does luck mitigate skill? Well, not entirely. Let's mention again how short a game is. Even if you lose one round due to bad luck (which means the game was close or you had unusually horrendous luck), on average you're probably still winning overall. You have your success in terms that are meaningful to you, and the lesser player has had a small dose of success too. Everyone's happy. Even the best Quake players don't win every game (I know I sure as hell don't).

In videogames the luck is often build in specifically. Many racing games, for example, have a "catchup" system, where cars at the front of the pack are slowed down slightly, whilst cars at the back get a bit of a speed boost. Mario Kart goes even further - the guy at the front gets green shells and banana skins, whilst the guy at the back gets invulnerability, mass lightning and heat-seeking missiles guaranteed to hit the guy in first place. It makes the game chaotic, funny - players moving up and down through the pack constantly... And makes it, in general, more fun. It's a long way from a pure test of skill (unless the disparity in skill levels is huge), but the game's popularity is definitely at least partly attributed to these systems.

So what it boils down to, for me at least, is that Dominion espouses a number of the prevailing philosophies currently at work in the videogame industry as to "What makes a popular game", at a time in the boardgame industry where "popular" is becoming increasingly important, as the boardgame explosion continues apace. And I think these are the significant reasons why it's ranked so highly on BGG.

FUN = POPULAR = GOOD?
---------------------


The question then becomes, even if it's popular (which is an unassailble fact), does that mean it's good?

This is a bigger question than I can hope to address in a review. Is a popular film "good"? (I hated Titanic). Is a popular TV show "good"? (Eugh, soaps).

Is a fun game good? Can you have a good game that isn't fun? Fun is difficult to measure, but given how many people are playing and posting about Dominion, I think we can assume that a lot of people are having fun. And I think that how fun a game is should really be the fundamental measure of how good a game is. So, for me at least, I believe it to be a good game.

What we're seeing in the enthusiast community is an argument as to how worthy the game is. It's the argument of Eastenders versus The Sopranos. Transformers versus some Oscar-winning film that made a fraction of the money Michael Bay did. The analogy isn't precise - narrative-based media isn't always about how enjoyable it is to watch, whereas enjoyment is an integral facet of gaming.

But for what it's worth, I think that a couple of things have contributed to the negativity directed towards Dominion. The obvious success of the game tends to make people speaking out against it a bit more vitriolic than they would otherwise be - they're having to speak out against popular opinion, which always makes people foam at the mouth a little bit. And the second thing being the simplicity of the first box set. Having not had a huge amount of time playing the original on its own, picking up the expansion almost immediately, all I can say on that subject is that I think the expansion cards should alleviate that percieved simplicity.

THE ACTUAL REVIEW BIT
---------------------


The expansion has added a lot to the first box set, in my opinion. I don't buy into the "Tactic X gets you a province on turn 12.347 on average, whereas Tactic Y gets you one on turn 13.002" mentality. This is partly due to luck (as mentioned above), but also because it doesn't take the other players into acccount.

The best thing about the new set, I believe, is more ways that the players can interact with each other, either directly or indirectly. More attacks, more cards that have effects based on other people's decks. Also, the way to play a hand is slightly more interesting now with the choice cards.

But hand playing is not the point of this game - so if that's what you don't like, your view is unlikely to change. It's too simplistic (which is great for new players, remember!). But the directions you can choose to pursue in terms of deck construction in a single game have been expanded greatly. The supposedly "unbeatable" combinations come up less often. Chapel decks are more vulnerable than they were before. The games have become a lot less obvious in terms of strategic direction since we started using the new cards.

Now the question is whether or not new "unbeatable strategies" will be figured out by the community before the next expansion. Which leads to my final point.

The main thing I'd say about this game is that it will perform differently in different groups. As a group of people all learning the game at the same time, learning through play, it's been very, very enjoyable. There's more experimentation, more unpredictability, more use of cards that most people ignore. Even reading tactics on BGG hasn't yet allowed me to stomp all over other people, especially given how rarely chapel comes up with double the number of kingdom cards, and the new tactics afforded by the expansion. If you seek out the winning tactics online and hone them, then yes - some games where the right combination of cards comes up, you may do well (as long as no-one else has read them).

But doing so is anathema to what we should all be enjoying about games - the fact that every one of them is a learning experience to be shared with friends. Put away the browser, sit down and actually try stuff out. Go hog-wild. Figure out what works for yourself, instead of just accepting what some number-cruncher on the interwebs tells you. Experience the game, don't dissect it. And in so doing, you may find the depth, the fun, and the reasons why it's such a popular game.

Hope this review is of interest, or at the very least sparks some discussion.
58 
 Thumb up
0.30
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
Branko K.
msg tools
badge
Avatar
mbmbmbmbmb
And I thought *I* wrote long reviews.

Just to add to the lively discussion, Dominion has one thing going for it - it works well as a video game (perhaps *too* well). It really has a great shot of drawing new audience if a working online version becomes available soon. And I don't mean the BSW implementation which is still a bit of an acquired taste.. but rather if Donald and the crew created their own online version, perhaps Flash-based, which would be much more user-friendly for the general audience.

As for Dominion being simple to learn.. I kinda have to disagree with it. It's easy to learn if you watch the game being played by others, or you have a good teacher. But the rulebook is still quite a difficult read (especially for someone not accustomed to boardgames in general) and the initial sight of 18 small decks of cards placed on table *can* be a bit intimidating. Furthermore, the concept of "buy and discard" will weird out a lot of folks (why am I buying this if I immediately throw it away? What do you mean I *will* use it in the future? And why would I spend 6 Coins to buy 3 Coins? How come these Coins are free, is it a printing mistake? If the point of the game is getting all the green cards, why would I buy any other cards? etc.)

Also, one thing that works against Dominion is the fact that even though it's a card game, it needs a LOT of both shelf space as well as table space. Unlike many other card games, you can't just pick up and carry a deck or two with you so you can play a quick unplanned game somewhere. And I don't see it easily played at lunchtime - all those decks spread out together with personal space for each player to place his decks and his combos.. for what it's worth, Dominion IS a boardgame when it comes to space required.

6 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
Gavin Cooper
England
London
flag msg tools
badge
Avatar
mbmbmbmbmb
As with so many things, difficulty is relative. I think I'd agree that it's still a way off the difficulty level of, say, Jenga

What I would say, though, is that of the difficulty issues you raise, many are experiential things rather than rules things, which the quick turnaround of games supports the learning of. If, in your first game, you end up with repeated hands full of green cards, the strategy of buying green cards later is something you can experiment with in the space of 40 minutes or so. And not buying gold because you can't see the point of spending 6 gold to get 3 is something you'll re-evaluate as soon as you see one of your opponents laying down 10-12 gold in a single turn.

But I agree, some of the concepts are either counter-intuitive or very subtle. Which makes the evolution side of things even more relevant - the concepts many people will have trouble with are ones that a large audience have already experienced in previous CCGs, mitigating that issue a little.

Overall, I agree with you - even Dominion can be an intimidating prospect the first time you play. But relative to many other boardgames, I think it's definitely skewed towards the "accessible" end of the scale.
 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
Craig Liken
New Zealand
Christchurch
flag msg tools
Avatar
mbmbmbmbmb
Great analysis, though I nearly didn't read it because I happen to be one of those strange people who have absolutely no interest in video-games, nor in playing boardgames online for that matter.

I do however greatly enjoy Dominion. I think one point about the simplicity and particularly the shortness of the game is that even as a (relatively) experienced board-gamer Dominion gives you the opportunity to experiment and try things out. I don't get to game as much as I would like, and on the opportunity you get to play a longer game - say Brass, Le Havre, perhaps Agricola as an example - I don't particularly want to "waste" an evening trying out some weird strategy or hare-brained idea I may have come up with. With Dominion its only half-an-hour so you can have a go at something a bit wacky - if it works well great but if it doesn't you can easily set up another game.

One feature I am looking forward to on the new set is the whole "victory cards that do something" concept. When playing the base game (which is all I have now) by far my favourite set-ups involve "Gardens" - simply because it gives you another way of attacking the game (Witch also does this as well but to a lesser extent) - other than the basic concept of getting as much money cycling into you hand so you can buy more Provinces than the opposition.
4 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
mateo jurasic
United States
Florida
flag msg tools
umm.. did you like it?
2 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
Gavin Cooper
England
London
flag msg tools
badge
Avatar
mbmbmbmbmb
It's currently residing just above crack cocaine and chocolate in my personal "holy crap this is addictive" scale.

Yeah, I'm loving it. Most fun game I've bought in a long time.
6 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
Grant
United States
Cuyahoga Falls
Ohio
flag msg tools
One of the best gaming weekends in Ohio since 2010. Search facebook for "BOGA Weekend Retreat" for more info!
badge
Avatar
mbmbmbmbmb
Great review, well done!

Dominion and Carcassone are two games I've managed to ensnare some coworkers with and we regularly play them on our lunch hour.
 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
Dr. Urza, PhD of Dungeon Crawl
United States
Washington
Dist of Columbia
flag msg tools
badge
Avatar
mbmbmbmbmb
grant5 wrote:
Great review, well done!

Dominion and Carcassone are two games I've managed to ensnare some coworkers with and we regularly play them on our lunch hour.

Ewwwwww, how can you compare Dominion with Carcossonne?? gulp
 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
John Stine
Canada
Toronto
ON
flag msg tools
mbmbmbmbmb
I don't think it was a comparison, it's just that both games are easy to catch on to and become addictive, albeit completely different in almost every respect.

I have taught both games to several people and I have heard few complaints about either.
1 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
Branko K.
msg tools
badge
Avatar
mbmbmbmbmb
Urza47 wrote:

Ewwwwww, how can you compare Dominion with Carcossonne?? gulp


I agree. Carcossonne is SO, like, 2000. I mean puh-leeasee..
2 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
Petr Novak
Slovakia
flag msg tools
Actually, the analogy is not so far-fetched. My former roommate, a dancer, complete with miniskirts, make-up and approximately a black hole's weight in shoes actually enjoyed both, once she tried them out, due to their common denominators of being easy to grasp, brief and rewarding.

I did not even try to get her near stuff like Descent, of course.
 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
Front Page | Welcome | Contact | Privacy Policy | Terms of Service | Advertise | Support BGG | Feeds RSS
Geekdo, BoardGameGeek, the Geekdo logo, and the BoardGameGeek logo are trademarks of BoardGameGeek, LLC.