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Subject: Andrew Reviews: Dominion rss

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Andrew E
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"Dominion", released last year (and winner of the most recent Spiel de Jahres award), is a constructed card game in a box. Basically, players start with a 10-card deck, and then purchase new cards from the 10 stacks already out in order to build their deck into a victory-point purchasing machine.

In this review, I am going to lay out what I perceive as the strengths and weaknesses of the game, as well as some of the other salient features. I will not do a card-by-card review, nor will I deal much with the mechanics except as they become germane to the points I raise. Not that these aren't important, but there are other articles and reviews which do it better than I will.

While Dominion is not my favorite game, it is my favorite "Plays in under 30 minutes" game

Strengths of Dominion

1) Ease of Learning: The three major mechanics are Cards, Actions, and Buys, which happen in that order every turn (that is, if there are cards to be drawn, they must be drawn before the next action).

Even the more complicated cards, such as the Adventurer or the Spy, are still pretty simple.

I can teach even younger gamers (my freshmen, for example) how to play in roughly five minutes, and they can easily teach each other afterward.

2) Clarity of Goal:
The goal of Dominion is quite simple: get more victory points than anyone else. Victory points, in turn, are acquired by buying them (or by Renovating some gold. You can do that too). Therefore, everything the player does should contribute to this goal, or to setting up to achieve this goal.

Unlike, say, Agricola, where there are undoubtedly 29 different ways to score victory points (I did not count to see if there are actually 29), there is really only one in Dominion. Nice and simple, eh?

3) Emergence of Gameplay:
Even though the overall strategic depth of the game is pretty limited ("Buy more victory points"), the tactical depth is impressive.

Tactics within a turn will vary depending on the interactions of the available cards, and it's more than conceivable that players will have several different tactical routes available within a game as they try to maximize their own resources and avoid competing for the same card.

Dominion is a lot like Caylus in that regard, in that the cards (or tiles) available all have a variety of interactive possibilities, at least a few of which are usually viable.

3) Low Downtime:
Especially when playing a three-player game, or a four-player game with people who know what they're doing, there's just enough downtime between turns to allow for shuffling, planning, and some conversation.

Dominion is a great social game in my game group, and it's rare that conversation/banter delay the game at all (unlike, say, "Arkham Horror" or D&D).

4) The Law of Averages:
In Dominion, it's rare that one turn will make or break the game (unlike, say, Caylus or Power Grid, which can all hinge on a single turn). Instead, half of the game is focused around building a deck that will put you in position to buy victory points on most of your turns.

With this in mind, it's accepted that you'll occasionally get a crappy hand. The point, really, is to find a way to make sure you usually get good hands.

Even better, there are cards like the Cellar and the Cathedral which are specifically designed to combat badhanditis.

The law of averages also rewards skill; very few turns involve making significant decisions about which action to play (or which order), so instead it's about maximizing one's buying ability via finding interesting interactions between the cards and making timely purchases.

5) Components:

One of my primary criticisms of Agricola is the fiddliness of components; there's so much there! Dominion, on the other hand, keeps things pretty simple. It's easy to set up and to manage during gameplay, and pretty easy to clean up as well (I'd rather sort cards than coloured blocks or cardboard coins).

I've heard criticism of the flimsiness of the cards, as well as the storage system; I don't mind either, and there are more than a few options available to those who do. Frankly, so long as the game remains functional, I'm happy.

6) Replayability:

Between the variety of cards available, the low mental strain, and the fast pace, Dominion has a lot of replayability. I can easily take 4 or 5 games in a row, which is something that I can't say for Caylus.

Weaknesses of Dominion

1) It's just a filler:

Even though Dominion is fun, I count it as a filler game, rather than a game of the variety that I usually want to play (Caylus, Power Grid, Brass). I like it when games give me a headache from thinking too hard. Dominion doesn't do that.

The "filler" status also shows in the limited scope of the mechanics: most actions are some combination of "Draw more cards", "Get more buys", "More money" and "More actions". It's all pretty simple.

There's quite a bit of ease of entry into the game, but it's not designed to be a thinker.

2) Lack of Carryover:

Ultimately, the game boils down to who can buy the most victory points before the game ends. One could conceivably use a Workshop or a Remodel (or a Feast!) to work around this, but mostly, it's about buying victory points.

Given the turnover between hands, there is no incentive whatsoever to save resources for a future turn, nor is there really any carryover between turns except by way of the deck.

Summary

Dominion is a great filler, and one of my favourite games. It's definitely to be easy to learn and fast to pick up. I feel that the overall lack of depth hampers it quite a bit in terms of its appeal to me, but when I'm looking for a solid 30 minutes with a friend or two while waiting for something, you can bet Dominion will be coming out.
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Dan Poole
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Nice review. My opinion differs in that I definitely do not consider this a filler.
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Andrew E
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voynix wrote:
My opinion differs in that I definitely do not consider this a filler.


This is fair. Most people don't, I imagine, which I really can't blame them for. It feels like there's more depth here than in "Settlers of Catan", but both are a bit too light for my tastes (to be fair, so is "Power Grid" some days). And there's more than enough substance to "Dominion" to warrant playing it deliberately (rather than as something fun to do while waiting).

Sometimes I forget that not everyone is as masochistic as I am when playing board games.
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David desJardins
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Andrew_C_E wrote:
Even though Dominion is fun, I count it as a filler game, rather than a game of the variety that I usually want to play (Caylus, Power Grid, Brass). I like it when games give me a headache from thinking too hard. Dominion doesn't do that.


You could choose to think harder....
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Andrew_C_E wrote:
Ultimately, the game boils down to who can buy the most victory points before the game ends. One could conceivably use a Workshop or a Remodel (or a Feast!) to work around this, but mostly, it's about buying victory points.


How exactly is that a bad thing? You may as well argue that Chess is weak because it ultimately boils down to who can checkmate the opponent's king.

Andrew_C_E wrote:
Given the turnover between hands, there is no incentive whatsoever to save resources for a future turn, nor is there really any carryover between turns except by way of the deck.


And yet the deck mechanic - you know, that thing that pretty much is the entire game - makes the entire game about preparing for future turns. It's just less linear than "I can play Card X this turn or next turn" (though even that can be done via Haven).
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Andrew E
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DaviddesJ wrote:
You could choose to think harder....

Or I could enjoy the game and not treat it with the same seriousness I use for my day jobs (which I do with Caylus and Power Grid... no need to add more hours to what is usually a 90-hour workweek).

Not saying that your criticism isn't valid (it very well might be), but I feel it might be misplaced.

salty53 wrote:
How exactly is [the primary way to victory being the purchasing of victory points] a bad thing? You may as well argue that Chess is weak because it ultimately boils down to who can checkmate the opponent's king.

It's not necessarily a bad thing. but I find myself wishing there were more ways to accrue VPs than the outright purchasing. The Gardens are a definite step in the right direction, but I wanted to see a few other cards along those veins.

My first experience with card games (save for Solitaire) was "Magic: The Gathering", which has multiple victory/defeat conditions, and so it's been tough for me to divorce the expectations I got from M:tG from my expectations for Dominion.

As for the chess parallel, I'm not sure that that's a fair comparison. They're fundamentally different games; I understand that you were trying to demonstrate the absurdity of my claim (rather than drawing a tenuous parallel), but I don't think my claim was particularly absurd.

Regardless of whether or not my claim is absurd, the mechanic is what it is, and it's up to me to either play the game or to find another game. My chosen solution is a mixture of the two.

salty53 wrote:
And yet the deck mechanic - you know, that thing that pretty much is the entire game - makes the entire game about preparing for future turns. It's just less linear than "I can play Card X this turn or next turn" (though even that can be done via Haven).

You're right about that mechanic being pretty much the entire game. I just like being able to plan a little more directly sometimes.
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David desJardins
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Andrew_C_E wrote:
Not saying that your criticism isn't valid (it very well might be), but I feel it might be misplaced.


It's not a criticism. There's nothing wrong with playing any game in any way you want. However, I am just observing that the reason the game feels like a filler to you is because you don't think very hard about your moves. You could choose to think harder, the way you play the other games you mention, and then it would feel like a heavier game. There are lots of reasons that people play some games more seriously and others more casually, and there is nothing wrong with any approach, but it's worth remembering that how you approach the game is, ultimately, a decision; it's not dictated by the game itself.
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Steven Metzger
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DaviddesJ wrote:
Andrew_C_E wrote:
Not saying that your criticism isn't valid (it very well might be), but I feel it might be misplaced.


It's not a criticism. There's nothing wrong with playing any game in any way you want. However, I am just observing that the reason the game feels like a filler to you is because you don't think very hard about your moves. You could choose to think harder, the way you play the other games you mention, and then it would feel like a heavier game. There are lots of reasons that people play some games more seriously and others more casually, and there is nothing wrong with any approach, but it's worth remembering that how you approach the game is, ultimately, a decision; it's not dictated by the game itself.
Seconded, with caveat:

Some builds/turns/cards/scenarios/opponents in Dominion really don't require a lot of thinking to figure out.

But not all of them!
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Blake Rule
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I agree that it is best as a filler. It is the best filler there is. Playing Dominion for 3 straight hours would be exhausting - it's best when played a few games at a time.
 
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Andrew E
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metzgerism wrote:
Seconded, with caveat:

Some builds/turns/cards/scenarios/opponents in Dominion really don't require a lot of thinking to figure out.

But not all of them!
This is true. There are a few builds that can almost go on autopilot once you get started, but I've played one or two games where the collective reaction (upon seeing the cards for the game) was "How on earth are we going to figure this one out?".

I think that game ended up lasting an hour, and was among the more difficult games I've ever played of anything.
 
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Branko K.
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Andrew_C_E wrote:

Weaknesses of Dominion

1) It's just a filler:

Even though Dominion is fun, I count it as a filler game, rather than a game of the variety that I usually want to play (Caylus, Power Grid, Brass). I like it when games give me a headache from thinking too hard. Dominion doesn't do that.

The "filler" status also shows in the limited scope of the mechanics: most actions are some combination of "Draw more cards", "Get more buys", "More money" and "More actions". It's all pretty simple.

There's quite a bit of ease of entry into the game, but it's not designed to be a thinker.


And this is exactly why I wish there was an official online implementation other than the somewhat flawed and restricted BSW one - so people who think the game is a no-brainer can get their pants handed to them by folks who actually tried to figure out the nuances how to play the game good, instead of being content to play adequately while at the same time being so full to think that they reached the limit of Dominion has to offer.

For a long time I thought TTR was a light gateway game, just hog the train cards, get a bunch of destination cards, congratsm you win, unless someone else does the same thing in which case it's all down to luck. Then I discovered that while playing the online game there were some folks against which I just couldn't win, whatever I might have tried. So now I'm being a bit more careful at judging games at face value.

In other words, before you judge the game as too simple, you might try to find some better competition...
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Matt N

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baba44713 wrote:
In other words, before you judge the game as too simple, you might try to find some better competition...


I don't know that he's dismissing the game as too simple. It's true that the game does not have the strategic depth of Caylus. Parts of his argument, that the game is just about buying victory points, are flawed and reductionist, but overall Dominion is a short game with quite a few automatic decisions after the first few turns. It's still strategic, but not as much so as a game like Caylus.

I do object to the notion that the base game has lots of tactical decisions. Dominion is a strategic but generally not tactical game, and it's often not effective to change strategies partway through.
 
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David desJardins
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Stunna wrote:
[It's true that the game does not have the strategic depth of Caylus.


I don't think that's true.
 
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baba44713 wrote:
And this is exactly why I wish there was an official online implementation other than the somewhat flawed and restricted BSW one - so people who think the game is a no-brainer can get their pants handed to them by folks who actually tried to figure out the nuances

- Ugh. Online Dominion is a shadow of the F2F game, for me and the dozen (or so) people I set up with BSW accounts.

baba44713 wrote:
For a long time I thought TTR was a light gateway game, just hog the train cards, get a bunch of destination cards, congrats you win, unless someone else does the same thing in which case it's all down to luck. Then I discovered that while playing the online game there were some folks against which I just couldn't win, whatever I might have tried. So now I'm being a bit more careful at judging games at face value.


I couldn't agree more, and you draw a great parallel here. TTR is much deeper than you think at first, and Dominion is even deeper than it at first appears.

One of the great qualities of both games though - they're enjoyable at the deeper level, but they are just as enjoyable as a "filler" game.
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Peter Van den Broeck
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I have bought Dominion two months ago and I have been playing it two, three times a week for about 2-3 hours.

I understand that you can play it as a filler but it's definitly also a night filling activity. I think to find out the real depths of the game, you should be playing it a couple of times in a row...

Peter.
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Blake Rule
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I do agree that it is best to play 2 or 3 times in a row. I'm just saying that 3 to 4 times in a row is the optimal number of games in a row to play (in my opinion).

When I play 6+ times in a row, I start getting tired of shuffling, and I feel ready to do something else. We usually can make it through 3 games in a row in a little over an hour (dependent on the number of players and the cards we are playing with).

Its a filler because unlike most games, it is totally adjustable. Only have 30 minutes to play a game? - hey we could play a hand or two of Dominion. Have an hour? - we could play a few hands of Dominion. If one hand goes long - then you play one less game.

It works as the "main event" game for sure when playing with people that haven't played it much before and thus are slow. However, when playing with seasoned game players who intend to play together for a few hours, I would definitely prefer to play something else for 90 to 120 minutes, and then play Dominion at the end. Three hours in a row of Dominion is usually too much for me (unless I'm playing with people who are really slow).
 
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Andrew E
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Given the number of outspoken comments to the effect of me not giving the game enough credit for depth, I gave it several more playthroughs over the last few days, each time making sure to look for viable uses for every card. Not that I didn't do this in the past, but this time I was looking for unconventional uses and moments of elegant interaction that might be used to set something else up.

(In short, I tried to think harder).

While I did not/could not use every card in every hand (and even then, quantity is clearly dependent on strategy), it definitely made the game feel a little bit different.

The biggest strength that "Dominion" has going for it is its emergent gameplay (based on the fairly simple rules and cards); there's a lot of built-in synergy, so it becomes a matter of directing that synergy and maximizing opportunities. I'm still clearly a novice at this, but finding ways to set that up is pretty satisfying (I've always thought this).

The conclusion, though, is that you folks are right. I did not give "Dominion" enough credit. I'm still skeptical of claims that it is as deep as "Caylus" or "Brass", but that may be just because it does not feel as deep. This might also be because a game of Dominion is typically over in about 30 minutes, whereas a game of "Brass" or "Caylus" goes on for 2 hours.

I'll still probably play it mostly as a fairly light, social game, as its accessibility means that I don't need to worry too much about the composition of the gaming group, but it's nice to know that more depth exists if I ever feel compelled to explore it.

Thanks, folks, for arguing with me. I appreciate it.
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Branko K.
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Andrew_C_E wrote:
Given the number of outspoken comments to the effect of me not giving the game enough credit for depth, I gave it several more playthroughs over the last few days, each time making sure to look for viable uses for every card. Not that I didn't do this in the past, but this time I was looking for unconventional uses and moments of elegant interaction that might be used to set something else up.


I don't think the depth is so much in "looking for unconventional uses and moments of elegant interaction" as much as in managing probabilities and mitigating randomness. In other words, the real deal is not figuring out "hey, these two cards work neat together!" but rather "how do I make these two cards appear together in my hand more often, and even though their effect is neat, is it really worth it?" This gets much more interesting with expansions, where the large number of possible combos result in various nifty combos that might or might not be obvious; however the trick is not just to recognize them, but also to figure out whether they are really superior to other strategies, e.g. to make them actually work. And when you put powerful Attacks into the mix and realize that often a good strategy also has a good counter-strategy (which is not necessarily simply mirroring it and hoping luck will swing your way), then you really start having fun.

Of course, this works best when your opponents are also trying their best to improve. With lousy competition it is very easy to fool yourself that you reached the ceiling of what Dominion has to offer...
 
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David desJardins
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baba44713 wrote:
I don't think the depth is so much in "looking for unconventional uses and moments of elegant interaction" as much as in managing probabilities and mitigating randomness.


I agree with Branko. Think of Backgammon. There's not much that's "unconventional" or unexpected that you can do in Backgammon. You roll the dice and move your pieces. But there's still plenty of depth.
 
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Andrew E
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Right, right. I didn't mean to imply that that was the source of depth, but rather that that's where I went looking for indicators of depth. The way my current game-group plays, most games involve an early moat race (if there are attack cards out), followed by either a push toward more actions/draws or more buying power. Not exactly sophisticated, and a lot of that is because I think we have a limited understanding of how the cards can work together.

In other words: "Unconventional" is relative to current play-patterns within my game group, rather than in relation to play patterns of people such as yourselves (presumably).

I understand that most of the game involves setting up situations such that you get a favorable hand as often as possible, but the first place to look for this (in my mind) is at what the constituent parts of that hand might be.

I figured that at least part of my problem was that I was short-changing the individual cards in terms of the possibilities inherent in them, and chose that as one area to examine more closely in future play-throughs.
 
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