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Subject: Dominion sets: the development of (the real) themes and mechanics rss

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Tim Chen
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This review is written in conjunction with a review of the cornucopia cards. While firstly I only had the card review in mind, I found it more compelling if I go back to the earlier sets and write about their properties. Since I only started playing after Seaside, it is possible my point of view is fundamentally altered, despite I tried to imagine the situation without those sets. Here comes the body of the review:

We now have six sets (and counting) of Dominion boxes; with ~150 kingdom cards, it is already impossible for even a fanatic player to try out all the setups. People start to wonder, what is the purpose of more expansion sets? Is it just that game makers extracting out every bit of profit from a well-known brand, or is there actually more to the game, in the process of having more expansions?

From the forum I think there are supporters on both sides. Here, I am going to try to argue for the better, from looking back and see what each expansion brought to the game. As we know from the secret histories, each expansion carries a theme. What I am going to write about is not exactly the theme Donald mentioned as we shall see.

Dominion: Base set
theme/mechanics: fundamentals. Cursing, deck trimming, drawing.
the real theme/mechanics: Money.
Card of the set: Gold, Smithy

Some would say a game without expansion is in its pure form. Well, not quite for Dominion. With only the base set, one can rarely go above one Province per turn, and money is usually very important. One can actually go further and say that the base set is teaching us how to use (or buy) money as a starting point. My own feeling is that it is not only us who are are taught; so is the game designer. The game evolved since.



Dominion: Intrigue
theme/mechanics: choice, hybrid card types
the real theme/mechanics: interaction, action dominated strategies, and importance of card type in a deck
Card of the set: Minion, Noble

Intrigue is intended to work as a set stand alone, so in some sense it has all the functions of the base set, but just more complicated. If we look closer, however, I think the dominant strategies shift quite a bit. With almost overpowering cards such as Swindler, Minion, and Torturer, actions become not only ways to draw more money, but generating money themselves and disrupt the opponents. With Masquerade and Saboteur in addition, the set is really interaction-oriented. Bridge is an interesting card to go into this set, as I think it does not combo particularly well with the other cards. Tribute and Ironworks are cards that care about card types, which exist probably just to make the hybrid cards more interesting. Indeed this sub-theme is pretty much not visible unless both either Ironworks/Tribute and a hybrid card are in the setup.




Dominion: Seaside
theme/mechanics: the next turn, duration cards
the real theme/mechanics: control
Card of the set: Fishing Village, Wharf

Seaside is officially the first expansion and adds another color to the game: orange. From the mechanical perspective the new mechanism is pretty obvious; its impact, however, is a little bit more subtle. With a card affecting both this turn and next, the most significant consequence I would say, is that you gain a better control of your deck. Fishing Village, Wharf, treasury are prime examples. To some extent, Ambassador lets you not only control your own deck, but control your opponents' as well.




Dominion: Alchemy
theme/mechanics: potion, action chain
the real theme/mechanics: long action chains with no good purpose, AP, and more randomness (?)
Card of the set: Golem, Possession

The new mechanics of Alchemy is just too obvious, and probably too hard for a game designer not to try: a new kind of resource. However, I cannot say the resulting game experience is entirely positive: the potion requirement makes the game even more unpleasant subject to bad draws. If you play enough you must have encountered the following scenario: with only 3+P (ex. Familiar) cards available, you open silver+potion but draw 2+P after the first shuffle. The game is an one-way affair after that. One can certainly choose not to buy potions in the first two turns to avoid this situation, but cards like Familiar makes this hardly an winning strategy either.

On the positive side, cards like Apothecary, Scrying Pool, Apprentice, Golem are nice to have as they add to the available strategies. On the other hand, if we play with a completely random setup, the potion requirement again makes the decision more-or-less one dimensional as you pretty much need to buy a potion-cost card when you have a potion in hand early in the game. You do not get to choose what you buy as freely as if the potion cost is, say 2 coins instead. Possession is a card trying to add some spice to the game I think. It is not so successful however, as sometimes it is too dominant and reduces the game into unplayable long boring time killers (try with chapel and village! I played a game with Obi wan Bonogi which lasts almost two hours, online), and other times it is either randomly swingy, or serves as a trap for fancy players.

Overall, I have to say this set is evidently not as well thought through as others. for 20 bucks I would still get it, but this is just me...





Dominion: Prosperity
theme/mechanics: bigger money and VPs. More powerful actions. VP token. Treasure with functions
the real theme/mechanics: the exponential (actually only parabolic) explosion strategy
Card of the set: King's Court, Goons

Prosperity is probably the most significant expansion of all, as it adds so much to the game. Even with no new kingdom cards, Platinums and Colonies add a surprisingly lot to the game. It creates a new balance to treasure, action, and VP purchases. Every setup played with/without them feels very different. (Compare this simple concept to the simple concept of potion above...) The new kingdom cards are not fillers, either. Some of the cards, at first sight, is just an upgraded version of the base set; that is not the case, however, once you play with it. We also have a new mechanics of getting VPs.

The interesting new aspect introduced, however, is a new kind of strategy which snow-balls quite drastically. Quarry, Grand Market, Bank, Goons, Peddler, Worker's Village, and of course, King's Court are cards that can accumulate to a point where a single turn overturns the result of the game. It is also possible to trim your deck once and for all by playing the Forge in a big turn.






Dominion: Cornucopia
theme/mechanics: variety
the real theme/mechanics: hand control, (subtle) alternate strategy
Card of the set: Hamlet, Menagerie, Hunting Party

Finally we are here. When the cards come out, there are complaints that this set is just... bland. I think otherwise.

I am actually amazed, how Donald comes up with this, after the grandeur Prosperity. It certainly does not look as fancy. However the cards in this set does add a new dimension to the strategy, not only directly related to variety. For instance, with Hunting Party and Chapel on the board, it is not clear for me that starting with chapel is almost always a good idea, especially if there are other trash-for-benefit cards. Before this set, this seldom happens. Cursing becomes less dominant as well; I had a game with Captain Frisk where he got a 5-2 split, a mountebank at start yet still lost. Previous to this set, discarding your hand can only happen with Secret Chamber, Vault, and Baron. Now you have Hamlet, Young Witch, and Horse Trader, a 100% increase. This, of course, combines well with Library, Watch Tower and Menagerie. Personally, I feel this small set adds at least as much strategic depth as a big set, while not changing the game significantly as Prosperity did.


If you are following me, you can see how I think the new Cornucopia a worthy set to get. But maybe the more important is, after 6 boxes, except for a small half-failure in between, the expansion sets are still bring new meaningful dimensions to the game, which is already a lot more than what can be said for many other games. I certainly hope this trend to continue!
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Gary Habbermas
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I think this review (especially if you fleshed out your meaning in regard to intended mechanics vs actual and a brief explanation of how to play)would be the best review I could have looked at if I was trying to determine if this game is for me. You really brought out what this game offers just by going into the expansions. For some reasons it really brings out what it is like to play this game. Great review!
I appreciate abbreviated reviews. Longer reviews remain reductionistic no matter how long they go on it seems. With that said, in regard to your "real theme/mechanics" portion, were you trying to show the general result of these expansions? Because I felt that the mechanics accomplished their thematic goals well. By that I don't mean that you really feel like your acquiring provinces or are really diving for pearls (although some cards do a pretty good job in this regard) but rather the attempt to arrive at the intended theme left one, at the very least, with a really interesting strategy option or quirky mechanic not too far divorced from the card's title or intent. I guess I never gathered that the expansions didn't do what the theme/mechanics proper intended to do. Your thoughts?
 
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Mark Judd
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timchen wrote:
... Previous to this set, discarding your hand can only happen with Secret Chamber, Vault, and Baron. Now you have Hamlet, Young Witch, and Horse Trader, a 100% increase. This, of course, combines well with Library, Watch Tower and Menagerie...


How does Young Witch's discarding ability differ from Warehouse, which you did not include?

And don't forget Tactician - it discards your entire hand. If you hit one of those and a Menagerie with a Golem, you can draw 3 more cards and keep your turn going.
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Beaveman wrote:
timchen wrote:
... Previous to this set, discarding your hand can only happen with Secret Chamber, Vault, and Baron. Now you have Hamlet, Young Witch, and Horse Trader, a 100% increase. This, of course, combines well with Library, Watch Tower and Menagerie...


How does Young Witch's discarding ability differ from Warehouse, which you did not include?

And don't forget Tactician - it discards your entire hand. If you hit one of those and a Menagerie with a Golem, you can draw 3 more cards and keep your turn going.

And don't forget cellar...
 
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Richard Morris
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timchen wrote:
My own feeling is that it is not only us who are are taught; so is the game designer. The game evolved since.


Donald has made it abundantly clear that he had lots of 'sets' 'done' before Dominion first appeared. Whist I am sure that here and there he learned things from feedback after the first released combination of cards appeared, I think it is absurd to suggest that he learned stuff in the same way that players did.
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Flame Bird
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I love Alchemy. I really enjoy the longer, more combo-oriented games.

I also love that it's cheaper, and doesn't come with any cumbersome bits.

I hate Prosperity and Seaside. I find them clunky and full of cards I think are too swingy.

Posters really have to stop assuming Alchemy was a failure (or even that Prosperity is universally acclaimed; I think it's rubbish!).
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AnnuverScotinExile wrote:
timchen wrote:
My own feeling is that it is not only us who are are taught; so is the game designer. The game evolved since.


Donald has made it abundantly clear that he had lots of 'sets' 'done' before Dominion first appeared. Whist I am sure that here and there he learned things from feedback after the first released combination of cards appeared, I think it is absurd to suggest that he learned stuff in the same way that players did.

I don't think the OP is suggesting that Donald "learned stuff in the same way that players did." He's just saying that Donald has learned from developing Dominion. That's true as far as it goes. Look at the wording change from Throne Room to King's Court. Look at the original Secret History, which tells us the first expansion originally had a "one-shot" theme. If you look at the Secret Histories, you'll see many examples of lessons Donald has learned over the course of developing Dominion.

On the other hand, the comment you quote is directed toward the original base game, which suggests the OP might think the cards in that set are simple because Donald was still learning Dominion. Not true. Putting relatively simple cards in the original set was a conscious decision of the development team. The truly complicated cards were saved until later so the original set could focus on introducing the basic concepts.

Which is not to say that all the sets were "done" before Dominion was released. In the course of development, cards get changed, cards get dropped, cards get added, and cards get moved from one set to another. There was lots of movement in the early days, but even the Cornucopia Secret History talks about cards that moved from earlier sets and cards that moved to later sets.

Which highlights the two levels of misperception about Dominion development.

No, Donald does not just sit around counting his money until it's time to release the next expansion. He puts a lot of work into each expansion, even with cards that were designed way back when.

No, Donald does not wait for an expansion to be released and then use the feedback from the public to "fix" the next expansion. It's both more immediate than that and less immediate.

It's more immediate because the feedback he gets from the playtesters comes long before the cards are released to the public. It's not that we're a special brand of geniuses. We're a rather ordinary brand of geniuses. We just see the cards first. When you see a card and say, "Whoa," you can be sure we saw the card and said, "Whoa," months or even years before. Most of what needs fixing is fixed before you even see it.

The feedback process is less immediate because Dominion's development cycle is so long. I wasn't a playtester back then, but I played Intrigue several times before Dominion came out. And I never played Seaside before it came out, but I did see it in action once between the release of Dominion and the release of Intrigue. Which is to say, there's really not time to incorporate public feedback into the very next expansion. Except for maybe a small thing like a wording change or a FAQ entry.
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Dave Green
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So far the only mechanic that has not changed since Base set is Curses. They're still worth -1 point, they still junk up your deck, and passing them out is still overall the strongest type of attack. If the next set lets players deal with Curses differently besides either trashing them or suffering through them, I'll be happy.

 
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Kent O.
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Tim,

Although your review might be pretty good, you lose some credibility because you don't seem to understand how Dominion and the expansions came about. I recommend you read the first couple paragraphs of Donald's "Secret History" entries. Here's the opening from his Seaside entry...

--At first there were just a bunch of cards. One day I decided, okay, these are the main set, these are the first expansion, these are the second expansion. I divided everything up based on mechanical themes.--

The "expansions" came about because 200+ Kingdom cards would be too overwhelming for most players. As I understand it, Dominion (with all the expansions) is ONE BIG GAME that is coming out in pieces. Yes, Donald has developed and changed some since, but the basic premise is that it was a huge game that was separated to make it more accessible. That's why they all integrate so well, they were all (pretty much) part of the original game. For good or for ill, Donald decided to make the original game mostly basic game play concepts.

Please read those Secret Histories. They are quite interesting.

Sprout
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jeffwolfe wrote:
AnnuverScotinExile wrote:
timchen wrote:
My own feeling is that it is not only us who are are taught; so is the game designer. The game evolved since.


Donald has made it abundantly clear that he had lots of 'sets' 'done' before Dominion first appeared. Whist I am sure that here and there he learned things from feedback after the first released combination of cards appeared, I think it is absurd to suggest that he learned stuff in the same way that players did.

I don't think the OP is suggesting that Donald "learned stuff in the same way that players did." He's just saying that Donald has learned from developing Dominion. That's true as far as it goes. Look at the wording change from Throne Room to King's Court. Look at the original Secret History, which tells us the first expansion originally had a "one-shot" theme. If you look at the Secret Histories, you'll see many examples of lessons Donald has learned over the course of developing Dominion.

On the other hand, the comment you quote is directed toward the original base game, which suggests the OP might think the cards in that set are simple because Donald was still learning Dominion. Not true. Putting relatively simple cards in the original set was a conscious decision of the development team. The truly complicated cards were saved until later so the original set could focus on introducing the basic concepts.

Which is not to say that all the sets were "done" before Dominion was released. In the course of development, cards get changed, cards get dropped, cards get added, and cards get moved from one set to another. There was lots of movement in the early days, but even the Cornucopia Secret History talks about cards that moved from earlier sets and cards that moved to later sets.

Which highlights the two levels of misperception about Dominion development.

No, Donald does not just sit around counting his money until it's time to release the next expansion. He puts a lot of work into each expansion, even with cards that were designed way back when.

No, Donald does not wait for an expansion to be released and then use the feedback from the public to "fix" the next expansion. It's both more immediate than that and less immediate.

It's more immediate because the feedback he gets from the playtesters comes long before the cards are released to the public. It's not that we're a special brand of geniuses. We're a rather ordinary brand of geniuses. We just see the cards first. When you see a card and say, "Whoa," you can be sure we saw the card and said, "Whoa," months or even years before. Most of what needs fixing is fixed before you even see it.

The feedback process is less immediate because Dominion's development cycle is so long. I wasn't a playtester back then, but I played Intrigue several times before Dominion came out. And I never played Seaside before it came out, but I did see it in action once between the release of Dominion and the release of Intrigue. Which is to say, there's really not time to incorporate public feedback into the very next expansion. Except for maybe a small thing like a wording change or a FAQ entry.



And the best thing about dominion in my opinion is that it is really easy to fix/customize a setup to your liking. Nobody likes Possession at the table? That's fine, don't play with it!
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Tim Chen
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Sprout wrote:


Please read those Secret Histories. They are quite interesting.

Sprout


I certainly have read them. I like them a lot, perhaps only slightly less only for the Prosperity one, maybe because of the style, I don't know.

So literally what you said is true, I think. The cards are developed somewhat together and then divided into sets. Cards are added and removed and modified along the way of course. That is, however not what I am interested in here. The interesting thing I think, is when you choose a subset of the cards and put them into a set, that set will prefer a certain kind of strategy. And this preference, not directly related to the them/mechanics, may not be foreseen by the game designer. That is what I think Donald might have learned in the process.

For example, in an old article Donald wrote about a chapel strategy involving trashing silvers and perhaps, get a 5 gold+market double province turn. However, in reality the chapel strategy is not fast enough for that and the optimum trashing strategy almost never involves trashing silver. The double Province possibility, therefore, is not realized for competitive play.

For another even more obvious example, the Thief card is quite evidently only proved to be too weak and swingy in most setups after the base game being published. Otherwise I think Donald would probably change it, as he sort of did an "upgrade" to the Pirate Ship.

So what I am discussing, is not really whether something is thought of or not, but just something turned out to be. It is really quite amazing to see expansions keep adding new dimensions o the strategy.
 
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timchen wrote:
For example, in an old article Donald wrote about a chapel strategy involving trashing silvers and perhaps, get a 5 gold+market double province turn.

I'm not Valerie! I thought people had figured that out by now.
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timchen wrote:
Sprout wrote:


Please read those Secret Histories. They are quite interesting.

Sprout


I certainly have read them. I like them a lot, perhaps only slightly less only for the Prosperity one, maybe because of the style, I don't know.

So literally what you said is true, I think. The cards are developed somewhat together and then divided into sets. Cards are added and removed and modified along the way of course. That is, however not what I am interested in here. The interesting thing I think, is when you choose a subset of the cards and put them into a set, that set will prefer a certain kind of strategy. And this preference, not directly related to the them/mechanics, may not be foreseen by the game designer. That is what I think Donald might have learned in the process.

For example, in an old article Donald wrote about a chapel strategy involving trashing silvers and perhaps, get a 5 gold+market double province turn. However, in reality the chapel strategy is not fast enough for that and the optimum trashing strategy almost never involves trashing silver. The double Province possibility, therefore, is not realized for competitive play.

For another even more obvious example, the Thief card is quite evidently only proved to be too weak and swingy in most setups after the base game being published. Otherwise I think Donald would probably change it, as he sort of did an "upgrade" to the Pirate Ship.

So what I am discussing, is not really whether something is thought of or not, but just something turned out to be. It is really quite amazing to see expansions keep adding new dimensions o the strategy.



Thief became more viable when Stash, Harem and all the Prosperity special money came out. No need to upgrade it as it just depends on what's out.

Also, I now trash silvers because of Colonies and Platinum.
 
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Neo42 wrote:
Thief became more viable when Stash, Harem and all the Prosperity special money came out. No need to upgrade it as it just depends on what's out.

Actually, it's pretty easy to keep your Stashes from being hit by Thief or Pirate Ship. That's one of the primary advantages of Stash.

Thief's power depends far more on how many players there are in a game. It's much more powerful in a 4-player game than it is in a 2-player game.
 
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LastFootnote wrote:
Neo42 wrote:
Thief became more viable when Stash, Harem and all the Prosperity special money came out. No need to upgrade it as it just depends on what's out.

Actually, it's pretty easy to keep your Stashes from being hit by Thief or Pirate Ship. That's one of the primary advantages of Stash.

Thief's power depends far more on how many players there are in a game. It's much more powerful in a 4-player game than it is in a 2-player game.



True. Though it was definitely helped by special money. Even Potions made it interesting.
 
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