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Subject: Dominare - a Pros and Cons Review + rss

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bryden
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Dominare - a Pros and Cons review (including my teaching method and 2 variants (2 player and large board)



I would like to set the table first with a little background before proceeding with my review:

1. I enjoy area control elements with El Grande being an absolute gem in the genre in my opinion (ol’ gran’pappy).

2. I enjoy card games that bring on "heavy" strategic or planning elements (more thinky) (Thunderstone, Core Worlds, Mage Knight, Race for the Galaxy and even 51st State/New Era/Winter over lighter thinkers Dominion and Eminent Domain)

3. Games that have a definite end point help to create a gaming focus as long as it is not too constraining. Some may argue that Agricola would be a game that is too constraining but I disagree as it creates the time focus that I like. I could add Le Havre, 51st State/New Era/Winter, El Grande and Endevour to this list which are all games that I enjoy.

Would a game that employs all of these elements make a good/great game or would it become a convoluted mess (Cleopatra’s Caboose anyone?). Read on as I break down how this all unfolded:

I was lucky enough to have one of the players at our table win the AEG package of games at BGG.CON after I stated that, "If I could win any set of games at the con it would be that one." He was nice enough to let everyone at the table take a game of their choice and this was my choice due to the area control elements.

I had not heard of the Tempest line of games coming out and was shocked to hear about it while I was at the AEG booth during the con (thanks Jeff and Todd for discussing the back story). I could not help think about the risk involved in releasing 4 games with what seemed to me to be very little fanfare/promotion. Love Letter is part of the Tempest Line and is all of the rage but the other 3 (Dominare included) I had heard absolutely nothing about. I do try to keep up on all that is going on in the board gaming world.

I did not have a chance to play Dominare at the con as I don’t like to teach from the rules. There are just too many opportunities for mistakes in an environment like that.

The Review

What is the game about?
Dominare is an area control game that uses card drafting to create variability and strategy to an otherwise fairly simple area control game. This is much like how the cards in Agricola overlay the fairly plain worker placement undercurrents. Without the cards in Agricola, I doubt that I would enjoy the game that much.

The game is played over 7 seasons(rounds) with a crucial mid-game drafting phase happening after the completion of the 3rd season where the players restock their hands for the last 4 rounds (7 Wonders style). Everything that happens is mostly scripted other than the cards you choose to put into play and actions that you choose to take during your 15 action opportunities.

The game is full of small micro turns that keep the game flowing especially with 4 or fewer players giving me a feeling that I have playing Eclipse or even Castles of Burgundy to include the game length. This may be off putting for some but I find the gameplay feel and play more tangible here than with Eclipse and therefore can tolerate the game length more. I have felt that I had more control over the conclusion in Dominare than hoping for Yahtzee! as we start the final battle (nodiceplease-remember).

To make this game fun right out of the box it was important to nail the first game explanation. So far, in the 7 games that I have played, I have been able to explain all of the play mechanics to gamers and family members in less than 15 minutes. The game is not that hard to learn. Heck, I learned the game from reading the rules twice as I drove home from BGG.CON and yes, I was the driver. The instructions flow very well with examples right there in the appropriate sections. Later I will cover the way that I explain the game after my discussion of the pros and cons.

The Pros:
1. The diversity of the actions: The action choices, increasing decision tree, action combinations that you can create and board interplay are very intriguing for a game that flows this smoothly. This can also be a con if you don’t like to have a lot of play options.

2. The way that the agents(cards) and the events come together is a very interesting dynamic. This is very much a game with a risk/reward system going on. There is little "random" happening when you know the consequences that might be around the corner.

3. The card design and the slotting mechanic work very well together: While the board and cubes are your standard fare, the card design and the way that the information is presented is excellent. Since the game is very much card driven it was important to get this right. I find it very easy to explain and understand. The slotting mechanic changes the agent’s actions that you can take by placing the cards in different slots. This gives many cards different purposes during different phases of the game.


Ivan can be in any slot but can only perform the "4" action if in slots 4+ otherwise only the "1" action can be used.
Likewise for Bartolomew who cannot be in the 1st slot because there is not a "1" ability on his card but can be in any slot 2+. In slot 5 he could perform any action on his card once a round.
The images below their name indicate the district where they can place influence(seal), the "base" amount of influence that the agent can place(column), the income you will gain once each round(gold) and how much the agent increases your exposure(mask)


4. Almost no in-game upkeep: You are not constantly gaining a point or two every turn having to keep up with the scoring, refilling the board, card manipulation etc. Scoring is all done at the end. The victor will not be decided until the last actions are taken. This keeps the focus on the gameplay.

5. Downtime is minimal with 4 or fewer players. Dominare feels a bit like Castles of Burgundy or Eclipse with all of the little micro-actions that you perform.

6. Excellent 2 player game We found the 2 player standard game a bit dull but the 2-player variant we use makes for an excellent battle of wits (I will mention what we do later) as this makes it a very tight battle for control. Note: Our issues with the 2 player game basic rules was that we found it a little too loose for our liking (the board is too big/open for 2 players even on the small side). The fact that we are using a variant for 2 players can be a con for some.

7. The game board is double sided to provide the players two very different experiences. That was a nice touch. My variant on the larger board can really pump up the challenge and gaming variability. I mention this at the end of this review as well.



The Cons: (or how the game may not be for you)
1. This is a game of experience. You may not "get" the game in the first play. Knowing the cards and how they interact is important to bringing out the strategic options. Dominare plays quite a bit like El Grande in many respects and the actions available change every game. If you expect to get a good feel for how it will play after one game, there may be too much to absorb to get to feeling like you have any control of the outcome. It took me 3 games to figure out how to get the best use of my agents.

2. The game is on the long side. My 2-player variant is clocking in at 90 minutes and holding. The 3 and 4 player games (all new players) was coming it at 150 and 180 minutes (normal rules). Unless we start playing really quick, I would hesitate to play with 5 or 6 players as the time to complete a play could be unbearable. It would be nice if we could get it to 30 minutes per player. We’ll see.

3. The early game is about setup and all of this can seem trivial and will likely only give you a hint of what is yet to come. Some may feel that the first 3 rounds are unnecessary and the later game too chaotic, especially with more players. I think that this along with the card play is where the replayability lies. If you explain what to expect in the last 2 rounds, you should be able to get everybody ready for what lies ahead. At least there should be fewer surprises. Putting all of your eggs in one basket is asking for them to be scrambled.

The king can be a very swingy character but in the last game I was able to limit his "6" ability significantly.
The king can only be placed in slots 6 and 7 as noted by his abilities


4. There are not enough influence markers in the box: I have had to substitute in most games that I have played during the canvassing phase (I stack "1" crown tokens beneath one of my cubes as needed). Discs have been included to help with this but due to the way that influence is placed during the canvassing phase you need a lot of cubes, not discs, to make it work right. However, generally in the later rounds you are getting bumped out of blocks and the cubes return to your stock before you "really" need them. So in total you should have plenty of material in the end. We have run close to running completely out though. This is likely reduced with more players.

5. The events might be too random for your taste: Unless you do not properly explain the events to your group, I can see this happening. The events are a risk/reward system for your aggressive nature. This is the only information in the game that is an unknown too all players. I can’t imagine this game without the events as I think that they are an important element.

6. A couple of the actions choices seems to be very weak to the point of not being a real choice. Gaining 1 crown or paying 3-9 crowns to move down 1 exposure, really? Maybe I have not hit a level of understanding about the whitewashing action but why is it so expensive? Shouldn’t the crown action at least be 2 or even 3 crowns? Even at that I don’t think that I would choose it.

Final Thoughts and Recommendation:
I have enjoyed all of my plays so far and especially the 2 player variant on the big board. Those that I have taught also seemed to enjoy it as well. I know that my son (14) is all over it. I refer to him as the "combo kid" as he seemingly can make something out of anything. Many of my initial concerns fell away as I started to see the places where a little knowledge can defend you from a catastrophic event (extortion anyone?). The card play is very interesting and so crucial to open up your possibilities while creating some nice replayability.

I find the mid-game draft as an excellent game design decision and where some skillful card drafting can be the difference between winning and losing. You have to weigh a number of factors in determining whether you need more influence (and in what district) or if the agent actions are the focus or maybe you just need to take a dangerous card away from your opponent(s).

Other than the issue of running out of influence cubes, I find the other quibbles minor and don’t really impact the game to a large degree if you have the desire to dig deeper into the design.

I would recommend Dominare to players who like depth in their games, area control mechanics, don’t mind "random" events, like snowballing effects and who enjoy finding sweet combinations through skillful/tactical play. Right now with my tough rating system, I would give it an 8 which means that I would be willing to play anytime.

How I would compare Dominare to other games that share some common ground:

Dominare > Eclipse I find Eclipse not to my taste due to the randomness of some of the game elements (dice rolls and tech draws primarily - I wrote a review for it explaining my positions). Both have direct conflict but in Dominare it is more frequent. Both have a set number of rounds which is nice.

Dominare = Castles of Burgundy as both have the slow development of the landscape through numerous very small actions. The distractions of scoring a few points here and there in CoB offsets the broader action choices available in CoB. In Dominare you are mainly focusing on getting cubes onto the board or altering the VP values of districts. This may be an extreme oversimplification. Both seem to be better with lower player counts although Dominare feels like it handles it better at keeping all of the players engaged.

El Grande (+expansions) > Dominare It would have been a tall order to knock El Grande down a peg and while Dominare is prettier to look at, El Grande (with expansions, Decennial Edition) has a greater amount of diversity in the play actions and board dynamics even though you are always playing on the same board. Dominare would receive the nod over just base El Grande due to the addition of the cards.

Mage Knight > Dominare Both games have interesting card play but Mage Knight brings an additional spatial depth and more variety with the different characters and hand manipulation. Both are long games but if I had a player with crippling AP I would choose Dominare over Mage Knight. Additionally, the landscape changes with Mage Knight brings slightly different focus from game to game beyond what cards that you draw.

Lastly, I noted that jim pinto (as he is credited, no caps) was the designer of Dominare and has credits within the original Thunderstone universe. Good job on both accounts, jim!! Thunderstone is our deck building favorite by far.

Look for a good efficient game teacher and enjoy.

The review ends here. What follows is my teaching and variant appendix.

How I have been explaining Dominare:

What I feel is important to know as you teach/play your first game:
1. Start at the end, talk about end game scoring: Go over the end game goals first as they are fairly straightforward and easy to understand (majority of blocks controlled score VPs for the district, each block controlled gain the VPs noted and a couple of agents may provide a couple of points). From this you subtract your exposure which is a little more complicated to explain and should be explained with the next item:

2. Let everyone know what the advantages/disadvantages are for going first: Discuss how a player becomes the scapegoat(start player) and how this relates to event cards. This is very crucial because unknown card draws can lead to bad feelings and a poor gaming experience ("Random events really stink" etc). It is at this point that I mention the following:
--- a. Playing stronger agents may permit you to take stronger actions but it will increase your exposure possibly making you the scapegoat for the city.
--- b. Having the greatest exposure means that you will be the target of many of the events due to your scapegoat status and as such will be frequently punished, possibly unfairly and often, for your aggressive nature.
--- c. On the upside, as the scapegoat you get to control how the end game victory points will be awarded for each district by manipulating 2 districts each season(round).
--- d. On the downside, you will play first in the last season(round) and that can be very damaging to some of your positions. Others can react to what you did but you may not be able to, thus causing you to possibly lose some of your holdings in the last round. Plus you may lose a few points for being "overexposed".
--- e. It is also important to consider not spreading yourself too thin (1 or 2 influence in a district block) and to have some money (crowns) on hand to prevent some of the harsher events. It is possible to have your entire district wiped out or to lose all/most of your agents in a few/many blocks with one event if you are this reckless.

3. Deal with Data Overload: There is quite a bit of information to each player needs to review before putting their first agent into play (you will be putting into play 7+ during the game). Each agent contributes to the possible actions that you, and only you, are able to take. You will start the game drawing 8 cards that need to be pared down to 3 before the first conspiracy phase (putting an agent into play). It is here that you should discuss the following: (there are a number of suggested starting hands which should help get things going)
--- a. Each agent played must be appropriate for the slot that it will be placed in permitting the agent to take actions (an agent with a "3" as his/her lowest ability cannot take action if placed in the 2nd slot and therefore cannot be placed in that position). If you cannot place an agent, you will be getting a random agent off of the top of the deck and that is not a wise decision.
--- b. The 4, 5 and especially the 6 and 7 slot actions can be very, very powerful (game changing). It is important that during the mid-game drafting phase that you are stocking up to execute your end game strategy and are aware of what others might be considering.
--- c. Additionally, it is important to go over how the canvassing phase works (placing influence and how to spread influence especially with the "shadowlanders") and how you can benefit by playing certain agents next to each other (increasing the amount of influence that you can place).

4. Cover the Key Basic Actions: Some of the key basic actions to take note of in addition to those that your agents can perform are: (You will only take 15 total actions during the contest)
--- a. Recruiting (drafting new agents to your hand, a good early round choice)
--- b. Replacing (possibly gaining a "free action", making a crucial link, or directing your later plays, can be good game long)
--- c. Inspiring (paying to place influence - making sure to relate the districts current VP status and how it relates to the cost. Can be costly later in the game but if you have the cash you might be able to gain control of a district/block to make a good point swing.)
--- d. District Actions (if you control more blocks than all other players you are granted the ability to choose from one or more additional actions. Many seem trivial but if you can combine them with agent actions can supplement your play well throughout the game.)
--- e. The other basic actions are of little concern (both appear to be very weak choices for actions and therefore should not be considered). I have been relaying as such. I have never chosen either.
----- i. Gain 1 crown(I would never choose this, ever) You can get money in greater quantities through the playing of your agents.
----- ii. Whitewashing (pay extortion prices to lower your exposure? in round 6 at 8 coins per position an extremely rare "maybe") There are better ways to deal with your exposure than this action.

5. At this point your players should be ready to begin play. The base actions are easy to explain and the area control elements will make sense to those familiar with the normal mechanics. There is no luck in placing influence (no die rolls etc.). For the most part the rest of the table will know what you are capable of doing.

2 player variant: (a highly competitive variant)
1. Choose 1 neutral color

2. Each round after the event phase and before either player executes the canvassing phase, each player takes influence markers equal to the season (round) number of the same neutral color to place onto the board beginning with the scapegoat. [Ex. Each places 1 in round 1, 2 in round 2 etc.]
--- a. For the first 3 seasons(rounds) each player must place the influence in a single district block not occupied by the neutrals with the scapegoat determining whether to permit conflict to occur with the neutrals. If the scapegoat does not attack, then no one can (unless there is no other option).
--- b. Beginning in the 4th round, the players may split the influence (but no fewer than 2) into different blocks not currently occupied by the neutral player. Adjacency restrictions within a district as defined in the rules are maintained other than paying for spreading influence (there is no cost for spreading neutral influence). However, each player may choose to place influence in multiple districts for no additional cost. Therefore in round 4 you could choose to put 2 influence in the church and 2 into the senate.

Additional Notes:
1. The neutral player is "another player" when agent actions permit this type of interaction. However, the neutral player is not affected by any action that deals with crowns (the action can still be assigned to him but with no affect). The neutral does not give nor receive crowns. Having the neutral as another player is important to give the game all of its gaming options especially those on the agent cards, in my opinion.

2. The neutral player can be attacked just like any other player.

3. The neutral player is considered when determining who controls a district. However, the neutral player will not take event actions as the controlling player during the event phase.

I don’t know how complicated the above seems to the reader but it flows very well in practice. It makes for some interesting decision making especially when the scapegoat is deciding whether to attack knowing that this will also bring the wrath down on him as well. In the last game I played, my opponent used a crucial neutral placement to aid in executing a "7" action. It was a very clever play.

It is possible that the above rules may also work for 3 players playing on the larger board, although I have not tried it, yet.

Large Board Variant:
Additionally, to play on the larger board with a lower player count (2-3 players) we use disks of 2 unused colors to "quarantine" district blocks for the entire game (the disks are not considered for control and cannot be attacked/removed for any reason). In this way the board can be different each time you play. The players alternate putting down the discs during setup until all have been placed with the following restrictions:

1. No more than 1 disk may be placed in any district with 4 or fewer blocks
2. No more than 2 in those with 5-9 blocks
3. No more than 3 may be placed in any district with 10 or more blocks.
4. At no point during the disk placement can the total VPs covered be more than 10. The (-) blocks count as such.

Play the game normally or with the 2 player variant above from now on.

All images found on BGG, thanks for those who uploaded them

Thanks for reading and enjoy!
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Lee Shelton

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Few things I thought I'd throw out there-

1) Your caption of King Arnaud mentions he can only be placed in rank 6 or 7 of the conspiracy. Not strictly true- you could put him in at any rank, but you would be unable to make use of his actions in earlier ranks.

2) You're really right about the "gain 1 crown" action. It's effectively a pass. I have seen this done very rarely; unless you can think of a reason that 1 crown would grant you additional options on your next action, Recruiting would basically always tend to be a better standby action.

3) Whitewashing can be a very big deal late in the game, if paying crowns that you don't have a good use for anyway results in you taking a smaller (or not taking a) point penalty based on endgame exposure values. Accordingly, it's expensive. Planning ahead and doing it earlier can mitigate a significant portion of the cost, if you have the action to spare.

Also: have you ever ran out of cubes in a non-2-player game? Just curious.
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Tony Irwin
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Fantastic review! I'm already planning to snap this one up, but your review helped give me realistic expectations of what to expect in first plays. Also really appreciated your tips on teaching it.

What did you make of the theming? In the first two agent cards you show, there was certainly some sense of theming in the agent abilities: the knave guy is stealing crowns from other players, but in all the cards I've seen so far it's still just very much using agents to shuffle influence and crowns around the board and players: they just have different restrictions on how they shuffle all this stuff about.

Because the abilities aren't given names it's up to the players to imagine what the agent is actually doing when they trigger these effects (easy to do with that particular knave, but much less so with other ones I've seen), and the similarities of all the different abilities I've seen makes it even harder to get that sense of "exciting conspiracy stuff is happening right now!" instead of "Ok, I reduce my exposure by 3..."

Which surprises me - because many other features of the game make it look like it's been cleverly set up to create this driving, epic narrative with all kinds of craziness exploding in the city by the time you get to the last couple of seasons.

Are you coming away from this game with stories?

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bryden
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nlshelton wrote:
Few things I thought I'd throw out there-

1) Your caption of King Arnaud mentions he can only be placed in rank 6 or 7 of the conspiracy. Not strictly true- you could put him in at any rank, but you would be unable to make use of his actions in earlier ranks.

Thanks for this comment. I need to review this again. Another little strategic point that might be able to be exploited in the right situation.

nlshelton wrote:
2) You're really right about the "gain 1 crown" action. It's effectively a pass. I have seen this done very rarely; unless you can think of a reason that 1 crown would grant you additional options on your next action, Recruiting would basically always tend to be a better standby action.

Agreed, recruit is the best no cost action most times, especially early.

nlshelton wrote:
3) Whitewashing can be a very big deal late in the game, if paying crowns that you don't have a good use for anyway results in you taking a smaller (or not taking a) point penalty based on endgame exposure values. Accordingly, it's expensive. Planning ahead and doing it earlier can mitigate a significant portion of the cost, if you have the action to spare.

I figured that would be when you might want to do that. I hope I never get in a situation where that is my best option.

nlshelton wrote:
Also: have you ever ran out of cubes in a non-2-player game? Just curious.

Very, very close. 3 cubes left, all disks were used. We have increased our agression as of late but still you can lay down some serious influence in those later rounds and this is where we have issues. We ran out during round 7 of the last game but with attrition had about 10-15 total influence points left.
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bryden
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Tony Irwin wrote:
Fantastic review! I'm already planning to snap this one up, but your review helped give me realistic expectations of what to expect in first plays. Also really appreciated your tips on teaching it.

Thanks, no problem.

Tony Irwin wrote:
What did you make of the theming? In the first two agent cards you show, there was certainly some sense of theming in the agent abilities: the knave guy is stealing crowns from other players, but in all the cards I've seen so far it's still just very much using agents to shuffle influence and crowns around the board and players: they just have different restrictions on how they shuffle all this stuff about.

Because the abilities aren't given names it's up to the players to imagine what the agent is actually doing when they trigger these effects (easy to do with that particular knave, but much less so with other ones I've seen), and the similarities of all the different abilities I've seen makes it even harder to get that sense of "exciting conspiracy stuff is happening right now!" instead of "Ok, I reduce my exposure by 3..."

Which surprises me - because many other features of the game make it look like it's been cleverly set up to create this driving, epic narrative with all kinds of craziness exploding in the city by the time you get to the last couple of seasons.

Are you coming away from this game with stories?

Good question, I had not thought about it. I don't get an overwhelming sense of narrative in the game as a whole (it is just cleverly pushing cubes about). However the strength, abilities etc. of each agent fits an overall theme for its group. The clergy tends to push influence into other districts, the senators tend to affect the VPs of other districts, the shadowlands are into moving influence around etc.

As a whole, while you can specialize a bit, it is about creating a group of agents who work the best together and this is where you can "tie" the agents together using their traits. This creates a feeling that the 2 "characters" are working together to more heavily influence their areas. Some agents might be Clergy / Senators or Knave / Plebians or Plebian / Clergy etc.

The attention to detail in creating the story surrounding the game theme is impressive but not immersive.

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Jacob Lee
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Finally! A Dominare review! And a good one, too. Thanks for sharing. The pros are all good, a couple of the cons are holding me back: length is not too much of a problem, but random events? Are there a lot of them? Are they Urban Sprawl-style random? Because I still regret buying that game.
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bryden
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EmperorJacob wrote:
Finally! A Dominare review! And a good one, too. Thanks for sharing. The pros are all good, a couple of the cons are holding me back: length is not too much of a problem, but random events? Are there a lot of them? Are they Urban Sprawl-style random? Because I still regret buying that game.

Hardly, you know if you will be impacted by an event (you have played the agents which have given you the greatest exposure). The tough part about the events would be if there are 2 players that are tied with the most exposure and fighting for the lead and then finds themselves unprepared causing a loss. I have yet to see it happen but it is possible.

There will be 7 events flipped (no more) that will primarily impact the scapegoat (start player). There are a few events that are particularly powerful (extortion, for example) but by planning a proper money cushion or getting an agent who can review/switch the order of events you should be able to side step the full effect.

After resolving the event effect you then get to change the victory points that 2 districts are worth (one up and one down). This usually balances any effects that may impact you.

We are getting to the point where we want to be in front in the latter half of the game but not on the last turn if possible to be able to take actions last. The winner has often been hit the most by the events so I would categorize them more as a nuisance than "swingy".

If you let your group know about the possibilities your group should adjust their play accordingly. I don't think that it is a problem, more a necessity to give the game an additional point to fight over.
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Adam Kazimierczak
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The initial buzz on Dominare made it look like a meatier version of Lords of Waterdeep, but now they don't even seem on the same playing field. I wonder how it compares to Fallen City of Karez, which has similar elements.

Overall the game length and event randomness still keep me in the "wait and see" camp, although this review did a good job of putting it back on my radar.
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Lee Shelton

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Here's the thing about events. They provide the main mechanism for adjusting VP values of districts during the game, and the Scapegoat always gets to make the decision of how. While some bad stuff happens to the Scapegoat, particularly endgame, dominating how the VP adjustments go the whole game can be very clutch, particularly if you can whitewash your way out of the top in Season 7. The other bits on the card are just extra fun, really, and tend to rarely have a major impact (there are some that pack a wallop.)
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Einmal ist keinmal
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NoDicePlease wrote:



Lastly, I noted that jim pinto (as he is credited, no caps) was the designer of Dominare...

?? Looks like it is all caps to me.
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Edward Bolme
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The font used for credits on the cover is all caps.

In the credits section of the rules, he is listed s jim pinto.
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Edd Allard
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NoDicePlease wrote:
nlshelton wrote:
Few things I thought I'd throw out there-

1) Your caption of King Arnaud mentions he can only be placed in rank 6 or 7 of the conspiracy. Not strictly true- you could put him in at any rank, but you would be unable to make use of his actions in earlier ranks.

Thanks for this comment. I need to review this again. Another little strategic point that might be able to be exploited in the right situation.

This is at the heart of my rules question (http://www.boardgamegeek.com/thread/904992/what-constitutes-...). I'm awaiting an official answer, but this can really impact a game. While it makes sense to get a card down in a rank that allows some actions, you might want to forego that in order to get a character down that can sow a lot of influence or gain more crowns (money), especially in the early game.
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Edward Bolme
United States
Charlotte
North Carolina
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Barring text on the card itself that specifically restricts it (e.g., "This agent cannot be placed in rank 1"), any agent can be placed in any rank.
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Edd Allard
United States
Colorado Springs
Colorado
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Thanks! Love that AEG is supporting their games on the geek!
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