Every so often a game comes along that so purely exemplifies an idea that it defines a new mechanism.  Dominion is such a game.  It introduced deck building as a named mechanism into the hobby. Sure, this concept existed in some games before it’s release, but none defined it so well as Dominion. It took the fun deckbuilding part of CCGs and made a game out of it.

Before a game of Dominion starts, players will set out ten sets of randomly selected Kingdom cards and some other standard cards (money and victory points). Each player starts with a deck of ten basic cards – a mix of money and victory points. They will draw a hand of five cards from that starting deck and use the money in it to buy more cards to put into their deck. Each player is allowed one Action and one Buy on their turn. Most Kingdom cards are Actions which, once purchased and in their hand, can be played on their turn as their Action. These cards enhance the player’s ability to do things on their turn, like taking additional actions, buying more cards, drawing more cards into their hand, or attacking other players. So players will add Actions, additional money or victory points to their decks building their own deck throughout the game. Once all of the highest value victory point cards have been purchased the game is over and the player with the most victory points wins.

THEME

The theme in Dominion is fairly thin and simple. You play as a lord trying to grow your influence through obtaining Estates, Duchies, and Provinces (victory points). You do this by adding cards to your deck that increase your wealth or your ability gain more cards.

I understand what the theme is trying to convey but it really is very weak. Many of the cards do act within the game as you would expect. A Moat card protects you from being attacked. But I may have 3 Moat cards in my deck. They aren’t attached to castles anywhere so they become just an abstracted way to protect yourself.  The theme is very abstracted for the sake of the mechanism. 

Even if most of the game feels this way there are a few cards that play out very thematically. For example, the Bureaucrat gives you money while at the same time hurting your opponent’s next hands. But unfortunately, this is the exception.

I don’t feel like I am building a Kingdom. I feel like I am building a deck of cards with medieval art on them.

COMPONENTS AND ART

Most of the components you get in Dominion are, of course, cards. As far as cards go, they are great. I can’t count how many times I have played this game and they have held up very well. You do start to see some white edges on the cards that have been played with the most but that is normal. Sleeve if you wish but just know it will take some doing. Some expansions come with nifty little tokens to track certain elements of the game and all of these are fine too. Nothing flashy, but solid.

I actually really enjoy the artwork in Dominion. It has a very CCG or TCG feel to it as each card has a different image evoking what that card is and does. If not for the artwork this game would be completely themeless.

MECHANISMS

The Deck Building mechanism that Dominion introduced is where the game really shines.  Some will argue that it is too simple (by current design standards) to be a whole game, but I disagree.  A game does not require multiple mechanisms to be fun or offer interesting choices.  Dominion provides both.

Variability
The base game of dominion comes with 25 different sets of Kingdom cards.  In each game you will use 10 of them so just in the base box you get a ton a variety as different groups of sets will play differently.  Add to that the shuffling and drawing aspect of the game and you end up with a game with tons of set up variety and in-game variety.  Then add to that the number of expansions available that add new Kingdom cards and new types of cards in general and you have a game replete with variation.

Strategy and Tactics
The deck building mechanism provides players with both strategic and tactical choices. Players must decide which Kingdom cards to buy based on combos they want to build providing long-term strategic decisions. But players must also make short-term tactical decisions based on the cards they draw from the deck.

Engine Building and the Pivot
Deck building is one of the purest forms of engine building. The deck you build throughout the game is the physical representation of your victory point engine. You need to add the right things to it, or take the right things away to create the most efficient engine and the highest likelihood of pulling off the combos you want.

Then you must decide when to pivot from building and refining your deck to gathering victory points. You don’t want to start too soon or you will bog your deck down with victory point cards that don’t do anything else for you. But I love this tension between building your engine and winning the game.

The Joy of Chaining
Dominion is all about getting the right cards into your deck (then to your hand) to create combinations that will help you get big victory points.  It can be very satisfying to plop down card after card, building a long chain that will drive you towards getting one of those big victory point cards. It is especially fun to draw new cards from your deck in the middle of a chain to find that the new cards fit right in and keep the chain going. It can be a bit disappointing when a chain leads to nothing, but it’s still fun to put all those cards down.

RATING:

Try this game if you like:

  • Ascension
  • Thunderstone
  • Star Realms
  • Quarriors

FINAL THOUGHTS

Dominion currently sits at number 3 on my top 10.  It holds this place for a reason. Once taught, it is easy to get to the table, quick to play, and just plain fun. Add to that my wife’s enjoyment of the game and it doesn’t get much better for me. Continual expansions have kept the gameplay fresh and interesting but don’t feel like you need to get all of them or even any of them. If you haven’t played Dominion yet, just buy the base set and get a few quick plays under your belt. Nothing more required. If you want more Dominion after that, there is a lot more to sink your teeth into.

This does not make Dominion a perfect game. It suffers from constantly shuffling your cards (which some people enjoy since it gives them something to do when it isn’t their turn). The theme of the game really isn’t there for me. I don’t feel like I am building a cohesive kingdom. I feel like I am building a deck of cards with medieval art on them. It also suffers from text overload for new players. It can take a bit to digest the text on ten different cards the first few times you play.

I feel like Dominion is getting the hipster treatment from the board gaming community these days like Settlers (of Catan) is.  It has gained enough popularity and ubiquity in the hobby that people react negatively to it. Sure, lots of other deck builders have come and gone since its release but that does not detract from the simple greatness of Dominion. I have played this game too many times to count and I will continue to play it. It is most definitely worth a place on your shelf.

Recommended Expansions

Prosperity

This expansion focuses on expanding the top end of the game adding the Colony (worth 10 VPs) and the Platinum (worth 8 money) as well as Kingdom cards that feed into this. This is probably my favorite expansion. Highly recommended.

Intrigue

Intrigue is a great expansion if you are looking for more player interaction. There are lots of attack cards in here and other ways to mess with your opponents. Add to that another set of VP and money cards and you have a great set.

Seaside

Seaside is all about planning for the future. It adds Duration cards that, when played, give you some benefit now and then something for a future turn. It also has cards that allow you to set things aside to pick up later when they are needed.