Dominion hit the board game world like a ton of bricks. It basically invented a new kind of board game: Deck Building. Dominion has had a huge influence on card games, and has opened up new design space that other designers have explored. Sure, you were able to build decks in Magic: The Gathering for years, but it was never the actual game. You see, good deck building in M:tG is a DAUNTING task for new players. Not only is it expensive, a good deck requires tons of playtesting. This is why the M:tG community is so focused on Netdecks- You don’t have time for the kind of playtesting that is really needed to come up with a good deck. Or you do, but you really aren’t interested in playing the same game 100 times. I understand your pain.
For years people had been playing M:tG in limited formats such as draft, cube or sealed. Perfectly fine, but they require a lot of investment either in packs, or in individual cards. Myles has a fantastic cube but that thing would cost someone thousands of dollars in both card prices and time. Suffice it to say, a Cube is a huge undertaking; draft and sealed are less expensive, but can become WAY MORE EXPENSIVE over time.
Into this void stepped Dominion. Dominion was the first game to take the deck building and make it an integral part of the game (or it was the first POPULAR game). In Dominion, each player can buy cards from a pool of communal cards, buying up power cards, and buying up victory points. The best design element, in my opinion, is that the more victory points you buy, the shittier your deck gets. So you are trying to make the most efficient, well oiled machine you can, and then to win you have to load it down with cards that do nothing. There may be turns where you just draw a hand full of useless garbage. The basic rule is that you draw one card, play any cards in your hand and then buy a card. The cards all do different things – some of them let you draw more cards, some of them give you more coins to buy more cards, some of them let you buy more cards. Some of the cards let you mess with the other players’ hands or coins or deck. The design is simple, the cards are all easily understandable, and things are very easy to learn. This is a game that would be great to get people into the hobby. You will not have to spend more than two to five minutes explaining the game to the other players. If the players are at all familiar with other card games, you’ll be playing in no time.
Another great thing about this game is how quickly it plays. Games last about 30 minutes and there’s a ton of replayability. The cards on the board are constantly changing from game to game. In one game there will be witches who curse everyone else and in other games there will be cutpurses who steal from every other player. Unfortunately, there are cards that emerge as really good, and there’s usually a mad dash at the beginning to get these cards. Some cards will inevitably get ignored for a variety of reasons – some of the cards that make a certain strategy viable will not be available, or there are just really efficient cards that are obviously better than other cards. If you know the principle of card advantage from M:tG (aim to draw more cards than your opponents) Dominion delivers very obvious tracks to success. There are some interesting strategies that emerge, but a good deal of the strategies will not be as viable as just buying up coins or getting cards with clear card advantage.
Aside time: Of course I know that there are numerous expansions for Dominion. I know that they change the game in interesting ways for the better in some cases. I am aware that the base game is probably not as good as the later expansions or stand-alone expansions. That being said, someone buying into Dominion without any prior knowledge, is PROBABLY going to buy the base set, or maybe the first stand-alone expansion.
So with all of these great elements of design – easy to learn, simple mechanics, lots of strategic depth – why does it sit on my shelf so that I can play other games instead? I haven’t played a TON of Dominion, but I’ve played it more than I’ve played something like Puerto Rico or Agricola. I’ve tried out a lot of the other expansions. I’m not an authority on Dominion, but I knows what I likes.
And I’m usually not very excited about Dominion.
The reason why I’m not excited about Dominion is the reason why I’m usually not impressed with a lot of games. My favourite games are games of deep strategy and player interaction. I also enjoy games like the aforementioned Puerto Rico or Agricola even though they aren’t hugely interactive. There’s probably a perfect formula for the games I most enjoy, but to be honest, I would enjoy games that don’t adhere perfectly to that formula. The games I most enjoy are the games where I have to care about what other players are doing, I can have an effect upon their turn, and I actually have to talk to the other players.
In a game of Dominion, I usually don’t care what the other players are doing, aside from what cards they buy. Each player may spend 2 minutes delightfully playing cards, working their hand in numerous ways, trying to get the best buy possible, and all of the other players are just bored. Sure, there’s an objective enjoyment of the perfection of their plays, but past that I usually don’t care at all. I also don’t need to talk to anyone. You can play a game of Dominion in silence for the most part. I’m not keen on Dominion because when I sit down for a gaming session I want to interact with the people I’m playing with.
The other reason I don’t really like Dominion is that I think Dominion is a bit more like a puzzle than it is an actual game. There’s going to be cards that are better than other cards. There are going to be ways of building your deck that are better than other ways. There are going to be ways of playing your hand that are completely obvious after 3 games. Granted, there are definitely creative and interesting strategies, but those need testing and it is very hard to get your test on in the middle of an hour long 4-player game. So most of the time, you’ll return to time tested strategies of Big Money or Card Advantage Engines and just play the same kind of game over and over again. Some of the expansions mix this up, but you’ll still gravitate towards those styles of play because they are obvious and you want to win.
Compared to something like Agricola or Puerto Rico, where you are also building your own little kingdom, every other player’s turn really matters and affects every other player, and the turns don’t take up ANY time at all. Dominion turns are relatively quick, but if you’re playing with 4 people, you’ve probably got about 5ish minutes where you don’t have to care about what is happening. That’s a lot of downtime in an hour long game. There is still a lot of downtime in a game of Puerto Rico or Agricola, but each choice the other players make makes your choices different. The downtime is filled with predictions, choices and their choices often lead you to having to make your own choices (like in Puerto Rico). Sure, you could put your mind to which cards you were going to buy, etc., but your hand may have changed or the available cards may have changed and there’s very little point in precisely planning out your turn. This particular criticism is minor, but compounded by the fact that there’s just very little to do while everyone else is playing the game.
Dominion is a game that I both love and am ambivalent about. It’s never something I’m excited to play, but when I do play it, it is an enjoyable experience because it’s not too long, and it’s a very good game. I just think that your board game time can be spent actually playing a game with the people who you’ve invited over.