I read about Dominion. I thought it sounded interesting. I played it. This is what I thought. Makes you realise how succinct and to the point "Vini, Vidi, Vici" is when it comes to tripartite quotes, doesn't it?
People often hold up Go as the premium example of the amount of strategic decisions that can be extracted out of a simple rules set. I have scoffed in the past at the idea that any modern design is going to come close to Go in this regard. Dominion certainly doesn't, but it does come close to coming close. Once you've managed to get to grips with one single, slightly confusing concept, it's all plain sailing.
You start out with ten cards. Three of them are worth one victory point each. The other seven are worth one coin each. On the table will be ten stacks each of ten "kingdom" cards together with stacks of cards worth one, three and six VPs and one, two and three coins. There are a goodly number of different "kingdom" cards in the game and because you're only playing with ten different ones each game, there is a very large number of possible combinations.
During a turn you take your deck of cards and deal yourself five. Then there's the famous "ABC" motif. First, if you have action cards in your hand you can play one. These cards do various things - they might allow you to draw more cards, give you "virtual" coins to go shopping with, give you the chance to play more action cards and so on. Then, after you've played all the action cards you can (action cards which allow you to play more action cards, thus creating a chain of effects are very popular). Then you can use coin cards in your hand and virtual coins received from action cards to buy more cards and add them to your deck: you might wish to buy new action cards, some higher-value coin cards (which offer you more purchasing power since you only have five cards in your hand at a time) and eventually you'll want to buy some victory point cards in an attempt to win the game. Finally you clean up which involves taking your hand, your deck and your discard pile and shuffling them all together, ready for the next round. Repeat until an end game condition is met (most frequently when the highest-value VP card stack runs out) and then everyone totals up the VP cards in their hands to determine the winner.
And that's it basically. So simple that anyone could learn and play, right?
Wrong. And this is one reason why it's only comes close to coming close to Go in terms of simplicity. In order to play effectively you need to know what each and every one of the ten kingdom cards available do. The text on the cards isn't long or demanding but it does add to the learning curve. Given the fact that there are twenty-five different kingdom cards to choose from there are actually quite a few more rules than the apparently sparse rule booklet might suggest. Don't get me wrong - this is a pretty simple game which is easy to teach and learn - but this hidden complexity is one reason Dominion might not be a game you want to break out and play with new gamers or family members. We'll come back to the other reason shortly.
Oh, and the one gotcha which isn't all that well explained in the rules is the difference between the discard and the trash. Most cards, when played, get discarded and these eventually get shuffled back in to your deck during the clean up phase. A small number of effects allow cards to get trashed, and these are removed from the game entirely.
The more you play this, the more you'll realise how cleverly the parts of this simple game interlock to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts. The victory points, for example, that you need to eventually win come in card form just like everything else in the game. So that means the more of them you accumulate, the less likely you are to actually draw useful action and gold cards from your deck, thus hobbling the stronger players without the need for an artificial balancing mechanism. Because of this the most popular route to victory is to buy as many of the highest value VP cards as possible to maximise your score without clogging up your hand. But as is usually the case with this game, another card - The Garden - can turn all this on it's head and make it useful to collect as many cards as possible instead. It's all a bit swings and roundabouts, but it works.
There's no escaping that however clever, shiny and new Dominion looks and however much it poses as being all things to all people, what with those "attack" cards in the deck and an apparent medieval theme, this is very much an optimal efficiency game. The challenge is to look at the mix of kingdom cards that are available and decide what combinations of what cards are going to allow you to build a platform with which to buy more expensive cards as quickly as possible. There is - thankfully - more to Dominion than this but when you strip it down to its bare essentials, this is what you'll find at the raw, exposed heart of the game.
It's not an easy choice though. The different cards are cunningly balanced to permit different combinations of plays. Sometimes you'll need a balanced approach of cards that give you more actions, more coins, more buys. Sometimes a combination of cards will allow you to skip one of these requirements entirely - I won a game of this having bought hardly any higher-value coin cards at all and relying almost totally on bonus coins from action cards. A pleasing aspect of the game is that with any given combination of cards there is usually more than one way to approach the problem of buying up those big 6VP cards and picking the right one can be tough. So you're faced with two levels of decision making - both tactical and strategic decisions - which is really quite an impressive achievement for such a simple game. But the decision making is still, I should emphasise, largely about optimisation.
Where it doesn't come to be about optimisation is in the shape and form of "attack" cards. Some of the kingdom cards on offer - and no-one says you have to put any into a given game if you don't want to - allow you to do nasty things to other players. These effects always target all your opponents equally so there's no tit-for-tat play on offer with the resulting need to start bringing negotiation skills in to the game, but they certainly do allow a limited degree of reactive play. If someone is loading up on Thief cards then kingdom cards that allow you to get purchasing power without needing actual coins cards suddenly look very attractive. Or alternatively you might want to start buying defensive cards such as the Moat or countering by buying up Thief cards yourself in the hope of stealing back your purloined gold. It's not much, but for me at least, it's just about enough in the way of interaction - and "multiplayer solitaire" this certainly isn't.
This sort of on-the-fly decision making really comes into its own though when you get four players at the table. The major reason for this is that the pool of kingdom cards in each game is limited to ten of each card that you're using. In a two player game this means that basically you can both simply build your deck of choice and not care at all about what your opponent is doing. As the number of players increases, there starts to be a run on the most popular cards and then, suddenly, things get interesting: if there's only one kingdom card in the game that gives you bonus actions, everyone is going to want as many copies as possible. This means that although you might start the game by examining the kingdom cards on offer and deciding what the most efficient combination will be and going for it, you might find you need to react much more to the choices your opponents are making and changing your overall strategy to account for runs on certain cards and what this implies about the sorts of decks other people are building. The result is not only an increase the level of tension and interaction in the game but another dimension to the decision making, since you're now wondering whether to waste a hand buying a cheaper card than you can afford just to deny it to someone else.
The game lacks any sense of spatial choice. Even in CCGs you usually had some sort of choice as to what attacks and what defends, but that sort of decision making is entirely absent here. There is, obviously, an element of chance in the random shuffle and draw of cards and sometimes you'll get a lucky early hand allowing you to get a powerful card and sometimes you'll get an absolute dog which will be of no use at all. But skill very much predominates, to the point where I sincerely doubt if a new player would have any chance at all of beating a more experienced opponents even with a hefty slice of aid from Dame Fortune. It's these two aspects of the game, together with its optimisation-driven nature, that are the other reason why I think this probably isn't a very good family game - non-gamers, in my experience, simply don't take to these sorts of theme-disconnected efficiency engine games at all well, because they have nothing in their real life or family gaming experience to associate it with and use as a basis for learning the game.
It's simple to learn. It's also fast. You're looking at probably ten minutes per player, tops for this game. Some combinations of available kingdom cards make games run faster than others so experienced players will actually have a measure of control over game length.
However, other aspects of the logistics aren't so pleasingly slick. You'll need to sort your cards out into their various stacks before you play, which is a minor pain. You'll also need to pick which ten cards you'll need to use: you can't just grab ten different kingdom cards, pile 'em up and play. I'm not sure there are any unbalanced combinations in the game, but there are certainly some which create dull or frustrating games (trying playing with the Witch card but without a Moat or Chapel in the mix). So set up and tear down aren't entirely seamless affairs and while they're nothing particularly arduous I do find that they're arduous enough to limit the value of Dominion as filler - once you've got it out, you'll ideally want to play a few hands in a row before you put it away again.
The worst thing though, as many others have noted, is the interminable shuffling. You start with ten cards, and your hand will grow: usually to 20 or so cards or occasionally more if you have the Witch or the Garden in play. Every time you play a hand you clean up your deck and shuffle. You'll do this maybe twenty to thirty times in each game. They better be good shuffles too else your deck will start to become stacked and this might annoy the other players if they're all shuffling properly. It is pretty arduous - if you're playing two player it's possible for the turns to come round fast enough that you haven't actually finished shuffling by the time it's your go. Not likely, but definitely annoying.
For my money - and I suspect I'm in a minority here - this is a game which plays best with four. Three is pretty good too. Two can be really very dull and is pretty much a straight-up efficiency exercise. The primary reason for this is that the more players you have, the greater the level of interaction there is in the game and the more the players have to watch carefully to see what's going on and adjust their plays accordingly. The fact that all the "attack" cards work on all your opponents equally means they also tend to be more fun with more players.
In spite of the sometimes negative opinions that I've just expressed about Dominion I have to confess that it is undeniably addictive. A big part of this is that it has that elusive "I'll do better next time" quality. Maybe it's because you'll understand the card mix on offer next time. Maybe it's because you'll get better draws next time. Maybe it's because you'll be able to use your attacks more efficiently next time. Whatever the reason it does keep on drawing you back to play another one.
But here's the curious thing. I feel that pull. I keep on sitting down for another hand. And yet often, almost as soon as I've started, I regret it. Because beyond the "I'll do better next time" I don't find the game offers much in the way of a hook to keep me interested, resulting in a bizarre situation where I really enjoy the first few rounds and then become progressively disinterested as the game goes on, only to be suckered back in to another one. This is, by far, by biggest complaint about Dominion.
This is partly because of the nature of the play - you make big decisions at the start of the game but once your deck is operating properly it kind of plays itself. But this isn't a major issue because it's kind of fun watching your cards doing what they're supposed to be doing and building up huge chains of buys and actions. No, the biggest reason for this is the thinness of the theme. Now, I know this is a Eurogame. I didn't come here looking for theme. But the absolute lack of narrative to be found in this game beggars belief. The premise on offer - that you're a medieval noble in a race to grab unclaimed land - is pretty unbelievable in the first place. I'm sure I don't need to point out that unclaimed land was a rarity in feudal systems well before the Middle Ages or that nobles in that period of history favoured violence over economics as a method of settling territorial disputes. And if that's not enough for you then a read the appallingly written introductory "setting" paragraphs in the rules should settle any doubts you might have as to how poorly considered the theme was when it came to designing this game. More problematically still the game offers no solid sense that you're actually building anything. In other games of this ilk - popular titles such as Agricola and Puerto Rico - you do at least get a sense of gradually building something. As time passes you add things to your little empire and there’s a genuine sense that what you're getting now is better than what you had before. Dominion doesn't manage to create this illusion, partly because you're limited to five cards each turn which stops you from seeing the extent of your Dominion in all its glory, and partly because some of the more useful cards - such as the Village - are actually ones you can buy commonly right at the start of the game. Indeed with a lucky first-turn draw you can buy nearly any kingdom card in play.
The fact of the matter is that my experience of playing Dominion has varied hugely from eye-watering tedious to borderline brilliant. It's not hard to pin this down to the deck that's in play and the number of people playing. Use the starter deck suggested in the rules and two players and this can rank amongst the most turgid yawn-fests available in modern gaming. Get four like-minded and preferably chatty gamers round the table, serve up a kingdom card mix including at least one of the nastier attack cards, the Moat, either the Chapel or the Remodel, the Gardens and enough other cards to allow at least two different approaches to strategy and you're in for a treat (the official "Size Distortion" deck from the rules conforms to all these suggestions and is great fun). The variety of cards on offer means that you can make Dominion into basically whatever you want it to be - remembering of course that however you stack the deck it is, and remains, an efficiency game at the core.
In terms of expansions this is a new game, so there aren't any. But I thought I had to mention that this is a game which is absolutely begging for expansions. It's modular nature is clearly very expansion friendly for starters. But what really intrigues me about the possibility of expanding the game is that the already clever design that has gone into making the framework could, with a little more clever design, support expansions which could make this game into something which might suit almost any taste in games. I'd like more one-on-one interaction - so why not introduce an expansion which allows this, or event introduces elements of bluff and negotiation? Some people might not like the attack cards - so why not have an expansion which provides some more defensive cards to work with. I could go on and on in this vein. The game really does offer a quite startling number of potential variations, especially if the designers and players are willing to tolerate an increase in complexity along with some of the expansions. It may well turn out to be that the long-term future success of this game stands or falls on how good, varied, imaginative and daring the expansions turn out to be.
I've mentioned several times during the course of this review how the kingdom card mix can be altered to better suit people who like different kinds of games. But I get a funny feeling playing Dominion: it's almost as if the game is trying too hard to offer something for everyone and ending up a little bit short in every department. I can't help but wonder if this is related to the now infamous level of play testing that was carried out on this game: it's almost like too many of the rough edges have been smoothed off, resulting in something which is definitely pleasing but somehow rather anodyne. A bit like Coldplay, really. There's enough interaction for it to certainly not be multi-player solitaire, but there's not quite enough to satisfy interaction hounds. There's plenty of optimisation play but there's a little too much random to please stalwart efficiency gamers. There's a kingdom-building theme but that sense of actually building anything is missing, which would annoy civ-game fans. And so on.
I feel compelled to mention that I don't see Dominion as fitting in to the same niche as other people do. I don't see this as good filler. I especially don't see it as a good gamers' game for getting out at family gathering. No: this is an optimisation game for people who don't like optimisation games, or a challenging (relatively) high-interaction variant for people who do like optimisation games. As someone who believes gamers ought to try broadening their gaming horizons at every opportunity, this is perhaps a more valuable niche to occupy than it sounds. I suspect that virtually every gamer will find something to enjoy in Dominion, except perhaps hard core war/manoeuvre gamers.
In the final reckoning this is a really tough game to rate, because the amount of interest it offers is so strongly dependent on what cards you're using and how may people (and of what personality) you're playing with. This is true of most games but with Dominion it's absolutely critical. Played one-on-one with a bad card mix against an intense, silent, joyless opponent it rates about a one out of five on my scale. Played using something like that "size distortion" card mix with four people who are willing to spend the whole game making puerile "size distortion" jokes then it'd definitely get four out of five. I can't actually give it the four as a final rating though because part of Dominions appeal is the diversity of it's card mix: and since, in my view, getting the best out of the game requires limiting that mix to certain cards it means that the game has a more limited shelf-life than it might first appear if you intend to play it firing on all cylinders. So a final score has to be three out of five: a game I'd rarely suggest but would willingly play if it was a group choice. But remember the potential for expansions: I'll be looking forward to the future of Dominion with bated breath.