The focus is on game mechanisms - what makes a game exciting and why. How did the board game designer make his game fun? Components and theme are secondary. The play's the thing.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Essen 2008 Unwrapped: Part 2 - Dominion

by Donald X. Vaccarino

If Sylla was a blend of old wines in a new bottle, Dominion is a tasty young wine which seems unlikely to mature greatly.

Dominion has become an overnight hit, and so many readers have already played it to death since its recent release. I've played it only once, but what stands out about it is its originality despite its simplicity.

The goal is to collect the most and best victory point cards into your deck. Each player has his own deck of ten cards - seven with (1) gold and three with (1) VP. He draws five cards from his deck and can use the gold cards to buy either more gold, more VP's or any one of ten special power cards ("kingdom cards") which are arranged in a display. Cards so purchased are placed into his deck for future draws. After the player has used a power from one of his special cards and purchased a card using his gold, then both used and unused cards from his hand are placed in his discard pile - to be recycled when his draw deck has been used up. In this way, players are consistently drawing five cards, taking actions, buying new cards, and then drawing more. Cards used - or not - are continually being recycled, but at a slower pace as his deck grows in size. When sufficient cards have been purchased, the game ends and the player with the most points in VP cards wins.

This feature of continually drawing and renewing one's own deck, and building that deck on the fly is very original and the game plays like no other Eurogame. Because a player must, as a default, draw exactly five cards a turn and work with only those cards at any given time, the game requires a player not to maximize his assets with the most extensive display of powers possible. Instead, the game is about concentration. How can a player build a deck such that a random assortment of any five cards at a time be most powerful most consistently? What we see is that the cost of adding gold cards to his hand is disproportionately high with higher values of gold. Gold cards valued at (1) have no cost; those valued at (2) cost three, and those valued at (3) cost six. This seems counterintuitive until you realize that normally a deck consisting of all (1) value gold cards could never buy anything costing more than five (and then only rarely), while a deck of (3) value gold cards can much more easily accumulate brawny values used to purchase big VP cards or strong powers.

In any given game, there are ten different kingdom cards to choose from, but the game comes with 25 unique decks, so that the smorgasboard of choices may be different with each game. Examples of powers in the set I used were ones that gave players extra actions and/or extra opportunities to buy cards. There were powers which allowed a player to add three cards into his hand (remember, they all recycle, so this is an alternative way of concentrating your hand), and ones which permitted gold cards to be upgraded to the next higher level.

Player interaction is very limited and from what I saw came in two forms. One is that there are a few cards which enable a player to "attack" others, for example by forcing them to discard down to three cards, and other cards which enabled players to defend against such attacks. In my game, these were used sparingly because they don't really help you advance your agenda, and even a defensive card needs to "just happen to be" in your hand at the time of an attack for it to do any good. The other form of player interaction concerns the pace of the game. A strategy which relies on gradually building up a killer hand and then collecting VP's can be counteracted by a strategy which attempts to buy lots of cheap cards and end the game quickly. In practice, I don't believe that players gain from building up large decks because their powers are not cumulative. You're still drawing only five cards at a time. The value of a large powerful deck is that it is less diluted by VP cards. But an opponent cannot surprise you by ending the game. If other players switch into "collecting VP cards" mode, you can shift gears quickly.

Certainly, the dynamic deck building of Dominion is original. Adding to the freshness of the game is the way that 25 distinct decks of kingdom cards can be mixed and matched to create unique situations for the players. However, many players have compared this game with Tom Lehmann's "Race for the Galaxy"- with many fans stating their preference for the latter. If Dominion is unique - is the comparison reasonable? Looking at the ways that each game works sheds some light on what makes each game special - and also how very different mechanisms can be brothers under the skin.

Like "Race for the Galaxy" and its predecessor "San Juan" by Andreas Seyfarth, Dominion is an economic game based entirely in cards. Each player collects cards which enable him to buy yet other cards, which add to a player's collection, giving him new powers and more victory points. One glaring difference which drives different approaches in each game is that in Race for the Galaxy, players are purchasing cards for a permanent display in front of them, while in Dominion, purchased cards simply enter a player's deck. The Race for the Galaxy player has assets which are continually growing, as each purchased card accumulates powers on top of those already present. Every new asset is a good thing. In Dominion, only a few cards are operating at any one time, and then they are quickly recycled and the player moves on to another set. It's good to have lots of kingdom cards because a hand dominated by VP's can't purchase anything new. It is also possible to select a variety of cards which are likely to interact in productive ways when they show up together. But the effectiveness of any deck is going to max out quickly as the best you can do is to get a handful of productive interactions and then move on to the next draw. Dominion requires a new kind of thinking - one in which more isn't always better.

In Dominion, players begin the game by selecting ten different decks of power cards and those become the fixed choices throughout the game. In Race for the Galaxy, there is a single deck used in all games, but players must make choices from the cards they randomly draw throughout the game. The argument for replayability in Dominion is that with ten out of twenty five possible cards being used in a game, there are 3.3 million different possible combination. In Race for the Galaxy, there's only one. Yet Dominion has a hidden weakness. It lacks sufficient ability to surprise the players and force them to react to unanticipated challenges and opportunities. When a game forces a player to keep on his toes and potentially change his strategy substantially, I call it a Nervous System. In Dominion, the experienced player can survey the available cards, map out his strategy, and execute it. The degree to which cards interact in his hand will force tactical decisions, but not generally a rethinking of the plan. In comparison, Race for the Galaxy has only about 100 cards, but they are all (or nearly all) different, and their appearance at any time is entirely unpredictable. A player can set off down a particular path... and discover opportunities in his cards which tickle him into straying down a new path. Furthermore, because the player's actions depend both on his own choices and those of his opponents, he may find himself with unexpected opportunities to exploit.

Dominion is a sufficiently short game that it isn't crippled by the lack of surprise. You can lay out a set of ten cards to start with - and for the next thirty minutes, maybe that's all the surprise you need. But it is a limitation that's in the game's structure. Like a mechanical dog which has dozens of interchangable parts, there is lots of potential variety, but after a while I suspect that players may find that underneath it all, it still always barks to the same cues. Time will tell.


Chad said...

Jonathan, Great job on this post. I enjoyed playing Dominion at BGG.con and look forward to playing it again.

Anonymous said...

I only came across your website from your Dominion review on BGG. I really like your site! Very thoughtful analysis.

Anonymous said...

Nice post.

I also think Dominion will sooner or after be "played out", and veteran players will often survey the cards that are offered, make a strategy and then brainlessly follow it. But randomness of the draws and "attack" cards can still put a wrench in this mechanism, or at least I hope.

Still, Dominion is light, fast and addictive enough to really stand out. I like RfTG but IMO it is weighted down with steep learning curve (too high of an entrance fee for many), somewhat unappealing theme and longer gameplay. As of now, Dominion clearly wins the "Race" (insert bad pun apology).


Paul said...

The effect of "I always know what strategy to take" is heavily mitigated by the Attack actions, which you mentioned you didn't use much. These are actually very powerful; the Thief destroys high-money strategies; the Militia and Spy put a wrench in action-heavy strategies, and the Witch is just mean. The new expansion, Intrigue, also helps a lot because most of the actions it adds are interactive (including several new and twisted Attacks). This gives players much more scope to interfere with one another.

Finally, the replay value in choosing 10 out of 25 actions cannot be overstated, even with common house rules cutting down on the possible space of layouts. We play with a rule to auto-add the Moat if there are at least two actions, and there may be at most four cost-5 or -6 actions. I'm pretty sure even with these house rules there are still several million possible games. The absence or abundance of one of the basic abilities can totally change the useful strategies. The most pronounced example of this I've seen is the absence of ways to trash cards. Without this, you can't get rid of copper, estates, or curses, which changes the early game immensely, especially if there are plenty of extra buys.

I like Dominion better than Race for the following single reason: While both games have a fairly limited set of "effective strategies", in Race you have to pick your strategy before you know you'll get the cards that make it functional. In about 90% of the Race games I've played, I just can't seem to draw the cards to support whichever strategy I've chosen. Also, Race is too short. There are a lot of strategies that ought to work, but can't be done in 12 cards. Puerto Rico doesn't suffer from this problem so much because buildings and plantations are filling separate sets of 12.

Brettspiel said...

Dominion is nice, but a little drawback ... a mainstream board game. Thus its concept needs to be understandable to most people around.