Category: Euro Game
Designer: Donald X. Vaccarino
Publisher: Rio Grande Games (2009 English version)
Year Published: 2008
Playing Time: 30 mins.
To Play or Not To Play: Play
Join me, friends, and I shall tell you a tale of triumph, of innovative game design across centuries. Allow me to share the history of . . . the deck of cards!
The concept of a deck of cards is strikingly simple, yet impressively versatile. If you can produce paper to write on, there’s no reason you couldn’t produce slightly thicker paper that you cut into small, identical pieces, each with art, symbols, or words on the front. If the backs are all identical, then by mixing the cards up you can introduce randomness to a system. Given that, the earliest playing cards were surely invented in 9th century China, during the Tang dynasty, around the time that paper was first invented.
In the 15th century, the earliest known deck of 52 playing cards was produced (now on display at The Met Cloisters in New York City). The 52-card deck has become ubiquitous throughout the world because its simple, abstract design allows people to play countless games with the same materials. Poker’s many variations and contract Bridge are probably the most popular games to use this deck, but there are hundreds of others as well.
The 20th century saw the rise of “trading cards,” pieces of cardboard with some art on one side, and usually a story or some stats related to the picture on the back. The most popular of these were baseball cards, each depicting a professional player. Kids and collectors could seek out their favorite player and trade with their friends. And since they were small pieces of cardboard, they were cheap to produce and easy to store.
Now we fast-forward to 1992. A math professor named Richard Garfield has designed a game, and he’s travelling to publishers across the country making pitches to get it produced. In Seattle, he meets with Peter Adkison, the CEO of Wizards of the Coast. WotC at the time published campaign settings and reference books for tabletop RPGs, but was looking to expand into other games. They did not have the resources to produce Richard’s game, but he asked Richard if he had any ideas for a game that would only require art and printing. Richard had actually been thinking about a game like that beforehand, so he pitched the concept of a trading card game. This would be a game bigger than the box it was sold in. Players could collect cards and trade with their friends to build decks that they could then play with other people. The cards would come in randomized packs, like baseball cards, so there was no way to simply buy a box, get all the cards, and then build the best possible deck. You were limited by what you had found.
Peter immediately loved the idea, and in 1993, at the Origins Game Fair, Wizards of the Coast released their new trading card game: Magic: The Gathering. It sold out almost instantly, and it has remained a huge success ever since. Not only has Magic continued to sell more and more product in the 27 years and counting since it was released, but it also inspired an entirely new genre of game. After Magic’s humongous success, Wizards of the Coast was contracted to design the Pokémon Trading Card Game in 1998. Today, trading cards game remain a popular genre around the world.
What makes trading card games fascinating is that they are actually two separate, but connected, games. There is the game that you play when you sit across from an opponent. But equally important is the “metagame,” which is the period between games where you sit with your collection and build your deck. As a deck-builder, you have to plan your deck’s strategy for victory and how it will respond to your opponents’ threats so that you don’t lose before you can win. For some players, the metagame is more fun than the game itself, and some players will spend hours discussing the metagame while only playing the actual game for 20 minutes.
Then in 2008, Donald X. Vaccarino released a game that revolutionized game design once more: what if the metagame was the entire game? And that brings us to the topic of this week’s blog. Dominion was the first “deck-building” game, a game where players use a deck of cards to take actions and acquire more cards. Dominion challenges players to construct an optimal deck while they are using that deck.
Each player shuffles an identical deck of 10 cards and draws their opening hand. On your turn, you can play one action card from your hand (you start the game with zero of these), then you use any treasure cards in hand to purchase a new card if you wish. Your played cards and newly purchased cards then go to your discard pile, you discard anything else still in your hand, and then draw five new cards form your deck. Over time, your deck will grow and diverge from the other players. Some of the cards that are available for purchase are worth victory points, so eventually you will stop acquiring cards to help optimize your deck and start acquiring cards that will make sure you win the game. The game ends when either the supply of “Provinces” (cards worth 6 victory points each) runs out, or when three supply piles run out.
In Dominion, the cards you can purchase to add to your deck are arrayed at the center of the table in supply piles. Most cards only have 10 cards each in their supply, while other cards might have more copies if they’re fairly common. Every player has access to every possible card, but some cards cost more coins than others, so your limitation is just how much money your deck can generate with a given 5-card hand. Many of the cards you can purchase have extra effects, like allowing you to draw more cards, or purchase additional cards that turn. The base game comes with over two-dozen different cards you can use!
Don’t worry, you don’t have to pour over twenty different cards trying to find the best one for your deck. Before each game, the players select 10 of those cards to use. You can pick a specific group of ten to customize your play experience, or you can just randomly select 10 to see how well everyone can adapt to the situation. I prefer the latter, but you can have some really fun experiences with a planned set up. In addition to the random marketplace cards, there are certain perennial cards that are always available. Copper, Silver, and Gold cards are always available for purchase to add to your deck’s currency production capabilities. There are also three victory point cards: Estates (1 Vp), Duchies (3 VP), and Provinces (6 VP). Like I mentioned above, the game ends when the province stack runs out, or when three supply piles run out. At that point the player with the highest score wins.
Dominion inspired dozens of imitations, and now deck-building has become a ubiquitous part of the board game scene. But Dominion was the first, and it is so successful, and so modular in nature, that there are now over a dozen different expansions. Each brings slightly new rules or encourages different deck design ideas, but ultimately they are all the same game.
That’s not to say Dominion isn’t without its flaws. The first is that with certain setups, you can play a game of Dominion that has 0 player interaction. Everyone just sits and waits for their turn while someone plays with themselves for five minutes, drawing cards, playing cards, and reshuffling when they inevitably draw the last card in their deck halfway through their chain of actions. Some cards in the game do involve the other players, but the majority to not, which can leaves some downtime. Fortunately, Dominion is a fast game, so the downtime isn’t too bad, but it still can be kinda boring with four players.
The second issue, though, is shuffling. Have you tried shuffling a ten-card deck? It’s harder than it sounds! There aren’t enough cards to riffle shuffle properly, if you’re accustomed to that from poker or bridge, and other methods don't do a great job of mixing up the cards. In a four-player game that lasts 30 minutes, at least 5 will be spent watching other players shuffle.
But the most egregious issue lies in setup and take-down. Dominion comes with more than 30 different mini-decks of cards in the supply. And the box does come with labeled slots to store each of them, thank goodness. But even still, playing a game means picking 10 cards, finding each stack in the box, and pulling them out. Then when the game is over, everyone has to deconstruct their deck, put the cards back in their mini-decks, and then store those. It doesn’t sound like much, but it usually takes a solid 5 minutes each for setup and cleanup.
As a result, once the game is already all set up, most people will play two or three games, instead of just one. That’s not really a flaw, more of a feature, but still. What Dominion really needs is an app. And there is one! You can download the Dominion app from your favorite app store and play online with your friends. No shuffling, no tedious setup and cleanup, it’s really the best way to play.
Somehow I’ve gotten this far into the review without mentioning the theme and aesthetics! There’s . . . kind of a reason for that. The theme is light, essentially the players are medieval nobles seeking to expand their influence by acquiring land, constructing buildings, and attracting nobles and skilled tradespeople to their court. All of this is represented by cards in the deck. The card is split into two parts, half is art depicting the thing the card represents, and the half if rules text, explaining what the card does in the game. Dominion’s art is . . . shaky, at best. Some cards look great, while others look . . . off. The quality has improved over time, with modern expansions standing head and shoulders above the original.
But honestly, if you value beautiful, high-quality components and art in your games, Dominion is not going to be satisfying. Dominion excels as a mechanical experience. The joy comes from crafting a sleek, powerful deck that functions like a well-oiled machine. The art is just a a small added bonus.
Ludologically, Dominion is a fascinating way to explore variance and randomness in game design. But I can’t overlook the tedium of setup, cleanup, shuffling, and waiting for other peoples’ turns. Should you play Dominion? Maybe once or twice to learn the rules. But what you should actually play is one of Dominion’s expansions, like Dominion: Intrigue, Dominion: Prosperity, or Dominion: Dark Ages.
Every expansion has increased the interactivity of the game and makes other players' turns as fun as your own. You should play Dominion, but you should add at least one expansion to the mix to have the best time.
I tried something new with this review by exploring the history of game design that led to this game’s creation. Did you enjoy that approach? Please let me know in the comments or by messaging me via one of the social media accounts linked on the blog. This game was selected by my followers on Twitter @OrNotToPlay. Follow me there to have a voice in what game I review next, except not this week! I already have a game picked for next week’s review.