Thursday, December 23, 2010

"I Shall Rule the Land and I Shall Call It...This Land"

So this isn't quite my next post, but it's next in succession from my post on collectible card games. I thought I should explain what's good and bad about collectible card games before I showcase a recent game that has already become one of my favorites: Dominion. (By the way, my friend Wolfie has an excellent review of this game on his blog--you can read his in lieu of mine or in addition to it. But you might not want to take what he says too seriously, since he is my Dominion nemesis.)

Dominion comes in (probably) a bigger box than is necessary. From the size of the box, you might guess it's a big-box board game. In fact, Dominion is a card game, and the box is a giant sorter (which I'll get to later).

The premise of Dominion is simple: You start out as a lowly monarch of a humble kingdom, but you decide you want more. The rest of the game involves you trying to add land to your dominion. But each other player is trying to do the same, and there is only so much land to add, so it becomes a race to the finish. The winner of the game is the one who has the most land (which is measured in terms of victory points).

Dominion has a fresh game mechanic (at least one that I had never seen before). It is a deck-building game, meaning that you build your deck as you play. I thought this sounded lame--like you choose which cards you want in your deck and then the game is played like War--"Okay, everyone flip over the top card. Mine is the strongest, so I win!" It's not like that. You start the game with three estates and seven copper--not a fine dominion at all. Estates are worth one victory point, and copper is worth one coin. (Each card in the game has a cost in coins.) As the game progresses, you buy the cards you want to put in your deck from the supply--17 stacks of ten identical cards each--including more (and better) coins. More coins = a greater chance of being able to buy big-ticket items (like provinces, the largest swaths of land at 6 victory points apiece).

That's the game in a nutshell, but the following are the reasons why I like it so much:
  1. It's simple to teach. Each turn follows an A-B-C pattern: a player gets one action, can buy one card, and cleans up all the cards he's played or are in his hand and draws a new hand of five cards. That's it. There are cards that let you break some of these rules, sure, but the basic structure of the game is so easy to grasp. The card syntax is also fairly simple, which makes it a game that's easy to jump into (even if it's not easy to win against seasoned players). It can take the length a game to get used to doing what you're supposed to, but luckily, see #3--games go fast.
  2. It's variable. Each game is different. There are only seven stacks of cards that stay the same in each game (1-, 3-, and 5-point victory cards; 1-, 2-, and 3-coin treasures; and curse cards [though I rarely set these ones out]). There are twenty-five stacks of cards in the base set, only ten of which make it into any given game. These ten cards interact differently with different cards, which forces the players to change their strategy each game to suit the cards that are available. What worked for a player one game will not necessarily work another game. (An example: In many games, it is not to your advantage to load your deck down with cards, especially weak, lower-cost cards, since this makes it harder to reach the cards you need as you reshuffle. But there is one variable card that is a special victory card worth one point for every ten cards in your deck, meaning, bring on the filler!) There are also currently four expansions, which means that this game has room to grow.
  3. It's quick. The game box says  a game takes 30 minutes, and that's pretty accurate. A game among players who know what they're doing normally takes around 30 minutes. When Abby and I play by ourselves, sometimes it goes even faster than that. The game is designed to be played fast, which makes you feel like you've accomplished more over the time you have to play.
  4. It's strategic. Each card interacts with the others. The key to the game is maximizing the use of each card and knowing how to combine it with others. Some cards let you draw more cards; other cards let you take more actions; still others give you more money or extra buys. It's all about playing cards in the right order and getting the right chain going. There are some pretty awesome combos in the game, but I won't spoil the surprise.
  5. It's balanced. There are no cards that really dwarf the others in terms of potency. And the great thing is, even if there are, everyone has equal access to all the cards. All 17 piles are available to all of the players on every turn. I can get mad at another player for playing a thief, but he needs to remember that I can buy/play a thief, too. The game is also balanced in that the only cards that matter at the end of the game (land) are useless hand filler during the game. This makes players more wary about buying points early in the game and forces players to think more deeply about how they will acquire points. I also like that most games that I've played are fairly close--within a few points of each other. In fact, I've won a few games by only a point and lost a few by a similar margin. One game Abby and I tied--and we just picked up and played again (see the next point).
  6. It's a blast. I don't know why this game is so much fun, but it is. The German Spiel des Jahres critics agree since they awarded it their prize in 2009. (The Spiel des Jahres, by the way, is arguably the most prestigious award in board games. Other Spiel des Jahres winners include Settlers of Catan, Carcassonne, and Ticket to Ride, if that means anything to you.)
Dominion capitalizes on what is good about CCGs (variety, strategy, immersion) and works to remedy their shortcomings (buy-in, restrictive access). And because of Dominion's recent success, it's now widely available. They even carry it in store at Barnes & Noble, and Amazon has a mega deal on the base set and two expansions. I encourage you to try it out if you get a chance. I think it's worth your time.

And since this is likely the last post I'll make before Christmas, I wish you all a blessed holiday. Merry Christmas!


  1. I played over New Years with some friends. I'm not as enthusiastic as you, but it was a good way to spend 30-40 minutes.

  2. You might need to play it again to see its worth. It is a frequent choice for Friday Game Day. I'm just sayin'...

    I'm sure part of my enthusiasm comes from Dominion's being like a CCG but without the CCG buy-in. It's hard to find fellow CCG players, but much easier to rope people in to play Dominion.