Classics: Dominion


Today begins a new series looking at some of the great games from yesteryear.  Games that you may have heard people talking about, but never got around to playing.  Games that have stood the test of time and are widely acclaimed.  Games that, in short, have become classics.

I grew up playing card games.  From Rummy to Poker, so many card games involve you drawing (or being dealt) cards from a communal deck of cards.  This paradigm was so ingrained in my psyche that I couldn’t get my head around Dominion (the game that made deck building famous) when I first got it.

I had borrowed a copy off my friend and people said it was good so I eagerly read the rules and tried to play it with my wife.  We didn’t get it.  In Dominion (according to the rules), everyone has their own deck of cards and their own discard pile, rather than using a communal deck and discard pile in the middle of the table.

Okay, fair enough.  You draw some cards from your own deck each turn and use them to buy cards from a selection of available cards in the middle.  But then the cards you buy, along with the cards you used (and even the cards you didn’t use) all go in your discard pile.  Wait, what?!

You have to realise that from a card player’s point of view, when cards enter the discard pile, that means they’re gone.  Cards don’t come back from the discard pile.  They’ve been discarded.  It is possible, in some card games, to re-use the discard pile if the deck runs out.  In that case, you shuffle the discard pile and make a new deck.  This happens rarely though (because there are so many cards in the deck) and when it does, it usually means the game is about to finish.

So what is the point of buying these cards if you’re just sticking them in the discard pile?!  We tried a few rounds of buying cards and then throwing them away.  Of course, your starting deck is very small so you quickly have to shuffle your discard pile and then draw from it, but even then it just felt so random.

So there are one or two new cards in your deck now.  What difference does that really make?  You have no guarantee of drawing them when you need them.  Again, the deck of cards in a traditional card game is there to simulate randomness much of the time.  Drawing from the deck is tantamount to selecting a card at random.

Nothing seemed to make sense and we quickly gave up.

Nothing seemed to make sense and we quickly gave up.  I returned the game to my friend and thought no more about it.  That was until I found myself at another friend’s house for an evening of games and one of the other guests was keen to play Dominion.

So I obliged, we got their copy out and I went through the motions of buying random cards to randomly draw them from my deck at some point in the future.  But then something strange started to happen.  The owner of the game started having these amazing turns.

He would draw cards that would let him draw more cards, and those cards would let him draw even more cards until he had 10 or 15 cards in front of him and then he’d be able to buy the big victory point cards with ease (which always seemed to require huge amounts of luck to obtain prior to that).

At the end of the game, we counted up our points and he destroyed us!  I fell in love with the game immediately.  The whole game felt so random and yet it couldn’t be.  Not when an experienced player was able to beat everyone else so convincingly.

I wanted to play it again straight away.

I wanted to play it again straight away.  He beat us again of course, but by less than he did the first game.  Aha!  I was starting to get it.  I went out and bought a copy the next day and we played it and played it.

Whenever friends would come round to our house, we would bring it out and I would explain that it would feel very weird if they’re used to card games, but once they got the hang of it, they would see how good it was.  Without fail, all the various friends we tried it on would want to play it again immediately.

Even with nothing but the base set, I started to see so many different strategies that you could take.  You could go for a card-drawing strategy, or a gold accumulation strategy or my personal favourite: the deck-thinning strategy.

You could see the confusion on my friends’ faces when I tried this.  “Wait, you’re getting rid of the money and victory point cards in your deck?  I thought the point of the game was to use the money to buy the victory point cards!”  They were even more confused when I won.

The thing I love most about Dominion is not the engine building (which is great) or the speed (which is so quick) or the variety in the card combinations (which are different every time you play), it’s the surprise!  You think you’ve got it all figured out and then someone locks you all out by buying loads of attacking cards that force you to discard half your hand each turn.

You have to pay attention to what everyone else is doing.

To play at a high level, not only do you have to be familiar with all the various cards and how you can combine them to employ certain strategies, you have to pay attention to what everyone else is doing.  If one person is buying attack cards, you need to buy some defence cards.

I began to realise that what felt like multiplayer solitaire at times actually had a lot more interaction than I thought.  It wasn’t the direct ‘take that’ interaction so much as the indirect ‘pay attention to everyone else’s strategy’ interaction.  If someone was burning through cards to end the game quickly, you couldn’t use a slow-build strategy.  The game will end before your engine gets going properly.

Since Dominion was released, back in 2008, it has spawned an entire genre of games, which is quite an accolade.  Very few games can make that claim.  Deck-builders are now ubiquitous.  There have been many variations on the theme, but when it comes down to it, I still really enjoy the simplicity of Dominion.

Yes, the theme is paper thin.  Yes, the game is nothing but engine building with that one single deck-building mechanism.  But honestly?  It doesn’t need anything else.  It works.  It’s like vanilla ice cream.  There may be far more exciting flavours out there, but if you just sit down and eat good quality vanilla ice cream, it tastes great.

With the release last year of the second edition, there’s no better time to give Dominion a go if you never boarded the hype train when it first came out.  Despite the initial learning curve, it is one of my most successful gateway games.  Just try to play with someone who knows what they’re doing.  You’ll lose, but you’ll get it!

Would you still play Dominion today?  Or do you feel it has been superseded by better games?

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Jonathan Hicks

Jonathan is the director of Maven Games. He blogs and records podcast episodes several times a week. Whenever he isn't doing anything else, he designs games.

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[…] really like the deck building mechanism in general.  I was a big fan of Dominion when it came out, but deck building seems to have been done to death in recent years.  […]

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