Tobold's Blog
Saturday, January 02, 2010
Board game review: Dominion

If MMORPGs could be called the gaming craze of the first decade of the 21st century, the gaming craze of the 90's was trading card games. But while trading card games had great strategic possibilities, their business model ended up being quite expensive for the the players, and inherently unfair: While having the larger collection of cards didn't guarantee you victory, it sure helped, and skewed the game in your favor. Both from a point of fairness and cost it would be much better to have a card game in which all players are using the same pool of cards, but without losing the strategic options of building a deck and playing with it. Dominion by Donald X. Vaccarino manages to pull of that trick, and won a long list of "best board game" prices in various countries in 2009.

Dominion is sold as a board game in a box, even if it is played like a card game. There are currently two different base sets, Dominion and Dominion : Intrigue, and one expansion, Dominion : Seaside, with two more expansions announced for 2010. But already the base game has over 3 million possible combinations to play through, as it comes with 25 different stacks of kingdom cards, and you only use 10 stacks of kingdom cards per game. (For the math geeks: The number of possible combinations with the base set is equal to (25!)/(10!*(25-10)!) = 3268760. Using all three sets and the 2 promo cards the number of combinations is over 1 trillion.)

A game of Dominion starts with every player having a deck of 10 cards, of which 7 are copper pieces (worth 1 coin each), and 3 are estates (worth 1 victory point each), thus the game is completely symmetrical and fair. All the other cards, consisting of 10 stacks of 10 kingdom cards, three different sorts of coin cards, and three different sets of victory point cards, plus curses if needed, are in the middle, and can be bought for coin during the game.

In every turn a player can play kingdom cards, usually just one, unless the kingdom card he plays gives him more "actions". After that, the player uses the coin he has in hand, or gained by kingdom cards this round, to buy a card from the stacks in the middle of the table. He puts the bought card in his discard pile, as well as all the cards he used this round, and all the cards he didn't use, and draws a new hand of 5 cards. Then it is the next player's turn.

As you can see, players cycle through their deck quickly, but the deck is growing thicker while playing, due to the cards being bought. Thus the "deck building" happens *during* the game in Dominion, and not before the game, like in trading card games. The game ends if either the stack of the most expensive victory point cards is empty, or if three of the kingdom card stacks are empty. At that point every player takes his whole deck, and sorts out all the victory point cards. The player with the most victory points in his deck wins.

Even with one given set of 10 kingdom cards, there is a variety of different strategies. Obviously you need to buy victory point cards to win the game. But during the game any victory point card you hold in hand is dead weight. So you first need to buy kingdom cards that help you (or hinder your opponent), and coin cards that are worth more than the copper you start with. Choose the right kingdom cards to buy, and with some luck of the draw you can pull off neat combos. But if you spend too much time building those up, somebody who started earlier to buy victory points might end the game and win.

Dominion would be already a good game if it came just with one set of 10 cards. But the endless combinations of card sets provide infinite replayability, and different sets can lead to games having a very different feel, as well as different strategies. Many cards affect only yourself, and if you only play with such cards, Dominion is a relatively peaceful game in which players race each other to the win with little direct interaction. But other cards are attack cards, which do something bad to other players, and there are reaction cards to counter such attacks. Play a set with lot of attack cards and Dominion becomes more of a direct battle of players against players. Dominion also changes in speed and strategy depending on whether you have a lot of cheap kingdom cards, a balanced set, or a lot of expensive cards. There is a list of recommended sets, including one for the first game, but there are also placeholder cards which you can use to create random sets, or to invent other ways to create sets with players choosing cards to include or exclude.

Dominion is very easy to learn, and thus can be played even with children, but still provides a lot of fun for the veteran gamer, and that for a very long time. Although if you play it a lot, wear on the cards might become a problem, as there is a lot of shuffling involved in playing Dominion. One more reason to buy the other base set or expansion. :) Be aware that prices vary a lot, you can find Dominion from as low as $27 / € 20 for the first base set to over twice that. Recommended!

FTC Disclaimer: I have no material relationships with any of the companies making or publishing Dominion.
At least in certain parts of the world, Seaside has been out for a while now. I now there are copies here in my local game store.

I second the recommendation, FWIW. One of the best new board- or card games I've played in quite a while.
I like Dominion (got the base set as a birthday present from some guildies last year). /plays the witch card /cackles. What I liked (coming from a background of Monopoly etc) was that it only takes 20-30 minutes for a game, the box layout means you don't spend ages setting up the game beforehand and the infinite variety you mentioned.
(I am also not being payed to advertise :P)
What I tend to find with these card games is that while they do have tons of different cards and thus supposedly "endless" possibilities...they really don't.

Just like in WoW you end up with cookie cutter decks and builds that turn the game heavily to your favor if the person you're playing just chose random cards or didn't have a strategy beforehand.

Anyways on to my question.

Now even if Dominion starts you off with even valued cards I'm going to ssume they still do different things in game. Knowing that I would bet that there is some "right way" to play the game depending on which cards you get, which ones you should buy first, which ones you should use first, etc, etc.

Do you see this a lot with the game when you play Dominion vets Tobold?
Now even if Dominion starts you off with even valued cards I'm going to ssume they still do different things in game. Knowing that I would bet that there is some "right way" to play the game depending on which cards you get, which ones you should buy first, which ones you should use first, etc, etc.
Do you see this a lot with the game when you play Dominion vets Tobold?

There are two factors stopping that. One is randomness, for example your starting hand can contain anything from 2 to 5 copper, which has an influence on what your best starting move is. The other factor is that not all cards are in each game, so even if the Throne Room + Witch won you the last game, one or both cards could simply be not present in the next game, so you can't just repeat your previous strategy.
@ Tobold

Ah ok that sounds pretty good then. Guess I'll give the game a shot then and see how i like it.
I just wanted to point out that AEG tried to do a "fantasy, rpg" version of Dominion called Thunderstone.

Check it out at:

Haven't had the guts to try it yet. After reading the rules, I think it could have been better.
If you played the same sets of cards each time, you might get "cookie cutters" - but the fact that it's 10 random cards each time mean that you can't really do that. Like Tovold said, Witch + Throne Room might have won last time, but that's because no one had Moats, or a card to trash cards for better cards. This time, you're just feeding your opponent more cards to toss....

The only real strategies I've seen used consistently is "the first person to trash their first 10 cards will win" and "Coppers are the enemy."

I bought Dominion the minute I got home after the first time I played it. It's one of my top five games of all time. It's amazingly easy to learn, so even non-hardcore gamers can get it. If someone has played CCG's, you don't even need to explain. If they haven't, it takes 5 minutes to get it (although it takes a couple games to really figure it out).

There are a couple places to play online too. I avoid those, so as to continue to have time for other things.
Seaside I have heard is a great, great expansion.

As for Dominion wear and tear - Mayday and Fantasy Flight Games have come out with sleeves that fit the Dominion cards so you can avoid the wear and tear issue.

Lastly, with regard to 'set' decks, it's difficult to do so (if not impossible) since your hand and the opponents hands vary each turn. Still, there are optimum decks that some at Board Game Geek have started suggesting - which is why Intrigue and Seaside are a nice change.
That sounds like fun, Tobold - I may need to pick it up!

I played a whole bunch of "Pandemic" over the holidays.... if you're interested, I wrote about it here:

It's well worth picking up, in my opinion.
My biggest issue with Pandemic is that, while it's a multiplayer game, it can very quickly become a single player game.

I'm very much a bad example - if I'm not playing with aggressive players, I basically start to take over the game. This is far worse if I'm the helicopter pilot guy.

"Okay, I'll pick up the medic, move her over to the lab, you give her 2 cards, you go cure those two cities, and then we'll cure red."

And then pretty much everyone does exactly what I said. I feel bad, but I can't just let someone go wondering off to leave a disease growing....
Dominion is awesome, glad you found it.

You pointed Dominion out to me. I followed that to the reviews on BGG, which led me purchase the game.

I introduced it to our 10-year MTG weary gaming group, and they loved it, like a breath of fresh air.

Rio Grande owes you a referral bonus.

WotC should play the witch on you. We're thinking of quiting Magic. :-)
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