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Board Games With OB #21: Dominion

Welcome to Board Games With OB, a somewhat profane, possibly semi-regular feature where OregonBeast gets a board game he likes and briefly explains how to play it and hopes you would be interested in playing it, too. Because board games are fucking awesome.

Decks of cards have been a part of playing games for the past 12 centuries, if you're to believe Wikipedia. But it's only recently that card games have taken your classical deck and throw it on its head.

For years, card games utilized what is called the "common deck". Essentially, all the players got the cards they would use from the same deck. But a variation made popular in the past 20 years by games like Magic: The Gathering is the player-specific deck. Players flocked to the idea that you could actually exert some control over how your deck was put together, suiting it to how you wanted to play the game. It put the player in significant control of their gaming experience.


But then along came Dominion in 2008 and with it, a whole new concept in the deck of cards: Deck building. A fascinating merger of the player-specific deck customization with the influence of other players present in many common deck games, Dominion won the 2009 Spiel des Jahres (Best Picture Oscar for board games) and much like Magic did before it, inspired a number of new games that utilized the deck build mechanic.

However, to many players the original is still the best. So let's talk Dominion.

Game: Dominion
Players: 2 to 4
Gametime: 30 minutes
Designer: Donald X. Vaccarino (USA)
Mechanics: Deck building, card drafting

Story: Not really a story, but Dominion uses a loose medieval theme that puts you in the place of a feudal lord. You'll essentially be utilizing your wealth and loyal subjects to attempt to build the most valuable dominion (victory points) during the game. Or, maybe the deck itself is your dominion, and you are Master of Your Dominion. OK, Seinfeld/Masturbation reference out of the way, let's play some fucking cards.


Dominion is another one of those games with a ton of expansions, many of which add elements to the games. For the sake of this piece, we're only going to talk about the Dominion base game.

What do you do? All players begin Dominion with a starting deck of cards. The basic deck is 10 cards and is made up of seven copper coin cards (each worth 1 money) and three estate cards (each worth). It's from these cards that players will be buying cards from the central supply to add to their decks.


It's a good idea to talk about the cards that will make up this supply. There are three primary types of cards in Dominion:


First are action cards. These cards give players special abilities during their turn. Some allow the drawing of extra cards, or extra actions, or might allow them to screw around with other players or stop them from being messed with. There are 25 different action cards available for use in the Dominion base set, but only 10 are made available in any one game.

Next are treasure cards. These are the game's currency, which will be used to buy more cards from the central supply. These come in three flavors: Copper (worth 1 money), Silver (2 money) and Gold (worth 3 money).


Finally, there are victory cards. These are the lands you can purchase for your Dominion. Kind of the tricky part of Victory Cards is that they are basically worthless during the play of the game itself: No special abilities, no money toward buying new cards. But at the end of the game, these are the one thing that score points toward winning the game. These also come in three flavors: Estates (1 point), Duchy (3 points) and Provinces (6 points). An off-shoot of the Victory card is the Curse card, which can doled out by certain action cards. These are just like Victory card, except each Curse card is worth minus 1 point toward your score. Curse cards are assholes.


So, anyways, back to the gameplay. To start your turn, you deal yourself 5 cards from your deck. From there, the action phase begins. You are allowed to play one action card from your hand. If one of the effects of the action card is to award extra actions, you can play more action cards if they are in your hand.

Once you've taken all the actions you can, you enter the buy phase. You are allowed to buy one card (or more if one of the effects of the action card you played was an extra buy). Action cards, treasure cards and victory cards are available for purchase. Every card available for purchase has a cost printed on it. In order to purchase a card, you must have enough treasure in your hand to cover the cost.


After you buy a card, you place it and all the cards from your hand into a discard pile, then draw five new cards from you deck for a new hand on the next turn. Once you exhaust your deck, you shuffle the discard pile and start again— but now your deck has the new cards you've just purchase. Thus, you're building your deck and that's where the term "deck building" comes from.

So, on and on you go, playing card, buying cards, adding them to you deck. The concept at play is referred to not just as "deck building" but "engine building": Essentially, you're wanting to look at the action cards available, and use those in a manner that allows you to get a lot of money that can be used to buy the Victory cards, essentially turning your deck into a engine that works in a specified sequence. Maybe there's an actual engineer that could explain this better than me out there.


The tricky part is figuring out the right quantity of cards to do this, and how to build the most successful engine out of the cards available for purchase in any given game.

How to taste sweet, sweet victory: One of two things triggers the end of a game: Either all of the Province cards have been purchased, or all of three other cards (whether Victory, Action or Treasure) have been purchased. Once that happens, players count up the score of the Victory cards in their decks. Highest score wins.


So, what makes this game awesome?

  • There's an interest luck-strategy mix involved here. Yes, you're trying to think about what action card provides, and not wanting to overload your hand with too many Victory cards early on. But, at the same time, you could luck out and get a big bunch of Treasure right away or get totally hosed for a turn on a bad draw. It helps balance the game out for less-experienced players.
  • The fact that only 10 action cards are used in each game gives a lot of replay value. Even in just the base set, there's a lot of possible combinations of action cards that can be used, either by agreement or through the use of the many available online randomizers like this one.
  • It's fascinating how the character of a game can change based on the action cards. Some games can be a mad scramble for Province cards, others can turn into attacking card fests. One game can have a winning player scoring in the 50s while the next game is won with a score in the single digits.
  • Despite seeming complicated at first, you're in the groove of how to play after just a few turns.

Variety is the spice of life: Dominion is a game that lends itself to expansions by creating new action cards with new powers. And that's what has happened. Beyond the base game, 8 different sets of expansions have come out in the five years since Dominion was released. The expansions tend to have a loosely-connected theme such as Seaside, Alchemy or Cornucopia. With all the expansions, the game has gone from it's 25 actions and 500 cards to 200 actions and 2,850 cards. And who knows what might happen in the future.

Other ways to play: Dominion is available in an online version at Goko.com. Developed in conjunction with Rio Grande Games, Dominion's publisher, it's one of the better web-based versions of a board game out there.


Previous Board Games With OB:[Takenoko] [Snake Oil] [Tsuro] [Dixit] [The Resistance] [Hey, That's My Fish!] [Ticket To Ride] [Survive: Escape From Atlantis] [Castle Panic] [Small World] [Qwirkle] [Elder Sign] [Carcassonne] [Jaipur] [Tokaido] [Blokus] [Puerto Rico] [Love Letter] [Can't Stop] [The Red Dragon Inn]

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