2-4. Best with 2.
Donald Vaccarino (Kingdom Builder, Infiltration)
Rio Grande Games (Bohnanza, Arctic Scavengers, Zooloretto)
Not Deck Building: The Deck Building Game
Dominion has been my favorite game for years, a distinction earned shortly after I played it for the first time. I received the game as a Christmas gift from my family without them (or even me) knowing anything about the game. I believe that my brother read an article about it online and recommended it to my parents as a gift idea, but they don’t remember any of this, unfortunately. Dominion sat in shrink wrap for some time because the concept looked intimidating. Fortunately, I had a coworker who also had the game and eventually taught me how to play on his copy.
I was hooked instantly.
So why is Dominion my favorite game ever? It is simple learn, difficult to master, near infinitely replayable and the depth of strategy for the cost involved is unprecedented.
Dominion invented the deck building mechanic, a construct in which each player starts with the same basic deck and will use those cards to purchase more cards, which eventually get shuffled into your deck. Cards provide abilities that ultimately either help you or hurt your opponents; eventually, you will purchase victory point cards, the only cards that score points. However, victory point cards also go into your deck as dead weight in your hand, so you cannot simply purchase points immediately. You must establish an engine to accommodate for dead weight, and there are several ways to do this. In fact, this is where the game really begins to shine.
For me, Dominion has the cleanest system I have ever seen for a game that is clearly meant to be expandable; there are very few ambiguities as opposed to a game like Smash Up, my second favorite. The core concept is explained as ABC – Action, Buy, Cleanup. Each player has one action on their turn that allows them to play an Action card for some bonus; Action cards may grant additional actions when played, allowing for bigger, better turns. Eventually, all actions will be expended or a player decides not to continue, at which point they will have accrued a certain amount of treasure. The Buy phase then begins, where a player may buy one card using that treasure, unless action cards gave them an additional buy (which is common). Finally, all cards from the play area and remaining cards into your hand go into the discard pile as part of the Cleanup phase, as well as triggering any Cleanup abilities.
Regardless of the cards you use, every single combination follows this same game structure. Action, Buy, Cleanup. Repeat until the game ends, when either the Provinces are gone or any three stacks are depleted. Explaining the game is that simple. But winning it? That is much harder.
Dominion is so simple in what you can do that it leaves so much room to decipher what you should do. Each game of Dominion features 10 stacks of unique cards; the base set includes 25 Kingdom cards, allowing for over three million unique initial game states. Granted, not every state will make for a good game, but there is enough variety that each individual card matters and can affect the overall strategy. It is rare that a player will use all ten of the chosen cards, so you must analyze how the cards work well together. One of my favorite moments playing this game was at a recent convention when an experienced player remarked that they had never seen a specific card used in the way that I used it when I won. Each card has an ability, but the value of that ability can change depending on what other cards are present; additionally, the order in which cards are played can also factor heavily into your strategy, as some cards are meant to be terminal.
There are three core strategies in Dominion that can be achieved with any number of cards – pure money, pure actions and somewhere in between. If you’ve played Dominion with me, you know that I almost always try to go through my entire deck every turn and I focus on crafting a powerful, repeatable engine. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always work and it can be trumped by an aggressive pure money strategy, where cards are bought early before my engine has a chance to become perfected. However, pure money doesn’t possess a means to insulate itself from bad draws or attacks. Sometimes players will play a lot of cards but have no tangible gain for doing so, which means that money must be balanced with actions. As I mentioned before, there are several ways to achieve each of these strategies – for pure actions, you can either thin your deck by removing unwanted cards, focus on direct card draw or use cards that search and filter your deck. The cards are so versatile that I have meaningfully used every card in all sets through Hinterlands with possibly one exception (Explorer) because it does not match my play style – and I have never witnessed that type of utility in a game before.
In fact, individual cards make such a difference that the mere presence of a card is enough to alter my strategy entirely. When two or more of these cards are present, I have a very difficult choice to make because they don’t necessarily work well together – but sometimes they work amazingly well together. Sometimes another card completely enhances the utility of the first card. For example, Tactician (Seaside) is a very interesting card that allows a player to punt one on turn to have a twice as effective turn next time. Having multiple Tacticians provides little value since they do not stack and a Tactician makes you discard your entire hand. However, Vault (Prosperity) and Tactician together are amazing; I leave it as an exercise to the reader to discover why.
After the second edition of Dominion came out, I was upset over some of the cards that were removed and I read several reviews to see how others felt. To my surprise, I came across several reviews that did not care for those cards because you could always buy something better. In my opinion, this is absolutely the wrong way to evaluate cards – they have value by themselves, but they also gain additional benefits or negatives as part of a combo. I almost always want to trash my coppers, so cards like Coppersmith, which double the value of coppers, and Counting House, which puts coppers from your discard pile into your hand, do not appeal to me. Yet I remember getting defeated by an engine of where a player used Chancellor to discard their deck, Counting House to retrieve the coppers and Coppersmith to double the coppers, with cards that provided supplemental buys to get two Provinces on many turns. Even if you think a card is useless, I believe there is some combination of cards where that card becomes extremely important. I’m sure it will happen for the Explorer eventually.
When I play Dominion, I take an approach that I don’t get to use in any other game to the same extent – I decide how I want the game to end before I even take the first move. Based on the cards available, will I deplete the Provinces or will I deplete three stacks? If the latter, what three stacks are the likely candidates? From there, I can work backwards to develop my strategy – do the current cards offer opportunities for multiple buys? If the answer is no, I probably want to focus on purchasing Provinces since it will be harder to unexpectedly deplete three piles. I also must decide what cards I need to purchase on my first few turns; Village is one of the best cards in the base set, and people often buy it on the first or second turn, but it actually provides no immediate value. Of course, players will have to react based on what purchasing power they have on individual turns and how often they are attacked, but to win consistently you must have a plan from start to finish and be able to execute that plan with finesse. Knowing when to convert the engine from cards to points takes experience – too soon and you will find yourself inhibited in your hand management; too late and you will not have enough time to accrue points and win. Not many games allow you to utilize this planning approach.
Dominion is also the rare game where I can endorse several of the expansions, which seamlessly integrate into the base game since the ABC mechanic is unchanged. Dominion: Prosperity is my all-time favorite expansion although Seaside is a close second since it introduces Duration cards that survive an additional turn. Intrigue is another solid expansion, one that reinterprets card types and contains cards where the type of cards in your deck matters. Unlike many I know, I really enjoy Alchemy as it contains some of my favorite cards, and Cornucopia has some great cards for pure action strategies. I also have the Hinterlands and Guilds expansions, which add more diversity to the game without breaking what I love about it. I cannot say the same about Dark Ages, Adventures or Empires – I believe they deviate too far from what Dominion was intended to be, although I would not blame you for purchasing the sets just for additional cards.
Every game is going to have its flaws, and I believe player count can hinder Dominion. Dominion is an amazing two player experience because it becomes a simple question of my engine versus yours. I do enjoy playing the game with three or four players, but Dominion has a peculiar phenomenon that occurs. Consider a three-player game in which player A is winning for now but player B is gaining momentum. Player C trying to win can actually expedite the game and cement A’s victory, since C wants to try to win by purchasing Provinces, meaning there are less Provinces for B to buy especially if B buys multiple ones per turn. As a result, my play from behind strategy becomes very risky because I may not have enough time to catch up, so I must be more aggressive in securing points. With attack cards, four players can become irritating since attack cards increase in value as they affect multiple opponents; as a result, everyone is playing a Militia against everyone else and each turn begins with only three cards. It is possible to play Dominion with as many as six players if you have two sets, but I fail to see why you wouldn’t play two three-player games (or three two-player games if you have enough base cards) because your victory chances are diluted; with each player added, you have less control over the effectiveness of your engine.
My other “flaw” with Dominion is that it takes up two shelves and is very difficult to transport. Usually I will pick an expansion or two and take the base cards with me if I need to bring it somewhere. Eventually, I will figure out a better long-term storage and transportation system.
Many critics of the game complain about the lack of theme (“why does a Village give you two actions”) but, for me, that does not affect the gameplay, which is supreme. I’ve played Dominion over 1000 times when it was available on the Isotropic website and never got tired of it. I still play it in physical form and would love to play it more frequently than I do, which is why I put it on my 10x10 challenge. If you are looking for a great two player game with high replayability, the base set is a great place to start, and if you enjoy that, there are many expansions waiting to keep you occupied for a long time.