Wednesday, January 16, 2013

It's Like Magic! Except, Well, I Like It - Dominion card game review

So, some few years ago, I heard about this game called Dominion, which was like Magic, the Gathering, which is exactly why it was more than a year before I tried it.
Having played it, the ways it's unlike Magic, however, are exactly why I now like the ways it is like Magic.

My experience with Magic had been the following, conveniently summarized in bullet point form:
if I'm going to pay too much for toys, I'd rather be able to build and customize them than get a random selection of them to put in plastic sleeves.

While I'm fine with chance involved, I don't want my likelihood to win to be based on how lucky I was in buying things (no, I don't buy lottery tickets, either)
I don't want to need to constantly cycle out whole sets of pieces just to stay current (pushing the purchase too hard)
the game has some interesting mechanics around resource management, deck balance, quality vs. quantity, and some countering

Now you'll notice a lot of sad, negative, and generally undesirable red dots that all have to do with Magic's pay to play model, in tandem with artificial rarity. These are the dots of "No, thank you, I see what you're doing and don't like it."

There is also one happy green dot. This is the dot of enjoyable gameplay, and I believe that it was this dot that the creators of Dominion recognized and likely began concepting a game from. (This is also pure speculation, feel free to prove me wrong.)

The Core of the Game - Dominion's Turn System
Yes, this wasn't just a rant about a game I don't particularly enjoy, but a cogent post about a game I do enjoy (preceded by a relatively short rant about a game I don't particularly enjoy).

Like most games, I find that the easiest way to understand Dominion is through a turn, and this is part of why I like Dominion- it has a relatively simple turn.

Your standard turn starts with five cards.

The first of these you use are your action cards, in the appropriately named action phase. The action you take is clearly laid out, with a very short list of common keywords (I think around half a dozen), and, if something's ambiguous, the manual has longer descriptions of the cards' rules.

Action cards are the flashy ones with special rules. They have the cooler pictures, and allow you to do unique stuff.

Naturally, they were my favorite when starting out.

You get one action per turn, with some (like Market, above) that allow you to create a chain of actions and others (like Village, second row) that allow a potential expanding web of actions. If you have extra action cards in your hand, but can't play them anywhere, you're generally out of luck.

At some point, you run out of action cards, or run out of actions (so you can't use them). At this point, you'll probably have generated more cards in your hand, some spending power (all of those +(1)'s and +(2)'s above), and maybe added a card or two to your deck (Workshop allows you to do this, for instance).

Next, you use your treasure cards, in the just about as intuitively named buy phase. Just like actions, you only start with one buy.

These, combined with your action cards, will give you a total buying power. This is rarely modified, and is not modified at all in the core game. The only variable is the number of Buys you have: like actions, your purchases are limited unless you expand them.

After you've bought all your cards you can, everything you've used or purchased goes in your discard pile.

Finally, you clean up your hand, by discarding it as well. This will usually consist of victory cards and unused action cards.

Eventually, you'll run out of cards. You then shuffle your original cards and your gained cards, and the cycle begins again, with your deck organically growing as you gain more resources and options.

End Game
Victory cards (and curse cards) rarely effect the turn, except as ballast. However, when the game ends, they're the most important cards you'll have.

There are two ways of ending the game: running out of multiple resources, or running out of all of the most expensive victory cards.

When this is done, you add up all of your victory cards (and subtract curse cards), and determine the winner. While other cards may effect victory cards (some are variable, based on some quantity in your deck), mostly your victory cards are what measure your victory.

Composition is ultimately what wins you the game: a good balance of actions and treasure will allow you to, late game, get the victory cards you need to win.

Returning to the comparison to Magic, this game is based on building a deck (hence the category "deck builders"). However, the significant difference is that, unlike Magic (where, typically, the larger budget buys the best cards and wins), the game is based on an even playing field.

Every player has the same starting cards and access to the same resources, which is what makes the game so enjoyable in my mind: an even starting point, and a growing deck means you start with even options and you can adjust your deck and strategy to make up for shortfalls in your plan.

Replay value
This is where Dominion excels.

Every game has 17+ types of cards in it: 7 that are constant, 10 random ones (or you can play scenarios), and a few ways of adding to that list. With around 200 types of cards spread through the core game and more than a half-dozen themed expansions, there are near-infinite combinations of the game.

Many cards serve similar functions, with variations, while some cards will radically alter the gameplay: some might encourage large decks, while others might encourage varied decks; some cards will make tight decks with a lot of spending power; some might provide cascades of actions.

Having played the game for more than half a year, I've gotten one expansion (Cornucopia encourages varied decks) that I've played some, and another (Intrigue adds another core set of cards, and allows for 5-6 player games, along with 7-8 simultaneous games).

The expansions provide some more variety, and the rules for 5-6-player games nicely expand the game without dragging it out, in my opinion.

Notably, I find that the game, while different with different numbers of players, also has good replay value with just two players.

The one negative thing I can say about the replay value is that I find treasure cards, by virtue of versatility (you can almost always use all of them) are slightly undercosted and encourage more homogenous decks than I'd like, though a number of cards do encourage variety.

One Year Later... 
Returning to Replay Value after close to 2 years of occasional play. (Updated Feb 2014)

After quite some time with the game (still the core and 2 expansions), the added experience has changed some of my views.

• Not all cards are created equal: some later cards are objectively better than earlier roughly equivalent ones. However, I don't have a problem with this, given the above comments on even playing field. Sometimes you just have great versions of cards you want; sometimes you get the lame ones and need to make do with lame versions.

Not all expansions are created equal: after playing a ton, we've come to the conclusion that the core game is still our favorite set- it has the best mix of favorites to "meh" ones. Fortunately, this speaks well of the game's longevity, etc.

Not all players... eh, no more repetition. There's a bigger learning curve than I expected. There's an early plateau that mostly amounts to "don't buy too many action cards with more action generators; get some silver early," and a few other more obvious concepts. However, once you get past that initial curve, one of the most exciting parts of Dominion is working with a new set of cards, and figuring out what initial strategies you'll work with, then plan on how to pace your game. The game is still very improvisational, but takes on a lot more nuance, particularly with what you're willing to sacrifice.

House Rules
(also added Feb 2014)

The game benefits from a couple house rules, that have nothing to do with balance, but do have to do with speed and fun. We play with a few house rules:

• 2 boxes for the card pool- it both creates a bit of a more coherent set of cards and speeds up setup time

• Everyone draws evenly, and gets one veto from their selection, drawing up another: it gives a small amount of control without bogging down the game or over-engineering it.

• We're experimenting with whoever lost gets to choose up to 3 from the previous game to replace (blind, as usual): it gets rid of what was hardest or most boring, while shortening the delay between games.

Entry Cost
The price tag is a bit hefty, especially if you haven't bought board games since people realized they could charge more for them. I think it's worth the price, especially considering the versatility and replay value, but you may not want to buy a moderately pricy game based on a review by someone you've never met.

However (!), Dominion does have a free version online. While not made by the company itself, is (as far as Wikipedia's authority is concerned) on friendly terms with the game creators, though they've been asked to take it down if/when an official game is released.

(I haven't played, myself, but, as with most online gaming communities, it would probably be better to enter a private game with friends than play with some random stranger who's out for digital blood. You've been warned!)

I'd highly recommend this game. Everyone I've encountered (including myself) who's had reservations about it being too complex, too power-gamey, too slow, or too much like Magic has found this not to be the case: the turns go very quickly, making even moderately long games seem relatively short, and there's enough variety that it doesn't get boring. It's a fast, relatively light, but engaging, game that I've found is good for two or for a party.