Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The Spice of Life - Dominion Expansion Reviews (general and specific)


I've now been playing Dominion for a little over 3 years and have 4 of the expansions and one promo card (and of course the core).

I still very much enjoy Dominion, but have found that it's not nearly as tight as I first felt it was.

The following review builds on my review of the core Dominion set, and assumes having read it, and/or familiarity with the core game.


Under-Promise
Case in point.
There are some dud cards. There just are. Ones where, regardless of a given player's preferences or the over all game environment, they never get taken. In a couple cases, they feel too expensive, but in most cases, they just don't do enough to be worth buying during the game. Usually, this is because they're an action card (so use up your precious action slot, particularly valuable if cards which generate options are scarce). More often than not, they're not the boring cards, but ones that try to be too clever, like give a sense of player choice which has a best move that becomes clear over time, or ones that really need another type of card to get the most out of it. I wouldn't go anywhere near saying this approaches the dreaded "Ameritrash" criticism of a robot being able to play best, but, they're either poor, or poor in most situations.

As with most poor options in strategy games, these won't break the game. They're just dead weight that rarely get taken outside of the most niche builds, which require the stars aligning and people choosing to follow them.

Over-Deliver
There are quite a few cards that, in the wrong environment however, are poor for the game.

Built as defensive, but much better
for streamlining, and dirt-cheap.
One of the big things you learn as you get experienced with Dominion is that streamlining your deck early on is more often the best thing you can do. You start with Estates (not worth much for the end of the game, and proportionally clog your hand most at the beginning) and Copper (which, while useful, doesn't do much, and is about as little value as you can get- there's a reason they're free). If you're able to get rid of the former quickly, you only have actions and cash left, which means you're more efficient. Once you've gotten enough resources that you don't need them, it's then great to start burning Copper however you can to further streamline your deck. Ideally, you won't have much of your original deck left by mid-game.

You won't always have the options that allow you to do this, but it's a clear, strong strategy if you do. Getting a strong card early and streamlining your deck means that you can quickly go to playing said strong card far more often, and it becomes stronger the more often you're able to play it. Particularly with the ability to cycle cards, you can potentially build a deck so you're more likely than not to get a single card you want in your deck each turn. There's nothing wrong with this mechanic, but it is a preface for the next.

Some cards are over-powered, and the above already advantageous strategy makes them moreso. Occasionally they're over-powered in combos, or overpowered because they're undercosted so you can get them earlier than you should with a bit of luck, but mostly they're just cards that, by being bought at all, early in the game, break the game by virtue of being played frequently. They're just bad for the game environment.

The worst offenders are ones that allow you to clog your opponent's hand or deck. There are ways of blocking attacks or getting rid of chaff, but rarely efficiently, and all variants require a bit of luck in drawing the countering option at the right time. Furthermore, more often than not, you've got no answer to attacks since no defensive card is in the set. Attack cards outnumber defensive cards around 4:1, so chances are very high of drawing attack cards with no direct response, and many defensive cards don't outright stop the attack.

Not the worst, but certainly frustrating.
If a player gets lucky, or in some cases if the card is just present at all if it's cheap enough, an early buy with even one copy of a card can clog an opponent's deck by as much as twenty cards, in a game where decks rarely exceed fifty total cards, and the only counter becomes for all other players to pigeon-hole their play styles to include the same abusive cards in a race to the bottom, at which point every deck can be similarly clogged.

Not only are attack cards some of the most powerful, but they have an unfortunate side-effect of becoming more powerful, since they affect more players.

So, we've already begun to house-rule that any set of cards that includes 2+ attack cards needs at least one reaction (defensive) card. Unlike our previous house rules, which were about making the game more fun (the sort of house rule I believe in), this was about decreasing the potential for abuse and problems. We're getting to the point where we're talking about any set with any attack cards requiring a reaction card, even.

Unhealthily tasty in fried rice.
Annoying in email or games.
Stop doing that!
Again, case in point.
The problem is, it isn't just attack cards. Many of the expansions encourage combo decks of a few cards that can get to abusive levels if you stack or repeat them enough. Some are just fun shenanigans that take too long, but others are ones where, if you engineer your deck properly, you can do some horrible things. A lot of these are based on cards not having caps built in to them, where they only become a problem if someone builds around them or gets lucky. Which isn't to say that I don't believe the game should have skill and luck involved, but that a maximum limit below near-infinite reward would better balance the game.

These all become exacerbated with various means of force multiplication for some simple but nasty combos.

But I don't want to.
So, I've been criticizing, or just plain complaining, for a while now. But at the end of the day I still like Dominion, am still getting better at it, and still want more. Despite its shortcomings, it's stille easily in my top-10 list. Some details on expansions below. Each expansion focuses on a different theme.

Intrigue
Intrigue introduces dual-type cards (victory & action cards, for instance), and expands the game to accommodate more than four players. (Both Intrigue and Dominion are effectively starter games, as each has a full set of core resources.)

I really like these mechanics,
and really dislike this illustration.
It also features some of the nastiest attack cards, and, as mentioned above, those see more affect with more players. It also has the highest concentration of cards that negatively effect other players' decks that aren't attacks, so can't be blocked. It has a few cards that wouldn't be as bad outside being grouped with other cards from the set, some where as soon as other cards are introduced, they go from strong to really obnoxious, and I think it was a poor choice to put one of the weakest Reaction (defensive) cards in a box with some of the strongest Attack cards.

I originally really disliked the set, but as I've experienced it more, I've realized that they were trying a bunch of new things in reaction to the first set, and that the outliers were really heavily influencing the tone. This set heavily favors large action pools, which I'd really enjoy except for all of the unpleasant actions that it translates to. I think that, while the cards are more interesting than the core set, it really isn't a good starting place, because the cards can be very frustrating to relatively inexperienced players. However, you can get some pretty cool, streamlined decks from weird builds here.

It kinda' makes you feel bad playing it,
though not as bad as seeing it played on you.
The 5-6 player variant of the game is essentially an expanded version similar to the jump from 2 players to 3-4 players. The 7-8 player expansion is a funky thing where you're essentially playing two Dominion games in parallel, which I think is kind of cheating at calling it a 7-8 player game. However, you can also accomplish either by buying the extra resource mini-expansion.

My least favorite of the expansions. The Sabateur is one of the reasons why, but hardly the only one. I would mostly recommend this if you prefer a fight in your card games, rather than a "race"-style who can build the best combo deck that most of Dominion focuses on.


A pretty typical Duration.
Seaside
This expansion introduces several variations on the concept of persistent effects. I think it changes the overall feel and pace of the game the least, with the biggest thing usually being you know your next turn can be stronger without spending actions. Because of this, it means that it's probably about the most middling of the expansions I've played. Nothing epic, nothing terrible. Basically a more nuanced version of the core set.

Nice, but hardly essential.



Prosperity
One of my favorites. Also, that priest
looks like some Lovecraftian baddie. 
Prosperity introduces two new top levels of the standard resources, (Platinum and Colonies), and is generally about being able to get huge or streamlined decks and gobs of resources, along with having a ton of expensive cards, things that increase your Buy count, and weird money cards. It also has a new mechanic where you can get Victory points in the form of tokens instead of clogging your deck with Victory cards.

Pretty representative, both in being a weird
money card and having no upper limit.
It affects the pace of the game more than any other expansion I've played, since you really have time to build those combo decks instead of worrying about speed in the mid-game as a race to get the Provinces first. You can get some really cool things going, but this also has some of the most abusive combos if you get lucky or really game stuff.

Flawed, but still one I highly recommend.



Cornucopia
Reward for variety rather than quantity
is a lot more nuanced and fun IMHO.
This is the smallest of the expansions I have, and doesn't introduce a new mechanic like the others, but that doesn't stop it from being great. The cards in this expansion encourage variety. After you're kinda' bored of core Dominion and how valuable Silver is, this expansion is extremely rewarding, because you get the best effects from having a ton of different cards. It's not uncommon for every player to have one of every type of card at the end of a game, and what this means is that you're more often playing with unexpected combos rather than trying to go for a reliable spam.

Yippie ki-yay.
This expansion also happens to have my favorite card, which is the entertaining Tournament that allows you to draw from a crazy little set of unique cards and is one of a fairly small set of cards which change roles as the game draws on, shifting from deck cycling to combo-based card generation, with the insurance of replacing its action cost either way.

I and my group consider this the best of the expansions we've played: it's cheap, encourages variety, and works well with any other set. Definitely my recommended first buy after the core.