Dominion is a short and simple deck-building card game.
Most of the board games that I like are very long, epic games that take hours to play. Games like Civilization, Battlestar Galactica, and Eclipse can take four or five hours to complete - all of which can still be finished before I'm even done setting up Axis & Allies 1940!. But sometimes, my friends and I don't have hours to burn on a board game, and we need something shorter to play. Fortunately, I have a handful of shorter games as well. And one of the best and shortest games that I play is the deck-building game Dominion.
Dominion is an exceedingly simple game to learn, set up, and play. The basic concept is that each player spends money from his hand to buy kingdom cards to place in your deck. Each kingdom card has special abilities that you can execute when you play it from your hand, and the strategy of the game comes from which cards you buy and how you chain their effects together to maximize your ability to buy victory point cards. Each game will have a group of treasure cards and victory point cards, some of which are distributed to each player to form their starting hands. Each player receives seven "Copper" treasures and three "Estate" victory cards. Shuffle them, and draw five for your starting hand.
To play the game, simply follow the
directions printed on each card.
When your turn comes along, you can have an Action Phase and a Buy Phase. During the Action Phase, you play any "Action" cards from your hand and resolve their effects. During the Buy Phase, you play any treasure cards in your hand to purchase new cards to add to your deck. Each card has a cost to buy it, which is printed in the bottom corner. Certain cards will grant you additional actions or buys (i.e. the ability to split your treasure to purchase multiple cards of smaller value), and chaining them together efficiently is the key to victory.
There's very few actual rules to learn, since all the actions in the game are resolved by simply reading the effects from the card. The only things you have to learn are some of the game's basic vocabulary (e.g. "action", "buy", "gain", "discard", "trash", "attack", and so on). Once you know what all those words mean in relation to the game (and most of them are self-explanatory), you are ready to play! The result is a simple and elegant game that can be picked-up and played within a matter of minutes.
Many games in one
But this simple game also hides some serious depth and versatility. The base game's box comes with several dozen sets of kingdom cards, only ten of which are used in any given game. This means that the base game's card sets can be mixed and matched to create a multitude of variations that can affect how long the game will take to play, how much the players will interact with one another, how complex the action-chaining will get, and so on. While most cards have abilities that affect the quality and quantity of new cards that a player can add to your deck, some cards also allow for player interaction. The Militia, Thief, Witch, and so on all have effects that force other players to discard cards from their hand, trash cards, give their cards to other players, or even lose victory points. You can defend yourself from these "attack" cards by playing "reaction" cards (such as a Moat) from your hand, which allow you to negate the effects of the attacking card. These cards only work if they are in your hand, so how many you buy into your deck, and how often you cycle through your deck will determine how useful these cards will be to you. A little luck will also factor in.
The game is modular, and allows for dozens of configurations, each with its own unique flavor.
This modular design means that different combinations of kingdom cards can result in radically different gameplay experiences. The rule book includes a handful of recommended kingdom card combinations, but you can also randomize which cards you use. This allows for a lot of flexibility and replayability, as each game could use a different combination of cards that will enable different types of strategies and pose different types of opportunities and challenges to players. Of course, if you're picking kingdom cards at random, then you do run the risk of creating a combination of cards that ins't particularly fun or interesting, or which makes the game slow, boring, dull, or difficult. The un-viability of certain card combinations is probably the only intrinsic weakness that this game has. If a particular set of cards seems like it won't be much fun, then the players can easily agree to replace some of the cards with more useful or interesting ones. So this is also a very easy problem to solve.
Shuffling, shuffling, and more shuffling
The fact that this is a deck-building game also means that it is subject to the same problems as other deck-building games like Race for the Galaxy or Upper Deck's Legendary card game series. One problem is that any given player is subject to a lot of randomness. You can buy powerful cards, but if those cards never end up in your hand at useful times, then you'll never get to play them to their fullest potential. Having a card that grants an extra action, but not having any other action cards in your hand can feel like a wasted turn, especially if the other players are busy chaining together actions and buying expensive victory cards.
Your performance in the game can be largely determined by luck of the draw.
Even if you buy a powerful card, it may never show up in your hand at a useful time.
The other common issue with deck-building games is that you'll be cycling through your deck very often, which means that you'll be shuffling your cards very often. So if you're not a good shuffler, then that might be a problem. The frequent shuffling also means that card bending and other damage is inevitable, so it might worthwhile to invest in card-protectors. Fortunately, you'll usually have a little bit of downtime during other players' turns, which gives you plenty of opportunity to shuffle while you wait. But if other players are playing attack cards frequently, then waiting for one player to finish shuffling can slow down the game a little bit. The box comes with a plastic insert for storing all the cards, and it keeps things nice and orderly. Unfortunately, if you want to sleeve all your cards, then you probably won't be able to cram them all back into the box.
Overall, the game usually flows very smoothly. The box says that it should take about thirty minutes to play, and this is one of the very few games that I own in which the box is actually correct about the game length. Games do consistently finish within thirty or forty minutes, though I have seen certain combinations of kingdom cards cause games to stretch on for over an hour. The only real source of slow-down or waiting usually comes from waiting for someone to shuffle their deck, especially if the whole group is waiting for the shuffler because they need to draw a new hand in order to resolve the effect of another player's attack card. But this is only a problem in games that involve complicated interaction decks.
Certain "Attack" cards allow for player interaction, and can be defended against with other cards.
I really love the Dominion game. It's a perfect game to play when a group has an hour or less to burn, and it's a great game to teach to novice gamers. Its modular nature means that it's very flexible, and also very expandable - and there are a butt-ton of expansions! It would probably also make for a very good travel game, since it's easy to just put all the cards together into a stack, rubber band them, and stick them in a small box. I also own a few of the expansions for this game, and those are pretty fun as well, and each expansion offers its own sets of cards and twists on gameplay. But all the expansions maintain the same simple, elegant rules. Dominion is, put simply, one of the best games that I own!
- Very simple to learn and play.
- Versatile, modular card sets accommodate different play styles.
- Near endless variety.
- Fast-paced and quick to play.
- Easy set-up and tear-down.
- Well-packaged, unless you sleeve all your cards.
- Some combinations of card sets can lead to boring games.
- You'd better get good at shuffling cards!
FINAL GRADE: A
Manufacturer: Rio Grande Games
Lead Designer: Donald X. Vaccarino
Original release: October 2008
Player(s): 2-4 players
Game Length: 30 mins - 1 hour
Official site: riograndegames.com/games.html?id=278