18th Jun2021

‘Dominion’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

There is no doubt that board games – like all games – are based on iterative cycles of innovation and improvement. Almost every game made today is based, somehow, on a mechanism or idea that has been used elsewhere. After all, as the saying goes, “there is nothing new under the Sun.” The relevance of this couldn’t be more prominent when talking about a game like Dominion – this 2008 classic is the inspiration for almost all deck-building games that have since followed, and recently I’ve been playing both Dominion and one of several expansions that exist for it, Dominion: Menagerie.

Despite now featuring numerous, increasingly varied and complex expansions, at its heart Dominion is a very straightforward deckbuilding game. To set up the game, the players make piles of cards based on either a random selection or by using a pre-agreed set (either based on the recommendations in the rulebook, or as otherwise agreed.) Every game will feature six standard decks of cards showing copper, silver and gold (each of which is work an increasing buy value) and then stacks of estate, duchy and province cards.

The other ten piles of cards will vary from game to game as I mention above, and the base game features something like twenty decks to choose from, whilst each expansion (including Menagerie) will add maybe 25 or 30 more. Thankfully, each game comes with a “randomiser” deck to shuffle and draw from, making Dominion pretty much infinitely varied. This, in fact, is really what Dominion expansions are all about – they simply serve to increase the variety and challenge offered by the base game by introducing new rules and concepts, but before I go too far into that, let’s return to some of the basics.

The point of Dominion is to amass the most victory points across all of the cards in your deck, so that when one of the end game conditions is met, you will win. In the base game (and unaffected by Menagerie) all victory point cards are very clearly marked and there is no “complex calculation” that links to other cards or holdings, but I have no doubt that this varies with the other expansions. Additionally, both the base game and Menagerie share the same two endgame triggers – when either the Province deck, or three of the “regular” decks are empty, the game will end with the close of the current player turn.

With this simple objective in mind, players will simply take turns to complete actions (which means to play cards and follow the instructions on them), then buy cards (based on the coin values shown on the cards played). After this, the player will perform clean-up – which usually just means discarding any cards from hand that were not used this turn, although with certain cards in play, specific additional activities may also be needed. This incredibly simple turn structure gives Dominion lots of scope for new rules to be introduced on the cards themselves, and this is how the game gets more complex.

For example, by default a player will draw five cards and can take only one action, and buy one card. For their first action though, they may play a card that adds +1 action and +1 buy. In this example, they would now be able to take one more action (because they spent one to play this card) and have two buys in the next phase. So what if they played another copy of the same card? Well now they still have yet another action, but the buys accumulate and now they have three. Let’s say the next card allows them to draw +2 cards and take +2 actions – well now they have four cards in hand (they drew five then played three, then drew two) and they can take two more actions (and they still have two buys waiting in the next phase).

Considering the hundreds of card combinations available not only across the many Dominion expansions, but also just with Dominion plus Menagerie, you can probably imagine how turns start simple – usually with just three or four coppers being played and one card being bought – but rapidly evolve into card combinations that see six, seven, eight or more cards strung together. Achieving this level of proficiency is quite the art form though, and Dominion makes excellent use of all of the tricks in the deck-building playbook. This is a game that challenges you to play your best hand every time – to maximise your card draw potential and your number of actions, to thin your deck of less powerful cards and to make sure every turn is powerful.

As always though, there’s a catch. With Dominion, that catch is in the form of those basic victory cards – the estates, duchies and provinces. Whilst these cards are all worth victory points, they don’t do anything else (this isn’t always true for other non-basic victory cards.) This means that drawing a hand with two or three such cards can be pretty useless, so a big part of the game is in balancing building up a fast, lean economy during the early game, so that you can rapidly convert it into points as the game draws to a close – ideally before your opponents do the same.

Trashing (permanently discard) cards like your Estates (which are worth just one VP) is a key early game strategy if you can see cards that will do it, but equally, your copper (one buy value) cards rapidly begin to feel burdensome as well. Some cards like The Mine literally allow you to convert copper into silver and silver into gold (which is great) whilst others create even more interesting or even random exchanges. The Menagerie expansion introduces several new concepts, including Exile, which allows players to place cards on a personal Exile board which means those cards are not trashed and remain part of the players deck for scoring purposes, but crucially will not be reshuffled into the deck during play. Some cards can even bring others out of exile, effectively allowing a really savvy player to use the exile as a kind of “hand extension.”

A few of Menagerie‘s other concepts lead to more high level play, with Horses (which are a single use card that returns to a shared pool after use) added, as well as cards with a persistent mechanic that means they can be played to the table and held their until the player who owns them takes their next turn. Both Way and Event cards are also introduced, and these add a constant variation to the game. For example, a Way may simply add +2 gold to every player on every turn (making a much faster game) or it might add an effect, such as allowing players to play any action card as though it were persistent. Events allow players to “buy” the stated effect, for example for a set amount of gold, you might be able to buy five of those horse cards I mentioned to shuffle into your deck.

With all of this said, there are two or three core themes to wrangle with in Dominion at a strategic level. There are the basic concepts of good deck-building as mentioned before – making good buying decisions, ruthlessly discarding rubbish cards and making sure you can draw and play as many good cards as possible – and then there is the nature of the setup, and how to interpret it best. What I mean by this latter point is that even an experienced Dominion player must consider the ten decks of cards in play in this particular game, and assess how best they will combine to create a winning strategy.

With the base game and Menagerie in play, there are many options including going heavily into horses (if there are lots of cards that support that) or focussing heavily on the exile mechanic. On the flipside, even with the more advanced cards from the expansion, traditional strategies are still strong, and may or may not benefit from a smattering of new cards, but it’s also possible to end up picking up cards that don’t have good “support” from the other cards in any particular game. It is definitely possible to set up Dominion (especially if you do it randomly) with piles of cards that can, should and will be ignored by all players for the whole game. On other occasions, one player might see a strategy in taking those cards that no one else can, and it might prove to be the difference between winning and losing.

As an ex-Magic: The Gathering player who loves creating decks and theorising about synergistic combos almost as much as the actual playing of the game, Dominion does a lot for me – especially with a few Menagerie cards sprinkled into the mix. This is a huge, expansive and basically infinitely replayable game (especially if you look at all the expansions out there) that is inexpensive (as long as you can find a copy) and has fantastic artwork. It’s easy to set up, easy to teach and requires relatively little space, with perhaps the real benefit being that it is very tough to master – and realistically, it can’t be mastered entirely because you’ll never see every possible combination of cards. This is a game that I intend to keep and expand upon for a long time to come, and one I will enjoy playing with both new and experienced hobbyists alike, I am sure.

****½  4.5/5

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