Dominion, the most recent winner of the prestigious Spiel des Jahres (Game of the Year) award, is a card game for two to four players in which players build a deck of cards through which they’ll cycle repeatedly, using money cards to buy new cards that grant the player more actions, more buying power, or the victory points used to win the game. It’s one of the hottest games going right now among fans of German-style games and ranks sixth on boardgamegeek’s master ranking of games, determined by user ratings.
A turn in Dominion comprises three basic steps: play one or more action card from your hand, buy one or more cards from the supply, and clean up the mess you just made in front of you. You end each turn by drawing the top five cards from your deck, and those cards constitute your hand for your next turn; when your deck runs out, you shuffle your discard pile and begin drawing again, so except for a few special cases when you acquire a card it’s yours to keep.
There are three major card types: money, actions, and point cards. You can use money cards to buy any type of card on the table, including more money cards (copper cards have buying power of 1 and cost 0; silver have buying power of 2 and cost 3; gold have buying power of 3 and cost 6). Your total buying power on any turn is determined by which money cards are in your hand, so you can have plenty of money cards yet be unable to buy on a turn because you didn’t draw them, leading to two strategic considerations – the ratio of money cards to other cards in your deck, and whether it’s better to have lots of copper cards or to concentrate your buying power in silver and gold. You need point cards to win the game, but they have no active function during the game and thus drawing one is a wasted spot in your hand.
The action cards, shockingly, are where the action lies in the game, although more action cards is not necessarily better. Dominion comes with 25 different action card types, but in any particular game you only use 10 of these, which may come from a predetermined set or be chosen at random, leaving you – assuming I did the math right – 3.2 million different combinations, meaning that the game need never be the same twice if you so desire. That in turn means that you can’t approach Dominion with a single strategy, because some games will be more skewed toward action cards that provide you with additional buying power when played, while others may be heavy on cards that grant you extra actions (fun, but not always practical unless you have a deck full of action cards), and so on. Some cards’ value is fairly straightforward; for example, the Village card grants you two more actions and the right to draw a card, but since you have the right to play one action card every turn, the net result is just that you get to take an extra action, which might be useless if you’ve got four money cards in your hand. Choosing the right action cards, including the right mix of action cards and then the right mix of action versus non-action cards, is the key to the game, but the variety of setups mean that there’s no single right answer, and even within one specific setup there will usually be multiple ways to win.
The artwork is nice enough, but the names of cards typically have no connection to the benefits each card provides (why would a village allow you to draw a replacement card and take two more actions?), so you’re not building a “dominion” as the game’s description implies – just a deck. There’s less imagination involved in playing this game than there is in Stone Age or The Settlers of Catan, although I’m sure that’s only a drawback for a limited number of players. Setup is simple if you use the tray and guide to put the cards away after each game, but that in itself is a process so you’re going to lose some time in either setup or cleanup whenever you play. Two-player games take us under an hour; having the third player added a little complexity with the small number of “attack” cards in the deck by increasing the incentive to buy and use such cards, but we can also now say with some certainty that it’s a quick game to pick up, since all three of us grasped it quickly.
The lone negative I can see in the game is that there is one very simple attack that works most of the time if you’re the only person executing it – spend the vast majority of your turns buying silver/gold cards and, when you’re able, buying the Province cards (which cost 8 units) that give you 6 Victory Points apiece. When the pile of Province cards is exhausted, the game is over, so if you buy more than half of those, it’s extremely difficult for anyone to beat you through the lower-value point cards. The strategy won’t work if multiple players chase it, and the Gardens action cards throw a wrench in it, as can the Thief action cards, but it’s simple and straightforward enough that it almost felt like a hack. Against experienced players, it would be worthless, but it could really mess up a casual game night. Beyond that objection, I strongly recommend Dominion, especially if you find games like Settlers of Catan or Stone Age intimidating.
Speaking of Settlers of Catan, I came across an article from Wired, written in April of 2009, on the game’s rise in popularity so long after its initial release, unusual in any business but even more so in one as seemingly dormant as boardgames, with notes on the history of the game and why German-style games are becoming more popular. (It also includes a great phrase for deriding older, “classic” board games: “roll the dice, move your mice.”)