Not long from now, Donald X. Vaccarino’s Dominion will hit it’s 10th anniversary. It’s sold more than 2.9 million copies worldwide, generated eleven expansions, amassed a stack of awards including the 2009 German Spiel des Jahres, generating a new award category in the process.*
In the process, it created an entire genre of board games known as deck-builders.
All this for a board game that has no board.
I have a group of friends. We get together to play board games. That last statement is almost nearly not true, and wildly inaccurate. In a good year we get together three times a year. Whenever we get together, despite all of us owning many many board games, we only ever play Dominion.
As many times as we can fit into a night. Before us old men with young children and real jobs and responsibilities start getting tired and fading into the night.
How is this possible? Because Dominion is really very good. It’s still fun after a decade of gaming. It’s fresh and new with each playthrough, and because every year there’s a new Dominion expansion and we’ve barely sucked the marrow out of the last set and we all have birthdays and Christmas presents and we might as well just buy the next set for ourselves.
I own many many board games; I’ve played many more board games. But the single game I’ve played the most in the last decade is Dominion, by far, and it will maintain a permanent place in my collection… at least until the ink fades and the cards wear away, and I need to buy a third set of cards to replace the second set of cards that replaced the first set of cards (which is, in fact, a true story).
Dominion is the archetypical deckbuilder. Each player starts with their own deck of cards. They are very basic and allow you to do not much more than buy extra cards. As your bought cards enter your deck, you’re able to do more and more–whether it’s to play more cards, buy more cards or more expensive cards, or even remove (“trash”) some of the cards in your deck.
Or, you can buy cards which give you victory points, but – generally speaking – don’t do very much else except clog your hand.
The gameplay will be eerily familiar to players of Magic: The Gathering. The game is a constant attempt to optimise your decks, deal with excessive clogging in your hand, and experience the immediate joy of plugging a new card into your deck to see if it synergises with the rest of your deck.
But you only have so long to optimise your deck into a lean, clean, victory-point-buying machine, because everyone else is buying victory points too (in increasing order, Estates, Duchies and Provinces), and once all the Provinces are bought, the game ends.
On that topic, the pacing is darn near perfect. The early game is forgiving. You can explore, test new cards and strategies, and afford to make a mistake. By the middle game, your card combinations are starting to work (or fail) but there’s still time for adjustments. But then the end-game hits, and it’s a frantic race to buy the most Provinces.
Dominion itself is a remarkably replayable game. In each game, you’ll only play with ten of the possible twenty-four sets of cards, and the combination of cards in the game will dramatically change the way the game unfolds. You can easily play a dozen times without having the same game play out.
But there’s been one expansion (or in some cases an entirely compatible, stand-alone set) almost every year for the last ten years.
Some sets will bring a dozen new cards, others twenty-four. Each expansion focuses on one aspect of play, or perhaps a new mechanic. One set focuses on player interaction, another on multi-use cards and lots of treasures. Another allows for trashing cards.
A Completely Biased Guide to Dominion sets
Dominion (2008, 2016)
This is like the bread in the sandwich. Though it may not be as interesting as some of the contents, it’s essential, filling, and nutritious. Good bread makes a good sandwich. The second edition actually removed several cards that, in retrospect, never ever got played. If you sprung for the first edition all those moons ago, it’s possible to buy the new cards from the second edition – together with the new cards from Dominion: Intrigue – as a standalone.
Buy this first. It’ll give you everything you need to get started with Dominion. You won’t regret it.
Dominion: Intrigue (2009)
There is a small amount of interactivity in Dominion, but Intrigue takes it to another level. That can take the form of making other players discard cards, clogging their deck with Curse cards (-1 victory point) and so forth. Now, interactivity can be fun, bit it should also be pointed out that in my experience, most attack cards slow the game down, and reduce your chances of fitting that extra game into a game night.
Intrigue is a take-it or leave-it proposition, and that will very much depend on how you and your game group likes to play.
Dominion: Seaside (2009)
Seaside introduces a fun nautical component: pirates, treasure maps, ghost ships…huzzah! Also, Seaside introduces a new mechanic: Duration cards (the orange cards above). These are cards that, normally, have an effect during this turn and next turn. Some cards give you extra cards or extra money, but the most dramatic card is Tactician which lets you discard your whole hand, effectively jettisoning your current turn (unless you’ve managed to do a bunch of tricky things prior to playing the card!) On the next turn, you get twice as many cards, twice as many actions, and twice as buys.
Seaside and the Duration mechanic is a solid addition to your game. It just forces you to plan ahead, lets you push beyond the standard boundaries such as only working with 5 cards, as long as you’re precise about how you manage the cards you play.
This is widely regarded as the worst expansion. It introduces an entirely different form of currency, Potions, as well as a card which perpetually makes you count the number of cards in your deck/hand/discard. This was a nice experiment, but it’s not worth your time or money.
Seriously. Don’t buy it.
Many consider this the best expansion. It adds a new level of currency (Platinum, +5 coins) and victory points (Colonies, 10 VP), as well as several Treasure cards that have other utility value. It upgrades your fun in a lot of different ways. It makes it far easier to buy the expensive cards that you might normally never purchase, so a lot of high-powered cards enter circulation.
Also, it both stretches the game out (do you upgrade your engine enough to buy lots of Colonies, or try to rush the mid-game and get Provinces before other people load up on Colonies?) but also speeds the game up… because once you’re drawing Platinums every second turn, your deck is constantly humming.
IMHO, this should be the first expansion you buy.
Cornucopia was another smaller set that rewarded variety. It was certainly interesting, because often in Dominion, you find 2-3 cards that work in neat synergy and ignore the ones that do not match your strategy. But Cornucopia provided cards such as Fairgrounds that gave you more victory points for having a more diverse deck.
The cutest thing about this expansion were the Knights–a single stack of ten unique cards. Each card had a different ability. These were all based on real people–friends and family of Donald Vaccarino.
Hinterlands added something new to the cards–not only did cards do things when played, but several cards gave you bonuses at the point of buying them. So strategies might unfold not merely from the combinations of cards in your deck, but also through the once-off benefits you gain as you buy cards.
Meh. It was okay. It’s not my favourite expansion, but it’s not my least favourite expansion.
Dark Ages (2012)
This is the biggest Dominion expansion ever. It provides the novel experience of replacing your starting Estates (1VP victory cards) with Shelters (which are almost but not-quite useless cards). More interestingly, this expansion focuses on trashing cards and cards that give you benefits when trashed.
It introduces the most amusingly-named Death Cart (which perpetually sounds like a Monty Python sketch), but the most amusing card in this set is Rats, which is the only set of cards that start with double the usual number. Rats, as you would expect, destroy everything and breed more Rats. This is almost always a bad move, but very funny.
My particular game group are trash addicts. We find the prospect of shaving your deck down to 5 usable cards is very attractive. We love this set, but I suspect it’s a very divisive experience. But it’s a top five set for me.
This is a delightful little expansion. Apart from featuring The Butcher, The Baker and The Candlestick Maker (who actually combo quite well together), there’s a neat little mechanic where certain cards will give you a coin token, which can be spent at a later date. It’s both quite an intuitive little addition which broadens your options quite significantly in-game.
This was an odd attempt to put a D&D flavour on top of Dominion. The theme of the game has always been sort of secondary, restricted to how closely the mechanic on a Tax Collector might match what a Tax Collector actually does. Nevertheless there’s an Inn, and cards that can “level up” (trade them in for other cards), and can add permanent bonuses to all card of a particular type.
More interesting was the Event cards – a permanent shared card effect that anyone can pay to access each turn.
There are definitely some interesting cards, but this is not the strongest set.
I think my favourite expansion mechanics are those which add subtle twists to money, such as Prosperity and Guilds. Empires add Debt tokens, which allow you to buy now, pay later.
It’s interesting because often you don’t get the opportunity to buy many expensive cards. The chance to buy expensive cards buy effectively deferring your next turn to pay off debt is an interesting choice.
I think this is in my top five expansions.
Sadly, I haven’t played Nocturne, so I can’t comment on it yet.
I will rectify this on the next available opportunity, at the next blue moon during which my friends and I will convene.
Where to from here?
There are other deck-building games. Thunderstone adds an RPG element, Ascension is another fantasy game made by two Magic: The Gathering alumni, Legendary: A Marvel Deckbuilding Game makes you superheroes battling together against a big boss (there are other thmes but the Marvel one is most entertaining), Star Realms makes for a quick 1v1 deck-building experience.
There are many others – including my most recent favourite, Century: Golem Edition. The more recent trend is towards “bag-building” games, such as the highly regarded Orleans and Altiplano.
All those games are good. Some of them are worth owning.
But me and my pals constantly return to Dominion. Dominion is that rarity of a game: that is simple to understand, and doesn’t punish you on your first game, but has exceptional depth through to your hundredth game. There’s only a handful of games that I’ve played more than one hundred times – Dominion is one of them.
You should play Dominion.
*Yes, it’s true. In an 2014 interview, Spiel des Jahres chairman Tom Felber admitted that Dominion was probably a tad too complex to win the Spiel des Jahres. As a result, the board decided to create three different categories: the Kinderspiel des Jahres (for kids), the Spiel des Jahres (for regular people) and the Kennerspiel des Jahres (for dedicated gamers).