A review of Dominion, 4000 plays later

This was an entry for the Voice of Experience review contest, which aims to compile reviews written by those that are experienced with the games they review.

Dominion (Base)

Like reading a novel, playing a board game in depth involves trust. You have to trust that the time and effort you invest into the game will be rewarded. You have to trust that the designer has thought through the implications of the rules, that the game will persistently entertain and challenge you, and that the game’s strategy cannot be reduced down to a rote algorithm. Although you may eventually tire of a game through no fault of its own, it is the designer’s job to ensure that so long as you wish to continue playing, there will always be more to explore.

If you have never played Dominion before, many other reviews will tell you that you should. It’s accessible, a great way to introduce people to the hobby, and it lays the foundation for a whole slew of deck-building games to come. It’s not everyone’s favorite game, but most would probably recommend it.

This review aims higher: it is geared towards those that have played Dominion, but are undecided on its long-term potential. It was fun, but is it really worth playing over and over again? Is there really anything more to explore? Will I still find it interesting, or challenging, or entertaining even after I play it dozens, or hundreds, or thousands of times?

The answer is yes. In other words, Dominion is worthy of your trust. It is a game that is enjoyable the first time, but even more enjoyable your 1000th time.

I write this from the perspective of someone who has played Dominion over 4000 times in three and a half years, who manages the Dominion Strategy website and its community, and who still has yet to exhaust the depths of this game. I do not regret for one second the amount of time I have invested into this game, for it has consistently rewarded my exploration and presented new and exciting discoveries every game.

This review is not intended to discuss the components or the rules. If anything, it assumes a passing familiarity with the rules of Dominion. Nor is it intended to be a review solely of the base game. The base game is enjoyable on its own, but it is only with expansions that Dominion becomes a transcendent game.

So why do I enjoy playing Dominion, 4000 games later?

Variety / Depth

When you shuffle together a Kingdom of 10 cards, you are, in all likelihood, playing a Kingdom that has never been played before and never will be played again. These are not subtle changes that merely tweak how the game plays out. In most games, the variable setup is something that you must adapt into your standard strategy, and the game tests how you are able to shoehorn the initial starting conditions into your pre-ordained route to victory. (For instance, the overall strategy in Pandemic is fairly well-defined, and the variability presents a predominantly tactical challenge.)

Dominion is different. Not only does it offer staggering variety (there are an estimated 2 quadrillion or so Kingdoms, enough that if you played a Kingdom every second of your life it would take 63 million years to play them all), but your entire game strategy (not just your tactics) must change to adapt to each set. Introducing a new Kingdom is not about tweaking your preferred strategy to fit the Kingdom, but about freshly analyzing each Kingdom, as if it were a brand new game.

As an example, consider the following two kingdom sets:

This Kingdom has Fishing Village, which allows you to play many Actions per turn. With so many Actions, you can stack powerful Actions on top of each other, and Treasures like Silver and Gold will only get in your way. Actions like Bridge increase in power multiplicatively, and so the best approach is likely going to involve playing a lot of Bridges (to buy out a lot of Victory cards at once). How do you get those Bridges in hand? Council Room will help you draw all of them into your hand, but it increases your opponents’ handsize as well. Militia is a solution to this problem, because it will cut your opponent’s hand down to 3 cards regardless of how many cards he draws from your Council Room. So you might want to build a deck focused on Bridges, Council Rooms, Fishing Villages, and a Militia.

The second Kingdom is the same, except with Sea Hag replacing Fishing Village. But what a difference that makes — now, with Sea Hag, every player will find their deck flooded with Curses. And without a source of additional Actions, you can’t play more than one Bridge or Council Room a turn. Nor is Militia as strong of a card any more: if much of your deck consists of Curses, then it’s not as big a deal to discard down to three cards in hand. Suddenly, you’ll want to adopt a completely different strategy, probably one relying on Treasures like Silver and Gold to increase your buying power. Trading Post becomes a valuable Action because it can crunch those Curses into Silvers. Gardens offers an alternative to Provinces: maybe you don’t thin your deck, and instead use those extra Curses in your deck to fatten it up for VPs from Gardens. If the Sea Hags run out the Curses, and you buy out the Gardens, then you only need to empty one more pile for the game to end, and you can probably accomplish this before your opponent(s) can rebuild their deck up to buy Provinces.

What this illustrates is that how changing even a single card in a Kingdom set radically alters the gameplay. Every card responds to the substitution: if you go into Dominion with the mindset that “Silver and Gold is the key to victory”, or “Militia is a strong attack”, or even “You should buy Provinces to win the game”, you will lose terribly when those maxims no longer hold true. In other words, mastering Dominion is not about memorizing a bunch of axioms; it is instead about developing the ability to evaluate a board holistically and spot the “big picture”.

Of course, there are not unique strategies for each of the 2 quadrillion possible Kingdoms. But the point is that Dominion’s variety is not just window dressing: there might not be 2 quadrillion different strategies, but there is certainly far more to Dominion than you can explore in any single game. It took tens of thousands of games for the community to discover the awesome power of the King’s Court – Goons – Masquerade pin. Not until earlier this year, with the aid of computer simulations, did most of the strategic community begin to appreciate the power of a Duke/Duchy engine. You could not hope to capture all of Dominion’s strategy in a single article: even an entire site, a year and a half later, could not encapsulate all there is to know about this game.

(If you are interested in further insights into how a high-level player approaches Dominion sets, I would highly recommend reading one of the Annotated Games (for example, #11, or #9) or watching a YouTube video.)

KC-Goons-Masq

It took the Dominion community years to realize the game-warping power of this cross-expansion combination.

This is what I think is the critical factor behind Dominion’s depth. Unlike most board games, it is quite literally impossible to see all of Dominion’s strategy space in a single game, or two games, or even a hundred games. Every game offers a new combo, an unexpected interaction, or a surprising counter. It is not uncommon for the next game you play to feature none of the strategic concepts you developed in the previous game. In most games, when you lose, you can go back and point to a mistake you made, and think, “Oh, I should have known that.” In Dominion, when you lose, you can look back and say, “Well, I learned something new this time.”

Many of Dominion’s critics point out that on any given board, it is simply a matter of divining the “optimum” strategy. This ignores Dominion’s occasional rock-paper-scissors strategy potential, as well as the tactical considerations in managing your shuffle luck, but more importantly, it fundamentally misses the point of Dominion. Dominion is a game that demands to be replayed. Playing Dominion once is as far from the true Dominion experience as playing a single hand of Bridge (or Spades, or Tichu). Each game presents its own challenges, but it is only with experience that you can develop the ability to handle a random board with confidence.

A natural consequence of this is that Dominion has unparalleled depth. This is not a game where a beginner would do well against an expert. You might be able to play one particular kingdom set well, but until you have had the experience of a thousand games or so, you cannot hope to defeat a well-rounded player on a random board. There are simply too many potential combinations, ranging from the obvious (Alchemist-Herbalist are in the same expansion for a reason) to the arcane (Horse Traders/Duke, Watchtower/Talisman/Treasure Map, King’s Court/Goons/Masquerade, all of which span multiple expansions), to the game-specific.

Some consider this a flaw. I consider it a virtue. There should be no reason to ever study a game where a beginner stands a reasonable chance of winning. I want a game that rewards experience, that permits further study, that has meaning to its replayability. If I can master (or even start mastering) a game after my first play, then it becomes a game consigned to the played-once-and-never-again bin.

So the main reason I love Dominion is that it is a game that never bores me. Playing it over and over again may sound repetitive, but it is anything but. The fact that every Kingdom presents new possibilities keeps me coming back for more: it is like playing a new board game every time. Although there are high-level concepts that carry over between games, each Kingdom poses a unique challenge, and there are enough potential Kingdoms to keep me engaged for decades to come.

Accessibility

At the other end of the pendulum, it is possible for a game to be so deep that it is no longer enjoyable to learn. Dominion’s true triumph of design is that it combines its depth with an extraordinarily simple rule set and quick playing time. I have not met a single person that was put off by Dominion’s rules, which are clear, consistent, and almost never subject to rules arguments. Moreover, not only is it simple to learn, it is also simple to enjoy. You can play the game 4000 times and enjoy the depth, but you can also enjoy it the very first time you play it. By contrast, you might introduce someone to Chess, Go, or Bridge, and be able to convince them of the depth of each game, but they will not enjoy the game very much until they reach a certain level of skill. There is no game like Dominion that offers both its level of depth and its level of accessibility.

In particular, Dominion is both rules-accessible and strategy-accessible. In other words, it is both easy to learn to play (play an ACTION, BUY a card, CLEAN up), and also easy for a beginner to have a vague idea of where to begin. By contrast, a game like Go offers rules-accessibility but not strategy-accessibility: you might know the rules, but not how to play. Of course, Dominion’s strategy-accessibility doesn’t mean that a beginner can immediately master its strategy, but the point is that there is meaning and enjoyability to this game at every level. You can study it, but you don’t have to. To me, that’s the mark of an outstanding game.

Criticisms of Dominion

I make no pretense that Dominion is a perfect game. Two of the most common criticisms of Dominion is that it lacks interaction, and that it lacks theme. Both are criticisms that contain some truth, but have not prevented me from enjoying this game.

Interaction

The primary criticism of Dominion is that it does not have “strong” interaction, in the sense that the game does not depend on opponents like The Settlers of Catan does. It is a game that can theoretically be played solo (though there is little point in doing so). Nevertheless, it has indirect interaction in several key respects:

  • Attacks affect other players, and responding to/incorporating/adjusting to attacks is one of the strategic linchpins of the game.
  • More importantly, your opponents help dictate your tempo. The goal isn’t to score as many VPs as you can; it’s to have the most VPs by the end of the game. How your opponents play affects how the game ends, and which of the game-end conditions you should pursue.

In other words, a Dominion board is not simply a puzzle where you attempt to identify the best strategy. It is a competitive puzzle, where your ‘solution’ is a combination of both what the board suggests and what best counters your opponent.

Nevertheless, Dominion will never have the same level of interaction as Cosmic Encounter. I tend to think that this an accusation in search of a flaw. I don’t play Dominion if I want a political, backstabbing game. Nor would I play Cosmic Encounter if I want a serious, low-chaos experience. Dominion focuses on what it does, and does it exceptionally well. You can pick on Dominion for low interaction, or Cosmic Encounter for high chaos, but such a criticism implicitly assumes that the perfect game is supposed to incorporate everything. In my mind, the games that stick with you, that cement their status as classics of the genre, tend to be the games that excel at what they do, instead of being middling at a whole bunch of things.

If anything, Dominion wears the “multiplayer solitaire” badge with pride, for it is an outstanding example of how you can make a superb game with zero politics involved. If you don’t like arguing about how you should put the robber on Rob because he’s already ahead, or how you should stop blocking me, because you blocked me already, and I’m so far behind, and why don’t you block Jill instead, then Dominion is the game for you.

Theme

The other common criticism of Dominion is that it does not have a good theme. I do not disagree with this assessment: Dominion is not intended to be a thematic game. If you like your games to tell a stirring narrative, you will not enjoy the prospect of trying to explain how one “remodels” a Moat into a Village.

For some, this is a dealbreaker. For others, it will not be a big deal. I tend to believe Dominion does not need a theme: as implied above, I would rather play a minimally-themed game than compromise Dominion’s elegant and precise mechanics. Of course, you may disagree, and prefer to sacrifice some elegance of mechanics in exchange for a stronger theme, in which case there are many Dominion spinoffs that you should consider instead.

X-Factors

I prefer to play this game online instead of in person. First, games are significantly faster (10 minutes instead of 30, plus no setup/teardown), but more importantly, it eliminates the need to constantly shuffle your cards. If you play this game in person, you have to deal with these annoying factors, which I admit may detract from the experience. Then again, this is a flaw common to most Eurogames, so take from that what you will.

Conclusion

I consider Dominion to be one of the finest board games this hobby has ever produced. It has no equivalent: there is no other game that combines rules-accessibility, strategy-accessibility, and depth the way that Dominion does. In particular, Dominion’s variable setup is an oft-imitated but never-reproduced mechanic: the reason it succeeds is that each new game of Dominion is not just a new set of tactical considerations, but an altogether new strategic landscape. In a hobby where people are always itching to try something new, or discard the familiar for the novel, or own hundreds of games yet never know what to play, Dominion reminds us that sometimes, all you need is one great game.

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20 Responses to A review of Dominion, 4000 plays later

  1. def says:

    With a great article like this, you’re excused if the “Greatest moments”-article takes a while more to be made. ;)

  2. Yaron says:

    Great review!
    A thought about interaction: I think there’s more to interaction than politics and backstabbing. To wit, a lot of 2-player abstracts are highly interactive, even though they have no politics (being zero-sum 2-player games).
    My favorite definition of interaction (in games) is: the extent to which you need to adapt your strategy and your tactics to the situation created by your opponent(s).
    In Dominion, you will usually know a lot about your strategy before your opponent makes their first purchase. You might reevaluate after a few turns, when you see where they’re going, but in the vast majority of games you will not make more than one major strategic reevaluation (if any). Interactive tactics have mainly to do with the endgame conditions (PPR and all that).
    Compare this (to take an extreme example) to Go. It has no politics, but every move you make is a tactical response to a move made by the opponent. You just can’t play your own game. In the course of a game, you are also likely to make several major strategic reassessments, to counter (or render irrelevant) your opponent’s strategies.
    I love that Dominion has no politics – but I would have loved it to have more strategic interaction (tactical interaction is less important to me, and in any case, Dominion is more about strategy than about tactics).
    Of course, I’m not saying that I know how to do that while keeping everything else that I love about the game…

    • Steve says:

      For more strategic interaction, how about creating your own card that allows you to replace a non-base kingdom stack with another stack containing cards of equal or lesser values? That could cause you to blow your opponents strategy out of the water, but also opens you to the same. A gardens strategy would become risky if your opponents could replace the gardens stack or replace one of the stacks you’ve gotten down to 1 or 2 cards with a new 10 card stack.

  3. moonbeams says:

    Great article! Basically has all the reasons I love the game. And the analogy to bridge and tichu is spot on. I’m an avid bridge player which also is constantly changing from hand to hand. But dominion provides a fast, easy-to-learn, very strategic game.

  4. Chocophilebenj says:

    Yes, great article, which well describes this game and may make people want to play it !
    Personnaly, after I discovered it in real, it is the fact the games are short, and diversified, that made me addict. Like many people, I presume ?
    And I even thought to the card “bridge” when you mentioned the example ^^

  5. ycz6 says:

    I see what you did there, sneaking Adventurer into the comparison sets. :P

  6. Rhombus says:

    Quick note, typo in asterisks: “I tend to think that this *is* an accusation in search of a flaw.” Nice article – good job theory.

  7. GwinnR says:

    Great article! And I’m a great Dominion-fan too.

    But there are some points that you could write in your article:
    1) Many reviews say that there is a simple strategy to win (money+points). We all know that this is not true. You could say this.
    2) Even if the rules are simple the game is not easy to play, because there are many tactics and before every game there are many cards to read if you don’t play it often.
    3) The system of the game isn’t really new. Many collecting card games (don’t know if it’s right in english) like Yu-Gi-Oh or Pokemon have the same system. But there is much money you have to pay if you want to play good, because you don’t have the same cards as your oponent. And that is the great point of Dominion. Everyone has the same chance.

  8. Anonymous says:

    I’m surprised Magic: The Gathering was not mentioned once in this article. In fact, my friend directed me to Dominion precisely because it was the deck-building aspect of MTG that I found most rewarding. MTG does have the massive downside that building a deck is both time-consuming (this is possibly a virtue) and expensive (this is definitely *not* a virtue), which is why I generally prefer to draft with friends. Drafting Magic seems to possess the same collection of virtues you tout as being exclusive to Dominion: “each new match of MTG is not just a new set of tactical considerations, but an altogether new strategic landscape.” Drafting also requires a great deal of skill, and experienced players frequently crush more novice drafters; yet a player who already knows the rules to Magic can be taught to draft in 60 seconds.

    But one does need to know how to play MTG, which is quite complex. Dominion is not only significantly more accessible, which you say; it also plays *quickly*, so you can get in many iterations or squeeze in a game or two with a friend. This is a big virtue.

    In any event, thanks for the article; I enjoyed.

  9. keithjgrant says:

    Great review.

    My biggest complaint (and really, only complaint) with Dominion is the huge skill advantage I have when teaching new players how to play–which I seem to do a lot. When you’ve played hundreds or possibly thousands of games, it’s going to be a long time before a new player can offer a challenge. This is really just a function of Dominion’s simplicity to learn and depth to master.

    • Sparky says:

      My approach to this problem is to impose hidden restrictions on yourself… (Eg: the first two times you get to $6 you must buy adventurer) it also leads to some fun discoveries…

  10. anyfuture says:

    The reasons dominion is NOT a great games, are, on the other hand, the following:

    1) Luck is really really really more important than it seems to be, and ironically, the more you play, the more you become aware of it.
    2) The power of the card and the level of “affinity” they have with each other is greatly asymmetrical, to the point that a lot of matches can be easily played the same way with just 5 cards, instead of 10.
    3) The inner math and the speed ratio of the game makes the 70% of the green cards useless.
    4) It’s lack of color, interaction, and the absolute lack of mercy in the regards of errors and alternative approches, makes it a not so very fun game.

    One of the best thing in the game, the one that really makes the difference between different strategies and different players, is the 3-stack depleted rule. That’s what really makes the smartest player wins, in spite of all the pairs (or triples) of broken cards we see in ALL decks and that are called “combinations” while, infact, they reduce the combinations the whole game offer to the players to five-four.

    • ipofanes says:

      > Luck is really really really more important than it seems to be, and ironically, the more you play, the more you become aware of it.

      Not sure it is not a virtue. I tend to liken the luck/skill ratio to Backgammon. In a row of multiple games, I can hope to beat an expert from time to time, but in the long run I get steamrolled. This is enough to kindle my interest for the single game, as opposed to chess, where I am sure to be steamrolled each single match.

  11. Peter says:

    Very nice article and I really enjoy Dominion a lot but to state that Dominion is anywhere close to the best boardgame ever made is just ridiculous. ASL (Advanced Squad Leader) is and probably will continue to be the best wargame there is. Simple, elegant and has more depth than anything else.

  12. Pingback: Dominion Sets « James Plays Games

  13. ianthecool says:

    Great review. And 4000 plays: wow! For one, why did you bother keeping track of the count?? Or are you estimating 4000?
    I really liked your analysis of how one card will change the gameplay. Great stuff.

    As for the theme criticism, I am usually strong on theme in games, but the lack of theme here doesn’t really bother me. There is enough to satisfy me. Sure some things don’t make sense, but the cards themselves usually make thematic sense with the actions they provide, similar to the way the races in Small World act, and I like that a lot. So to be honest, I quite like the theme.

  14. ldsdbomber says:

    I think there are some points that aren’t discussed more rigorously, for example, I don’t think it’s true that because there are a gazillion combos of cards there is a huge strategic space, not when many of the cards do more or less the same kind of thing, i.e you have terminal action cards, plus action cards that chain, extra buying power cards, attack cards etc. While there might be some subtlety in the difference between some cards, I’m not convinced by your example which basically just shows a treasure hogging setup and an action chain setup. I’m not saying there isn’t depth and strategy, just that you can’t equate its size with the combinations of kingdom decks.

    The other issue is that sometimes the kingdom sets you pick won’t really gel together and it can be a bit disjointed trying to make them work together, or worse still, there ends up being 1 or 2 obvious “best” cards that dominate your strategic thinking and if you try to be different you just lose. I was interested a while back to hear about some work on “dominion genotyping” whereby cards were broken down into archetypes and then instead of random flailing with kingdom sets (which can be fun in small doses) youd focus more on variations in combinations of archetypes and the fine variation would come in which of a specific archetype was in the set. I also think the issue is failing to understand the difference between a casual gamer and a hardcore optimiser.

    I am not surprised that someone who plays 4000 games of Dominion is caught up in the nth order optimising effects of different cards and ideas, but this is lost on a casual player, and it’s no wonder many people play this in a more casual way and perhaps then give up on it for being less interesting than they want. It’s no different to something like Kasparov understanding exactly why moving a single pawn one square in a complex midgame can be an incredibly significant wrinkle, to those who play now and then, they’re never going to get past blundering games, and they’re probably never going to care either.

    So I think it’s as much about different types of gamers as the game, I mean, if you play a mirror image of yourself, whats deciding the game, its not like chess where the development of the position quickly explodes, it might just be which of you gets the first turn and can be the first one down the optimal path you’ve both calculated. If you play equal turns maybe it’s just a tie. I don’t know, I feel like you’re just playing percentages really, sure there are skill levels, but within that skill level I think it’s much more likely that the one drawing the better combination at the right (or first) time is likely to have an advantage, and most casual gamers, even if they’re applying some kind of rudimentary analysis of the percentages of their draws and how combos work, are just passing the time to some extent. There’s probably a lot of casual gamers just enjoying the “mindless” (maybe time passing would seem less confrontational a word) shuffling and dealing, looking out for cute combos, enjoying when they come off, or when they get hit by them, I’m just not sure there is enough of a game to warrant playing thousands of times, if I played you I am pretty sure you would immediately see the correct first few buys, you’d churn them out and you’d probably have 3 or 4 ways to do things slightly differently but I couldn’t imagine devoting that many plays to getting that good (I kind of doubt it takes that many plays to get that good when the effects are so limited (+action,+buy,+money) in general, and on top of that you have a % draw chance for different cards in your hand.

    I think it works OK as a filler, but I’m much more inclined to spend time exploring games where the strategy space really is deeper, and also much more defined by the interactions between players and not an odds based matrix of tricky combos that you’re just shuffling to find.

  15. lambolt says:

    By the way, that’s why I’m enjoying Innovation a lot more than Dominion, even if it can be very chaotic and swingy, it feels like because you’re going through the decks and using cards, there’s no fiddling about trying to optimise the % of times a specific card or combo is coming, but it’s more working with the cards that you get, making them work together, laying down the groundwork for later strong combos or racing for quick early points, it still feels more like a “fight” than Dominion ever did, but I haven’t played either game to the level you have here, so take that FWLIW

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