This is an article intended for those who only own the Dominion base game and want an overall strategic overview of the game. It is assumed that you have played enough games of Dominion to have a general understanding of how to play the game: the guide is intended for those who are new to the game but have an idea about what all the cards do.
It is comprehensive but not complete; although the core principles of the game are found here, there is no substitute for actually playing the game and getting a feel for how the cards interact with each other. This guide will outline the general principles of Dominion strategy, and it is up to you to play them and adapt them to your unique situation.
People often ask, “Should I buy Dominion or Intrigue if I’m just starting out?” I always recommend starting with the base game. The core principles of Dominion are all found here, and in their purest form: the Cursing attack (Witch), the trasher (Chapel), the +Actions (Village), the trash-for-benefit (Moneylender, Mine), the big deck strategy (Gardens), the handsize-decreasing attack (Militia), and the deck inspection attack (Spy, Thief).
This guide is divided into three sections: Set Analysis, Deck-Building and Playing the Game.
The three most important cards to look for in a given set of Kingdom cards are Gardens (with Workshop), Chapel, and Witch. The presence of any of them greatly alters the dynamics of the game. Of those three, Workshop/Gardens is a strategy unto itself; the other two are essential components of just about every deck.
Of course, as you get better, there are more things to look for: for instance, in multiplayer, Thief can be a threat to those who trash heavily, and Remodel significantly changes endgame play. But if you’re just starting out, it’s enough to keep in mind the Big Three, and learn what else to look for as you get more experienced.
Gardens and Workshop
This is described more fully in the Gardens article. Any game with both Gardens and Workshop (sometimes Gardens and Woodcutter) is basically a Gardening race, and there’s rarely going to be an alternative strategy fast enough to compete. You needn’t consider Chapeling or deck-building, though Witching will be of some help.
Without Workshop, Gardens are much less of a threat, and more of a last-minute desperation gambit if you are too far behind on Provinces and Duchies but have a fat deck. Naturally, they are near-worthless in Chapel games (see below).
Chapel is the best card in the game, and according to Donald X., probably the most powerful card for its cost that will ever be printed. No matter what you’re playing (except for Gardens games and Smithy-Big-Money, described at the bottom), a Chapel will speed up your deck by clearing the chaff. It’s easy to play with Chapel: trash as many Coppers, Estates, and Curses as you possibly can, at every opportunity. The effect on your deck is miraculous.
The only other true trasher in base Dominion is Moneylender, which is much slower than Chapel. It’s still an important card, but not nearly as game-changing as Chapel.
No matter what kind of deck you’re playing, you will benefit from buying a Witch and playing it as often as possible. Moat and Chapel are simply not sufficient defenses against the onslaught of Curses. Cursing attacks are the strongest attacks in all of Dominion, and no matter how many expansions you are playing with, or how experienced you are, it is imperative to grab them as soon as you can.
You can occasionally incorporate the Witch and its +2 Cards into a +Actions/+Cards engine (as described below), but the attack is sufficiently strong that even if you have no Villages or Festivals, it’s worth risking drawing Actions dead in order to play the Witch.
There are three main kinds of decks in base Dominion. You can mix and match the first two, but Big Money tends to stand alone.
This generally means a deck built around Laboratory. In later expansions, other cards are also viable to build a non-terminal engine around, but in the base game, Laboratory chains are the best route to a big hand, because they do not suffer from the harms of +Actions/+Cards engines described below. In a particularly dense (i.e., thinned out with Chapel) deck, you can make do with a Market chain if Laboratories aren’t available. But Laboratories are generally preferable, since 1 card is generally worth more than $1 and a buy.
Assuming your primary engine card is Laboratory, you have room for a single terminal Action if you draw your whole deck every time. This slot is best reserved for Militia or Witch; otherwise, Remodel, or possibly Woodcutter if you need +Buy, are good options. If you want multiple terminal Actions, you can mix in a few Villages or Festivals (or Throne a Laboratory), but you need to keep up on buying the Laboratories, which are the key to getting this deck running. Cellars are also vital, since they save you if you find yourself drawing into a sea of Green.
The biggest drawback to a Laboratory chain is that it doesn’t actually net you any money, it only draws you cards. So you’ll have to mix your Laboratory purchases with something that gives you money: preferably Markets or Gold. Since you’ll (hopefully) be drawing so well, you should make sure to grab a source of +Buy, because if you balance your Gold and Laboratory purchases, you can easily hit $13 (enough for Province + Laboratory, which keeps your engine rolling even as you buy Provinces and clog your deck) or $16 (for a double Province).
Building these engines is described in great detail here. In the base game, your +Actions are going to come from Village or Festival, and your +Cards are going to come from Smithy, Library, or Council Room. Festival/Library works quite well, but takes longer to set up and relies more heavily on trashing. Village/Smithy is simpler, but doesn’t have any source of money or +Buy. Council Room’s drawback seems like a big deal, but it usually isn’t, and in any event you can use a Militia as a “kicker” to negate the benefit you provide to your opponents.
Like the Laboratory chain, you’ll want to make sure you can get a source of +Buy, because there’s no point in building an elaborate engine that draws $20 every turn only to buy Provinces one at a time. And like the Laboratory chain, a Cellar is critical to help reduce the chance of a nightmare draw. These are generally more difficult to put together than Laboratory chain, because the order in which you draw your cards matter, and so it is more vulnerable to your opponents’ Cursing attacks.
Big Money / Smithy Big Money
I hesitate even to describe this as a strategy; it’s more of an algorithm. Buy Province with $8, buy Gold with $6-$7, and buy Silver with $5 or lower. If Smithy is available, buy a single Smithy as soon as possible, and then switch to pure Treasure. (You can fine-tune it by buying Duchies at $5 once there are 5 Provinces left.)
This is sort of the baseline for advanced play, and represents the core difference between an expert’s deck and a novice’s deck. Good decks have no difficulty beating Big Money and Smithy Big Money; most beginners cannot. Later expansions have further weakened this “strategy”; see Beyond Silver. In any event, you should use it as a guide for how you’re doing; in a game with no attacks, Big Money averages 4 Provinces by Turn 17, and Smithy Big Money by Turn 14. If your deck can’t do better than that in the absence of attacks, you should rethink your deck.
Playing the Game
So how do you start? First, check if there are Gardens and Workshop on the board. If not, and if you started with a $4/$3, then if Witch is available, then you should buy a Feast (if available) to get the Witch ASAP. Likewise, you also want a Chapel if possible (even if it means overpaying for it on one of your first two buys); if neither Witch nor Chapel is available, then Moneylender, Militia, and Silver are all fine cards to open with.
If you had the good fortune to open $5/$2, prioritize Witch and Laboratory. If those aren’t available, any of the other $5’s are OK, though Council Room and Library are probably only going to be good if you plan to build your deck around them later.
Building Your Engine
You should hopefully have an idea of what kind of deck you’re going for. Stick to your plan: don’t branch off and get random Actions because they look cool. Remember that with few exceptions (Market, Festival), you need to be buying Treasure for your engine to be drawing: the best Laboratory chain in the world only draws you cards, and you need money in those cards to make it worthwhile.
When do you start buying Provinces? Generally, as soon as possible. There are exceptions: if your Lab engine is set up and you’re drawing $10 with multiple buys every turn, you might want to take a second to get a Gold, so that you can be drawing $13 every turn, which is far more helpful because then you can go Province/Lab every turn. Alternatively, maybe you want to push for $16 and gun for a double Province turn or two. It all depends on how fast your opponent’s deck is going: watch his tempo, and don’t get caught with your pants down and too few Provinces remaining.
When do you start buying Duchies? Again, it depends on your deck: if you have Cellars or maybe Spies, then you can buy them earlier than usual. But generally, I start buying them in a 2-player game when there are around 4 Provinces left. A good rule of thumb is to always buy green cards before you think you need to.