The Secret History of Dark Ages

The “Secret Histories” are a series of articles by Donald X. Vaccarino, detailing the evolution and development of a particular expansion. Previous “Secret Histories” can be found here; the forum discussion topic for this is here.

When I showed Dominion off to RGG, I had five expansions. They were: Intrigue; Seaside and Hinterlands combined; Prosperity; “War;” and a large version of Alchemy with a touch of Cornucopia.

War was interaction-themed. Different ways for players to interact. Its cards included versions of Swindler, Trade Route, Tribute, Council Room, and Smugglers. Council Room kept the same name when I moved it to the main set; now you know how it got that name.

War was my favorite expansion, but the problem was, every expansion needed interactive non-attack cards. Every expansion needed a certain percentage of interactive cards, and attacks slow the game down, whereas non-attack interactive cards may not, and may even speed it up. So I had to spread them around. I made War more attack-themed and gave each other set at least one non-attack interactive card. Man do I need an acronym for that? Maybe I am done saying it.

During work on the main set, I briefly tried rearranging everything into 16-card expansions, and at that time I had an expansion that was top-of-your-deck themed. This theme was no good; it’s fine for making some cards that play well with each other, but since I do that kind of thing in every set, the theme is invisible. So I broke that one up, and War ended up taking a few of those cards, thinking maybe it would end up with a mild top-of-your-deck subtheme, which fit with some of the attacks. In the end it only kept Armory. Those of you noting that Dark Ages is the 7th expansion, and that in the Secret History for Dominion I say that Adventurer came from the 7th expansion: that 7th expansion was the top-of-deck one. Ditto for Shanty Town.

Around the time I was working in earnest on Cornucopia, I realized I had to decide what to do about the sizes of the last two large sets. The main set and Intrigue were standalones, and so 500 cards; Seaside and Prosperity had playmats and metal tokens. Hinterlands and Dark Ages did not have such things. Could they just be cheaper or what? I did not know yet if that was okay. However, I could dodge the issue for one of the sets by making it a standalone, and it seemed good to do another standalone anyway. I picked Hinterlands for that and worked to keep that set from getting too complex. And then what could Dark Ages have? And of course I realized that it could just have more cards; it could be 500 cards rather than 300. This would let me do some stuff that might not seem worth the space otherwise, like having a new kind of penalty card or cards that turned into other cards. So I expanded the expansion.

The original interactive theme was gone, and the attack theme was not going to cut it. Joe Dominion just doesn’t want a heavy attack environment, that’s what I think. And anyone who does can rig it themselves by including more attacks on the table. I figured attacks could still be a minor sub-theme, but slowly the cards that worked with attacks left, until Squire is all that remains (yes plus Beggar but that doesn’t count). And as I mentioned, the top-of-deck theme was never going to amount to much.

I filled the void with an upgrading theme and a trash theme. Lots of cards turn cards into other cards, or themselves into other cards, and then a bunch of cards care if they’re trashed, and a few care about the trash other ways. And of course the stuff I did with the extra 200 cards amounted to various minor themes too.

War was an unacceptable theme for Hans im Gluck, and I knew this basically from the day they took on Dominion. So way back when I knew I would be retheming the set. Dark Ages, there’s a theme. It could be the poor to Prosperity’s rich. Then when Alchemy became a small set, it looked like this set, though originally 4th, would be the last Dominion set, and that seemed cool too, going out with the Dark Ages (then Guilds got bumped to after it due to the basic cards product, which is also why Hinterlands wasn’t a standalone).

Two cards from the original 2007 version of the set remain basically intact – Altar and Band of Misfits. The Knights were in the original set in a different form, and there was a “+1 card +1 action” trasher which can claim to be an ancestor of Rats and Junk Dealer. The other 16 cards went elsewhere or didn’t survive, being replaced by 31 new cards, some themselves from other sets but many new to this one. And of course I added those other cards, the Ruins and Shelters and things. The original war flavor and interaction theme are gone, replaced by the Dark Ages, upgrading, and the trash. The original set was my favorite and it turns out the final set is still my favorite. I liked the original for the interaction between players, and I like the final version for the interactions between cards. It is the crazy combos set.

Let’s check out the cards!

Altar: This is identical to the original version from 2007 except for name. Originally it was Foundry, then Tinker. I called it Altar so you could sacrifice Cultists to it. No, don’t thank me; it’s what I’m here for.

Armory: The lone survivor (here) from the failed small expansion with a top-of-your-deck theme. It’s a straightforward card that never changed.

Band of Misfits: This has the same base functionality as it originally did in 2007; only the exact wording and what happens in the confusing cases has changed. For a while this left the set, because I didn’t think I could get a good enough wording, but finally I decided to go for it. If you use it as Feast you trash it; if you use it as a duration card it stays out. Okay?

Bandit Camp: I started out trying “+1 card, +1 action, gain a Silver.” It was a very basic card I hadn’t done yet. It was kind of weak. I tried it with the Fool’s Gold reaction on the bottom. Then the set needed another village, so I changed it to “+1 card, +2 actions, gain a Silver.” At that point people would complain that gaining Silver was at cross-purposes to having a village – the Silver reduces your chance of drawing your actions together. I thought it was fine though; some people won’t see that, and if you are a more serious player who does see that, well, does it stop you from buying the card? I think not. And anyway some of the cards have to be simple.

When I was looking for things to do with Spoils, I saw this card, and thought hey, try changing that Silver to Spoils. And that worked out, and somehow people stopped complaining. The one-shot Gold does not water down your village-ing capabilities as much as the Silver did.

Beggar: I had the reaction on the original card, with “gain a Silver” as the top. Long ago I had had a straight “gain a Silver” action for $2, and it wasn’t good enough, but it seemed like a reaction might prop it up sufficiently. Then it got “+$1” for good measure. And well the card was fine, if not exciting. Then I decided to change Squire, as told in its story, and it took the cheap Silver-gaining, leaving me to replace the top here. Three Coppers seemed flavorful and interesting.

Catacombs: This started out in Hinterlands. Hinterlands had plenty of card-drawing though, so I moved it here. It seemed like an okay candidate for a when-trashed ability, so I gave it one. It mirrors Border Village.

Count: The premise was a card with two choose one’s, one bad and one good. The bad ones were easy. The good ones initially had “+2 Cards +2 Actions,” then “trash up to 4 cards from your hand,” in place of “trash your hand,” and the card had a dividing line and a “you can’t buy this unless you have an action in play” restriction. This was a way to stop you from getting it turn one, and was kind of nice otherwise. It was just way too much text though. So I made the Chapel a little harder to use, moved the bad choice to before the good choice so it would only trash 3 cards normally (or 4 and you gain a Copper), and there you have it.

Counterfeit: I tried out a Throne for treasures in Prosperity. It seemed like a classic thing, but it wasn’t as popular as I’d hoped, so I dropped it. I rescued it here by having it trash the treasure you Throne, which makes it double as a way to get rid of Coppers, and hey I threw in +$1 and +1 Buy for good measure. Theory of dominionstrategy.com suggested the name.

Cultist: Attacks need to produce resources of some sort; I know from Saboteur and Sea Hag that people don’t like it when they don’t (yes the Knights don’t all, but most do). And well I have gone through all of the simple options. So Cultist had a tricky problem to solve: it had to have resources I’d already given out, and not be too powerful, but not look too weak. Initially it gave +2 Cards and said “each other player gains a Ruins. If he can’t, he gains a Curse.” It could potentially give out 20 bad cards to each opponent. It was like that for a while, but in the end I decided that getting Curses and Ruins at the same time was something to save for when it came up out of the randomizer, rather than something to build into one nightmare card.

I tried “Cultists cost $1 less this turn,” trying to play into the flavor, but that just never did anything. I gave it a sweet when-trashed ability, but some games you can’t trash it; it still needed more than +2 Cards. Finally I thought of letting you play another Cultist.

Death Cart: This card exists to provide a way to give yourself Ruins. So that people don’t just hate it, it gives you a use for the Ruins it comes with, a use so good that you almost feel like coming with Ruins is a plus. This has a when-gain ability, like those Hinterlands cards. My initial plan was to do these here and there in the sets after Hinterlands, back when Hinterlands was half of the 2nd expansion. That didn’t work out, seeing as how Hinterlands is 6th, but well here’s another when-gain card anyway.

Feodum: At last, the victory card that counts treasures that you’ve been waiting for. As explained in the preview, it only counts Silvers in order to be more different from Gardens and not just favor the kind of deck you already wanted. Making it a Silver piñata seemed cool and the card was just like that from the beginning.

Forager: I wanted cards that cared about the trash. There were not a lot of reasonable things to do. If cards care too much, people end up spreading the trash out on the table, and well how big is your table anyway. This mechanic worked fine though. Taking a cue from Trade Route, it cares about the variety of treasures that are in the trash. This normally only goes up, but can go down due to cards that steal from the trash, and that’s fun too. The card originally cost $2, so that you could use it to buy two more of them right away, but that turned out to be too strong. An early version I don’t remember says “Trash a card from your hand. +$1 per different treasure in the trash, +1 Card per different victory card in the trash,” with no +Action/+Buy.

Fortress: Originally this also went back to your hand if you revealed it from your deck. In the end that seemed way too wonky. Without that it ends up just being a village in games without ways to usefully trash it, but well it is pretty cool when you are trashing it. Or someone else is. For a long time the card was called Walled Village, but then I needed that name for the Carcassonne promo.

Graverobber: It’s obvious that you could make a card that gets cards from the trash. What’s not obbvious is that it will end up looking like this. There was just a straight line that led from the idea to the final card though. It had to provide a way to get good cards into the trash, so that it wouldn’t just stare at an empty trash, or a trash full of Coppers and Estates. So, it’s a Remodel. Furthermore it’s a Remodel that likes to trash actions that cost $5, which is just the kind of thing you’re happy getting from the trash. In games where Provinces end up trashed, such as via other Remodels, it’s way too good to be able to gain them with Graverobbers, so you can’t. It also can’t get cheap cards, which was to stop you from getting Madman (a combo we first suffered through for a while). I later changed Madman to not go to the trash, but kept Graverobber at $3 to $6, because that makes things a little easier – you keep one pile of real trash and one pile of good trash – and it meant I could safely do other non-supply $0* cards in the future without worrying about Graverobber, if somehow that comes up.

Hermit / Madman: I quickly tried four variations on the top before settling on what it has. The premise was to let you trash cards that weren’t in your hand; it had to also hit them in your hand so you didn’t curse your luck on drawing those opening Estates / Shelters too often. Some of the versions trashed cards from the supply, a mechanic I’d first tried on a Seaside outtake, but it hadn’t worked then and didn’t work this time. And originally it trashed cards from your deck, but your discard pile gives you a similar selection faster.

I tried the bottom on another card that didn’t survive, then put it here. Originally I thought I would have several cards that upgraded into specific non-supply cards, but each one both requires 10 extra cards to handle it, and gives me a card with a ton of text on it. So there are only two. The premise originally came from thinking about Pirate Ship, at a point when it was too late to change it. I realized that I could have made it that Pirate Ship either attacked or upgraded, and it upgraded into a Retired Pirate that made money. This change wouldn’t have addressed any problems, it was just a cute thing I could have done, if I’d thought of it in time and had been welling to give up a card slot for it. So after that I planned on one day doing such cards. “If you didn’t buy anything” was an obvious simple trigger, and a nice fit for a Hermit. If he doesn’t go into town often enough, he goes mad.

Madman started as an Intrigue card for $5. At first it was +2 Actions, +3 Cards, trash this; then I moved it to the large version of Alchemy, which at the time was planning on having a hand-related sub-theme, and changed it from +3 Cards to doubling your hand size, because hey, that’s cool. Then of course I moved it to Cornucopia when Alchemy ended up being small and Cornucopia took on the hand theme. Then Cornucopia lost that theme, but this card left first; it was too strong. What would happen was Bill Barksdale would be losing, and moaning about it, and he’d buy a Madman, because what other chance did he have, ugh, ugh, ugh. And then he’d buy two more. And he’d have a turn where he played all three and drew his deck and bought out the Provinces. It seemed like a card still worth doing; it just had to be harder to get them. And so it is.

Madman originally was trashed. I switched it to going back to the pile as part of my ruthless weeding out of the Graverobber / Madman combo.

Hunting Grounds: The bottom started out on a victory card worth 3 VP. It was a defense vs. Knights, and cute with Remodels, but not really so worth doing. So I dropped that card, then brought the bottom back with a simple action top. I see from my files that I briefly tried it at $5 with “+3 Cards +1 Buy” before going to the +4 Cards version.

Ironmonger: This was briefly in Hinterlands long ago. I forget why I dropped it. When I put it here, initially you always discarded the card. Some people hate flipping over their good cards though, so I tried a version where you could keep the card if you wanted, and as you can see that worked out.

Junk Dealer: This was a relatively late addition. I wanted another +1 Card +1 Action thing for $5. I tried a version of this that only gave you the +$1 if the trash had at least 10 cards in it, then 5, and then I just gave you the +$1.

Knights: How about a pile where every card is different? To keep from being too much to remember, they could be variations on a theme. Thus was my thinking back when, and the 2007 version of the set had a pile of Knights. They each had “Each other player trashes the top card of his deck,” which was my standard trashing attack in those days, plus a bonus that varied by Knight. At that time kingdom card piles were 12 cards, and exactly 12 people had played Dominion when I made the first version of the expansion, so I had a Knight for each of them.

When the top-card-trashing attacks all died their deserved deaths, I had to find a way to fix up the Knights. I settled on trashing cards in the range $3-$6. I tried other ranges, man, don’t think I didn’t. If the lower limit is $4, you always buy Silver over $4’s, which makes the game less fun. If the top limit is $5, you always buy Gold over $5’s, which makes the game less fun. $3-$6 is the range that does not actually stop you from building a deck with actions, while not helping your opponents by trashing junk, and not being so swingy as to trash Provinces. I could have gone $3-$7 but decided to let the $7’s be excitingly immune to Knights.

The Knights slowed down the game, and needed some penalty to mildly keep them in check. They still slow down the game, but you know, not quite as much. They are for the people who like this kind of thing, and well some people adore them, slower game and all. Some people are all, my cards, my precious cards, and well there are plenty of other cards in the set for those guys. Sometimes someone else’s cool fun thing trashes your cards, that’s just the way it is. Anyway where was I. A penalty. I let them Moat each other, which was okay, and also tried letting any attack Moat them. I think Bill Barksdale suggested having them kill each other. It’s a good penalty because it means if people go heavy into Knights, they kill each other off and then there are not as many of them.

The 12-card pile had a few abilities that have not survived. There were a few that scaled with the number of players in a way that I sometimes am okay with but which wasn’t great. Like, +$1 per treasure trashed. There was one that attacked the turn you got it: the Hinterlands Knight. And all of the original resource abilities were weaker – it was +1 Card etc. rather than +2 Cards etc. The Knights needed to be better, and improving the bonuses was more fun than improving the attack.

The Knights are still all named after real people, so hey let’s meet them! Some of them are even illustrated on the cards, although two declined, two are small children, and some of the remaining six resemble the actual person more than others.

Dame Josephine / Dame Natalie / Dame Sylvia: My wife and daughters.

Dame Molly / Sir Destry: Two friends who were in the first game of Dominion, along with me and Dame Josephine. For you Prosperity fans, Dame Molly is the one who suggested “spendy” as an expansion theme.

Sir Martin / Dame Anna: A friend who would have been in that game, but he’d moved away some months earlier, and his girlfriend.

Sir Bailey: Dame Molly’s boyfriend, and the second person to have a copy of Dominion. He was also the first person to make homemade cards, if mine don’t count, and he made Courtyard.

Sir Vander / Sir Michael: My e-friend who suffered through endless conversations about Dominion but did not playtest much, and another e-friend who playtested a bunch.

Marauder: Originally it gave you a Silver; now you get a Spoils.

Market Square: Once Intrigue had the top half. By the time I was working on Intrigue for publication, it didn’t seem worth a slot. I brought it back here because I needed a simple top for the reaction. Before that I tried the reaction paired with Fool’s Gold’s top.

Originally the reaction was, you could trash this to gain a Gold when one of your cards was trashed. Time has shown that gaining a Gold is not as awesome as it looks (btw spoilers), and I eventually got around to testing the stronger version that made it into the set.

The reaction also dates back to Intrigue. I had a reaction that let you gain a copy of a card of yours that was trashed. To be good enough it had to give you Gold instead.

Mystic: This is a late card, from a point where I had a couple slots to fill, and wanted $5’s that didn’t use up your action. I made a list of cards to try, and we tried them, and this one stood out. It’s just Wishing Well with +$2 instead of +1 Card. Only, as with Highway vs. Bridge, that change means that various combos that don’t work with Wishing Well actually work with Mystic.

Pillage: Discarding a card the attacker picks was a basic thing I hadn’t done yet. It’s so rude that the card is a one-shot. Originally it gained two cards costing up to $4 each, but that was too good. Now you get Spoils.

Poor House: This started in Prosperity. At the time I thought having a few anti-theme cards in a set would be cool. It turns out it’s not; it just makes those cards less likely to be played when playing with kingdom cards heavy on whatever expansion. So Poor House moved to Hinterlands, and while it seemed fine there, one day it seemed like, why isn’t this in Dark Ages.

The original card got you +$5 if you had no treasure in hand. Sir Bailey suggested changing it so that you got varying amounts of money depending on how close you came to no treasures. Then for a long time it cost $2, but Sir Martin suggested having it cost $1 for flavor reasons. It makes a functional difference in various situations and that’s cool too.

Procession: There was an ancestor of this card in the original large Alchemy. It was, play an action from your hand, trash it, gain an action costing up to +$2 or +Potion, play it. So you could go, play a Moneylender, trash it, gain a Golem, play the Golem. It was crazy and confusing but had a certain something.

Another Throne variant in Dark Ages didn’t work out, and I thought of that old card and made this one. It does not go so crazy but can still facilitate a cool transforming engine.

Rats: Here it is, my favorite Dominion card. Your kingdom, overrun with rats! And somehow this will work out for you! There had been a card back when that was “+1 card +1 action, trash this or a card from your hand.” It had cost $2 and was crazy. When I thought of making an action that gave you copies of itself, I brought it back as the action. Of course it can’t trash copies of itself, because then it would be crazy again. There were a few versions of this that tried different ways to balance the card, and to address the issue of, what if I just buy one Rats when they’re all but sold out, to get a good trasher with no penalty. Some versions had a penalty if you couldn’t gain a Rats. In the end the key was making Rats a 20-card pile, and giving you a bonus for trashing it.

Rebuild: A late addition. I had an empty slot, and noticed that all of the large expansions gave you answers to the question, how do I deal with these dead victory cards? Intrigue has victory cards that aren’t dead; Seaside lets you set them aside with Island, and, if you’re crafty, Native Village; Prosperity has VP tokens; Hinterlands pushes card filtering. So I tried this out. Originally it didn’t give +1 Action, but that version could not compete.

Rogue: Back when, Intrigue had a card called Bandit: “Each other player reveals the top 2 cards of his deck and trashes one. Gain one of the trashed cards.” For $4. So, like a Thief that can steal anything, although the attacked player got to pick what to lose. Like Thief, Bandit would helpfully eat Coppers for your opponents, but at least it threatened to take Provinces later. I tweaked it into a card that cost $5, looked at the top 3 cards, and only trashed stuff costing from $3 to $6. Then I took it out of the set. It was slowing games down and did not have that certain something.

A few years later, I made a new version as what Urchin turned into. It looked at the top two now, still trashing something for from $3 to $6. This was in the set for a while, then got upped to taking any $3-$6 card from the trash, not just one that was just trashed. But one day I got too fed up with it. The problem was, it was the kind of attack you might feel like buying to fight itself, only you couldn’t – you had to buy Urchins and get them to upgrade, which can take a while when you start on it later. Bandit was normally just a thorn in your side, but some games it would get played a ton and take your stuff and you couldn’t even get in on it.

So, I replaced what Urchin turned into with Mercenary, and made this new Bandit, now a Rogue. He only trashes or gains, not both at once, and he can’t trash if there’s anything to gain. He does make +$2 though, which makes all the difference. Some games there is stuff in the trash right away, like Hermits, and the Rogue never gets to trash cards, but well that’s the kindler gentler Dark Ages that people prefer.

Sage: The initial version was +1 Action, name a card, draw the next card that you haven’t named for Sages yet this turn. So with multiple Sages it would get more selective. I pared that down to just drawing you a $3+.

Scavenger: At one point I thought I might push doing stuff with the discard pile as a subtheme. I didn’t really, although a few cards care about it. Scavenger lets you pick a card from your discard pile to draw. To make sure there is something, it lets you put your deck there first. Originally you had to put your deck into your discard pile; Wei-Hwa Huang argued for making it optional, to get rid of certain cases where you were sad to do it. And as a result you can set up multiple cards with it, if you play multiple Scavengers and only flip the first time.

Squire: The first version of this, from way back when, was the not-so-similar-looking “+1 card +1 action, you may play an attack or buy a Silver.” It was a village that only played attacks, or a +buy that only worked on Silver. When it turned out that I wouldn’t be doing more cards that let you buy cards in the action phase, due to Black Market being confusing, I dropped buying Silvers (at that point “buy a Treasure”) and added, “when trashed, gain an attack.” Now the card was just a blank cycler in games with no attacks. For a while I thought that was okay, but people sure complained about it. I made it, “when trashed, gain an attack or silver,” but of course some games there’s no way to trash it either.

I liked the bottom, so the solution was to give it a spiffy top that you would always be happy with. And there it is, a counterpart to Steward. It took “gain a Silver” from Beggar and well that worked out too.

Storeroom: This was an old idea that I had briefly tried and forgotten about long ago. I wanted a card-filterer to help dig through your Ruins and saw this on a list and thought hey, let’s try that again.

Urchin: I wanted an attack that learned how to be a better attack. The initial attack had to be weak, and it had to have +1 card +1 action, making it need to be even weaker. “Discard down to 4” was an obvious candidate and worked out immediately. It can hurt, but is often inoffensive.

Originally it turned into an earlier version of Rogue, as told in that story. When that didn’t work out I tried Mercenary. It’s a bigger discard-based attack, so you can feel like your Urchin got better at that kind of thing. Otherwise it was a card I’d tried as a regular kingdom card in the set but which had been too good. It’s still pretty snazzy if your Urchins hit right away. It’s a Steward that does all three things!

Vagrant: It’s a Lab where the extra card is always bad. Actually that would be more powerful but slower; it doesn’t guarantee you a bad card, it just can’t do better. Sometimes you’re happy with blank cards to discard to something, and when you aren’t, at least it can clear a bad card out of the way of your next draw. It’s not going to be a star, but some cards that cost $2 have to really look like they’re just a $2.

Wandering Minstrel: In Cornucopia I tried out a card that was +$2, name a type, dig for it, leave the first match on top. It would have been “strictly better” than Chancellor at $3 (since you could name a type that wasn’t in your deck), and I didn’t want to charge $4 for it or give it an awful condition specifically to make it worse than Chancellor (a card not famous for being strong). So I dropped it. I turned it into a village in Guilds, then moved it to Dark Ages, where I made it always dig for actions, with no choice. That card was a bit too strong and also slowed down games more than an ideal amount. So now it just looks at the top 3 cards and leaves the actions on top.

I haven’t covered a few of the extras, so let’s do those:

Ruins: Back when, the main set had Confusion – a blank card – and an attack that gave it out. Confusion just wasn’t worth the 30 or 50 extra cards it required. It plays so much like Curse. When I decided to make Dark Ages 500 cards, I of course thought of Confusion. Confusion still wasn’t worth doing though. But what about more interesting penalty cards? They wouldn’t need to be all the same even. And well there they are, the Ruins. It was always those five. Some people argued that Ruined Village was more funny than worth printing; it’s easily the worst one, and in a multiplayer game someone just randomly got handed it while someone else got Abandoned Mine. But I thought that wasn’t so bad, and felt that it was important that it be very easy to learn the Ruins. Four are +1’s and then there’s Survivors. Bam.

I needed a rule for putting out the pile, and so put “Looter” on the bottom of the relevant kingdom cards. It seemed like it would be confusing if the Ruins pile wasn’t in the supply, so it is; that meant the top card had to be visible, so that for example if I name it for Contraband we know that that’s what you’d be buying (and you can’t). This means you have to carefully deal them out in turn order and well that was as good as it got.

Shelters: Tom Lehmann suggested replacing starting Estates with something else, to make the environment feel more Dark Ages-y. I thought this was a great idea. Ruins obv. doesn’t work, because some people would make out, unless we picked specific ones. And Curse isn’t very interesting. But I could just make up three new cards, which is what I did. Necropolis shakes up early turns, since you can stomach more in the way of terminal actions; Overgrown Estate gives you a little prize if you crack it open eventually; and Hovel tempts you into buying a victory card when you might not have.

Hovel is the only one that changed. Originally it was an action you could trash by discarding your hand. It turned out that trashing it turn 1-2 usually seemed like the correct play, even if you drew it with four Coppers. So that was no good. Hovel as printed has nice flavor going for it; you move out of your old Hovel and into a nice Duchy.

Spoils: One day looking through my ideas file I decided it was time to try out “card that makes a one-shot Gold.” The first version was just that: cost $3, you gain a Spoils. It seemed cute but was weak, so I gave it +1 Action. At that point it still seemed weak, but people bought it anyway.

I knew some people would be all, where are the other cards that make Spoils? And I was not possibly giving them another way to get Madmen or Mercenaries. So I thought, maybe three cards total could make Spoils. So I went looking for something else to stick Spoils on. It ended up on Marauder, Pillage, and Bandit Camp.

Then the original card died, because it just didn’t have much going for it at that point.

You originally trashed Spoils, and could get them from the trash. It seemed simpler if they returned to the pile. It drops some words from the three cards that give them out, and matches Madman. Forager can still put a Spoils in the trash, it just doesn’t get that handed to it for nothing.

On to the endless outtakes.

– The reaction part of Trader started here, first by itself, and then for a while as a treasure-reaction worth $1. The top half of Inn started here too, for $4 (it was fine, I just needed someplace to put the bottom half of Inn). There was also a similar card here later, “+2 Cards +1 Action, discard a card,” for $4, which ended up being too good. Spice Merchant without the Woodcutter option was here, but didn’t exactly lead to Spice Merchant. Fool’s Gold was in here at one point, in addition to the bottom being tried on Bandit Camp. Cartographer started here; it was a simple card that seemed perfect for Hinterlands, at the time a standalone.

– Swindler, Trade Route, Tribute, and Council Room started here. Council Room originally cost $4; Tribute didn’t say “differently named” and revealed the top card of each adjacent player; Swindler didn’t give +$2 and instead gave them a card for $2 less than the trashed card; and Trade Route was “+1 Card +1 Buy +$1, if a Province has been gained this game, +1 Card.” Smugglers had its roots in a card here that was “+$2, cards gained on the previous turn cost $1 less this turn.” I tried a victory card with the Horse Traders reaction here. Hunting Party and Spy were briefly in this set before getting whisked away.

– Vineyard was in the set for a while, sometimes with a reaction. Masquerade visited. Monument was here for a bit, after leaving Prosperity and before returning to it. The card that ended up being Horn of Plenty was here for a while after leaving Intrigue. When it was here it was some version of, “+2 Actions +1 Buy, while this is in play, when you play an action +$1.”

– There was an attack that gave out Confusions and doubled as a Moat. There was an attack that was +1 Card +1 Action, name a type, each other player reveals their top card and trashes it if it matches. I tried a weaker version that only hit $3-$6’s before killing it.

– For a long time there was an attack which in its best form was “+$2, they trash the top card of their deck and gain a cheaper card that shares a type with it, or a Ruins if they can’t.” I liked it. Eventually I decided though that there was enough hatred of trashing attacks out there that I should just stick with the Knights (plus Rogue, but it’s only a fractional attack).

– There was an attack, gain an Estate, they gain a Curse, for $3. It dominated games too much. I replaced it with Marauder, and used the Estate/Curse thing on Followers.

– There was a trashing attack that could only trash cards that didn’t match cards in the trash.

– There was a Spy variant for $2 that put bottom cards on top or didn’t.

– There was a flipped version of Margrave – +2 Cards, each other player discards down to 2, then draws a card. Oh man. So painful. A version that was around for a while cost $4 and gave you 2 Silvers if it was trashed. Another version cost $5 but came with a Spoils.

– After that attack died, I tried, they discard down to 3, you look through your discard pile and either get a card from it into your hand or draw 2 cards. It needed the +2 Cards option in case your discard pile was empty. Well I decided Scavenger was okay, but you don’t need to see too many of these getting back Platinums.

– Early on Intrigue had had a one-shot that played every attack in your deck (digging them out of it). It moved here and stopped being a one-shot, then gained the setup of “add an attack pile to the game.” It was in the set for a while, producing gigantic piles of pain.

– There was a village that had you Spy first whenever you played an attack. Play three of them and you’d be making three decisions per player per attack. I liked it for a while.

– There was a Throne Room variant that gave +1 Card +1 Action, and had every opponent play the card you Throned on their next turn. It had built-in super-crazy just by playing it on itself.

– Another Throne was “Choose one: +1 Card +1 Action; or Throne.” It cost $4 when Throne Room itself cost $3. When Throne Room had to cost $4 there was no place for this card, which would be sad at $5.

– Another Throne hung around, set aside, until you wanted to use it (it was $5 and also gave you +1 Action when played). This works differently from Throne in multiples; two of them would let you do an action three times total, since each one just did it an extra time. This card was cool and was in the set for a while, but setting it aside indefinitely was problematic – in the past we’ve included playmats for that, and I didn’t want playmats here – and the card was strong. A few times Bill Barksdale built a deck with lots of these Thrones and an Altar, which would take advantage of not actually having to trash a card to Altar if there are none in your hand, and would suddenly buy a pile of Duchies. One of those games, Bill pared his deck down to just an Altar and five copies of this Throne, drew the five Thrones and then watched a trashing attack trash his Altar. Good times.

– Another Throne had you draw 2 cards, play an action twice, then discard 3 cards. That may look straightforward, but it’s all kinds of weird.

– I had discarding victory cards for +$2 each. It started out at $4, went up to $6, moved to Hinterlands, then was dropped for not being interesting enough.

– There was a Remodel that put the card into your hand. Originally it didn’t give +1 Action; then it did and was crazy.

– There was a Remodel for $4 that Remodel’d one of the top 3 cards of your deck, putting the new card on top. I thought it was a keeper, but in one set of surveys it became clear that it was a dud for several playtesters.

– Another Remodel turned one card into two different cards that each cost exactly $2 more. I did Develop instead.

– There was a victory card for $6 that was worth 2 VP and you gained two copies of it. That runs out the pile twice as fast, so I changed it to 1 VP but it came with a Duchy. That moved to Hinterlands, was there for a while, then left when I made Border Village cost $6.

– I tried a victory card that was worth 1 VP per 3 copies of whatever action you had the most copies of. I had a few different reactions on the bottom, including Moat and giving you a new hand when attacked.

– I tried a version of Wall here, which had been a Hinterlands card that I did a better way as Island, then tried to do another version of for a while. The version here was an action-victory worth 2 VP with “look through your discard pile, shuffle all but 5 cards from it into your deck.” The various Walls all were ways to shuffle your deck without so much garbage in it; I dropped it from Hinterlands in the end because I did Inn.

– There was an old old card, gain a Silver to hand, each other player gains a Copper to hand, for $5. Way back when, we didn’t know any better, and this card seemed okay. Then I tried a bunch of things to make this good enough, eventually drifting into “+1 Card +1 Action +$1, each other player gains a Copper in hand then discards down to 4.” In the end nothing has survived. Giving other players Copper is bad in general because the pile varies in size so much, depending on the number of players and whether or not you add together the main set and Intrigue. It’s fine if the attack is limited as to how much Copper it will really give out, like Jester and Noble Brigand and Ambassador.

– There was a card from Seaside, “+$2, when you discard this from play you may put this on your deck,” for $3. It seemed innocent for a long long time. Steve Wampler eventually demonstrated that it was not. Scavenger provides a way to get that +$2 every turn, but you need two of them, and might draw them together.

– I tried a few ways to give you a combination of +’s that you picked. It sounded like something but was never interesting.

– There was “+1 buy +$1, if you buy a 2nd card on a turn with this in play, trash this and gain 2 Silvers.” I tried a few different “turns into 2 Silvers” cards over the years; this was its last stand.

– When it looked like Band of Misfits wouldn’t survive, I made a card that was just a big choose one with the kinds of things you’d like to see on the table with Band of Misfits.

– A few cards tried to provide other uses for the Ruins pile. One was “+1 Card +1 Action, play the top Ruins, put it on the bottom.” It was cute but there’s a tracking issue. I did Ironmonger instead. Another card played the top four Ruins. It gave you +$3 instead if the Ruins ran out, because what fun is that.

– Here’s a weird one. Woodcutter, copies of cards in the trash cost $1 less this turn; setup: we each put a kingdom card into the trash. Let me tell you, some slow decisions there, and then you have to keep the trash all spread out. It was interesting though. Those of you complaining about the Band of Misfits FAQ, this is how you could get King’s Court to cost less than Band of Misfits.

– The original main set had “Trash a card from your hand, discard a card, draw 3 cards.” I dropped it from the main set for being redundant; there were other trashers. I slotted it right into Intrigue and then bumped it from there too. I stuck it here and well. It was interesting in its day, but wasn’t so interesting these days, being similar to various other cards.

– An old card drew you 2 extra cards in your next hand, and was a Moat. The idea was to increase your chance of having reactions in hand for attacks.

– A few times over the years, I tried to make a card that cost the other players a victory card at the end of the game. It attacks your score. This version I’m looking at was an “Action – Endgame.” I tried versions that made one card not score, or two. At two no-one scores. At one it just wasn’t interesting enough. The rest of the card can’t exactly compensate; the text doing this weird thing has to be worth it.

– I tried $2, “+1 Card +1 Action, each player draws a card.” It’s pretty rude with Militias.

– I briefly had a card-drawer that gave you cards when it was trashed. I guess that still describes Cultist.

– A somewhat late card read, “+1 Buy +$2, while this is in play, when you gain a card, you may trash a card from your hand.” It was fine, it was just lackluster. I see another Woodcutter here I don’t remember; Woodcutter, a card costs $1 less this turn per copy you reveal from your hand.

– Another late card was a treasure-victory card, worth $1 plus $1 per nontreasure in your hand, and worth 1 VP per 10 cards in the trash. The VP part was crazy, and I replaced this with a treasure worth $1 per different card type in your hand. It was cute in all-Dark Ages games and not so great otherwise. It flirted with staying in the set, then I replaced it with Rebuild.

– More late cards, briefly tested in case they somehow worked out, all costing $5. A two-use Gold (you trash it and gain a Spoils). +3 Cards, we all set aside a card from our hand, then we all take one of those cards. +1 Card +1 Action, When you gain or trash this each other player gets a Ruins. +1 Card +1 Action +$1, may discard x cards to gain a card costing $x. +4 Cards, +1 Action, discard 3 cards. And there was a hot potato card – you passed it left when you played it and got some benefit, and at end of game it was worth negative VP – that I tested but did not make a prototype card image for. The slot all these cards were tested for went to Mystic.

– A few cards moved to Guilds, including one that then didn’t survive there, but that story will have to wait.

True story!

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3 Responses to The Secret History of Dark Ages

  1. ^_^_^_^ says:

    True wall of text more like it O.O How long did that take to write? :O

  2. Chris & Lissie says:

    Question about playing the Rogue card: when the draw deck is at one (1) card, does the affected player need to shuffle the discard pile to reveal the second card? Or does the effect of Rogue get reduced to the single card in the draw deck, effectively making a defense to the attack?

    • WheresMyElephant says:

      Yes, they shuffle and reveal a second card.

      Interesting comparisons are cards like Navigator and Cartographer which reveal a huge number of cards. On occasion this actually makes them worse because you didn’t really want to shuffle at that moment but have no choice. But of course their power would decrease significantly on the whole if shuffle luck often cut them down to revealing few or no cards.

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