Interview with Donald X. Vaccarino, Part I: Boardgame Design

This is Part I of a three-part interview with Donald X. Vaccarino, covering the design of Dominion and boardgame design in general.  Questions and answers are collected from this forum topic.

The Design of Dominion

theory asks: “At what point during the process of making Dominion did you realize that it was not just any other board game, but one that was going to be a really special game?”

It was clear immediately that it worked, that it would be a good game. For a week or two it was just that, it could go in the pile with my other good games. When I made Dominion I had a game night and a Magic night. Dominion took over the game night immediately and the Magic night within a few weeks. Then we got in more nights of Dominion because how was that enough. I made some new games a month or so later and no-one wanted to try them, they just wanted more Dominion. And more people got to play it and they would just play for however long we had. So, gradually over a couple months, it became clear that here was the game, and why wasn’t I trying to get anything published. The first game of Dominion was on Oct 30 2006; I email’d RGG Jan 22 2007.

GendoIkari asks: “How did you decide on the theme for Dominion?”

Right around then, I had been meaning to make a game with a medieval kingdom-building theme. I did not know that this theme had like, been done; I was not too up on such things. It was flavor I liked and I hadn’t done it yet, or at least not in a game that worked out. My most common theme is 20’s gangsters; Infiltration started out as thugs robbing a bubble gum factory (they are stealing money and valuables though, I don’t know why people who hear that think they are stealing bubble gum), and I have contracts for two games that started out gangster-themed, although I rethemed one of them. I’ve done a bunch of time travel, D&D-ish stuff, and movie stuff. I have more exotic themes too but in general don’t want to spoil them; maybe I will do those one day.

Anyway, I had been meaning to do medieval kingdom-building, it looked like a good fit here, I used that flavor, it did not have problems. I had been thinking kingdoms, but the initial batch of cards all involved a castle, so I called it Castle Builder. I moved outside the castle for the second expansion, which I therefore referred to as Abroad. That expansion in the long run got split into Seaside and Hinterlands; Seaside got its flavor from a few cards that were on the shore already, and Hinterlands took over the getting-away-from-the-castle flavor.

I might as well do the other expansions. Intrigue probably comes from, initially I thought I might do like an event deck for an expansion. In the end that seemed pointless; you get plenty of variety from changing what cards are available, and your opponents attacking is like an event already. It ended up with an event theme anyway though, via one-shots, and then when it lost that functional theme it kept the flavor. Which was intrigue, because like, what kinds of events happen in castles?

Alchemy got its theme from the idea of adding a resource, and what would it be. Prosperity gots its theme from its mechanical theme of spendy cards and treasures that do things. That makes it really on-theme, I mean you really feel like the theme matches the functionality. Cornucopia just came from a list of potential themes I made when I needed more themes. It was originally Harvest Festival; they are proper medieval things. Dark Ages was originally War; it was an obvious direction to shift to when war turned out not to be a suitable theme for Hans im Gluck. And War had come from, you know, the Crusades and stuff. Finally Guilds got its theme from a few card names. Those of you speculating as if I started with “guilds” and then tried to make a neat mechanic, no guys, as usual I started with cards and then needed a theme for them.

HiveMindEmulator asks: “How have isotropic and the online forum community affected the development of Dominion expansions?”

The big isotropic thing is just, we used it for testing, and it was pretty convenient and easy to use, so we got tons of extra testing in that way. So the later expansions are all better due to having that good way to playtest them.

Intrigue was finalized when Dominion came out, so Seaside is the first time any feedback from fans could have meant anything. I am sure some things have changed due to that feedback. One thing was, it turned out people didn’t like the idea of an attack that doesn’t produce resources. So I stopped doing those after Sea Hag (well not counting Sir Michael). That was not something I would have known otherwise. Alchemy made it clear that I had to make sure cards weren’t too slow to resolve; Wandering Minstrel is an example of a card that got tweaked specifically because of that. Alchemy also made me steer clear of things like a new resource in the future, although probably Guilds is the only place I might have done something like that. Some people don’t like cards that make them not draw their good cards (such as Loan), so I pulled back on those, although that kind of thing isn’t verboten, I just work more to make sure those cards are worth having.

^_^_^_^ asks: “Of the many people you’ve met (both irl and online) through the making of this wondrous game we call Dominion, who do you think has had the biggest effect on how the game has evolved over time?”

The people who have affected the game the most are all in the credits, no surprise there.

In the early days, which mattered the most, Dame Josephine, then Dame Molly, then Sir Destry. I mean they were the ones playing every week (or twice or more a week for the dames). And Dame Josephine had to listen to me talking about the game when we weren’t playing. I didn’t meet them through making the game though.

During development, we can add Valerie and for all I know Dale, since they did work on the game and the game was changed due to her/their suggestions; plus my original online playtesters (using my own program which did not have internet support – we played over aim), including Sir Michael (especially for later, he didn’t play much at first), plus Sir Vander, who did not play so much but chatted about the game. Post-release, some other playtesters have been notable, especially John Vogel and Bill Barksdale (sorry I couldn’t knight you guys). The early playtester credits include a bunch of “people who got to play the game before it was released,” which is to say, sorry guys, I really did not get much out of you and I am not sufficiently polite not to say it, although at least I’m not naming names. Later credits just have the people who really contributed and well they all did, you had to contribute extra to make the credits. Anyway again, I didn’t really meet most of the playtesters through Dominion, I already knew them. Or met them but not through Dominion, just because they were playing games in the same place that I was playtesting.

So, if we stick to “that you met through Dominion,” then Valerie, for all I know Dale (I put it like that because stuff came from Valerie), and hey, Jay. Alchemy got pushed forward and smallified because of some mix of Jay, HiG, and Schmidt-Spiele. Intrigue didn’t have colored treasure coins because of some mix of partners. And the promos exist because of the people who wanted them, Spielbox etc. I haven’t even met those people. Dark Ages isn’t War because of HiG.

The game itself had that pile of expansions in various states before being released; there was a lot of balancing for playtesters to work on, but “how the game has evolved over time?” There was no evolution except better testing, so there was no-one to affect that evolution.

Powerman asks: “Of all the cards you come up with an idea for, what percentage eventually get tweaked into a printed card?”

You will have to try to work out something more precise from that other answer. It’s changed over time too. A typical idea is just something stupid on a list, like “Each other player discards a silver.” That’s obvious from Cutpurse and not interesting but who knows it could work out well, why not list it. The best things on the list get tried and some get an image and some of those work out and are published in some form.

I feel like this is all springing from “no I don’t look at fan cards.” Man, ideas are easy, that’s not the hard part.

Davio asks: “What I’ve always liked about Dominion and disliked about Magic is that in Dominion all players have the same choices. Every card in the kingdom was available to every player. You weren’t limited to the amount of money you wanted to spend on random booster packs and such. You could just buy a set, know every card you were going to get and have equal access to all of those cards.  Cornucopia changed this with the Tournament prizes and it seems that a lot of games are decided on who gets Followers or Trusty Steed first. Dark Ages introduced Ruins and Knights and even made the initial shuffles more different with Shelters.

Now I understand that it’s sometimes fun when games are this asymmetrical, but it seems like you’re straying further from the original “equal access” concept – if that even ever existed. Even cards that “do something with the trash” attribute to this as the timing of when you play your trasher/trash-grabber matters a lot.

Did you have an “equal access” concept in mind when you started designing Dominion? Is there a reason you’ve been exploring asymmetry more and more?”

When I thought of the premise, my original thought was that there would be some cards to buy, and when you bought one we’d deal out a replacement. When I actually made the game, months later, that sounded bad. Wouldn’t a lot come down to having a good card turned over when you got first shot at it? It might seem just like if we draw cards from a deck and I draw a better one, but it’s much more in-your-face. Anyway I didn’t manage to come up with a good solution, so for the first game, I just put (all) ten cards out at once. I figured, it would make it easy to find the broken cards, and if the game seemed promising I could come up with something better later. Then of course we liked getting to pick from ten cards. So this significant feature of Dominion was something I just lucked into.

From my perspective there has been no trajectory like you describe. The Knights and Black Market are from 2007. I have asymmetry in this area because it was something to do. There sure isn’t much of it. It’s like $7’s; some people felt like $7’s would break the game, not realizing that, even if I made say four of them, you still wouldn’t have one in most games.

GigaKnight asks: So what was the concern, exactly? That the existing $7s were just too powerful? Or that any card at $7 would inherently be too powerful? The latter seems mistaken; any achievable cost can be “balanced” (even though most of them won’t be worth doing).”

I had no concerns – I tried a $7 early on. People on BGG would talk about how not having a card costing $7 was good for the game, and reason that thus there would never be a card costing $7. This was poor reasoning because even if not having a $7 is the bee’s knees, you still get that experience most of the time if there are a few $7’s, while also getting to have whatever experience the $7’s give you.

I did not specifically avoid $7 for any value that hole provides – I avoided $7 because it was hard to make those cards sexy enough in non-Colony games. I solved the problem by doing them in Prosperity, then made $7’s more special by not doing them in other sets (though I might not have anyway).

The basic cards have a hole at $4, and that caused me to make more $4’s than was sensible early on ($5 is the important cost), and to put Potion at $4 (which was fine).

Drab Emordnilap asks: “Dolan, why 10 kingdom cards? Did you ever try 12 cards available at a time, or eight? (Different cards, not cards per pile)”

As you add more cards you get more options but the game is harder to play, especially when you’re new. Of course at a certain point you aren’t increasing options much anymore because cards displace other cards for you.

Originally I had ten cards and decided to just put them all out. We could cope with ten so it stayed ten.

At one point I played with eight for a while. It worked fine but was not as good. I never really considered twelve because ten is already too many to remember them all (and I didn’t consider odd numbers). There’s the neat trick of, it’s my first game ever, man I’m not reading all these, I have $4, what costs $4, I’ll read those. But ten cards is still a lot.

Another thing is that the number has an effect on the variety you get. With 25 cards and 10 at a time, it takes you, you know, 2.5 games to see them all. If it were 8 cards at a time it would take 3 games. That was the big reason to test 8 for me, and it pushes away from putting more cards out at once.

ednever asks: “Why 8/12 victory cards? And how did you get to that number? My guess is that you started playing 3/4 player and wanted a number that was evenly divisible by that group- 12 is the obvious number. And then you shrank it to 8 to make 2p games similar. Related question: why not 12 of each kingdom card then too? Making them evenly divisible seems fair using the same logic.”

Originally there were 12 of every kingdom card and victory card (and I gradually printed more Copper / Silver / Gold / Curses, not knowing how much would be enough). Most of my games initially try to work with 3-5 players, and then I support 2 or 6+ if that works out. In a 5-player game where everyone wants a particular card, you may just end up with one of them. They get $5 on turns 3-4 and you don’t, you know. I wanted enough copies of a card that I could expect to get a couple copies if I wanted them. So that was what mattered for a lower limit. And then the upper limit was, I can only print so many cards. I didn’t know at the time that the number of cards would be an issue for publication, but man, I didn’t want giant stacks of things we weren’t buying. So 12 seemed reasonable and I went with 12. Yes, being divisible by 3 and 4 was nice too.

The original game ending condition was any empty pile. Normally it would be a victory pile though. When I learned that the number of cards was an issue – will people buy a box of just 500 cards, no incredibly valuable board or anything – I looked at ways to cut down. One was, lower the action card piles to 10 cards, but change the end condition to any victory pile. You had to leave a buffer you see – if I bought the Remodels down to one left, whoever’s winning could buy that to lock in the win. So I have to leave two Remodels. With Remodel not ending the game, having only 10 Remodels was like having 12 had been before. We were getting use out of that last Remodel that never did anything but end the game, plus the Remodel you had to leave as a buffer. But the victory piles were still the end condition so they stayed 12. Then when I changed the end condition to “no provinces or 3 empty piles,” I kept the non-Province VP piles at 12, because I felt like, having 12 of a kingdom victory card made it easier to go for that strategy. I wanted those cards to be competitive and having more cards was part of that. Now, Estate for sure did not need 12 and could have just not been a pile. If I had needed to cut cards, it was on the list. Since I didn’t, it was 12 because the other VP piles were.

For 2 players you could just have a longer game, but it seemed good to pare it down, so it’s 8. For more players you need more Provinces and so I add 3 per extra player to keep it a multiple of the number of players. Possibly 4 per player (so 16 for 4 players) would have been better; my thinking at the time was, more players means a longer game, so maybe it’s not so bad to only have 3 per player for 4+. Speed it back up a little.

Curses ended up as 10 per opponent to make it possible to balance Witch over different numbers of players. It’s probably 10 because it’s a round number; it seemed like enough pain. And then Copper/Silver/Gold just tried to be enough to reasonably handle expansion cards that I already knew were coming.

philosophyguy asks: “How often does the community come up with something that you never thought of?”

I think the only real surprise has been King’s Court / Masquerade / Goons. You can easily play a set of 10 that I haven’t, and maybe see something I haven’t, but you know, that’s the nature of the game. Probably there are tons of random low-profile combos I haven’t played that people have talked about, but you know, not like King’s Court / Masquerade.

Davio asks: “How did you arrive at the “1 Action, 1 Buy” principle?”

Playing one action per turn is extremely simple and opens the door for making cards like Village and Spy (and less obviously, Remodel and Vault and Bank and Gardens). I value both of those things. I made a TCG that had you just play one action per turn, as part of an attempt to make an extremely mainstream TCG, and it worked great. So I already knew it was a fine direction to go in. I wanted something simple and went for it. It immediately worked well so that was that.

In my initial notes it was going to be that some cards let you buy cards, but that seemed bad once I thought about it. It had to be that you could just buy stuff. I didn’t have Gardens etc. at that point and could have just let you buy multiple cards, but again I knew that limiting you to one card was simple and would let me make Market. Village and Market were maybe the 2nd and 3rd action cards I made; they were inherent in the game premise.

Schneau/DStu asks: “What were the first Dominion cards made?”

In the early days I did not keep everything – I put new cards in the image files where dead cards had been. The oldest sheet of cards goes “Dungeon,” Village, Market, Smithy. I know Dungeon and Smithy weren’t in game one, and that Village and Market (in worse forms) were. Mine is next and was in game one, so it was probably the 5th card. You can read more about these pages at http://forum.dominionstrategy.com/index.php?topic=5905.0.

Designing Boardgames in General

HiveMindEmulator asks: “What goals do you have for yourself as a game designer (if you haven’t reached them all already)?”

The big one is to have a current project I can really get stuff done on; something that we enjoy playing that’s far enough along that it’s easy to work on. Whenever I don’t have such a project, that is the big thing, I need a new one.

Mostly I just want to make games we like to play; if they turn out to be publishable then that’s great. Sometimes I specifically work on games for particular companies, and sometimes I am trying to make new German family games. I will work on something skill-heavy and then want to do something light.

I guess also, I want to get as many of my existing good games published as possible, and especially, before other people think of them and get them published. My big regret as a game designer is not getting a Magic-style drafting game published ahead of 7 Wonders. I have several good ones; the first one is from 1998.

aaron0013 asks: “When did you first become interested in making board games?  Do you have any advice for ambitious game designers?”

I made games in my youth, from time to time, but mostly it was my fixed version of someone else’s thing. Magic: The Gathering is what got me seriously interested in pursuing game design, in trying to figure out how games worked and make good ones. I started playing Magic in 1994. I was seriously designing games in 1995, and ramped up over the rest of the 90s.

I don’t think I have any advice that will change someone from a failed game designer to a successful one, except possibly, you have to go to cons to show your games to publishers. That’s what I needed to hear (and didn’t). If you want to specifically focus on “ambition” – that is, making something especially successful, rather than having to keep your day job – then it seems clear that there are two big audiences for games: German families and American families. They overlap some, with Dixit being a good example. I am a little ambitious these days, I would like the respect and admiration of my peers, but ultimately I have to make games my friends and I want to play, whether or not that’s what will sell.

PSGarak asks: “If there were such thing as a perfectly designed game, which player skills do you think it would emphasize, and which skills would be secondary concerns?”

Meh, people get different things from games. There’s no perfect game except from a particular narrow perspective we choose in order to get an answer, and since it’s so narrow, who cares?

theory asks: “Do you consider yourself as having a ‘game design philosophy’?”

Well in general I aim for short games, with low downtime, minimized politics, variety, and interacting rules on cards.

An example of an overall philosophy would be, it has to be fun to lose.

theory asks: “Do you think of your games as related by some unifying theme?  Or are they just random areas of design that you wanted to explore?”

There were two big areas I explored when I first started seriously designing games.

First there were, games where the rules change. This comes from Magic; I loved how the game could work so differently from game to game. I seriously mapped out this space. The rules can change once per game, once per turn, or somewhere in-between; they can be rules the players make up, or that the players build inside the game, or they can come pre-built. In the end it turns out the best approach is, they change once per game and are all pre-built. I made a lot of games coming to this conclusion though, and then more games just doing it.

The other area was game theory. I read about game theory in the William Poundstone book Prisoner’s Dilemma, and thought, but wait, games don’t do this stuff (yes some do). So I made games with simultaneous decisions that would often be dilemmas. You don’t just automatically get a dilemma; you can aim for more or fewer dilemmas. Simultaneous decisions are great eight ways from Sunday and that was the biggest thing that came out of this. A typical game of mine has simultaneous decisions.

These days I am doing more turn-based games, and trying to do stuff with boards, but I haven’t forgotten my roots.

A third area I’ve focused on is building stuff; especially, assembling combos.

theory asks: “How would you describe the process for you, from initial seed of an idea to final game?”

I either randomly have an idea, or find it by working through possibilities looking for the good ones.

Then months or years go by, while I try to convince myself that the idea is actually worth making the game for. Maybe a particular flaw will be obvious and I won’t want to make a prototype until I’ve fixed it. This stage is the biggest hurdle.

When I finally make a prototype, I play it with whoever will have me and then decide whether to work on it more based on how it goes. If it doesn’t go well, probably I drop it immediately, and maybe come back to it months or years later.

If it goes well then it becomes a regular game that I play. I’ll put a bunch of work into it and then it will coast along and I’ll gradually tweak it.

Then I have to consider whether or not to submit it to a publisher, and who to send it to. This is another significant hurdle, unless a particular publisher wanted the game already, or wants games in general.

If I don’t get anywhere with publishers then probably at some point I focus on the game a little more, improve it slightly. This could happen multiple times.

If I find a publisher then we interact over the contract, and then there’s a delay in which they are committed to the game but nothing is happening. Maybe I work on it some more, although this work isn’t as good because it’s not automatically in – anything I change before a publisher sees it, that’s all just up to me, but once the publisher has it, maybe they will disagree with my change. I might have to convince them of it or something. Or not, but you know. Get your changes in before the publisher has it, that’s my advice.

The publisher may or may not work on the game, I mean probably they do but not always. If they do it probably involves me – they say, we don’t like this, we want this change, and I fix it or replace it or argue about it or what have you. I will repeatedly try to make sure I will see the rulebook in time to proofread it. They might show me sketches or finished art or might not.

I write up an article to post when the game is in stores, and work on other things. If the game has expansions, or expansions are wanted, I work on those things as a new general project, but maybe there aren’t any. When the game comes out, I read about it on the internet.

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5 Responses to Interview with Donald X. Vaccarino, Part I: Boardgame Design

  1. Chip Hogg says:

    Interesting article! Especially the part about “it has to be fun to lose” — that was one of the first things I noticed about playing Dominion.

    Side note: am I the only one who’s confused about the difference/relationship between “theory” and Donald X.?

  2. Pingback: News Bits: 12/24/2012 | iSlaytheDragon

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