Interview with Donald X. Vaccarino, Part II: Dominion

This is Part II of a three-part interview with Donald X. Vaccarino, covering Dominion, Dominion hindsight, and alternative Dominion cards.  Questions and answers are collected from this forum topic.

The Game of Dominion

Tables asks: “Suppose a new player just got the base game for Christmas, but wants to get an expansion immediately because they love the game. Which expansions would you recommend?”

I specifically made Intrigue to be the first expansion, and saved Prosperity for 3rd (4th because Alchemy got pushed ahead) so that you had time to get used to not having Colony before getting it. And then the sets get more complex later. So you might think I would just say, go in order, shifting Alchemy to last. However! I feel like I got better at making sets as of Seaside; the main set and Intrigue both have a greater number of uh weak / narrow cards. So I would say, get Seaside.

theory asks: “What is your personal favorite Dominion card and why?”

In Magic psychograph terms I am a Johnny; I like to have unique experiences in games, to be creative. A lot of my favorite Dominion cards involve exotic experiences and combos. Overall my favorite is Rats, from Dark Ages. You give your kingdom a Rat problem and then somehow this works out for you. Dark Ages is my favorite expansion, and it’s because of all the various ways it gives you an exotic deck or crazy combo.

Ozle asks: “Was Rats always your favourite card?”

No, Rats does not even predate me showing the game to RGG.

It was a while before I felt like I had to consider what might be my favorite card, and your tastes change over time. In the early days I was especially fond of Pawn and Upgrade.

Schneau asks: “Have you looked at the Dominion memes thread? If so, do you have a favorite?”

I have read that thread. My favorite is easily the Baron one – “I don’t always discard an Estate, but when I do, I gain $4.” Man it looks just like that guy.

ConMan asks: “Out of all the Dominion cards so far released, what is your favourite interaction – combo or nombo – between two or more of them?”

I already failed to answer this question. I will list a random interaction for each large set.

Dominion: Thief / Gardens has a certain charm.

Intrigue: I will stick with, Swindler / Silver. You couldn’t possibly give me a Swindler, they’re so terrifying.

Seaside: I am going to cite Smugglers / Pirate Ship. You open with Smugglers. You draw it and on their turn they buy Pirate Ship. Man. I don’t want a Pirate Ship. Man. Urhrhrhr. Smuggle Pirate Ship, buy a Pirate Ship.

Prosperity: I am big on Worker’s Village / Peddler.

Hinterlands: I have opened Develop / Spice Merchant so many times.

Dark Ages: Fortress is a pretty fun defense against Knights.

SirPeebles asks: “What was your reaction when you first heard fans talk about “the Silver test”? Do you feel that Big Money strategies are too strong in base Dominion, and was that a consideration at all when you put together the flagship set?”

I’m not sure I would put it like that – more like, when I first heard a non-fan talking about it. I thought, lol. It’s pretty obviously stupid and while it’s good to realize “hey maybe buying a terminal action every turn won’t work out,” that obv. doesn’t mean the game is broken. Dominion clearly survived that nonsense and so much for that.

I think base Dominion could have better replayability/variety via swapping out some of the duds for more interesting cards. That would also make more-interesting decks better; a bunch of decks where you play just 1-2 terminals plus money is not as much variety as, you know, not that. But I would be changing it for the variety issue, not due to wanting to hurt heavy money strategies.

Heavy money strategies were not a consideration for picking the cards in the main set. Being simple enough was the main concern, followed by, variety. It did well on simplicity, probably it could have been slightly less simple. It wasn’t going to have as much variety as when you add an expansion, but it could have had more variety.

Silver isn’t awful, and the game has this “only play one action per turn” rule. Those both seem like good things, but together they lead to, sometimes you can do well without many actions. Not playing many actions is just one of the basic solutions to only being able to play one per turn. There are other solutions though, and the main set has them: I can play lots of +1 action cards like Lab, I can play Village and more terminals, I can play Remodels and Remodel Remodel, I can go for Gardens and just live with lots of terminals.

aaron0013 asks: “Is Seaside your second favorite set?”

Comparing just the large sets, I like Dark Ages best, then Hinterlands, Prosperity, Seaside, Intrigue, Dominion. They are just strictly in order from worst to best. The biggest gap is between Intrigue and Seaside though; from Seaside on they’re all so good that who cares which set is better. I’ve had plenty of fun with Intrigue and Dominion but for sure there’s room for improvement there.

It’s hard to fairly compare the small sets to the large ones (or Dark Ages to normal large sets). I like Cornucopia more than Alchemy. I like Alchemy though, I am no Alchemy hater. I probably like Guilds best, but it’s close.

Powerman asks: “How many games of Dominion would you guess you have played?”

Man. Well, in the thousands. IRL I must have played at least 3K games; it’s hard to estimate because any given game night may have involved other games. There are 3600+ posts in playtest forum threads for posting results from playing online; they aren’t all games and I’m not in all of them, although a lot are and I’m in a lot of them. That doesn’t cover all online games, just from Cornucopia on (I had a bad online version when working on the main set).

WanderingWinder asks: “What goes in to writing those flavour paragraphs?”

For the main set, they had an awful “impress the king” thing they put in as a placeholder. Man. Impress the king. You don’t need to acquire land to impress anyone – it’s its own reward. So I wrote up a replacement intro, which then got hacked up to be less conversational and therefore slightly less funny. It was still better than what they’d had so okay (the later ones mostly escaped editing).

For Intrigue I thought, oops, now I have to write another funny intro. I wrote it very quickly though, it was effortless.

For Seaside I sat down to work on a list of jokes to turn into a paragraph. You can see that in detail at http://forum.dominionstrategy.com/index.php?topic=124.0

For Alchemy I again worked on a list of jokes. It didn’t turn out as well as I’d hoped, but people seemed to like the main jokes, phew. For Prosperity, another list, this one turned out well. The baklava statue was originally a piece of pumice that looked like the pope, but not enough people got that joke. For Cornucopia I didn’t do as well and then Jay cut the jesters fighting to the death, which was one of the main jokes. The roast hay doesn’t carry the paragraph but well it turns out these things don’t loom large in my life afterwards, hooray.

For Hinterlands I wrote down, “The world is big and your kingdom small,” fitting the faraway lands theme, and then immediately thought of a joke from one of my screenplays, that started, “It’s a big city out there, and we’re little people. I mean little when compared to the city…” So I just copied that with the words changed, and the rest was easy except for what concept exactly for them not even to have a word for, which I picked a day or two later, although I think mamihlapinatapai was immediately in the running.

For Dark Ages I wrote one paragraph the usual way. It wasn’t as good as I wanted and I wrote a completely new one, then merged them.

WanderingWinder asks: “What gave you the idea for doing secret histories?”

There was a BoardGameNews preview of Dominion. I was asked a bunch of questions, but whereas most people would just post my answers, W. Eric Martin kind of hacked it up. There would be one sentence quoting me, and then two sentences describing what I said. This made it a little less accurate, but I corrected the thing I cared most about in a comment on it, and hey W. Eric has to have fun too. Anyway that article was about the game and he also asked about the outtakes (which I barely said anything about), but it didn’t cover the cards in the set. And there was stuff to say there. So I wrote up an article and posted it on BGG, which didn’t have an article.

These days BGN is no more, and BGG has “designer diaries.” I stuck with the Secret Histories though. I feel like they’re plenty visible to the people that want to see them, and I don’t want to be too in-your-face with them.

Hindsight is 20/20

HiveMindEmulator asks: “Besides specific card changes, is there anything you would have done differently in Dominion development if you had it all to do over again?”

I would probably change how reactions work, actually to make them how they originally worked, which is, you play them at special times (so, they end up in play). This would have been simpler, and better for like everything but Moat, but Moat was the main set one and so I warped them to make Moat better.

werothegreat asks: “If you could go back and edit any Dominion cards, knowing what you do now, which would you and why?”

Fortunately there is an essay about this already, which you can see in the dominionstrategy.com forums. http://forum.dominionstrategy.com/index.php?topic=3179.msg56362#msg56362

Piemaster asks: “Other than Chapel are there any cards that, with hindsight, you either regret making completely, or at least regret publishing in their current form?”

I do not regret Chapel. There is an essay where you can see what I’d change: http://forum.dominionstrategy.com/index.php?topic=3179.msg56362#msg56362

Overall the card I most regret printing as-is is Scrying Pool; I’d rather it didn’t Spy. The card that I could change for the greatest positive effect through would just be any dud card in the main set, being replaced by anything good that isn’t too complex.

Tables asks: “If you could go back in time and redesign which cards were in which sets, and the order the sets came out (but not changing/adding/removing any cards), what would you move and why?”

Obviously the move is to put all of the worst cards in the last set and then not release it. The sets aren’t full of duds so it would be a small set. A few worthwhile cards would be left out but what can you do. This is still the move if it has to be published, I mean I am not here to make people buy awful stuff, and putting it all together is the best I can do to let you dodge it in this scenario. Then of course the main set, well it doesn’t want all the best cards, but it wants the best simple cards. It matters more than any of the other sets and for sure could be better via swapping cards. I would replace Chancellor, Woodcutter, Feast, and Spy with more interesting cards, giving the main set more replayability. Lots of cards would be good enough.

For set order I like going Intrigue, Seaside, Prosperity – set trying to be a good first set, generally good set, set that adds Colonies. I would put Alchemy last, where it was; it was there because I knew some people wouldn’t like potions, because somebody hadn’t. You could swap Hinterlands with Seaside but I wouldn’t. After Prosperity then there are Hinterlands and Dark Ages to order and well you have the question from before of whether or not Hinterlands is a standalone. I like having another standalone, and if it is one then I would put it ahead of Dark Ages. Possibly I would anyway. A question is, do you recombine Cornucopia and Alchemy. If people don’t like Alchemy then it’s nice that they get a tight package of just it, rather than buying it to get Cornucopia or passing on Cornucopia because of it. So possibly it’s worth keeping them separate. Large sets are better though, so either expand Cornucopia and Guilds or combine them. That’s another decision to make before knowing what order to put them in, but Guilds wants to be near the end due to complexity. If they’re not one set then large Cornucopia could go between Prosperity and Hinterlands still, uh depending on how it turned out.

Alternative Dominion Cards

eHalcyon asks: “Similar to the above — do you ever look at fan cards? If so, do you have a favourite?”

I don’t usually look at them, because

  1. I don’t want people feeling like I’m taking their ideas, which probably I had years ago, not because I am amazing but because the obvious ideas are obvious and I had a big head start; and
  2. the cards that aren’t in sets already are usually awful, nonstop things I wouldn’t do that are boring and redundant or else obviously bad for the game in some way, and if it’s not obvious then I already tried them and found out the hard way. At best they are things I’m already doing; none of it is good reading.

Let’s do an experiment, I will look at the first four cards of “Books of Magic“, the first listed fan expansion at BGG. I am looking at the first four images sorted the default way (“hot”), skipping the big image of a card sheet.

Ghost Town: My first version of this was called Fool’s Gold and was “+$2. Put this card into your hand.” That turned into a card that gave you +$2 and an extra +$2 for each unused action you had when you played it, then +$1, then I made it into Diadem.

Book of the Dead: Getting something from the trash and saving a card for next turn were the two most suggested card premises ever (prior to those cards being published), followed maybe by a reaction to punish attackers. This card manages to put the card on your deck like Graverobber does, but of course is missing the crucial “provide a way to get stuff into the trash that you’ll want” part.

Fairy Gold: The first version of Feast was this only with +1 Action, for $4. It was too strong and turned into the Feast you know. I eventually did a one-shot Gold that you can’t buy, with Spoils.

Gravedigger: I haven’t actually done giving yourself a Curse in a published card, although Death Cart gets close. I tried multiple cards that gave yourself a Curse; everyone hated them. Death Cart dodges the problem by giving you a use for the Ruins.

So, four-for-four, nothing new or interesting here. Sorry Books of Magic guy, it was just an example.

Sir Bailey made Courtyard, but he managed that because he showed me his homemade cards when I didn’t have that many homemade cards of my own yet. Even so I had already done “+2 cards +1 action, put 2 cards from your hand on your deck,” but abandoned it because it played so slowly. Dame Josephine similarly managed to get Counting House in relatively early on.

I will cite two favorite fan cards though.

As I said most are awful. The stand-out awful card, the epitome of awful fan cards, was one called Locusts that read “each other player discards a Gardens.” First the guy of course must have meant “trashes a Gardens card from his hand” but blew it and ended up with the most useless thing ever. If he had gotten it right then it would still be crazy awful. He started with the flavor of “locusts destroy plants” and did not think of “wait you have to want to play the card though.” The old Magic expansions Legends has stuff like this, where they made flavor-based stuff and just did not consider, why would anyone play this.

There has been to date exactly one card I saw where I thought, hey, cool idea. It was something like, “when you gain this put it in the discard pile of the player to your left; at end of game worth 2 VP for the player to your right.” I have done hot-potato cards that did not work out and probably this would fail for the same reasons, but still, neat idea.

michaeljb asks: “Adding on to other fan cards questions…Agricola Gamers Deck was designed by fans. Is there any chance of something similar happening with Dominion, perhaps using the Mini-Set Design Contest hosted by rinkworks as a starting point?”

Unlikely. If there was something good enough then maybe a single promo.

The main issue is, aside from me wanting to be the guy and getting to, that I also want to ensure a certain uh level of quality. If there were a fan-made set I would have to playtest it endlessly. Man. I’m busy. And as I’ve noted I don’t expect there will be awesome fan-made stuff to do; if there is any cool stuff it will be complex. If I had to do a complex set I would just make one myself.

You could instead hope for some other famous game designer to make a set sometime. Tom Lehmann had an idea for one although I never heard what it was. Again I would need to playtest any such set and am not keen to, but it’s at least more likely than a fan set.

Schneau asks: “How many Dominion cards do you think you have come up with, including different variations on the same card that were at least considered and maybe tested? Do you have a spreadsheet to keep track of them all, so you can record things like “reaction that hurts attacker | bad idea” and ideas for possible future promo cards, etc.?

There is an old ideas file, which has lists of ideas sorted by card type. I guess there’s an even older file that I turned into this file. Ideas are sometimes marked with a rating, + for good, . for okay, – for bad; this doesn’t reflect testing, just, how much do I like this idea. Some things have a comment in brackets after them, sometimes reflecting testing. Let’s peek at the first five things on the discard-attacks list.

. att: each other player discards silver
. att: name treasure. each other player discards it [strong at 5]
. reveal top. if not silver, each other player ebbs. gain top silver. [multiplayer cumulativeness]
. if another pl. has < 5 cards, do x. otherwise, they discard.
each pl. looks at left's hand if they have 5+ cards, chooses a discard

As you can see I tested one of those, although I don’t think I printed out anything for it. “Ebb” means “put from hand onto deck” – after the Magic card Time Ebb. “Do X” is of course a placeholder to just show off the actual idea; similarly most cards would also make +$2 or something; that isn’t the idea part.

There are just 21 things on that particular list, plus a list of general approaches at the top. The file is 58K and also includes lists of general mechanics. These lists have been combed over; there are probably a few things that would be okay in there, but you know, the discard-attacks list, those are the 21 variants I passed over in favor of better ideas.

Then each set has a file, with ideas specifically for that set, and a list of the set as it stands at the top, with some notes on what cards fill what roles. For example for Dark Ages, the original list of ruins ideas is:

junk possibilities
 - +1 action / +1 buy / +1 card / +$1 (ruined village / market / library / abandoned mine)
 - look at top 2, may discard them (survivors)
 - pass this left
 - gain a copper / gain a card costing up to $2 / gain a card costing up to $1
 - blank / trash this
 - draw up to 4
 - +1 card, -1 card
 - action cards cost $1 less this turn
 - worth 1 vp per 5 ruins in your deck

In that list the minuses are just for indenting, not passing judgment. Later I considered a few other things, including “play up to two ruins cards” for Ruined Village, but they aren’t on this list. The initial five worked out so there wasn’t a lot more work there.

The Dark Ages cards file is 59K (distinct from the file with the secret history and such). It is just an endless sprawl of card ideas, with some to-do list items like “fit in a 3rd spoils card.”

Finally there are the image files. Dark Ages has 30 pages of card images to test (9 cards per page), plus full versions of the sets that sometimes include cards not on the other pages, especially the older ones when I wasn’t saving everything yet. It is hard to meaningfully count those pages; it’s 36 pages, not counting the original 3 page version or the brief 2 page version, but most of that stuff is redundant. And of course most of the images are things in the Dark Ages text file.

I am looking at the 4th page of Cornucopia images, which was the first page without a version of a card from Guilds. It has:

  • Three versions of Horn of Plenty, two of them actions.
  • Two version of Wandering Minstrel that may appear unrelated to it (it started out +$2, name a type, dig for one and leave it on top).
  • Two random cards that didn’t make it – “gain 5 silvers minus a silver per card in hand” and a thing that made other players ebb a card if they had any duplicates in hand.
  • A precursor of Harvest that drew the non-duplicates in your top 5.
  • Horse Traders but called Foreign Traders.

I flirted with posting the image, but man let’s save that stuff for after Guilds is out, not have any slip-ups.

Not every version of every card makes it anywhere though. I say, “this game, this card will be different,” and explain what I want to test and we test it. Maybe it works out and gets an image and more testing; maybe I’m immediately done with it. Maybe it seems promising and I change the cost and we try that, but the original cost is never in a file. You know.

I do not know how many cards ideas I’ve had, but there’s some of the data I’d be looking at to guess that number. For a normal game I make maybe twice as many cards as end up in the game (distinct cards, rather than slight variations or wordings fixes or what have you). Like, for Nefarious, there were about twice as many twists tested as were used. I pared it down a couple times. There would also be a list of twist ideas I didn’t try, however many, I’m not checking. For Dominion the numbers are higher; some cards just have one version, but some have 10 versions, and for any idea there are probably lots of ways you could do it that would be fine, and you can list them and consider them, but once you commit to one then the others aren’t so interesting anymore.

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3 Responses to Interview with Donald X. Vaccarino, Part II: Dominion

  1. Anonymous says:

    Wiki links are all broken!

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

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