Shelters are the most drastic change made to Dominion by the Dark Ages expansion. They were saved for last in the previews before release, after we saw the trash-gainer, the $1 cost card, the Ruins and their Looters, the upgrading cards, and Spoils. While each of those do change the game in their own ways, ranging from the subtle to the not-so-subtle, they certainly more or less fit into the game space of Dominion as we know it – at the end of the day, they are simply Kingdom cards with cool, new effects. But Shelters change how we play Dominion at a fundamental level.
As we’ve known since our first game, our deck in Dominion starts off with seven Coppers and three Estates – we’re so used to this concept that we plan our entire strategies around knowing this. We think about the risk of opening with two terminals, we consider whether trashing Estates is worth losing the points they give, we see the power of Ambassador and Baron as opening buys, and we rest easy knowing our first Silk Road will be worth at least 1 point. Shelters throw all those concepts out the window, and give us some new ones.
First, they all cost $1, which affects quite a few cards that depend on other cards’ costs (as you’ll see soon). Next, they all do something – you are now starting the game with cards that have text on them – get out those reading glasses. Third, you no longer start off with 3 Victory points, so strategies that trash into engines no longer have to worry about a tie-breaking Estate. Finally, only one of them is a Victory card, which has ramifications to be discussed in time.
More broadly speaking, all opening theory related to Estates goes out the window. For example:
- Baron gets completely neutered (Crossroads, too, to a lesser extent)
- Ambassador is unable to return a Shelter (since they aren’t in the Supply), so it only works on Coppers now
- Bishop, Remodel, Salvager, Apprentice — all the early game “trash for benefit” cards tend to do much worse when they can only trash $1 cards instead of $2.
- Remake and Upgrade now give you $2’s instead of $3’s. Whether this is a plus or minus is entirely dependent on the board: you’re probably happy to pick up more Fool’s Golds, but probably not if you’re picking up more Secret Chambers.
Cards that depend on variety get stronger: Menagerie (which didn’t really need the help), and Harvest (which does)
- Swindlers, instead of trashing an Estate and replacing an Estate, will just trash it out of your deck (or replace it with a Poor House)
Later in the game, not having those three Estates has some other effects:
- Hunting Party trips over them instead of bypassing them all
- Silk Road is worth a lot less, but Fairgrounds is worth considerably more
- Rebuild starts off with fewer initial Victory cards
- Fortune Teller discards much more
- Death Cart has an extra Action to trash
So, in general, cards that interact with Victory cards are weakened in Shelters games, but most cards that deal with trashing, engines or hand/deck variety are bolstered.
Let’s look at each Shelter one by one.
Necropolis is easily the most useful of the Shelters, and, at first glance, would seem to be the only reason why anyone would ever want to use Shelters. It is nice to immediately start off with a card giving +2 Actions, particularly if you are transitioning into an engine with more Villages and more Actions. A single Necropolis doesn’t go that far if there are no other Villages on the board, but it can also help if you plan on opening with two terminal Actions. If they collide (probability 30.3%), your odds of also drawing the Necropolis in that hand is about 30%.
Hovel is probably the closest we will ever come to a Dominion card that is just a Reaction and nothing else. Being able to trash a card upon buying a Victory card is not completely new – Farmland introduced us to this concept in Hinterlands. But Hovel allows you to do this when buying any Victory card, so long as the card you’re trashing is Hovel. So what is the point of this? It tilts towards alternative Victory cards. In a vacuum, buying Harem becomes somewhat stronger than buying Gold with its tiny bit of deck-thinning. It allows that Province buy to be just a little bit less harmful to your carefully crafted engine, as instead of adding to your deck, it is replacing a card. Perhaps the only time you’ll want to save Hovel from trashing is in a Gardens game, where every extra card counts.
Now, suppose you open 5/2, and there isn’t anything to buy with $2. Your Hovel is in your hand. Do you buy an Estate to trash the Hovel out of your deck?
This was a heavily-debated question on the forum, and it did not come to a clear consensus. ehunt‘s explanation is quite helpful:
Sarah and Laura play a game. On turn 2, Sarah replaces a Hovel with an Estate. Laura declines to do this, keeping the Hovel and buying nothing.
Now Sarah’s and Laura’s decks are identical (let’s say no card on the board references Estates). We can imagine their decks and draws stay identical hand for hand (except Laura draws her Hovel whenever Sarah draws her Estate). At some point, Sarah will buy a green card with her Estate in hand. Nothing happens. Laura buys a green card with her Hovel in hand; she trashes it. Now their decks are different. Sarah’s got an Estate in her deck that Laura doesn’t have.
So the question is: is the turn on which you expect to buy a green card with Hovel in hand late enough that you’d be willing to take a free Estate?
It’s important to point out that this might never happen. You may in fact, never draw your Hovel with a Province-buying hand, in which case you certainly would have rather just swapped it out for an Estate early on. But you might be guaranteed to draw your Hovel with a Province-buying hand (let’s say you have a big draw engine), and you might not want an extra dead card in the deck so early.
Note also that alternative green cards (like Great Hall or Harem) mean that you’ll almost certainly be drawing a green-buying hand with Hovel quite early on, in which case there’s no need to buy an Estate. And of course, quite a few cards depend on Estate, either directly or indirectly: Baron, Crossroads, even Bishop.
Finally, the game might — or might not — be decided by that 1 VP. On boards with +Buy, it’s unlikely, so the advantage of that Estate probably won’t decide the game. But on boards without +Buy, that 1 VP can prove quite valuable (especially as there are no starting Estates in each player’s deck).
Overgrown Estate has a cute little on-trash bonus, but not much else going for it. Its main role is its Victory label, which makes it eligible for cards like Rebuild and Crossroads. You can do tricks like Hermiting an Overgrown Estate from your discard to let you draw a card, or trashing it on your opponent’s Bishop so you can swap it out for a hopefully better card in your hand.
Bear in mind, though, that Shelters are, according to the rules, only supposed to show up in majority Dark Ages games, just like Colony and Platinum are only supposed to show up in majority Prosperity games. So Shelters, while game-changing, has not upset the entire Dominion paradigm, and you can choose not to play with them if you wish. But personally, I feel that, other than making Baron a sad panda, Shelters make for a more interesting, enjoyable Dominion experience.