Dominion 101: What is an Engine

Dominion 101 is a series focused on the fundamentals of Dominion. What is an Engine is the second article in this series. You can read the first article, Why Trashing is Good by clicking here. To discuss this article in our forums, click here.

Dominion 101

Part 2- What is an Engine

Original Article by werothegreat

One of the most important strategic concepts in Dominion is the engine.  Most experienced Dominion players will spend their first few moments of a game looking at the Kingdom and figuring out if an engine is possible, and if so, how they can cobble one together.  Engine strategies can reliably beat most decks that just buy Treasures and Victory cards (called Big Money decks), and getting an engine running is for many players one of the most satisfying and rewarding parts of playing the game.

So what exactly is an engine?  An engine is characterized by two main features:

  • Strong draw, typically being able to draw your entire deck (or most of it) in a single turn
  • Payload, powerful cards that either help your deck, hinder your opponent, or let you gain multiple Victory cards in a turn

If the strong draw and/or payload is terminal (that is, not giving any +Action when played), an engine will also require a card that gives at least +2 Actions (usually called Villages, after the simplest Kingdom card that gives this effect).

For an example of each of these, we need look no further than the recommended First Game from the Base Set: Cellar, Moat, Merchant, Village, Workshop, Militia, Remodel, Smithy, Market, Mine.  (If you don’t recognize Merchant, it was added in the Second Edition, which we’ll discuss next time, and replaces Woodcutter in this game.)  For our strong draw, we have Smithy, which gives a snazzy +3 Cards for the low, low price of $4.  However, it is also terminal – if you play Smithy as your first Action on a turn, you can’t play any more Actions afterwards, which undermines the whole point of making an engine in the first place.  So we’ll also rely on Village to give us the extra Actions necessary to play enough Smithies to draw our entire deck.


But we can’t stop here; one of the common pitfalls players experience is grabbing a bunch of Villages and Smithies, but not adding in anything else to the mix other than maybe a couple Treasures.  That kind of deck can pretty reliably draw itself, but then you’re stuck with a bunch of coins and only one Buy, and now you’re not doing any better than the Big Money deck, except you’re actually a few turns behind; while you were picking up the Villages and Smithies, the Big Money player was picking up Silvers and Golds and has already bought a Province or two, and there’s no way you’ll catch up to them at this point.  What you need is the final, and most crucial, engine ingredient: payload.

Payload is just a fancy word for “whatever makes your engine worth it”.  This can be a +Buy card like Market, or an Attack like Militia.  An engine may have several different payload cards, and the engine from the First Game has room for a few.  In this game, Mine increases the overall buying power of your Treasures; Markets provide the extra Buys necessary to gain multiple Provinces a turn near the end of the game; and Militia’s discard attack can slow down your opponent.

Engines do take a bit of time to get going, and an opponent that’s playing a Treasure-focused strategy will probably start buying Provinces while you’re still building.  This process can be helped along by “engine enablers”: essentially any card that speeds up your engine construction.  In the First Game, both Workshop and Remodel serve this role, as both can help you add more than one engine piece to your deck per turn.  Remodel is also the only way to get rid of your Estates on this board, and as we discussed last time, that’s quite important to do, particularly so for an engine, which can’t afford to hit a snag like drawing an Estate instead of a card that can actually draw.  Besides gainers and trashers, enablers can include sifters (cards that cycle through your deck) like Cellar, and +Buy cards like Market.  There is a bit of overlap with payload cards, as many payload cards, like Market, also function as enablers.

If there are enablers on the board, you’ll likely want to open with them, to get your engine going as quickly as possible.  Look specifically for trashers (like Remodel), and gainers (like Workshop).  Notice that Mine, despite being a trasher, is not an enabler, but only payload; this is because it replaces a trashed Treasure with another Treasure, keeping the number of “stop cards” (cards that don’t draw) in your deck constant.  While an engine will usually need a couple stop cards to serve as payload, most cards in an engine should be helping you draw the rest of your deck.  Once you’ve picked up your enablers, focus on getting your engine pieces (your draw and Villages), before starting to pick up payload.  Once your engine is mostly drawing your entire deck, and has enough payload to gain more than one Province per turn, you should start grabbing some Victory cards.  Be careful, though: start buying Provinces too soon, and your engine will sputter, and you will lose.  But hold off buying Provinces too long, and your opponent will get more Victory cards than you, and you will lose.  Knowing exactly when to start doing each step is not an exact science, and will take some practice to get right.  

Specifically for the First Game, my preferred method would be to open Silver/Remodel (or Workshop/Remodel, if I’m feeling lucky), pick up a Mine with my first $5, and Markets with each subsequent $5, getting Villages, Smithies, and a single Militia along the way.  Remodel turns my starting Estates into Villages and/or Smithies, then a Silver or two into an extra Market, and later in the game can turn Golds I get from Mine into Provinces.  A typical late game turn should see me draw my entire deck, play my Militia, Mine a Silver into a Gold, then immediately Remodel that Gold into a Province, then buy 2 more Provinces and maybe one other cheap card (usually Cellar).

Remember that, unless you’re pulling off a particularly wacky strategy, you’re still going to need some money in order to buy everything.  The First Game provides this rather naturally, sticking coins onto Market and Militia in addition to their +Buy and Attack payload.  Mine also serves this purpose in slowly upgrading your Treasures.  If a Kingdom has draw, +Action, and other sources of payload, but no useful Actions that give extra coins, then it’s perfectly fine to pick up a couple Golds to help serve as a payload.  However, in general, your engine should be made up almost entirely of Action cards, if possible.

So now when you see a board with good draw, a Village, and some cool payload cards, you’ll think to yourself, “It’s engine time.”

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