This is the fourth part in a series of four articles written by Polk5440. The series studies games of Dominion with three or more players and how they differ from games with just two players.
In the previous parts to this series we discussed how the number of players affects the strength of cards and how the number of players following a similar game plan can affect the success of that plan. But what factors influence the strength of a game plan in the first place? There is no easy answer, but there are several big considerations for multiplayer games.
In part 2 we discussed how stacked attacks are usually much stronger in multiplayer games because potentially more copies of the card can be played per turn.
There is another side to this for cards that hand out Curses or Ruins: Because copies of other players’ attacks stack and affect everyone, the amount of additional benefit from having a copy of the attack yourself is actually smaller, even in the absence of a defensive card like Moat.
Consider a two player game with Witch. If your opponent gets a Witch and you do not, you will end up with 10 Curses and your opponent will have 0 Curses. That’s ten more junk cards in your deck.
In a four player game, if all your opponents get a Witch but you do not, the Curse split is more equal, say 6-7-7-10. You may only have 3 or 4 more Curses than each of your opponents. Yes, you still got 10 Curses, but you are not as bad off relative to your opponents now that they are getting cursed, as well.
Thus, there is an incentive to go for strong attacks, but with more players, there are also strategic reasons to pass on getting a copy of the attack, as well.
Competition for Cards
More players means key cards will be harder to get in large quantities.
As an example, consider the following kingdom.
Courtyard, Steward, Village, Baron, Smithy, Ironworks, Secret Passage, Trading Post, Bandit, Harem
Without Village, there is not much you can do in this kingdom on a given turn. You can cycle through cards with Secret Passage and gain a card with Ironworks, but you are really limited to playing one good terminal card a turn (e.g. Courtyard to increase your hand size or Bandit for the attack and Gold gaining).
With Village, so many more possibilities open up. A great plan would be to trash away Coppers and Estates with Steward or Trading Post, load up on copies of Village and Smithy using Ironworks to get multiple cards a turn, get a Courtyard or two, a Bandit, then go for few big turns buying multiple Victory Cards with Gold at the end.
Village is the key. Without a lot of copies of it, this great plan falls apart. Maybe you even decide that with all that potential competition doing something else might be better when there are a lot of players at the table.
A game plan is stronger if there are good substitutes in the kingdom for key cards.
Suppose the above kingdom had Mining Village instead of Harem; things would be different! Village is the backbone of your plan, but your plan is more adaptable (and stronger) if Mining Village is also in the kingdom because Mining Village can fulfill the same function as Village (they both have +1 Card, +2 Actions).
Benefits of a Thin Deck
Should you trash down to a thin deck or not? Generally, “Trashing is good” is a valid maxim for any number of players for a few solid reasons.
First, the fewer junk cards that are in your deck, the easier it is to draw through your deck and see and play your good cards as often as possible.
Second, thin decks are usually more consistent and controllable. By eliminating junk, you reduce the chance of having a bad turn versus a good turn.
Finally, a thin deck is an adaptable deck, which can help you adjust as the game develops. While adaptability is a plus in two player games, it’s even a bigger plus in multiplayer games where more facets of the game are out of your control (see below). For example, if you need to switch from playing Witch to playing Tormentor after the Curses run out, it’s easier to do so if you have a thin deck than it is if you need to buy a lot of copies of Tormentor and wade through a bunch of junk. If you find yourself ahead with piles running low, thin decks that are geared toward gaining a lot of cards may be able to more easily empty piles on a win.
One last facet of adaptability is that you can usually more easily transition from a thin deck to a more bloated deck than from a stuffed deck to a thin deck. In our example kingdom above, if you thin down and notice that other players aren’t contesting the Villages enough to stop you from building a deck that way, you can reap the benefits of that Action-heavy deck; however, if Villages are contested, you can switch gears and add Bandits. The thin deck allows you to play Bandits quicker and more often, flooding your deck with Gold that may suit the situation better. However, the reverse is not true. If you start out going for Bandits, leaving your deck bloated, if you find that no one is going for those Villages, it’s practically impossible to switch gears later.
Disadvantages of a Thin Deck
Some cards promote bloated decks. Cards that give you lots Treasures, like Delve or Treasure Trove, or cards that benefit from bloated, junk decks, like Feodum or Gardens, are good examples. Sometimes these cards are the best things to go for in a kingdom and a thin deck can work against those cards.
Additionally, to realize the benefits of a thin deck, you need time to thin down, buy good cards, and build up to a high scoring potential. Before the scoring starts, you will probably be in last place. If you are not careful, you could be playing masterfully, pursuing the dream turn that scores you dozens of points, while the game ends with you in last place.
One reason there may not be enough time to build a monster deck that plays all your cards each turn is that piles deplete quicker with more players, leading to a game ending on piles, especially if there is competition for key cards.
For example, if multiple players are going after Villages and Bridges with the goal of reducing the price of Provinces to $0 before buying them all out in one fell swoop, it’s very likely none will succeed and piles will start to run low. This pushes players to get points earlier, transition to a more money-style deck, and hang on until the end of the game.
Four Provinces Per Player… Or Three?
In games with four or more players there are only three Provinces per person rather than four. This is a big difference! For a given strategy, it takes fewer turns to empty piles or acquire your share of the points. (This jump also exists in Colony games.) While this feature of Victory piles is great game design to keep the length of a game (in minutes) from ballooning out of control with lots of players, it limits the number of turns and the ability to build decks before they have to score points. This is one reason why there is pressure to build simpler decks (like Council Room plus Treasures) when there are more players at the table.
(Lack of) Control Over the End of the Game
The more players there are the less an individual player has direct endgame control. Often in two player games one player will actively attempt to end while ahead in points. The end of the game isn’t something that happens, it’s something you make happen.
With more players, you simply have less control. If there are other players who are off doing their own thing, buying a Province every turn or so, even if they have no chance of winning, they deplete the points available disrupting the dynamic between other players building their decks. In four player games, there are fewer Provinces per person available than in a two-player game, so it does not take long to be put in a position of there not being enough points available to catch up.
Given the increased difficulty of controlling the game, multiplayer games are much more about “When do I have to green given what other players are doing?” than two player games are.
Players who are used to winning or placing well in a good fraction of their games with their friends by playing simple strategies can be surprised by how frequently they are defeated in two player games by an opponent who plays these fancy-pants strategies that score lots of points at once, and vice-versa. These strategies are just much more consistently stronger in two player games because there is usually more time to build.
In contrast, in multiplayer games, competition for key cards, fewer Provinces per player in four player games, and a lack of endgame control means that with more players you have to build a deck that is adaptable to the game environment as it unfolds and robust to handling Victory cards late.