Big Money is about as simple as a “strategy” can be in Dominion. Buy Province with $8, buy Gold with $6-$7, and buy Silver with $5 or lower. (You can fine-tune it by buying Duchies at $5 once there are 5 Provinces left.)
Why is it important? The idea is that for most beginners, you get caught up buying all sorts of pretty fancy Actions, and then one day you realize you are getting stomped by someone who literally just buys money. A lot of people quit at this point, convinced that Dominion is a “solved” game, with no further depth.
But then, one day, you realize that Big Money isn’t unbeatable, it’s just a benchmark. A good mixture of Actions and Treasure easily crushes Big Money, and a good way to tell whether your strategy is a viable one or not is to see whether it can clear the Big Money hurdle. For reference, Big Money averages 4 Provinces by around 17 turns (assuming no attacks). Because you can always go Big Money in every set, every strategy you devise has to be able to do better than Big Money, or else it’s not really a strategy at all.
The obvious way of realizing that Big Money isn’t unbeatable is seeing that Big Money plus one Action is going to beat Big Money: Smithy-Big-Money, for instance, gets to 4 Provinces by 14 turns and will stomp Big Money every time. Witch-Big-Money isn’t faster, but will crush Big Money under a tidal wave of Curses. And so on.
Of course, Smithy-Big-Money isn’t all that much more interesting than playing Big Money. But as you keep going, you realize that more sophisticated interactions also beat Big Money. Maybe you Chapel down your deck, then accelerate into an endgame mega-turn fueled by Bridges and Throne Rooms. Maybe you draw your whole deck with Village/Council Room and end it with a punishing Militia. Maybe you forsake Provinces altogether in favor of Workshop/Gardens. And as each expansion introduces new Action cards, Big Money becomes worse and worse.
Here’s another way of thinking about it. Consider a highly simplified version of Dominion, where each turn you roll your “money die” five times. If the sum of your rolls reaches a certain threshold, you get to buy a Province.
Now, the obvious and “Big Money” approach is to add more and bigger numbers to the die by buying Silvers and Golds. But there are other approaches:
- You can eliminate all the low numbers from the die so your average die roll is higher. [Chapel]
- You can find ways to roll the die more times. [Village/Smithy]
- You can add bonuses to your die roll. [Festival]
- You can mess up other people’s die rolls. [Witch]
- You can reroll low numbers. [Cellar]
- You can lower the threshold to buy a Province. [Bridge]
- You can go for less valuable cards on lower rolls and end the game before a Province player has time to build up points. [Workshop/Gardens]
What Big Money really is is a lower bound for advanced play. Good decks have no difficulty beating Big Money; most beginners cannot. In very, very few sets is Big Money (or 1 Action plus Big Money) the dominant strategy. Studying a board to figure out how to design a deck capable of beating Big Money: well, that’s what Dominion is all about.