In a short time, the card game Dominion (2008) by Donald X. Vaccarino has become immediately popular and spurred several expansions. With its concise rules, it offers quick, addictive play in a format that is easily teachable. Strangely, it takes the most boring mechanic of collectible card games (i.e., building your deck) and turns that into the core mechanic of the game. Yet in refining the rules, it has made an unique, expandable, and portable game that deserves its accolades as a “filler” type of game that doesn’t feel shallow at all.
photo by Francois Haffner (BGG)
Components & Setup
Dominion is played entirely with cards: there is no board, tokens, scoresheet, or player mats. Instead, there are 25 action cards (of 10 each) plus three denominations of money and three types of victory cards. Setup is wonderfully simple. It takes a few minutes and is as simple as choosing ten cards out of the 25 action cards in the box and putting those stacks in the center of the table along with three standard stacks of money cards and three stacks of victory cards. Everyone gets the same starting deck of three victory points and seven money cards. It couldn’t be simpler.
photo by Ender Wiggins (BGG)
Each player deals five cards off the top of their deck and reveals them to everyone. From that hand, game play can be summed by a clever ABC acronym. Gamers have one Action: they can use a action card. They have one Buy, which means they can use the money in that hand to buy an item in the center of the table (a victory point, action card, or money). They must then Clean up, which means to discard their hand into their discard pile. The next player starts the same process. When you run out of cards in your deck, shuffle them and repeat.
When any three stacks of cards in the center of the table are gone (or if the 6 point victory card stack is gone), the game is over. Players sift their stack and count all of the victory points in it. The player with the highest total of victory points wins.
photo by Gary James (BGG)
It sounds too simple, but I didn’t mention that the action cards are incredibly clever and varied. Some cards let you attack other players, give you extra money, lets you trash dead cards in your own deck, give you bonuses in the end of the game, or steal cards from other players. There are also cards that have an additional action on them, so if you activate them with your action, you then have an additional action to use (and if that 2nd card has an action, you can chain these action to have 3, 4, or maybe even 5 actions). Therefore, your one hand can become a chain reaction setting yourself ahead of everyone else.
The end goal is to refine their deck so it has the most victory points but so it also has enough money and actions so you can buy items and change your outcome. It’s a tricky balance, since you need a deck with higher victory points than everyone else, but a deck clogged with victory point cards means that your actions are limited each turn. Therefore, many players try to trash lower cards and upgrade to higher cards or fill their deck with a variety. Alternate strategies are to buy action cards that attack other players or give them curses that deduct from their victory points. But you’ll find yourself refining your deck constantly during the game to find that right balance in a game that has a good amount of skill and luck to keep game play sharp and quick.
photo by Filip Miłuński (BGG)
What’s Good About It?
There are many things that make this a worthwhile addition to your collection. For one, it works well as a gateway game. Dominion is a quicker cousin to other strategy cards games like Race for the Galaxy and Magic: The Gathering, but Dominion’s appeal and strategies are more immediate. It’s a wonderful, portable game that feels meatier than most fillers and is excellent to teach to new players or to put on the table while you wait for your game group to arrive.
Dominion also works well as a couples game. If I ask my wife what game she dislikes, it is usually a game that has a “take that” element or a game where combat is necessary. Whether or not she will agree to play depends on how much of that is in a game. Lost Cities or Agricola are a yes, but Battleline or Magic: The Gathering are a no. The beauty of Dominion is that you can tweak the deck so it has more or less interaction. With 25 different cards at your command (and many more with expansions) you can make it more combative (e.g., add thieves or witches that can attack other players) or simply a competitive solitaire game (e.g., take the attack cards out, and players are just competing for the highest score).
photo by Mike Hulsebus (BGG)
Dominion is quick (20-30 minutes), replayable, portable, configurable, tactical, and unique. It plays well with any number of players (2-4 out of the box, but expandable to 8); few games scale so perfectly without adding downtime. The multiple expansions for Dominion add new flavor to games and keep it fresh and surprising, but even the base game offers tons of replayability and variety for hundreds of plays.
Where Can I Buy Dominion?
Dominion won a ton of gaming awards in 2009, including the prestigious Spiel des Jahres, the Deutcher Spiele Preis, and the BGG Golden Geek. This is a really big deal, and as a result of the critical exposure, it’s hard not to find a copy of Dominion even if you are just looking for it in passing. It’s on Amazon, I’ve seen it on shelves at Target and Barnes & Noble, and, of course, all the major online gaming retailers carry it.
The success of Dominion has also made possible several expansions, which are also widely available.