The Dominion Shuffle

I haven’t talked about boardgames here much lately, and that’s because most of such talk was being done over at Hardcore Ludography. However, that blog just isn’t seeing much action. We all love games, but we just don’t have that much we need to say about them.

Another Essen (location of “Spiel”, the massive boardgaming convention in Europe that showcases all the hot new releases) has come and gone, and gamers are now sifting through the offerings, seeing what’s essential and what’s not. I’ve only played a few of the Essen releases so far: Flussfieber, which was fun; Steel Driver, which is a nice quick Martin Wallace game that I fear no one will play because why not just play Age of Steam?; and Comuni, which is a dry, flavorless, pointless shuffling about of cubes, explaining how it came in third in the Essen rankings. Last night, though, I played Dominion, which is the Essen game everyone’s talking about.

As with many games, the cover art is terrible.

Dominion is tough to explain because it’s a fairly novel concept. There are ten cards available for purchase (chosen from about 25 total cards). There are also money cards and VP cards, which can also be purchased. Each player starts with 3 VP cards (1 VP each) and 7 gold cards (1 gold each). This is his deck. On each of his turn he has a hand of five cards to work with. VPs are victory points…they do nothing except help you win the game at the end. Money is money and lets you buy other cards. The other cards give you actions you can perform — things like drawing more cards to your hand to work with, giving you more actions to perform, giving you more chances to buy, giving you extra money, and so forth. The idea is that you play your hand, buy what you want, and then discard it all, drawing the next five cards from your deck to work with on your next turn. If you run out of cards you reshuffle your discards. So you constantly cycle through a deck of cards you’re adding more cards to.

It’s tricky because although you want Victory Point cards, they don’t DO anything. Drawing a handful of them in the mid-game is useless, because you can’t take any actions or get anything with them. So you want to make sure you’re not clogging up your hand with too many of them. Likewise with gold. A hand of five 1 Gold cards will let you buy something that costs five, but that’s all you’ll be able to do with it. Compared to what the other action cards do, that’s pretty weak.

I was a little wary of Dominion going in, I have to admit. The previous OMG MUST HAVE game from the last Essen was Agricola, which turns out to be a game I can easily live without. I found it to be a pretty pedestrian worker-placement game and not the life-changing experience it seems to be for so many gamers. From what I had heard, Dominion suffered from the same problem a lot of games seem to have, a lack of interaction. Eurogamers have a hard time with games that allow one player to interfere with another’s plans (unless it’s via an auction), so it’s not unusual to have a situation like in the game Notre Dame, where there are three other players at the table, but your main competition is black cubes that are supposed to be rats. Another game that has caused pants-tightening in Eurogamers is Race for the Galaxy, and you can play that thing over a telegraph, it has so little player interaction. So I wasn’t excited about yet another game of, as the boardgame wits call it, “multi-player Solitaire”.

Dominion is a strange beast. It’s novel, and its mechanic is pretty interesting, but it is a “mechanic”. That is, there is little interaction (though there is some, and it can get nasty at times) so you’re mostly doing your own thing. You can certainly try different strategies towards victory, but tactics usually don’t much matter. On your turn, it is usually pretty clear what you will want to do. In fact, you often don’t have that many options. (It is entirely possible that with more plays this changes greatly. Since it is, at its heart, an “engine” game, it’s likely that better engines provide more options earlier.) Turns go very quickly, and in fact as soon as you draw your new hand at the end of your turn you’re usually pretty sure what you’re going to do with it.

Mike, Dan, Jim, and I played two games, and although we misplayed a key rule in the first game, it was simply a rule about when the game ends, so it didn’t change a whole lot. The first game we played with the “Starter Game” card sets, and the second was one of the other recommended card sets. In the second one were more interactive and nasty cards, though it was interesting that although we all went nuts with one of them early on, we soon realized that it wasn’t that great of a play. It screwed with others and got you cash, but at the cost of not being able to do much of anything else. Also, it became less successful as the game went on. The other interactive card I hit on early, and in my opinion it was much better, though I still lost.

Perhaps the biggest indicator that, novel as it is, you’re still playing a Eurogame, is that the point spreads at the end were very tight (I think 8 points or so was the larger of the two games). Eurogame designers are so scared of making unbalanced games that they balance them to an absolute fault, often with absurd methods for preventing runaway leaders and hopeless losers. As a result, one often wins a typical Eurogame by only a handful of points. In addition, the winner was always something of a surprise to everyone. In both games I did much more poorly than I thought I was doing. Even if you can identify a leading player there isn’t anything I’m aware of that you can do to him — every card I saw that messed with other players messed with ALL other players. So there’s no question it’s a Euro design — your options are helping yourself or hurting all others, nothing in between. (Again, I’m sure that with more plays you can develop a better idea of who’s in the lead, but without different cards the knowledge won’t help much.)

It’s definitely ripe for expansions, and that’s where I think the game will really shine. There’s a LOT of potential here. Mike said that he finds the game dry and not very compelling, though he admires the design. He says he thinks someone else will come along and use the idea for a better game, which is possibly true. I liked it more than he did, and I think that within two expansions there will be a whole lot more “there” there. Dan loved it (and I think Jim really liked it too) and thought it might be a stellar two-player game, which I think he is probably right about.

I would rate it a 7, I think, and that could possibly go higher once I’ve played more and with different card sets. It’s not something I feel I need to own at the moment, but I’ll happily play it. It still seems like there’s something missing — Mike said it’s got no “heart” — which isn’t a bad, if vague, description. It feels very mechanical to me, as I said above. If it seems I’m being a little harsh on a game I rate fairly high, you’re not wrong, and I can’t really explain why that is. It could be because the games are fairly short, so it almost feels like I only got a preview of the game, even though I played it twice. It’s not an easy one to wrap my head around, but I’ll enjoy getting more chances to do so.

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6 Responses to The Dominion Shuffle

  1. I’ve heard about it and am interested in at least trying it out. It’s a rare game that, even with nifty mechanics, has no flavor/heart and still appeals.

    On the Eurogames, to each his own I suppose. You condemnation of Race for the Galaxy is well noted, but I really like it – love the flavor. And Agricola, I find it a great game. I think you and Dave are the only people I know who aren’t semi-enthralled with it. To me and an entire other group I game with, it makes Puerto Rico look goofy, and we love it.

    On Eurogaming in general, methinks you being a bit harsh. You may not like the I-can’t-f^&k-with-people restrictions, but me, I like not having an *obnoxiously* aggressive Topher type “interacting” with my game. In war games, you expect that. But how damn fun does the *group* have when you have that Topher guy present in games that allow that kind of “interaction”. I don’t have a problem that you like that kind of stuff more than I. I just don’t like it as much, and it reduces my fun when gaming, and last time I checked, that’s my whole point in playing.

    And I am *still* waiting for my copy of Pandemic I ordered in late April from ThoughHammer. Perhaps there was some outbreak at the printers?

  2. David Thiel says:

    Since you invoked my name here, Brian, I will weigh in. “Agricola” (or, as I prefer, “Ag-RI-colaaaaaa!”) is okay, but it’s basically Puerto Rico dialed up to eleven. Sure, it allows for a wide variety of winning strategies, but I feel that complexity also works against it. Ever step forward requires three preceding steps. You can’t build a room on your hovel without first chopping the wood…which you can’t do without inventing the axe…which you can’t do without evolving from a one-celled organism. Perhaps I’m exaggerating a bit.

    The one game I played seemed like an awful lot of input for very little output. Three hours later, all I had for my trouble was a three-room house, some kids and a couple of cows. I had one field, but never grew a single crop. Puerto Rico takes half as long and gives me much more satisfaction. Given the choice, I’d rather play two games of PR, or better yet, one game of Twilight Imperium. I could conquer Mecatol Rex in the time it took to give my farm house stone walls.

    As for “Race for the Galaxy,” I think you know that Dave L.’s condemnation is a tiny ember compared to my white-hot dislike. Flavor only gets it so far. As you know, I’ve gone on record that “Ag-RI-colaaaaa!” would be far more appealing to me if only it was set in outer space, so RFTG should be just my cup of space tea. Lack of interaction is just as Dave L. describes. It’s not as if there’s a binary choice between a game that encourages “screw your neighbor” behavior and one that gives players no meaningful way to affect their opponents’ position. At all. But what made me truly want to set fire to the box was the frustration I felt over my inability to affect MY OWN game. I started in a crappy position, and never once felt that I was given the means to improve my lot enough to catch up to the pack.

  3. Dave says:

    I don’t know what to tell you, Brian. I don’t like games in which the other players serve no purpose. If I want to just build something and not worry about interference, I’ll play solitaire or with my Legos. I don’t mean that every game needs to allow the players to punch each other in the mouth, I just mean that I want to play with other people instead of simply near them. (For the record, there are some low-interaction games I like, such as In the Year of the Dragon and Galaxy Trucker.) As for Agricola, I don’t hate it, I just don’t see what all the fuss is about. And as for Puerto Rico, I admire it to some extent, but I haven’t played it in years and don’t miss it.

    What I’ve written is a review, my impressions of and thoughts about the game. I’m not required to take into account how others might like the things I dislike about it. All I can do is say what turned me off and let others decide if that’s a problem for them as well. For you it’s not and that’s fine. I actually think you’d like Dominion a lot. I like it to, I’d just like to see the ability for it to be as nasty as it seems to want to be but is too scared to be at the moment for fear of scaring off Eurogamers. Since it’s customizable, there’s no reason we can’t both be happy.

  4. You know, I realized after I wrote that commennt that I may have come off harsher than I meant. I know Dave doesn’t hate RftG, I was just being goofy. It really is one of those, to each his own. I don’t mind Eurogames sometimes, in so much as the don’t-mess-with-me motif resonates with me at times.

    As far as the Topher comments go, for the record, I liked Topher as an individual to a great extent. He was a genuinely nice and caring guy who seemed to actually care about my family when he came over. When I talked about him being obnoxious, we all knew he would do that kind of aggressive stuff on purpose. Sometimes, I would get genuinely pissed at him, but we always ended a game in peace. So don’t read too much in there. I *still* miss hime and think about him. And occasionally, *very* occasionally, I miss that guy who screws with everyone at the table just to be an idiot and screw with people. 8)

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