Ben McJunkin: First Impressions – Dominare

Dominare
Designer: Jim Pinto
Publisher: AEG
Players: 2-6 | Ages: 12+ | Time: 120 mins.

Dominare is one of four games released by AEG at Essen last year as part of that publisher’s Tempest line. All four games are set in the city-state of Tempest — a thriving hub of life and culture in a fictional analogue to Renaissance-era Europe — and draw upon a shared backstory and (broadly speaking) the same characters. Dominare is the heaviest of the four Tempest games released so far and, accordingly, was the game of most interest to me.  Unfortunately, the game is a tale of two halves: the slowly developing grind-it-out affair of the early game is dwarfed by the wildly swingy last few rounds, leading to a slightly unsatisfying overall session.

Overview

The basic premise of Dominare is that players are shadowy figureheads behind complex and far-reaching conspiracies attempting to seize wealth and power in a time of political and economic turmoil. In more practical terms, Dominare is an all-or-nothing area majority game driven by combinations of special-player-power card effects. Players vie to spread their influence into a number of distinct districts and to simultaneously drive the value of those districts up (or, alternatively, to drive down the value of districts controlled by oppoenents). At the end of the game, only one player can score for each district, allowing for minor shifts to cause major havoc on relative standings. The player who best navigates this chaos while staying out of the limelight will be victorious.

The game lasts for seven seasons, each of which consists of four distinct phases: the conspiracy phase, the event phase, the canvassing phase, and the action phase.

Conspiracy Phase

The first phase of each round is the conspiracy phase. During this phase, players secretly and simultaneously select a new “agent” card to add to their conspiracy. Each agent card in a player’s conspiracy confers a number of substantial benefits — influence, income, and special powers — but also brings with it numerous limitations: each agent belongs to a particular faction, which restricts the districts that can be influenced; each agent has particular traits that work best in combination with other, similar agents; and each agent has a particular exposure value, such that conspiring with notorious personalities brings extra scrutiny to your mischievous plans.

(Example Agent Card)

Dominare comes with 89 unique agent cards, so the considerations facing players in this phase are precisely the sort of meaty, significant, and abundant decision points one expects in a gamers’ game. Additionally, halfway through the game the players draft a new set of agent cards, meaning that players are not simply relegated to the luck of the draw when trying to extend early game strategies into the later seasons.

To add to the factors one must consider (and as an elegant countermeasure to the luck-of-the-draw inherent in card games), agents’ abilities change depending on the season in which they are added to the conspiracy. Each new agent added is placed in a specific “rank” and higher-rank agents have access to demonstrably stronger events. However, those agents are also in play for fewer seasons, meaning that it has fewer opportunities to contribute to your position. The resultant timing game makes for an entertaining and enjoyable hand-management experience, and is one of the stronger elements of the design, in my opinion.

Events Phase

Each season, a random event befalls the city-state of Tempest. Although these events can potentially be positive, in general they are negative and aimed squarely at the “scapegoat,” the player whose conspiracy has the highest total exposure.

As an offset of the penalty associated with these random events, the scapegoat is permitted to adjust the victory point values of the districts printed on the event card. One district must be adjusted up and the other district must be adjusted down. The ability to adjust the value of districts is a strong incentive to weather the storm of events as the scapegoat, and in both my games, players fought to be the scapegoat throughout the midgame, bowing out only toward the end (as there are also end-of-game penalties for being too well-known).

Canvassing Phase

The third phase of each season is known as “canvassing,” but is in reality the spreading of influence. Each agent in a player’s conspiracy provides the designated income and designated number of influence cubes. The cubes provided by any given agent must be deposited in a single block, within a district of the board permitted by that agent’s faction (A Senator, for example, contributes his conspiratorial influence in the Senate.) Players can pay money to expand their influence to adjacent blocks (and thus potentially adjacent districts), but it influence does not spread far and it is an expensive endeavor.

(Canvassing in the Senate)

During canvassing, agents also receive a networking bonus if they share a trait with an agent in an adjacent rank. The networking bonus is simply one cube per agent, but since the average influence of an agent is 2-3 cubes, that bonus can add up quickly. The downside of networking is that it often leads to having many conspirators from the same faction (and thus a very concentrated board presence). Ideally, you would wedge a disgraced Knave-Senator Artisan between your Knave dockworker and your legitimate Senator, but since I just made those combinations up that’s unlikely. More likely is wedging your Clergy between your Clergy and your Clergy and boy howdy you’re winning the Church, aren’t you?

One of the more interesting elements of this phase is that agents are activated by rank in player order. So all players canvas with their rank one agents, then all players canvas with their rank two agents, and so on. This means that the card you play on the first turn will be used for influence seven times, while the card you play on the last turn canvases only once. This also means that the canvassing phase of the final season is longer than the canvassing phase of the first three seasons combined. While I enjoy the timing tension this element creates, some may find that the game extends a bit too long as a result (my two plays suggest that the 120 minutes on the game box is optimistic).

Action Phase

The last phase of each season is the action phase, during which the players may take two actions from a relatively lengthy menu. Examples of the available actions include:

  • Recruit – Draw new agent cards.
  • Replace – Substitute an agent in your ranks with someone better from your hand.
  • Whitewash – Pay money to lower your exposure.
  • Inspire – Pay money to add influence anywhere.

However the two most common actions taken in this phase are using district abilities and using agent abilities.

District Abilities - Each district has a special ability, available once per season to the player who controls the district. The abilities are thematically appropriate — for example, The Warrens, one of the poorest areas of the city and home to many a knave, allows the controlling player to steal two crowns (money) from each other player. These abilities are often best used early in the game, since they tend to be better than the abilities available to low-rank agents.

(District Abilities)

Agent Abilities - Each agent in your conspiracy possesses a number of different abilities. For a single action, players can activate an agent to use an ability. However, an agent’s rank determines the abilities available to him/her; low-rank agents tend to have relatively weak abilities, while high-rank agents tend to have wild and wacky powers (occasionally including the ability to use the abilities of other agents). Toward the end of the game, agent abilities can be very powerful and are used frequently in order to attempt to wrest control of districts away from opponents

(More Agents – the numbers represent the rank at which an ability is available)

Game End & Scoring

At the end of seven seasons, the game ends. The victory point value of each district is awarded to the player controlling the most individual blocks in the district. No points are awarded for second place. In addition, particular blocks are worth points (and occasionally negative points) to the player with the most influence there. Lastly, the players are penalized for exposure: the player with highest exposure at the end of the game loses one victory point for every three points of exposure; all players with more exposure than the least-exposed player lose one victory point for every three points of exposure.

Thoughts

Both of my games of Dominare were rather enjoyable experiences. There is some real cleverness here. The Tempest games quite obviously fall on the “thematic” end of the gaming spectrum, but the Dominare’s mechanics could hold up well against many drier Eurogames.

The game is unquestionably swingy, though it is intentionally so. (So is Innovation; it’s a valid design choice.) The area majority scoring offers no rewards for second-place, so players will likely spend the last few rounds swapping tens of possible points with the exchange of just of a few cubes. I thought the designer did a nice job in making individual blocks worth points (sometimes negative), forcing players to decide between focusing their influence on a few discrete point sources or spreading out to less valuable blocks in the hopes of recouping points for controlling the whole district. I also quite enjoyed the variable victory point values for the districts and the relative end-game scoring for exposure. Both elements result in a lot of variety between sessions, as no particular path to points can be assured viability in any given game.

That said, on both occasions I felt that the game ran on far longer than I would have liked. The 120-minute playtime is certainly optimistic for a four-player game, and it pains me to think about what it might look like with the full complement of six players.

In large part, the game’s length is due to the structure of the canvassing phase. Abstractly, I love the idea that your conspirators in the first season continue to assist you throughout the game (rather than simply being supplanted by bigger and better conspirators in later seasons). Likewise, I think the cross-cutting tension between early deployment of an agent (for maximum income and influence) and late deployment of that same agent (for maximum-strength abilities) produces clear, clever, and most importantly meaningful hand management decisions. But, in my view, the early seasons have too little effect on the final game state to justify the time they add to the session. A few cubes here and there pale in contrast to the powerful abilities available in the last few seasons.

Likewise, the strongest of the agent abilities chain together actions, leading to the final few seasons expanding into nearly a game in itself. Notwithstanding a few other trifles I will note below, I think Dominare would have been far more likely to hit my gaming table with some regularity if the game began at the fourth season (with some additional setup steps), rather than asking players to agonize over early game decisions that will likely be overwhelmed by the sea of cubes infiltrating the board on later rounds.

As a simple example, consider Watson Riley, a simple Plebian Merchant. As a rank 1 conspirator, his ability is weak: for the cost of an action and one crown, you can place a total of two influence in designated blocks. By contrast, saving Watson Riley for the seventh and final season grants him the spectacular ability to place eight influence cubes and take another action. Thus, the seventh-season action (which, I must reiterate, gives you another action) more than offsets the canvassing influence gained by playing the card earlier in the game.

Aside from the length, a couple other small issues have prevented me from enjoying this game as much as I would like to.

First, despite a warning in the rulebook that the random events primarily target the scapegoat, they often end up unfairly punishing players who have done nothing to earn fate’s wrath. In my second game, a player who had maintained a very low exposure throughout the game was suddenly devastated when a Scandal rocked the Merchant Quarters and Canals (two districts controlled almost exclusively by that player). To add insult to injury, it was the Scapegoat, not even the player who was harmed, was given the privilege of significantly devaluing one of the two districts. With 30 unique events in the deck, only 7 of which come out each game, it makes little sense to memorize and anticipate the possible universe tragedies. And yet the random cruelty in that instance was unpalatable.

Second, as much as I laud the concept of situating multiple games within a single, shared universe, I tend to think that the city-state of Tempest misses the mark. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this site, one of the best uses of theme in my opinion is to allow players to internalize rules and intuit viable gameplay options without the burden of memorizing rules by rote. This is one of the fundamental reasons that I typically find myself drawn to historical themes rather than fantasy or science fiction. In the former, before ever opening the game box, I know how a boat is built, how farms grow and cities flourish. I understand the value of mercantilism. In the latter, I need to both learn and remember the seemingly arbitrary rules surrounding the game’s fictional creations (whether sad lonely dragons or flux capacitors). By setting the Tempest games in an seemingly ordinary historical setting, AEG overlooked an opportunity to create a rich, thematic, fantastical world that also becomes familiar and intuitive to repeat gamers. As it currently stands, I don’t need to play every Tempest game to benefit from the continuity. But had Dominare (or one of the other titles) required even a modicum of upfront investment in thematic immersion, I would have been far more likely to seek out additional titles to make use of that internalized knowledge (to date, the best example of this concept is the general overlap in color scheme between CGE’s Space Alert and Galaxy Trucker — playing one makes learning the other far easier).

Between the game’s length and these few minor quibbles, I ultimately find myself coming down as merely “neutral” on the game. Which is too bad, frankly. As my gaming tastes evolve, I am increasingly enjoying the immersive experiences and outside-the-box thinking that I am finding in more recent thematic Eurogames. For example, this year’s Archipelago (a quirky Euro exploration game by the designer of Dungeon Twister and Earth Reborn) has proven to be a revelation. Dominare, while good, both failed to seize an opportunity it created and failed to provide enough game for the length. I love the wacky, swingy, all-or-nothing approach to area majorites that comes to life in the last few rounds of the game. And for that reason, the small, incremental, grind-it-out advances made in the first few rounds just end up feeling so entirely unnecessary.

Comments from Other Opinionated Gamers:

Matt Carlson: (HUGE caveat – I didn’t even manage to finish my first learning game!) If you still care to hear my thoughts, I unfortunately have steep reservations about the combination of the game length and “swing-y” scoring at the end. I don’t hate games that have big point swings at the end due to player conflict, but if I play one I want it to have a nice theme (check) and play under an hour (whoops – no check…). As it stands, in my completely unreliable opinion and despite my enthusiasm for linked themes between games, I stand neutral on the game.

Tom Rosen: Dominare felt a lot like El Grande meets Innovation to me. Although I do have a tendency to compare games and sometimes the comparisons make no sense to anyone but myself, so take from that what you will. I have also only played the game one time, so this is simply my first impression based on one play. The game Dominare most reminded me of El Grande because it is ultimately a fairly standard area control game where you place and move cubes in different regions over the course of the game, trying to have a plurality of cubes in as many regions as possible. The big differences from El Grande were that the regions did not score during the game and there were no points for second and third place. I didn’t particularly like those changes because it made the game feel very all-or-nothing and emphasized the great importance of the finger-pointing aspect familiar from El Grande. The other big difference is that the cards that let you place and move influence cubes on the board are not chosen by the players from a common face up pool and used for one round, but rather are chosen each round from an individual hand of cards and stick around having an effect each round for the rest of the game. El Grande can be swingy and unpredictable, but the reason I say Dominare felt a bit like Innovation is that it takes that swingy, unpredictable nature to a whole new level. It’s also like Innovation because the level 1 and 2 abilities pale in comparison to the level 6 and 7 abilities acquired later in the game. As a result, the late game cards can almost completely obliterate anything the players were creating or developing earlier in the game.

I love El Grande and I really like Innovation, but ultimately I’m neutral on Dominare so far. I didn’t rate it “not for me” because I did find the game entertaining in many ways and am generally a fan of area control exercises, but the length of the game combined with the ability for the last round or two to up-end everything that came before was bothersome. It felt like we’d invested a lot of time in a game where the rug was pulled out from under us near the end, and I say this even though I benefited greatly from the tide turning and consequently won handily. The dramatic inflection points in Innovation (a phrase I actually have to credit Ben with) are easier for me to ride out and enjoy because the game is usually about 30 minutes and it’s easier to shrug your shoulders and laugh when an opponent drops down a card that completely obliterates your earlier progress in the game. That’s harder to stomach if it happens after 2 hours of jockeying for cube majorities with all-or-nothing end game scoring. Of course, it’s just a game so it’s fine if your plans are shot to hell near the end, but if the trend keeps up with more plays then I think it will make it hard to care about the first two-thirds of the game very much. Lastly, I have to say that the design space of area control games is very crowded with many excellent games having been designed that build upon the greatness of El Grande (like San Marco, Kreta, and Louis XIV), so a new area control game has a lot to live up to and faces stiff competition for table time. I’m not sure Dominare can quite measure up.

Larry (1 game): The good news about this game is that it’s a refined design. There are some nice touches throughout and the designer clearly knows what he’s doing. So props for that.

Unfortunately, the rest of the news is bad, at least from my vantage point. I strongly dislike chaotic games and this is chaos on steroids; multiple layers of chaos. The problem, even if you like those kinds of games, is that this is too long a game, and features too much planning, to include so little control. It’s a wild roller coaster ride, but even roller coaster fans would object if they were forced to ride the damn thing for two hours straight.

As Ben mentions, there are almost 90 unique agent cards in the game. Their abilities differ considerably and for most of them, the text is at least a little involved. Plus, they all contain four different attributes and one or more professions. This is a lot to take in just from the cards in your hand, but when your opponents each have four or five of them played, it becomes almost impossible to keep each player’s various capabilities, and therefore their motives, straight in your head. This both increases the playing time and reduces the level of control.

The events are another problem. I was the player Ben mentions whose position was decimated by that Scandal card. Up to that point, the events had really had very little effect on the game, and then that bomb blew up in my face. I never really recovered from that and it made the rest of the game boring and close to pointless for me. Events like that are a problem and one can question the purpose of any kind of events in a game like this; it’s not like there isn’t plenty of other detail and occurances to consider.

The game is rife with screwage, which is fine, but from where I was sitting, there seemed to be a great deal of accidental screwage, which I think should be avoided in games of this weight. Here’s the sort of thing that can happen: the cards you plan to play late in the game will give you a big bonus for ownership of a particular district, but you find yourself fighting another player who is only moving there to try to pick up a couple of extra points. Meanwhile, a third player finds little opposition to occupying his district and scores big after he plays all his agents. This sort of stuff happened repeatedly in our game. If you care about what happens, it can be very frustrating. So you just let the game wash over you, but it lasts too long and has too much detail for that to be a satisfying experience.

I know there is an audience for games like this, because I occasionally see enthusiastic reviews. But it is absolutely and completely not for me and it’s truly a game I never want to play again.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers:
I love it!
I like it.
Neutral… Ben McJunkin, Matt Carlson, Tom Rosen
Not for me… Larry

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One Response to Ben McJunkin: First Impressions – Dominare

  1. Marc Specter says:

    Thank you for a well-written review. I had heard similar sentiments about the swinginess, but your example of the player whose 2 districts got devastated was a warning to the unwary. I guess the message is play the best you can, but recognize that in this game the hand of fate might smack you upside the head.

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