Review of Eminent Domain (Tasty Minstrel Games)

Eminent Domain
Designer: Seth Jaffee
Publisher: Tasty Minstrel Games
Ages: 12+
Time: ~45 mins
Players: 2-4
Flying low under the radar for a little while, Tasty Minstrel Games has made a big splash this year with the release of Eminent Domain.  A space based explore/colonize/produce style card game that uses a central deckbuilding mechanic, Eminent Domain was even cited by Dominion designer Donald X. Vaccarino as one of the few games to incorporate a deckbuilding component that he would consider entirely new.  The game has excited the boardgame community and been compared to popular games like Race for the Galaxy, Glory to Rome, and (of course) Dominion.  In practice, I find the game feels most like Race for the Galaxy, but its mechanics and strategies are different enough to warrant a coveted spot in my game collection.

In Eminent Domain, a player’s turn consists of three parts.  First they may play a card as an action.  Second, they must choose a role – and then the other players may play similar cards to follow that role or, if they choose not to follow, draw a card from their personal deck.  Finally, a player may discard any number of cards and then draw up to their hand size.  Players gain influence (points) during the game through colonizing (or conquering) explored planets, selling off goods produced on said planets, and obtaining higher-level technology cards.  The game ends at the end of the round where the pool of influence tokens are depleted or when a specified number basic card supplies are used up (the number depends on number of players).

One important goal in the game is to acquire new planets. Players use the Survey role to gain new planet cards, but the planet is not yet controlled (by flipping from its explored side to its controlled side).  Players must then either conquer the planet (using Warfare and spending the required number of fighters) or colonize it (using Colonize, if they have already placed the required number of colonize cards beneath the planet).  Controlled planets are worth points, often have a location to produce goods, and may have an additional benefit such as increasing hand size or providing a basic card symbol.

There are five different basic cards used in the game: Survey, Warfare, Colonize, Produce/Trade, and Research.  Each card can be used in two ways, either to play an action (at the start of the turn) or to “boost” a role (chosen by a player or followed from an opponent.)  The actions granted by the basic cards are: Survey – draw 2 cards, Warfare – gain 1 fighter or attack a planet, Colonize – colonize a planet or add one colonize card to an uncolonized planet, Produce/Trade – either produce or trade one good, and Research – remove up to 2 cards from your hand from the game.   In general, I find the actions on the basic cards a great way to take control of planets, but are otherwise rather minor additions to one’s turn.  However, the technology cards that can be acquired through research all have more powerful action abilities.

After playing an action (if they choose), a player must choose a role.  To pick a role, the player draws the top card off of one of the central decks of basic cards and plays it (which means it will eventually get added to their deck).  The active player may then “boost” this roll by playing additional cards from their hand (and using matching symbols on their planets) in order to get a more powerful effect.  All other players may then follow this role by playing cards from their own hand (and using planet symbols if they have them) or dissent and draw another card from their own deck.  Each basic card provides a different role, and the active player (the “leader”) typically gets an additional bonus.  The roles are (where X is the number of symbols played by a player):  Survey – Players may draw X-1 cards from the planet deck and keep one, discarding the rest.  The leader draws an extra card from the planet deck (and thus is able to draw the top planet card even if they have no cards to “boost” their role).  Warfare – Players gain one fighter token for each symbol played.  The leader by gain fighters OR may attack and control a planet by returning the appropriate number of fighter tokens to the bank.  Colonize – Players may put each played (or boosted) card with a colony symbol underneath one of their uncontrolled planet cards.  The leader may place colony cards OR may colonize a planet with sufficient cards already underneath, flipping the planet to the controlled side and returning any colony cards underneath to that player’s draw pile.  (One side note here, a colony symbol on a controlled planet counts as a colony card under any uncontrolled planets.)  Produce/Trade – The active player must choose either the Produce or Trade action when taking this role, and other players may only follow that particular choice.  For each Produce (or Trade) symbol used to boost the role, a player may produce one good on a planet with an empty good location (or sell for 1 VP a good already on a planet.)  The final role, Research allows players to acquire special technology cards in the game.  Technology cards come in three levels and can be acquired by displaying 3, 5, or 7 Research symbols when choosing or following the Research role.  In addition, the tech cards are associated with three basic planet types (Advanced, Fertile, and Metallic) and a player must have control of one, two, or three planets of that type in order to purchase level 1, 2, or 3 tech cards of that type.

While it is possible to win without pursuing tech cards, they add flavor to a game that might otherwise be a bit stale.  The basic cards have clear and simple uses, but the technology cards have much more interesting graphics and are where most of the most interesting actions lie.  The techs associated with each of the three planet types have a slightly different theme.   While all three stacks of level 1 tech cards are similar, the level 2 and level 3 cards begin to emphasize different strategies.  Metallic tech tends towards military efforts, Fertile tech leans towards trade and colonization powers, and the Advanced tech cards lean towards research and pruning one’s deck of cards by removing unwanted cards from the game.

When playing, the game conjures up a feel similar to Race for the Galaxy or Puerto Rico, which is a good thing in my book.  When making a role selection, one needs to balance one’s own needs against how each role might help one’s opponent, perhaps gambling that an opponent might select a wanted role on their turn.  This can get particularly critical when deciding whether to keep cards in hand at the end of a turn.  Since players always redraw up to their hand limit, it may be beneficial to keep some cards rather than discarding and drawing all new ones.  For example, if one suspects an opponent of pursing a survey roll in the next round, it can be handy to have two Survey cards in hand in order to gain at least one new unexplored planet card (often a limiting factor to expansion for players focusing on a planetary strategy).  A player may keep one or two research cards around in the hopes of drawing more when refreshing their hand.  (This is often one of the best ways to get the 5 or 7 research symbols needed for the higher level advancements.)

I appreciate the multiple ways to generate victory points, which allows players to specialize in particular areas: settling/conquering planets, producing/trading goods, and collecting tech cards.  In practice, I’ve found the winner of most games manage to perform reasonably well in at least two areas, but doesn’t necessarily need to score well in all three.  There is, of course, plenty of room for group-think to affect the game, since players who specialize in similar courses of action will find their favorite role choices coming up more frequently.  I’ve found this particularly true in the colonizing vs warfare paths to controlling planets.  It is difficult to control enough planets to keep up with other players if you are the only player choosing colonize or warfare.  While Eminent Domain doesn’t suffer much from any player order advantages (like playing left of a new player in Puerto Rico) it is to a player’s advantage to be able to participate in, and respond to other player’s role selections.

Despite the use of cards for many aspects of the game, luck doesn’t play a very large part.  My only concern with fortuitous events would be early survey draws of planets.  A player hoping for a specific planet type (to go up the tech tree or perhaps gain a bonus role symbol) may have to draw several planets before finding the one they need.  This can be mitigated, if a player so chooses, by choosing the Survey role and thus opening up the ability to select from a larger planet pool when drawing new planets.  In a three player game, those players who are addicted to technology cards may find it best to assign each player a different starting planet type so players aren’t competing for the same initial set of technology cards.  However, this isn’t a huge issue since each pile of level 1 tech cards typically have some duplicate or nearly duplicate abilities.

My bottom line:
Eminent Domain is a fun game that takes many popular mechanisms and manages to blend them into a game that feels comfortably familiar but also fresh and new at the same time.  The deckbuilding aspect, in particular, gives a very unique perspective to the game.  Unlike typical deckbuilding games, the heart of Eminent Domain is not your deck, but what you do with it.  Thus, the deckbuilding aspect is a secondary effect that must be managed throughout the game.  I may want to spend this turn to colonize a planet, but am I willing to add yet another colony card to my deck in order to do so?  Instead of just an opportunity cost of choosing an action, I must also weigh the costs of adding a new role card to my deck.  This makes for a medium-weight game (well under an hour) with progressive development and plenty of meaningful decisions, a win in my book.

———————–
Comments:

Patrick Brennan: After an initial play, my strategy thoughts were around whether to concentrate on just a few action types (so you’ll always be able to soup them up) or to spread out your deck across all the actions so that you can take advantage of what everyone else does in their turn. The game was not easy to learn and play at first, as the powers and techs have to be learnt, but it all became simple by the end of the first play. There’s very little downtime, and it leaves you with an urge to play again and try different deck building strategies – tech heavy, or specialised in 2 or 3 fields, or balanced. My one doubt is that after the initial exploration phase is done there might not be enough game to game variety to sustain ongoing play, compared to other card-driven games like Innovation or Glory To Rome which have oodles of different powers to experience. This game is more about setting yourself up for interplayer leaching then about the card powers themselves. Still, I want to explore it and that’s the first job done.

Dale Yu:  This game was initially described to me as a mashup of Dominion and Race for the Galaxy, so I was instantly interested in this one.  I’ve had the chance to play it five or six times now, and it’s the sort of game that I want to keep playing again to somehow get better at it… I don’t think I’ve won a game yet.  As Matt has mentioned, I think the game does a very good job of taking multiple mechanics that I’ve seen before and combining them in a nice new package – Similar to Lancaster which didn’t feel like it had anything new but had a nice combination of tried and true mechanics.  I really like the way that you have to add a card in the Role phase.  It is both a good timing mechanic towards the endgame, and I also like the way that it does force you to some degree to focus your strategies.  As you choose any of the different Roles, you generally become better at them (as those cards are more likely to be held in your hand), and thus you are constantly rewarded for going back to the same well again and again.  Balancing that out though is the desire to have the other roles in your hand so that you can occasionally piggyback on the role selections of your opponents.  In most of the games that I’ve played, the player who is best able to get extra actions by piggybacking on their opponent’s turns is the one who usually wins.

The only strategy tidbit that I’ve been trying to figure out is what happens when I’m the only one going down a particular strategy line… i.e. If I’m the only one trying to score any points from production and trade, is that a good thing or a bad thing?  In one way, when I choose the Trade/Produce role, it’s unlikely that my opponents will piggyback on my turn. Conversely, it is unlikely that anyone else will choose it either to give me a free turn.  But… I will hopefully be able to get a few free survey or other actions when my opponents choose them.

I have been asking myself this question because I have seen 3p games where 2 players take similar strategies – say trying to maximize colonizing planets, and both choose the Colonize role often.  They both benefit from being able to piggyback on each other’s turns, and they also force the game to end sooner as both are drawing cards from the Colonize stack.  What I’ve seen when this happens is that the two players which are sharing this strategy are the only ones that get a good VP production machine set up by the time that the game ends (from the Colonize stack being emptied).  I wonder if a contrarian strategy would work.  I certainly think it would be better in a 4p game where the game doesn’t end until 2 stacks are gone… This rush effect may also cause me to likely request playing the extended version in my next 3p game as well.  (Reviewer’s Note:  I’ve only played my 3 player games with the “extended” version, and would recommend it as the game still doesn’t out-stay its welcome…)

I’m hoping that in my next few games, I will become more familiar with the Tech deck, as it still takes me a bit of time to look through them and figure out what my options are!  But the fact that I am still looking forward to playing it again should be a strong indicatior of my opinion of the game.  For now, it’s an “I like it” with the possiblity of moving into the “I love it” range as I become more comfortable with the Tech cards.

Ratings Summary from the Opinionated Gamers

I love it!…
I like it…  Matt Carlson, Patrick Brennan, John Palagyi, Dale Yu
Neutral…
Not for me…

About Matt J Carlson

Dad, Gamer, Science Teacher, Youth Pastor... oh and I have green hair. To see me "in action" check out Dr. Carlson's Science Theater up on Youtube...
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2 Responses to Review of Eminent Domain (Tasty Minstrel Games)

  1. Ryan B. says:

    Good for Seth Jaffe! I remember him working to pitch a three musketeers themed game and he was really working hard to get established in the game design community. Now we talk about his design of Eminent Domain with a degree of reverence to his design ability. Lots of “I like it” ratings. Its neat to see someone work as hard at his craft as Seth.. and now he gets to see the dividends from it. Well done. : )

  2. steve johnson says:

    This game sucks. There is no sense to it. The rules are not complete. Playing this game according to the rules is dull and boring. An incredible waste of 35 bucks. Fortunately I will get my money back. I believe the game designer should quit smoking his lunch before he sits down to work.

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