SdJ Re-Reviews #31: Dominion

  • Designer:  Donald X. Vaccarino
  • Publisher:  Rio Grande, Hans im Glück, Others
  • Players:  2 – 4
  • Ages:  13 and Up
  • Time:  30 Minutes
  • Times Played:  > 50

Dominion Cover

Author’s Note: One of the goals of this series is to walk through the history of each Spiel des Jahres winner.  That hasn’t been done before for many of the winners, but that isn’t the situation with Dominion.  Donald X. Vaccarino has himself published a comprehensive history of the game and its expansions.  Since the material naturally flows better from the designer than from me, what follows is merely a condensed overview that is based in large part on Donald’s “Secret History of Dominion.”  I’ve tossed in a few tidbits based on my interview with him, as well as some facts from an article that W. Eric Martin did for Boardgame News.  I also talked about the game with Dale Yu, one of the game’s developers, who also happens to be the editor of this site.    

Dominion: The game that founded the deck building genre…

Dominion is one of those critical and commercial successes that hits the hobby only once every few years.  The game founded the deck-building genre, and even now, years after its release, no deck builder has achieved the same level of acclaim.  Dominion and its expansions have sold millions of copies, and the game boasts more than half a million logged plays on BGG, the highest of any Spiel des Jahres winner.  Not only did Dominion win the SdJ in 2009, it also won the Deutscher Spiele Preis that year.

The Concept and Prototype

Dominion was the first published game of Donald X. Vaccarino, who was brought into the hobby — and game design — by Magic: The Gathering.  As Vaccarino told Eric Martin in an interview for Boardgame News, “Prior to 1994 I had played hardly any gamer’s games. I had designed a few games, but it was just something I did once in a while, without really thinking it through or anything. I have maybe two games from prior to 1994 that are worth playing, and they’re both party games. Magic changed everything. It introduced me to the concept of interacting rules on cards – I had never seen Cosmic Encounter or Wiz-War. It made me a bunch of friends who showed me gamer’s games and Euros. It inspired me to make my own games, with many of the early ones pursuing the ‘game where the rules change’ idea to various extremes.”

Vaccarino started experimenting with game design shortly after taking up the hobby, travelling to Wizards of the Coast once a year to show game designs to Richard Garfield.  Between these trips, he tried his game designs on his game group.  In 2003, he made Spirit Warriors, a game in which players build up fantasy heroes while going on quests.  The game had over 500 unique cards, and it lasted about four hours.  Realizing Spirit Warriors would be difficult to fully playtest, and thinking it might appeal to a limited audience, Vaccarino never sought to get it published.  

A couple of years later, when working on a sequel, Donald had the idea for a pure deckbuilding game.  He wrote down some initial thoughts on the design, but then went back to working on Spirit Warriors II.   He eventually returned to the idea out of the desire to make a playable game quickly.  As Vaccarino wrote in his Secret History of Dominion, “One weekend in October of 2006, I was desperate for a new game to play that Monday night, and decided, hey, I could whip out the simpler pure deckbuilding thing. It didn’t need 500 unique cards; most of the work would be googling for art and cutting and sleeving. So I whipped it out.”

Vaccarino wanted to take the idea of building a deck to an extreme, putting everything — resources, actions, victory points — in the deck.  He thought the idea sounded cool.  His initial design had multiple resources, but realizing that this might make for the occasional terrible draw of cards, he went with one resource (money).  Wanting the money to be in the deck, but not wanting the deck to deplete itself, he started thinking of the money in the deck as being income.  To speed the game up, and to better take advantage of the deck building mechanic, Vaccarino put a five-card draw into the game.  Acknowledging that frequent shuffling would be necessary, he gave players ten cards — five estates and five coppers — so that the deck wouldn’t be too small to shuffle.

Vaccarino initially considered having buys be awarded solely by cards, but he ultimately wanted players to be able to take an action — and make at least one purchase — per turn.  As such, players were always allowed one action and one buy, with cards possibly expanding that.  He wanted coppers to always be free, and as he wrote in the Secret History, “There was no special logic behind Silver and Gold costing $3 and $6. You can argue that all other costs in the game were scaled to those costs.”  The estate and duchy cards didn’t change much, but the province was originally 5 VP for $8.

Vaccarino initially thought of having a line of cards, with cards being replaced as they were bought.  But that idea seemed too random, and having no other idea, he put all of the Kingdom cards on the table.  That approach also came with an added benefit: it would allow him to figure out cards that were overpowered, since he hadn’t yet tested them.  The group liked having the big set of cards.  There were ten cards in all — Vaccarino doesn’t remember which ten, exactly, although he mentions a few in his secret history — and to this day there are ten Kingdom cards set out to play Dominion.  

As Donald explained, “The first version of the game was black-and-white, printed on colored paper. Victory cards are green because I had a bunch of green paper. I made attack cards pink, then later relented due to ‘attack’ not really meaning anything to the rules.”  Many of the cards did not have names.

The victory condition was going to be the most victory points, but unsure what should cause the end of the game, Vaccarino went with any pile of the victory point cards running out.

He called the game Castle Builder: “I had to pick flavor. I had been meaning to make a kingdom-building game, and this seemed like a good fit, so I went with that. I had made no kingdom-building games, and had no real picture for how common different themes were in published games. The initial cards though ended up concentrated around castles. So I called the game Castle Builder.”

The Trip to Origins and Game Development

Vaccarino kept making cards.  The game was a success at his game group: “Dominion took over my game night, and also my Magic night. We got in some games on the side too. Clearly this was the game, at long last.”  Vaccarino has said he played Dominion over 1,000 times in the first couple of years after he made it.  

He tweaked some cards, changed the number of cards in the treasure stacks, and started splitting the game into expansions.  Finally he decided to show it to a publisher.  He knew Wizards of the Coast wasn’t taking submissions, so he turned elsewhere.  “I looked at the published games I owned, to see who made them. Box after box said Rio Grande Games. So I looked up their website and emailed them, offering to submit games. [Rio Grande Founder Jay Tummelson] replied within 20 minutes to say, I only look at games at cons, here are some I’m going to this year. I looked up the cons, and man they were all in the summer, with Origins first. I said how about Origins. He said see you there.”

Vaccarino showed Tummelson ten games.  According to Vaccarino, Tummelson was interested in two of them, and tentatively interested in two more, “depending on what some game-reviewer-type people he knew thought of them.”  He ended up showing the reviewers only two of them: those games would become Dominion and Monster Factory.

One of the game reviewers — Valerie Putman, a writer for this site — wanted to develop the game due to her enthusiasm for the prototype.  Tummelson thought it was a good idea.  Valerie brought in Dale Yu — the editor of this site — and they jointly worked on developing the game.  They also marketed the game during the lead up to its release, and they eventually traveled to the SdJ ceremony.  

Valerie and Dale made several changes over the course of development.  Dale thought of the name “Dominion” in the shower, so that’s how the game got its name.  They tweaked the wording on some of the cards, and they recommended changes to the Thief card.  Valerie suggested a change for how to deal with not having enough cards to draw (i.e. the situation where you needed to draw five cards but only had two that weren’t in the discard pile).  Originally you shuffled the remaining cards with the discard pile back into the deck.  In the final version, you draw the unplayed cards, shuffle the rest, and then draw up to five.  Meanwhile, Vaccarino was moving cards in and out of the base set, fine tuning the expansions.

The most significant change during development was to the end-of-game trigger.  As Dale described in the Kobold Guide to Board Game Design, “[W]e tried a strategy that is now known as the Duchy Rush. In the initial stage of the game, Dominion ended when any one of the three Victory stacks were depleted. So, the Duchy Rush strategy had a simple algorithm: buying nothing if you had 0 to 2 coins in your hand, buying a Silver if you had 3 or 4 coins in your hand, and buying a Duchy if you had 5 or more coins in your hand. That’s it. This strategy totally ignored all of the Kingdom cards on the table— and the Kingdom cards were supposed to be the big attraction of the game!”  Vaccarino had found the Duchy Rush strategy early on, but noting that it needed more than one participating player to deplete the cards quick enough, he initially didn’t think a fix was necessary.  The developers recommended addressing the issue, so Donald came up with a solution: he changed the trigger to be when the Provinces ran out or when three action card stacks ran out.  He also increased the victory point value of the province.

Hans im Glück signed on to release the game’s German version.  HiG redid the cover artwork, making it look more like other Eurogames.  

The Release and SdJ Win

Dominion was released to critical acclaim in October 2008.  Vaccarino, meanwhile, continued to work on expansions.  The first expansion — Intrigue — was complete when Dominion was released.  Since then the game has received several more expansions.  (Vaccarino’s Secret History walks through the expansions and their history.  It is too much detail to cover here, but I did ask Donald what his favorite expansion is.  He said either Dark Ages or Adventures.)

Donald has said he wasn’t surprised by the game’s success.  Afterall, the game had been a bit hit with his game group: “I had seen what Dominion could do to a group of gamers. I didn’t know if I could get it published, but if I could, my guess was, that at game stores there would be a shelf just for Dominion stuff.”  (As a matter of fact, most game stores do have such a shelf these days.)

What did surprise him, however, was the nomination for the Spiel des Jahres: Vaccarino thought the game was too complex.  Nonetheless, Dominion won, with the jury praising the game’s variable gameplay in which interesting tactics and strategies emerged.  Dominion was a favorite for the award, but it beat out Pandemic, another genre-popularizing game that would have been an exceptional contender in any year.  In the documentary Going Cardboard, Tummelson talks about calling his wife after hearing of the win and then calling the printer to place a big order.  

Two interesting stories emerged from the SdJ ceremony.  Vaccarino had missed his plane, so he was not present.  This led to rumors that Vaccarino did not exist, or rather that he was an amalgam of Dale and Valerie.  I thought this was an odd joke for my first few years in the hobby, but I recently learned that people weren’t actually joking.  You can find countless threads mentioning this on BGG.  Anyway, I interviewed Donald for this article, and I think he does exist (although I haven’t met him in person).  That said, just to mess with the conspiracy theorists, I will add to the discussion that the Spiel des Jahres was once literally awarded to a person who does not appear to exist.

Secondly, though the game is not as complex as many SdJ winners (BGG’s assigned weight rating is below that of Sherlock Holmes, El Grande, Tikal, Torres, and likely others), many German families struggled with Dominion’s complexity.  As a result, in 2011, the jury founded the Kennerspiel des Jahres.  The SdJ has trended lighter ever since.  

Dominion is rumored to have sold more than one million copies by 2010, and I’ve seen reports that it and its expansions have sold more than three million copies to date.  That said, I haven’t been able to verify sales figures.  The game received an iOS version in December 2015, and there have been other digital versions in the past.

As for Vaccarino, he would win the Spiel des Jahres again in 2012 for Kingdom Builder. He is still designing games.  I asked him what he would change about Dominion if he could go back and do so.  He said that he might tweak some of the cards, as he once discussed this large thread on Dominion Strategy.  He also mentioned he might change some of the terminology and add more card types.  He would like the base cards to look different from each other, similar was done in the Dominion Base Cards product (where the Treasure Cards and Victory Point cards all have different art).  He also said he would change the way Reactions go into play.  

The Gameplay

One of the beauties of Dominion is that it is endlessly expandable and variable, even with just the cards in the base game.  The downside, of course, is that writing a gameplay walkthrough is especially challenging.  I mention the broad rules of the game system first, then I walk through a sample hand using the ten Kingdom cards recommended for an introductory game.

Dominion is a pure card game, and the entirety of its components is 500 cards:

  • 130 treasure cards.  There are 60 coppers (value 1), 40 silvers (value 2), and 30 golds (value 3).   These cards are used in every game.
  • 48 victory cards.  There are 24 estates (1 victory point), 12 duchies (3 victory points), and 12 provinces (6 victory points).  These cards are used in every game, although a few cards of each type are removed at lower player counts.
  • 30 curse cards (-1 victory point each).  The rules calls for these cards to be set out in every game, although in some games they will likely not be used.
  • 240 kingdom cards.  There are 10 cards each of 24 different kingdom cards.  Each game uses 10 of these card types, usually with a stack of ten cards for each type, although the number in a given stack may be reduced at lower player counts.
  • 32 randomizer cards and 1 trash card.  The 32 randomizer cards include 1 each of the 24 action cards, the 3 types of treasure cards, the 3 types of victory cards, and 1 curse card.  The trash card just denotes the trash pile.

Dominion Components

Each player starts the game with 10 cards: 7 coppers and 3 estates.  A player’s turn consists of 3 phases in the following order:

  1.     Action phase.  The player may play one action card.
  2.     Buy phase.  The player may buy a card.
  3.     Clean-up phase.  The player must discard both played and unplayed cards and draw five new cards.

The action phase is the core of the gameplay.  The player selects one card and lays it face up in his play area.  An action card can still be played even if the player can’t do everything on the card, although he must do as much as he can.  Action cards generally give powers, such as additional card draws, further actions, additional buys, or even more coins.  Some let you trash a card (i.e. remove it from the game), others let you discard a card: the possibilities are endless.  A player must complete one action card before moving on to the next.  The action phase ends when the player cannot or chooses not to play any more action cards.

The buy phase then begins.  Players always get at least one buy, but they can get additional buys from action cards.  For a buy, a player may spend his coins — their treasure cards plus coins provided by action cards — to buy additional cards (treasure, action, or victory point) for their deck.  Each card has a purchase cost in the lower left corner.  Coins may only be used once across all purchases.  Purchased cards go in the discard pile.

Lastly, the cleanup phase begins.  All cards in the play area and his hand — those used and those unused — go into the discard pile.  The player then draws five new cards fro his deck.  If there are not enough cards, he draws as many as he cans, shuffles the discard pile, and then draws the rest of his new hand.  The next player then starts their turn.

The game ends when either (a) the supply of province cards is empty or, (b) any three supply piles are empty.  At that point a player puts all of the cards into his deck and counts his victory points.  The highest total wins.

The recommended first game uses the following 10 Kingdom cards.  To give a flavor of gameplay, I’ve typed out what these do below.

  • Cellar: + 1 Action.  Discard any number of cards and gain one card per card discarded.
  • Market: + 1 Card, + 1 Action, + 1 Buy, + 1 Coin.
  • Militia: + 2 Coins.  Other players discard down to 1 card in their hand.
  • Mine:  Trash a treasure card from your hand.  Gain a treasure card costing up to three coins more and put it in your hand.
  • Moat: + 2 Cards.  If another player plays an attack card, you may reveal this card and are unaffected.
  • Remodel: Trash a card from your hand.  Gain a card costing up to two coins more than the trashed card.
  • Smithy: + 3 Cards
  • Village: + 1 Card, + 2 Actions.
  • Woodcutter: +1 Buy, + 2 Coins.
  • Workshop: Gain a card costing up to 4 coins.

As an example of gameplay, if a player draw a copper, a gold, a duchy, a village, and a mine, he might do the following:  (1) Play the village first.  This would allow him to draw an extra card and take two actions.  Let’s say the card drawn is another copper.  (2) Now the player can move on to his next action card: the mine.  With this, he trashes a copper and takes a silver.  He has an action left (the village gave him + 2 actions, and he used one on the mine), but he doesn’t have an action card, so he goes to the buy phase.  (3) He now has 6 coins (1 gold, 1 silver, 1 copper), so he chooses to buy a duchy, which costs five coins.  He only had one buy, so the cleanup phase of his turn begins.

Does it stand the test of time?  My thoughts on the game…

If pressed to describe Dominion in one word, I’d go with “addicting.”  The fast gameplay, variable setup, and numerous paths to victory within any given setup all unite to create the sort of game that I rarely want to play just once.   The fundamental concept — that you’re building a deck with literally everything in the deck (the actions, the money, the victory points, even the rules) — is brilliant, and after all these years, Dominion is still my go-to deck building game.

Dominion is streamlined to perfection.  The cards are well balanced (and beautiful), and they interact in clever ways.  The overall execution is stellar, and I’ve never come across a card combination that I thought was flawed (although I must admit that I haven’t played several of the expansions).  

Gameplay is fast, and I’m not the least bit surprised that the game has more than half a million logged plays on BGG. With new players a game of Dominion can take up to half an hour, but with experienced players, I’ve seen it played in  fifteen to twenty minutes, or even less.

For a game of this depth, Dominion is surprisingly easy to learn.  After all, most of the rules are printed on the cards themselves, and the game system is quite intuitive.  There were reports out of Germany after the SdJ win that families found Dominion a bit heavy for their tastes.  I can see that possibility, but in my experience, I haven’t had anybody struggle with the game any more than with Catan or Carcassonne.  

My favorite part of Dominion is the variable gameplay and numerous paths to victory.   I especially enjoy figuring out the synergistic card combinations that are present in any given setup.  Sure, I’ve seen players eschew that approach and try the “lean deck” strategy, which sometimes works, but that’s the exception and not the rule.   Rather, the winner will generally be the player who best sizes up the 10 action cards up for purchase in any given setup.  Though there are interesting decisions throughout any given game of Dominion, the two most fascinating ones are choosing which engine to build and optimizing when to turn it off.  We call that later moment “duchy panic mode” (a term my family and friends picked up watching Going Cardboard).

I’ve heard a few criticisms of Dominion, and some of them have merit.  The theme is clearly pasted on, but that’s never bothered me about Dominion (or really any game if the mechanics are good).  I’ve also heard that the game isn’t interactive, which is true to an extent for the base game (although I must mention that some expansions are more interactive).  For a game that is this short, with this good of mechanics, I don’t see the lack of interaction or theme as a big deal.  

I don’t get Dominion to the table as often as I’d like, and that’s unfortunate.  I still consider it the finest example of a deck builder.  This is one of those situations where the genre-founding game remains the finest example of the genre.

Would Dominion win the SdJ today?  I doubt it, although I think that says more about the SdJ than it does about the game.  Rather, Dominion would likely be in contention for the Kennerspiel des Jahres.  The KdJ was created, in part, because Dominion was a bit too heavy for German families, and that is probably the metric by which Dominion would be measured.  I do predict it would win the KdJ.  

Thoughts from Other Opinionated Gamers

Patrick Brennan: 50+ plays. It doesn’t come out as much these days because it’s time-consuming to setup and pack away compared to other games in its lightweight niche. But it does provide a sense of satisfaction re determining a theory at the start of game on what the best card combos might be in the given random setup, and then coming up with and executing a plan to see how it works in practice. The limited interaction can be appealing, especially when playing with loved ones, but it therefore has the consequent sandbox downsides as well. It has the bonus of being relatively family friendly on top of being attractive to gamers as an opener or closer, so it’s no surprise it’s been so successful. Especially when you can pick and choose expansions to tailor it to your group’s preferred style.

Fraser: It must have been after the ceremony, but I remember seeing Donald (or was it?) at Essen 2009.  Six years down the track it is not getting as much play as it once did, but we did play it just last weekend.  I haven’t looked at the new iOS version, but iOS Ascension sets a very high standard.  Of the physical deckbuilders I would probably choose to play Dominion over any of the others 9 times out of 10.

Joe Huber (8 plays, most before publication): From the start, I found Dominion an interesting design – Vaccarino deserves a lot of credit for the work he did with the game, as do Valerie and Dale.  But – unlike Chris, I don’t find it the finest example of the genre.  The lack of theme wasn’t a showstopper for me (though it didn’t help), but the take-that cards – particularly those with random effects – drive me nuts.  I much prefer Trains, which both avoids such cards and adds an interesting board element to the system.  I also still prefer Brian Yu’s suggestion for a game title to Dale’s…

Greg Schloesser:  No doubt, Dominion was a ground-breaking game that changed the industry.  Admittedly influenced by Magic: The Gathering, the game revolutionized the “deck building” concept. Now, there are scores of games using the mechanism in one form or another.  I was able to play the game in prototype form, as my good friend and OG Director Dale Yu was one of the primary developers.  The game is fairly easy to learn, quick to play and allows players considerable latitude regarding their decision-making and options.  I didn’t get caught-up in the expansion frenzy, only owning the original and first expansion, Intrigue.  Like many games, it doesn’t get played very often, but that is due more to the persistent avalanche of new games released each year.  Still, it is a wonderful game that I need to play more often.

Mark Jackson: Here’s the weird thing… I’m a fan of many of the children of this brilliant game design innovation (Arctic Scavengers, Eminent Domain, DC Deckbuilding, Trains) and many of the grandchildren (Core Worlds, Mage Knight, the dice-building games, etc.)… but I don’t particularly enjoy the parent.

At the same time, it is probably my favorite time-waster on my iPhone, thanks to a now-outdated freebie app that is simply the original game. At last count, I’ve played 2800+ games against the AI. Still, not a fan.

Matt Carlson:  As a fan of engine-building games, deckbuilding for Magic; the Gathering, and enjoying variety in my games, I was dying to see the game after hearing about it.  I was able to try it out at GenCon soon after it released.  Clearly I had a predisposition toward the game as  I easily stomped my friend with an action-draw deck.  I played it frequently, sharing it with all my friends and family.  Unfortunately, I have continued to acquire the expansions (I think I have all of them now.)  I don’t play much anymore, in part to the overhead involved in picking out a card set and setting up the play area.  I have so many options it seems too much work to narrow them down (and I’ve already played the “vanilla” game to death…)

I’ve played numerous deckbuilder games since, but the streamlined basic ideas for Dominion still seem the best.  I must admit I’ve played my share of Star Realms in iOS, but I’m not a fan of the “changing tableau” deckbuilders.  They’re quicker to set up, but they make the game tactical (what cards do I buy of those available) rather than strategic (which cards do I plan to take this game…)  Of the later generations of deckbuilders I enjoy Nightfall (a great player vs player version, but with lots of kingmaking), Eminent Domain (great use of the mechanic),  Trains (nice tie-in with a board), and Mage Knight (although it is far too long to get frequent play.)

Now that the expansions have, supposedly, finished I’ve been thinking about bringing it out for my boys.  Rereading the history just reinforces that desire. We have been playing Legendary – primarily due to the superhero theme – and I think they would now enjoy the “cleaner” options found in Dominion.

Craig Massey: My history with Dominion started with an initial infatuation that quickly flamed out. Unfortunately, I’m not exactly sure what that is the case. It is clear that the game heavily influenced the industry by introducing the deck-building concept outside the context of CCGs. I don’t find I enjoy the mechanic on its own, but rather like it as part of a larger game (Mage Knight for instance). The lack of theme certainly doesn’t help. Vaccarino has done a much better job integrating theme into a game elsewhere (see Nefarious). Ultimately Dominion is a game that I’ll tip my hat to, but look to other games using the mechanic.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it!  Chris W., Erik Arneson, John P, Dale Y* (but clearly biased), Matt C.
  • I like it. Patrick Brennan, Fraser, Greg S., Craig V.
  • Neutral. Joe H., Mark Jackson, Larry, Craig M.
  • Not for me…
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9 Responses to SdJ Re-Reviews #31: Dominion

  1. You have a “cooper” in your gameplay example…

  2. Will Colton (DaGreenMachine) says:

    What a joy to read! Thanks Chris!
    I didn’t realize Dale had done development on Dominion! I know most of the Opinionated Gamers’ contributors are involved in the board games industry in various capacities, but I guess I don’t know most of the specifics.
    Dale maybe you can chime in. Out of curiosity, what other released games have you done development work on?

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