50 Games in 50 Weeks: Dominion

Mar 19 2012

Dominion card gameDominion came out of nowhere a few years ago to become a hugely popular game. Folks just adore this game.

I decided to just straight out buy it, based on all the praise I’d heard for it. When I opened the game box, I was taken aback. The base game includes hundreds of cards, and they all seem different.

In play, the game makes sense. There are only a few main card types: coins, victories, and resources. You use coins to buy resources and victories, you use resources to affect the other players and gain more victories, and you win by having more victories than the other players once the largest pile of victory cards is depleted.

It’s the draw mechanic that makes the game sing. Each player starts with a couple of coin cards and victory cards. On your turn, you draw a couple of cards from your deck, use any coins you have in your hand to buy more cards, play one or more resources, then discard everything. Because your deck starts small, you quickly get to the bottom of your deck, then shuffle your discard pile back into your deck.

This is a brilliant mechanic that feels very weird. Players reach the bottom of their decks by the end of their second turns. When I first played, this seemed like a frustrating, artificial constraint, then I realized: I know what’s in my deck. I know what I’m likely to draw, but I don’t have total control over it.

This adds just enough randomness to keep experienced players from completely dominating the game.

Also, the game comes with 20 different types of resource cards, but each game can only use 10 different types. They’re put out in piles, and the game ends when any 3 resource piles are depleted. Thus, you may develop a killer strategy for one set of piles, but start a new game with a different set, and your strategy must change.

Every type of resource card has some effect on the game: they give you more coins, force other players to discard cards, prevent other players from attacking you, provide more actions per turn, etc. But no card stays in your hand; it’s either used or discarded, every turn. So the game moves quickly, and players can’t amass power.

Dominion features a beautifully balanced set of mechanics that are simple enough for a tween to understand, but offer enough complexity to satisfy an adult. I’m stunned.

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