Cards for sorrow, cards for pain – Dominion review

For the balance of deep strategy against sheer portability, there’s little better than getting into a trading card game. You may choose to throw your lot in with the daddy of them all – Magic The Gathering, while not the first, is certainly the most popular. A worldwide phenomena, it has been running since 1993; however, even it’s most ardent fans will admit that it has issues. Perhaps you could choose something newer – I personally favour the World of Warcraft TCG, a tight game that draws inspiration from the MMORPG of the same name. Recently relaunched after shenanigans at original developers Upper Deck, it has now been taken (unofficially) in-house to Cryptozoic, a part of the Blizzard empire. Whatever you choose, though, you’re going to have one problem – updates.

Card sets for all notable TCGs appear with regular abandon, usually on a three- to six-month rotation. Certain older cards are phased out, replaced by newer versions or even scrapped entirely from tournament play. What could well be an all powerful deck that has taken you ages to build (and cost you a small fortune in trying to accumulate rarer cards) can be worth little more than the paper it’s printed on by the time a few updates have rolled around. The only solution is to spend more, update your deck and wait until the next set comes out, where the whole process happens again. Alternatively, you could invest in a dead TCG like the brilliant but expensive Netrunner, but finding decent opponents may prove difficult. For sheer numbers, you need to be playing something current, and you need a good deck or you will be destroyed.

But what about those of us who can’t afford a whole stack of glimmering rares? Where can we go for our regular card-gaming fix? Well, a few companies have realised the value of a decent card game, releasing new offerings that are entirely self-contained (or supposed to be, anyway). Some games have come out that require you to buy multiple copies in order to build decks you may want, thus defeating the purpose of getting it in the first place. If you’re looking for recommendations for a game that you only need to buy once, there is one word that you will hear again and again: Dominion.

Now, I can already hear the moaners. “Dominion has expansions,” they cry. ” There’s Intrigue and Seaside and Alchemy and promo sets and there’s that new Prosperity one coming out before the end of the year!” – and this is true. But you don’t need them. For the outlay of the original set, you’ve got a game that will serve you well for ages – no need to get the other boxes at all. You can, of course, choose to splurge on the extra versions, but there is absolutely no need whatsoever. Everything you require is in the box. Everything and more besides.

What you get are cards… lots of them. There are several different types. Treasure is split into Copper, Silver and Gold – you’ll need these to purchase others cards, or indeed more treasure. Twenty-five sets of Kingdom cards are included, of which ten are used in each game – already, you’ll see that there is a huge amount of variety in Dominion. In fact, there are thousands of possible combinations of Kingdom cards – more than enough to last a lifetime, in fact (see now why you don’t need the expansions?). These allow you to take actions, all of which are detailed on the cards, perhaps allowing you to buy extra things, grant you bonus money or even attack an opponent. Finally, you have the different Victory and Curse cards – these are the important ones, because they’re worth various amounts of Victory Points (or can deplete your score) at the end of the game. Quite simply, whoever has the most points at the end is declared the winner.

Every player starts with 10 cards – 7 copper which you use to buy things and 3 Estates, worth one point each. Shuffle your deck, draw five cards and away you go. Turn order is easy to remember: just follow the ABCD rule. A stands for Action – play one action card, do what it says, and keep going until you can do no more. B is Buy, where you use money to buy whatever you please from the available piles of cards. C means Clean Up, where every single card you have touched in your turn is placed face up on your discard pile. Finally, D is for Draw, where you take 5 new cards. If there aren’t enough in your stack, shuffle your discards and start a new draw pile. Basically, that’s it – build up your money by using actions, buying new things, upgrading treasure and Victory points cards. The game ends when either three supply piles (any of them, not just Kingdom cards) are exhausted, or all the Province cards (the ones worth six points) have been bought. As soon as that happens, the game is over and players tally up all their Victory points to discover who is on top.

Reading that back, Dominion sounds dull as ditchwater. Thankfully, when you’ve got the cards in your hand the game is way more compelling. There’s little downtime, and any spare moments are spent working out how on earth you can build up your own deck while scuppering your opponents’ progress. While it isn’t exactly the same as a regular TCG, it shares so many different traits with the genre it would be churlish not to include it with the likes of Magic – it just handles it in a slightly different way and actually makes deck building an aspect of the game. The selection of Kingdom cards at the start of the game can be selected at random and every different set-up will change the way the game plays. There are plenty of sites out there that suggest combinations, but the best I’ve found is Zack Hiwiller’s fantastic randomizer – set the parameters of the game you want and it’ll choose a set of ten for you.

Dominion is, undoubtedly, one of my favourite games around at the moment. I have to admit that I was late to the party having only got my copy of the base game a couple of months ago, but man – I have fallen for it fast. The simplicity and purity of the design, the various levels of strategy and approaches you can take  to win, the insane replayability… it all adds up to a brilliant game. If you’ve not played it, I heartily recommend giving it a go – you won’t be disappointed.

Dominion was designed by Donald X. Vaccarino, is published by Rio Grande Games (among others) and was a worthy winner of the 2009 Spiel des Jahres – along with many other awards worldwide. Between two and four people can play – it works well with however many – and it’s available here in the UK for around £30. Seriously, go play it. It’s aces.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Cards for sorrow, cards for pain – Dominion review

  1. nice review of a great game, I really can see the appeal of Dominion and have played it many times as it is a fast game, but it really frustrates me as I have never won a round, I didn’t come from a CCG back ground which may be a disadvantage as I haven’t cracked the strategy yet. reading this makes me want to play it until I crack it.
    That said I got Agricola as a wedding present, so i need to learn that first!!

  2. PinkBatgirl

    Having had a play of your copy of this recently, I have to say, I loved it – that may have been tainted by the fact that I actually chose a better strategy and therefore beat my boyfriend – an extremely rare event indeed!
    It worked really well with 2 players which is a big draw for me as we like to play games together at home a lot and a game that works well with 2 players will get a lot more value for money from it as well. I want to try playing it in a group as well as I imagine the strategy will be somewhat different then.
    I’m going to have to pick up a copy myself and you’re so right about all the different cards provided in the base set, so many possibilities! ^_^

    • The G

      I played this at a friend of a friend’s randomly and utterly loved it. It’s easy to pick up and every game is different due to the high number of combinations you can make. Indeed I have only had the vanilla game for the msot part yet never played two siilar games. I have ordered an expansion since but as you say you can very easilly get away without them.

      TGC’s are very easy to get into and hard to master in general and the sheer act that no game is the same as another means you need a new strategy everytime which makes it a great challenge.

      The only barrer to entry for this is the fact it’s a trading card game rather than a board game. That sounds obvious but it’s true. Roger/Gingineer’s experience I beleive is part of what he is describing. Board games tend to have a few basic things you can fall back on like resouce management or average dice roll prediction. TCG’s have little querks of their own that if you’ve not played before you won’t be aware of such as keeping your deck as small as possible to get to your better cards quicker. Once you pick up on these things though you very quickly get into the game.

      Overall I love this game. Is fast paced, varied, challenging and great if you’re limited for space.

  3. Mike

    Another option are the LCG’s (living card games) from Fantasy Flight, it is still “collectible” but not sold in random packs, you know exactly what you are getting in each box, and they are quite affordable. Older sets made you buy 3 of each to have 3 of every card but this is no longer the case with newer sets (you can tell newer sets because they come with 60 cards a pack (3×20) For casual play, multiple copies are unnecessary. I love Dominion but have slowed down after the purchase of Seaside… the other expansions will be there, for now I’m very happy with the game as is.

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