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Author Topic: How to Win at Dominion, With Minimal Jargon  (Read 906 times)

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Titandrake

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How to Win at Dominion, With Minimal Jargon
« on: September 25, 2017, 02:30:29 am »
+21

This is intended to be a newb-friendly article.

How do you win a game of Dominion?

You win by ending the game with more points than your opponent.

How do you do that?

You do it by buying cards that let you win the game, and playing those cards more often than your opponent does.

How do I identify which cards let me win the game?

Generally, you want to look for cards that either give you lots of coins, give you lots of VP, or let you quickly end the game while getting a small amount of VP. You want to combine these cards with a story for how it's going to come together.

Here are some examples.
  • I'm going to play Golds and Silvers to get lots of coins.
  • I'm going to play a lot of Bridges in one turn, to get lots of coins while reducing the cost of every card.
  • I'm going to play Ironworks to gain Ironworks and Gardens, aiming for a 3-pile ending.
  • I'm going to play a lot of Goons to get VP tokens.
Sometimes, it's enough to look for cards that stop your opponent from winning the game. Examples:
  • I'm going to play Militia a lot, to force my opponent to start most of their turns with 3 cards instead of 5.
  • I'm going to play Witch to drown my opponent in Curses.
The avenues-to-victory aren't mutually exclusive. In a given game, your plan might be to play Festival/Library, but also with some Bridges and 1 Militia thrown in. Or, your plan could be to play Witch, while buying Golds and Silvers to hit $8 for Province. The strategy comes in figuring out which avenues-to-victory are fastest, strongest, and most complementary to one another.

Most games are decided by the person who makes the most coins each turn, and that's the case I'll be implicitly talking about for the rest of the article, but there are exceptions where having more Buys or more VP-giving cards is more important, and it's worth keeping those exceptions in mind.

Before continuing to the next section, an important distinction. Cards like Smithy, Village, and Council Room are not winning cards. They are cards that let you draw your winning cards, but they don't win games by themselves. Nobody wins just by drawing lots of cards. They win by drawing lots of winning cards. And again, an important clarification: this doesn't mean buying those cards can't help you win. In fact they often do help you win, just in a different way.

I've identified my winning cards. How do I play them more often?

Broadly, there are two approaches.
  • Buy lots of winning cards and try to win on pure quantity.
  • Buy Actions that cycle through your deck quickly, then play a few winning cards very often.
Let's bring this back to the terms commonly used in the community. Cards that directly win you the game are payload cards. Cards that help you draw your payload are cycling cards. Cycling cards include Smithy and Village, because they both draw more cards. It also applies to Cellar, which lets you discard bad cards to draw better ones. It also applies to cards like Chapel, which trash cards. Cards like Chapel are called trashers, and are often the first cards top players look for when deciding how to approach a Kingdom. Although trashers don't directly draw cards, they indirectly speed up cycling by making your deck smaller. The smaller your deck is, the easier it is to draw your winning cards.

Again, repeating for emphasis: Payload cards directly give you what you need to win. Cycling cards help you play your payload more often.

Some cards straddle the line between both categories. Poacher and Market both draw cards and give some coins. Minion also straddles the line, because you can either play it for +$2 (payload) or discard and draw 4 (cycling). The one truth of Dominion is that the categories are always a bit loose.

Now again, there are usually two broad approaches: buy mostly payload cards, or buy mostly cycling cards. A payload-focused strategy is often called Big Money, since it historically applies to decks where your payload is Golds and Silvers. More recently, some people have called it "good stuff", to include payload cards that aren't Treasures (like Haggler, for example). A cycling-focused strategy is often called the engine, because it focuses on buying Actions and combining their effects to make something bigger than the sum of its parts.

Let's say I want to play the "Big Money" approach. How should I do so?

Buy payload cards instead of cycling cards.

Let's say I want to play the "engine" approach. What should I do?

Buy cycling cards instead of payload cards.

That didn't really help, you're just repeating the definition! Which approach is best?

Trick question! In most games, you do both.

...say what?

Whenever you gain a card in Dominion, you have to make a choice: payload or cycling? Sometimes you get lucky and can buy a card to do both, like Market, but often you have to make a choice between a card that will give you more money / attacking power / VP, or a card that helps you draw other cards more often. Each choice has trade-offs. A payload card increases what your deck can potentially do, but it doesn't help you play your existing payload more often. A cycling card lets you play your existing payload more often, but may not increase what your deck can do.

A "good stuff" approach focuses mostly on buying payload, but may buy Cellar over Silver because it wants a bit more cycling. An engine approach focuses mostly on cycling, but may pick up an early Silver or Gold because it lets the engine buy more powerful cycling Actions. Treating Big Money as "only buys treasures" and engines to "skips treasures until the very end" is overly simplistic and can lead to bad play.

Okay, okay. Which is the better approach on average?

With the caveat that there are very few 100% truths in Dominion, the common newbie mistake is to overestimate payload. On many boards, it's better to focus on cycling cards, and a properly built engine will beat everything else.

Why is the engine often better?

It's more efficient.

Here's one way to think about Dominion: after buying a card, you get to play that card at most once per shuffle. (There are cards that get around this, like Scheme, but let's ignore those for now.) Given this, if you want to get as much value out of each buy that you can, it helps if you can shuffle your deck more often. And how do you shuffle your deck more often? You do so by buying cycling cards! Again, this is why trashing cards is good. A small deck shuffles itself much faster than a big deck.

Another reason is that there's a higher ceiling on what an engine can do. Let's say you want to play Witch a lot. You buy lots of Witches. Okay, cool. But what if you also want to play Militia a lot? Ignoring Action constraints for a second, if your deck can't draw lots of cards, you have to buy lots of Militias too. Buying both a lot of Witches and a lot of Militias is a lot of buys to spend, and often Buys are the limiting resource in Dominion. Add back the action constraints, and it quickly becomes infeasible. In contrast, if you can set-up an engine to draw itself every turn, you can buy 1 Witch and 1 Militia, and then draw and play them every turn.

Engines are like an investment. You invest your early buys on cycling cards, even though the only payload you have is Coppers, because it will pay off in the long term when your payload is higher quality.

Is the engine always better?

No. It isn't better when the investment takes too long to pay off. In those games, if you try to go for the engine, you durdle around for a long time, your opponent Keeps Calm and Buys Provinces with their Silvers and Golds, and you lose while feeling really silly. This has happened to everyone - don't feel too bad when it happens to you, and don't let it stop you from trying. Because every now and then, you'll identify an engine that's just barely better than the "good stuff" deck, win the game by 1 VP on your final turn, and feel like a legend.

Cool. How do I actually implement any of this?

Practice and experience.

At lower skill levels, games are won and lost by whether you correctly identify when to go for a cycling-light approach (Big Money) or a cycling-heavy approach (engine). At higher skill levels, players will agree more and more often on the broad approach of a board. Top players will certainly still disagree, but after a certain skill level the execution of an overarching strategy becomes the main differentiator between players.

This, to me, is where the depth of Dominion really expands. Remember earlier, where I said you have to choose between payload and cycling on each buy? Those choices are where games are won and lost. If you buy cards in a more optimal order, it's common to hit the deck you want 1-2 turns faster than a worse order. Proper sequencing is just ridiculously hard to do consistently, especially when you factor in the inherent randomness of card games. I lose most of my games to messing it up.

Dominion isn't like Chess or Starcraft, where a new player can memorize a well-studied opening and copy it until they understand how it works. The random Kingdom prevents this - you have to learn good game intuitions to do anything productive.

If you'd like to learn those intuitions, here is what I would recommend.
  • Play whatever you want. Over time, you should naturally notice which cards tend to be more important. (Reading the Qvist rankings can shortcut this a bit, but it helps to see the strength of cards firsthand.)
  • Play a few Big Money decks. I'd recommend Smithy + treasures, Council Room + treasures, Courtyard + treasures, and Witch + treasures. These are all not too tricky to play, and can be surprisingly effective.
  • Once you get a handle on a few cards, practice making judgments on whether you would play an engine strategy or not. Err on the side of playing engines more than you think you should. For one, they're often better. Secondly, cycling-based decks usually have more decisions than payload-based decks, and it's hard to practice engine decision-making if you're scared of playing engines.

Finally, when your opponent beats you, don't look just at what their deck did at the end. Look at how they built their deck, what cards they bought on which turns, and try to spot what made their deck work when your deck didn't. You will certainly have games where your opponent plays poorly and wins because of luck, but that doesn't mean there's no lessons to learn from the game.
« Last Edit: October 03, 2017, 02:23:47 am by Titandrake »
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JW

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Re: How to Win at Dominion, With Minimal Jargon
« Reply #1 on: September 25, 2017, 08:45:40 am »
+3

And how do you shuffle your deck more often? You do so by buying cycling cards! This is part of why I upgraded my opinion on Lookout. Not only is trashing cards good, getting to discard bad cards makes you reshuffle more often in the early game, giving you a slight edge.

Or by buying trashing cards. A critical aspect of Dominion that this article is missing is a discussion of trashing, and its extremely high value for action-heavy decks.
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Limetime

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Re: How to Win at Dominion, With Minimal Jargon
« Reply #2 on: September 25, 2017, 08:51:57 am »
0

You win by ending the game with more points than your opponent.
You can also win by pinning your opponent or getting 50% vp.
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faust

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Re: How to Win at Dominion, With Minimal Jargon
« Reply #3 on: September 25, 2017, 09:49:29 am »
+1

You win by ending the game with more points than your opponent.
You can also win by pinning your opponent or getting 50% vp.
Not of you cannot end the game afterwards.
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trazoM

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Re: How to Win at Dominion, With Minimal Jargon
« Reply #4 on: September 25, 2017, 11:35:47 am »
+9

You win by ending the game with more points than your opponent.
You can also win by pinning your opponent or getting 50% vp.
Not of you cannot end the game afterwards.
It's enough to have more food supply than your opponent in this case.
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Cave-o-sapien

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Re: How to Win at Dominion, With Minimal Jargon
« Reply #5 on: September 25, 2017, 02:58:19 pm »
+2

You win by ending the game with more points than your opponent.
You can also win by pinning your opponent or getting 50% vp.
Not of you cannot end the game afterwards.
It's enough to have more food supply than your opponent in this case.

Perhaps the intended meaning was physically pinning your opponent such that they cannot eat.
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Awaclus

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Re: How to Win at Dominion, With Minimal Jargon
« Reply #6 on: September 25, 2017, 03:08:07 pm »
0

You win by ending the game with more points than your opponent.
You can also win by pinning your opponent or getting 50% vp.
Not of you cannot end the game afterwards.
It's enough to have more food supply than your opponent in this case.

Perhaps the intended meaning was physically pinning your opponent such that they cannot eat.

I think we need a rules clarification from Donald X. stating whether or not that's allowed.

McGarnacle

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Re: How to Win at Dominion, With Minimal Jargon
« Reply #7 on: September 25, 2017, 03:51:47 pm »
+2

Really good article Titandrake! I feel like this really gets at the essence of basic Dominion strategy. A invaluable read!
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Cave-o-sapien

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Re: How to Win at Dominion, With Minimal Jargon
« Reply #8 on: September 25, 2017, 04:13:14 pm »
+1

This is great and should be given a prominent spot in the "New to Dominion" section of the blog.

Also, I'd recommend highlighting the jargon terms in red bold-face as they are introduced.
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Chris is me

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Re: How to Win at Dominion, With Minimal Jargon
« Reply #9 on: September 25, 2017, 04:55:04 pm »
+1

This is exactly the kind of article this website sorely needs. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better illustration of the “point” of building an engine.
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trivialknot

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Re: How to Win at Dominion, With Minimal Jargon
« Reply #10 on: September 25, 2017, 05:13:36 pm »
0

I would get some test readers from some novice dominion players.  I think it's pretty clearly written but if some advanced jargon slipped in, I would probably miss it.
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ycz6

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Re: How to Win at Dominion, With Minimal Jargon
« Reply #11 on: September 25, 2017, 11:29:36 pm »
+3

I like it! I think if you want to be extra newbie-friendly, it'd be better to stick to the base set and maybe Intrigue for card examples. The asides about stuff like Lookout, Grand Market, and Haggler are nice for people who know what those cards do, but I don't think they quite contribute enough to be worth it. Similar substitutes in base/Intrigue (like Patrol, Market / Conspirator, and Remodel, I guess?) should get the point across almost as well.
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Re: How to Win at Dominion, With Minimal Jargon
« Reply #12 on: September 26, 2017, 12:58:22 am »
+3

Very good article, Titandrake.  8) I might have some feedback to give later, so please keep an eye out. I feel that the article might need to mention trashing though. The article discusses that you want to play your winning cards as often as possible, and well, a very good way to achieve that is trashing.
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infangthief

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Re: How to Win at Dominion, With Minimal Jargon
« Reply #13 on: September 26, 2017, 01:39:35 am »
0

Fantastic, the clearest summary I've seen in a long time.

I especially like how you've combined so many important things into a single word: 'cycling'. I think you're using this term to mean 'ways to play your payload cards more often', roughly correlating with 'number of passes through your deck per turn' (assuming you're playing your payload cards once per pass).

But one comment I would make is that your definition and description of cycling cards makes it sound as though draw (maybe with enough actions) is the only factor contributing to cycling.

For example your only examples of non-payload cards are here:
Cards like Smithy, Caravan, and Village are not winning cards. They are cards that let you draw your winning cards, but they don't win games by themselves.
and cycling/payload cards here:
Quote
Some cards (Poacher, Market, Grand Market) straddle the line between both categories.

And your definition of cycling cards is:
Quote
Cards that help you draw your payload are cycling cards.

Now you and I know that one card that helps me draw my payload is Chapel. And another is Cartographer. But the definition doesn't make a newer player think of them; the ways in which they help are very important, but indirect.

Can you expand your description of cycling to make it clearer that trashing and sifting help you draw payload too?
You do mention it in passing later in the article:
Quote
how do you shuffle your deck more often? You do so by buying cycling cards! This is part of why I upgraded my opinion on Lookout. Not only is trashing cards good, getting to discard bad cards makes you reshuffle more often in the early game, giving you a slight edge.
but I think we should have had a clearer definition/description of cycling before this, to include trashing and discarding bad cards.
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infangthief

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Re: How to Win at Dominion, With Minimal Jargon
« Reply #14 on: September 26, 2017, 06:54:23 am »
+2

Some more improvement suggestions:

Most games are decided by the person who has the most money
Makes it sound like you're saying most games are decided by who has bought most Silvers and Golds. Maybe clearer if you say 'coins' instead of 'money'. Or 'the player who generates the most coins per turn'.

Quote
Broadly, there are two approaches.
  • Buy lots of winning cards.
  • Buy Actions that draw lots of cards / cycle through your deck quickly, then play a few winning cards very often.
Let's bring this back to the terms commonly used in the community. Cards that directly win you the game are payload cards. Cards that help you draw your payload are cycling cards. Some cards (Poacher, Market, Grand Market) straddle the line between both categories. The first approach is often called Big Money, since it historically applies to decks where your payload is Golds and Silvers. More recently, some people have called it "good stuff", to include payload cards that aren't Treasures (like Haggler, Soothsayer, or Butcher.) The second approach is often called the engine, because it focuses on buying Actions and combining their effects to make something bigger than the sum of its parts.
I like the classification between just two broad approaches. It's simplistic, sure, but it's a useful starting point. However, equating the first one as Big Money really narrows it down. 'Payload only' would also include things like Ironworks/Gardens, and Duke slogs, for a start.

Quote
If you want to get better, I would recommend playing games where you mostly buy payload cards, no matter how obvious the engine seems. Or mostly buy cycling cards, no matter how implausible the engine looks. That helps refine intuitions on the high-level goal.  And then, when your opponent beats you, don't look just at what their deck did at the end - look at how they built their deck, and try to spot what made their deck work when your deck didn't. You will certainly have games where your opponent plays poorly and wins because of luck, but that doesn't mean there's no lessons to learn.
I haven't actually tried that, but it seems a strange approach to me. What's the idea, what's the benefit in going for an approach that looks wrong? In case it turns out to be right after all? Or so that you stay out of your opponent's way and can see what your opponent would do in solitaire? This kind of assumes that your opponent will do a better job than you could have done. Maybe you can rephrase this to make it a bit clearer why to pick a 'bad' approach.
« Last Edit: September 26, 2017, 07:14:36 am by infangthief »
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Titandrake

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Re: How to Win at Dominion, With Minimal Jargon
« Reply #15 on: October 03, 2017, 02:19:55 am »
+2

I had some free time today and made some changes.

Mostly, I added some discussion of trashing, tried to replace cards with Base / Intrigue cards where I could, gave more examples of cycling cards, and removed some lines that didn't seem newbie friendly. I also reworked the ending.

Re "payload only" decks including things like Duchy/Duke: I agree but I'm not sure how to fit it into the article, and I'm worried it'll distract too much.
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infangthief

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Re: How to Win at Dominion, With Minimal Jargon
« Reply #16 on: October 03, 2017, 04:01:33 am »
+1

Yes, definitely more complete now that trashing is clearly included.

Re "payload only" decks including things like Duchy/Duke: I agree but I'm not sure how to fit it into the article, and I'm worried it'll distract too much.
Agreed, there's no need to start mentioning specific decks like Duchy/Duke; all I would suggest is to use a different term instead of "Big Money". Maybe "payload only" or "cycling light" or "good stuff" - you do use all of those terms but then you keep coming back to Big Money and treasures being the payload.
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Re: How to Win at Dominion, With Minimal Jargon
« Reply #17 on: October 03, 2017, 08:45:02 am »
+1

Nice article.  I have a few minor suggestions:

... tried to replace cards with Base / Intrigue cards where I could,
You can replace Scheme with Harbinger.

When you talk about the payload of playing a bunch of Bridges in the beginning, you probably ought to mention +buys.

"Sometimes you get lucky and can buy a card to do both, like Market"
This phrase could leave the wrong impression.  It's common for newer players to overbuy Market as is, so I recommend removing "get lucky and".
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