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Donald X.

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Dominion Preview / Review
« on: March 17, 2012, 05:27:12 am »

BGN had a preview/interview for Dominion back when. BGN is no longer with us, but is archived at, where you can still see the preview:

And here it is so you don't have to click on that. The preview is from W. Eric Martin.

Game Preview/Review: Dominion

By W. Eric Martin
October 17, 2008

Publishers: Rio Grande Games / Hans im Glück / Filosofia Games
Designer: Donald X. Vaccarino
Players: 2-4
Playing Time: 15-45 minutes
Release Date: Spiel 08
Languages: English / German / French
Price: $45

Okay, I’ll admit that I talked Dominion up after first playing it in April 2008, even predicting that it will outsell Race for the Galaxy. Am I crazy? Perhaps, but I don’t think my guess will be far off the mark because the game is addictive and short (like RftG), while also being easier to learn and play.

Dale Yu and Valerie Putman published an overview of the game at the end of June 2008 prior showing the game at Origins, but here’s my take on it: Dominion takes the deck building aspect of a collectible card game – an activity you normally do prior to playing the actual game – and makes that deck-building the game itself.

The Deck

While a comparison with Magic: the Gathering might seem inevitable, designer Donald X. Vaccarino says that beyond Magic‘s core activity of putting a deck on the table for each player, the game had no influence on Dominion, which was initially called Castle Builder and later dubbed Game X.

That said, Vaccarino notes that Magic did kickstart a fertile period of game design for him. “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.”

Starting in 1997, Vaccarino traveled to Wizards of the Coast roughly once a year to show off new designs, despite Wizards not being in the market for outside submissions. “Really it was just, ‘Hey, I get to play my games with Richard Garfield,’” he says. “In fact, for a few years the focus of my game design was ‘Will this impress Richard?’ which typically translated into ‘How novel is this game?’”

The Concept

One of Vaccarino’s game designs from 2003 was Spirit Warriors, in which players built fantasy heroes by going on quests and fighting monsters. “The idea was to make a game that my friends would like as much as possible,” he says, and while that goal was met, “I was not really considering trying to get it published; it has 500 or so unique cards, and just making a more presentable prototype would be a ton of work.”

In 2006, though, he decided to make a sequel that would keep the hero-building flavor of the game, while being its mirror image in terms of game mechanisms. Says Vaccarino, “In Spirit Warriors you rolled dice for combat, so in Spirit Warriors II you would play cards. In Spirit Warriors you had one classless hero, so in Spirit Warriors II you had a party of four heroes with classes.” Each class consisted of eight cards, and you shuffled the cards for all of your heroes together. Draw the paladin’s sword card, and your paladin now has that ability. While a hero’s abilities were weak at the start of the game, consequently making the card weak as well, the sword skill would develop throughout the game, improving the power of the card. A drawback to the game, though, was that it still consisted of 500 cards, which led to slow development work due to the low probability of ever seeing such a game in print.

One part of the game that Vaccarino did see fit to work on was the combat system, which took a lot of time while players evaluated their hand and calculated figures and drew mental graphs and solved differential equations. “I made up a sample situation and had people look at it,” says Vaccarino. “It took everyone forever, and most people ended up with the wrong answer. The fix was to have the cards change from something like ‘Deal 3 damage per level of sword skill’ to the much simpler ‘Deal 3 damage’ – but I wanted to retain the hero-building, and the best solution I thought of was to gain new cards as the game progressed. Once I thought of that, I realized I could make it a separate game with none of this other stuff. No monsters or quests or board or whatever – just building a deck while playing a game with it.”

The Design

That concept crystalized into reality in October 2006 when Vaccarino was trying to prepare a new game for friends for an upcoming game night. ”Spirit Warriors II had no chance whatsoever of being finished in time,” he says. “However, I could just whip out the simple deckbuilding game. I just needed to make ten or so cards and do some cutting and sleeving. If it worked, I could make more cards later, so I whipped it out. I spent a couple hours deciding how the rules would go and what the cards would be.”

While that description sounds like the game was a toss-off, the actual design process was more involved, starting with the notion of how you get to see the deck that you’re creating. “If you draw one card a turn, you won’t get to play the deck you’re building,” says Vaccarino. “The game would need to last hours, with deck construction stopping at some point for you to actually see your deck. The obvious solution was to have you draw five cards a turn. Now you see your deck over and over.”

While multiple resources were a consideration, Vaccarino stuck with one – money – to keep the game simpler and give players more opportunity to do what they might want to do while playing the game.

“For utter elegance, I put everything in the deck,” he says. “Victory points are in the deck, resources are in the deck, actions are in the deck. This was just so I could pursue the concept to its logical extreme. Obviously putting victory points in the deck meant that your deck would get worse once it started being worth points, and that was nice, too.”

This desire to strip everything to simplicity led to the use-it-or-lose-it quality of cards and money. If you had $2 left after a turn and that money carried over, then you’d need tokens or counters to track that, taking away from the fundamental nature of the deck. Using money and having it be removed from the deck would lead to tiny decks that players could draw in entirety each turn; thus money would be recycled by placing spent coins into your discard pile.

“The biggest question,” says Vaccarino, “was how to determine which cards were available for purchase each turn.” While initially considering a Showmanager or Queen’s Necklace-style purchase system in which cards dropped in price the longer that they were available, in the end he chose a simpler solution. “We’d just have every card available at once, and hey, that way if a card was broken, I’d find out right away. Then if the game seemed to work I’d figure out how to make the cards show up. Well of course we liked just buying whatever we wanted, so I never did replace that system.” With all of the cards being available at all times, he chose to make the exhaustion of one pile the endgame condition.

As for the cards themselves, Vaccarino says, “I design cards different ways, but the main way is just trying to explore a particular area of card-design-space. Say I want another attack card: Okay, what is there to attack? What are the ways you can attack that? The game has particular data and you can manipulate it using logic and program-flow. I make lists of possibilities and try to find the interesting ways to synch things up. I don’t, say, sit around waiting for an idea to show up; I hunt that idea down. Of course other times a card is based on flavor or on something that happens in a game or something, but typically it’s the explore-space thing.”

The only limitation to the cards is the size of the text box and the designer’s desire to keep the complexity of the game from growing unmanageable. By creating shorthand terms, the text box can effectively be larger. “Really there’s no practical limit to what you can with the cards,” says Vaccarino. “You are only confined as to how much you can do without defining terms.”

For the main set – the cards that each starting player would encounter – Vaccarino tried to keep the cards simple. “You have to learn both the game and the cards; it makes sense to make learning the cards easier, so the main set has a bunch of cards that are just the simplest implementation of that branch of concepts, or cards that just give you +1 or +2 of a few things and that’s that. The expansions will probably have a dearth of such cards and have more cards that do more complex things and make you read.”

With the design questions answered, it was time to test the game.

The Group

“The effect [of Dominion] on my gaming group was to kill all other games,” says Vaccarino. “In October 2006, I had a game night and a Magic night. On game night we played a mix of my games and storebought games, but game night immediately turned into Dominion night, and Magic night followed suit about a month or so later. Shortly after making Dominion, I cranked out three new games, and my friends were just utterly uninterested in trying them. I finally got a third of one played.” The response? “Okay, this needs work, now let’s get to our Dominion.” Vaccarino pressed the other two games on people in restaurants as they lacked in-booth Dominion delivery.

Flash forward to 2008, and the situation remains the same as it was after the game’s introduction. “A month or so ago, a friend showed up at game night with Agricola,” says Vaccarino. “She hadn’t planned on bringing it; she’d ordered it delivered to her work, and it had shown up that day, so she had it with her. I was the only one interested in trying it. We played Dominion instead.”

Two years after creating the game, Vaccarino estimates that he’s played it about one thousand times, with those games spread across any number of card configurations. “Most of those games have involved expansions. With the main set you may eventually feel like you’ve made all the decks; once you have an expansion or two, you will never see everything.”

The Development

By July 2007, Vaccarino felt ready to present the game to publishers, and Jay Tummelson at Rio Grande Games made a deal for the game after seeing it at Origins. Development of the game was directed by Boardgame News columnists Valerie Putman and Dale Yu, who asked Tummelson whether they could serve as developers because they were enthusiastic about the design after seeing it in prototype form.

Since Castle Builder was yet another 500 card project, Vaccarino worked to trim some elements of the game, lowering the number of cards in most piles from 12 to 10, for example, and removing Confusion cards. “Originally there were two bad cards you could give people: Curse is worth -1 victory point (VP) and is useless when you draw it, while Confusion was just useless to draw. The highlight for me was that the Confusion card just showed a hypnotic spiral pattern with no text, and when a new player was like, ‘I don’t get it, what does this do,’ I’d hold up the card and rotate it so that the spiral did that optical illusion thing. Ah, memories.”

“Anyway,” he continues, “Confusion was fine except you need to print 40 Confusion cards to go along with the attacks that hand it out. That’s a lot for something that feels so much like Curse. I don’t have any plans to ever bring it back in an expansion; we would need those 40 Confusions and those card slots could be three more Actions instead. There could possibly be some other penalty card like Curse in the future, but if there ever is, it will have to actually do something.”

Another card that got the axe was an Attack that trashed – that is, removed from the game – the top card of each player’s deck. “One of the most basic ways to hurt the other players is to trash cards from their decks,” says Vaccarino. This card was part of the set from the earliest days, but it was simultaneously weak (potentially removing useless cards from opponent’s decks and improving them), random (hitting a useless card for one player and a high VP card for another) and destructive enough that players could end up with five card decks from which no one could recover. “It’s cool to have ridiculous game states like that, but they have to be things that happen only once in a while due to an unusual combination of cards and the planets being in syzygy.” As such the card was removed from the main set, although a tweaked version or two might show up in future expansions. An Attack that hit VP cards met a similar fate.

One shortfall with the game discovered during development – with credit for the find given to, ahem, Sir Shuffles-a-lot – was the “Duchy rush problem,” with Duchies being a 3 VP card that costs 5. Says Vaccarino, “You could just buy Duchies and Silver (which give you 2 coins each time you play one) and ignore all of the pretty Actions. If two people did this, you couldn’t beat them; you had to join them. I had seen the Duchy rush, but didn’t think it was a problem because all it did was make everyone play that strategy; it didn’t give you an edge. This was obviously foolish because you shouldn’t be able to make the game suck for the other players like that. (You should be forced to insult them or throw food at them, like with most games.) One guy would go for Duchies, then someone else would, and then the game would be locked in an eternal Duchy winter.”

To solve the problem, the Province – the most valuable victory card – was boosted from 5 VP to 6, and the game-ending condition was changed from “any empty Victory card pile” to “an empty Province pile or any three empty piles.” This change prevented the game from ending due to a run on Duchies and Silver; effectively those players would now be hobbling themselves from a chance at winning because their decks wouldn’t be able to catch those buying Provinces. The “three empty pile” condition comes into play when certain Attack cards inhibit a buying strategy or someone pursues a non-Province strategy while trying to end the game quickly. Says Vaccarino, “Originally the ‘three other piles’ didn’t count money or Curses, but Valerie wanted those to count and it’s both simpler and slightly better that they do.”

Putman also gets credit for simplifying the card drawing process when a player nears the end of her deck. Under Vaccarino’s original design, if a player needed to draw five cards but had only two in her deck, she’d shuffle those two into her discard pile to form a new deck before drawing. “Any time you draw a whole deck, I worry about card-counting, which I think of as no fun, and one fix is to not to end up drawing every card,” says Vaccarino. “Valerie’s way is simpler and what people expect. Sure, there’s a little card-counting sometimes, but it’s pretty minor.”

The Rejects [sidebar]
 Which cards didn’t make the cut? Vaccarino gives some hints, while leaving out details for those cards which might reappear someday.
- There was a smaller Workshop which let you gain a card costing 2 coins or less, plus a bonus. The main ability was very weak, and the bonus, while interesting, was on the confusing side for the main set. The bonus is on another card that may make it into an expansion someday. There could still be a little Workshop in some form, but this wasn’t it.
- There was a weak card that I gave an additional ability to, made cheaper, and stuck in an expansion.
- There was a different Victory card in place of Gardens. It was narrower and so Gardens was a better fit for the main set. The other card may show up in an expansion.
- There was a card that was just “+2 coins, +2 cards” for 5. It was too powerful at 5 and not exciting enough for 6. I don’t expect to ever revive it; instead you can do things with variable amounts of coins or cards that are better balanced and more interesting.
- There was yet another card reminiscent of Workshop. It needed some work and was too redundant to stay in. It could show up in a fixed form in an expansion.
- There were two perfectly good cards that were a little too redundant. We wanted the main set to have a lot of variety and so while it’s reasonable to make multiple cards like Workshop, for example, having two in the first 25 cards seems excessive. Anyway there was a card too close to Mine and another too close to Chapel, and they’re both earmarked for expansions. They are different and interesting but there was more variety possible than they were producing.
What makes a card good or bad in the long run? Says Vaccarino, “The way I look at card power level is to see what people buy. If people never buy a card, then it’s too weak or uninteresting or something. It’s bad, whatever the core reason. If, when a card is out, you can’t win without buying it, then that card is too powerful. If a card seems awesome but I can ignore it and win doing something else, then that card is fine.”

While several cards were replaced – see the sidebar for details – only a couple of cards had their text changed and only one had its cost adjusted. (Long-time Magic players should be able to spot the culprit on an initial glance through the cards.)
In the end, though, the number of cards remained at 500. “You could have 8 cards in each pile instead of 10,” says Vaccarino, “but 10 is better; you could have 20 different Kingdom cards instead of 25, but 25 is better. You don’t need the randomizer deck [one of each Kingdom card that allows you to create random set-ups], but you want it. You could get by with fewer Treasure cards, but you don’t want to run out very often, and it’s nice to have spares. We went with ‘more fun’ instead of ‘cheaper’ every step of the way.”

“Dale came up with the name,” says Vaccarino. “I was calling it Castle Builder. You need to name games, so you can talk about them, but there’s no point spending forever on that name because who knows, this game may disappear without a trace after one play. Then of course you get used to the name and it sounds reasonable, whether it is or not. The initial set of cards did focus on castles. There are only so many rooms in a castle, so I branched out to places in kingdoms, although I never did call it Kingdom Builder.”

Vaccarino adds, “There was never any talk of changing the flavor, except from my esteemed interviewer, who wanted restaurant flavor. Perhaps one day you will get your Restaurant Builder, Eric.” It’s true – I contacted Vaccarino with questions after playing the game in April and mentioned that my dream theme would be a restaurant setting, with players spending hours to purchase kitchen implements like sifters, ladles and mixers in order to obtain valuable recipes and build the most prestigious cookbook, Oh, and the cards would be all plastic. I think I was also playing the game while living in a hovering mansion. Enough about my dreams…

The Game

So what’s the final set-up for Dominion? How do you play, and what’s the goal? Each player starts with a shuffled deck of seven Copper cards (worth 1 coin each) and three Estate cards (worth 1 VP each), drawing a hand of five cards from that deck. On a turn you can:
Take one Action. You start the game with no Action cards in your deck, so you skip this step the first few turns, but once you do have Actions, you play one of them, granting you additional cards in hand, virtual money to spend later the same turn, the ability to take additional Actions, or all sorts of other special activities. If you’ve played a CCG, you can surely imagine the wide range of Actions possible.
Make one Buy. In addition to Coppers and Estates, the base game of Dominion includes two other Treasure cards (Silver, worth 2 coins, and Gold, worth 3), other Victory cards (Duchies, worth 3 VP, and Provinces, worth 6 VP), and a bunch of Kingdom cards. Most of the Kingdom cards are Actions – some of which bear a subtype of Reaction or Attack – but the Kingdom cards can also be Treasure and Victory cards.
For each game, you’ll choose ten types of Kingdom cards (either randomly, purposefully or by using the suggested sets in the rules); for each type of Kingdom card chosen, you set out a stack of those cards on the table. Each card has a cost on it ranging from 0 to 8, and during your Buy phase, you can purchase one card, adding it to your discard pile. (As mentioned earlier, money spent isn’t removed from your deck, but rather placed in your discard pile. Think of it as spending interest on your holdings.) Depending on the Action(s) you played earlier in the turn, you might be able to make additional Buys or have extra money to spend.

Discard your hand, and draw five cards. This last bit is key to the game’s appeal for me. In Magic, to use the granddaddy of all CCGs as an example, you typically draw one card each turn. Yes, you can sometimes draw more, but your hand changes slowly and if you desperately need to draw a particular card, the chances of seeing it are low.
In Dominion, no matter what you start with in your hand, you know that it’s all going away and you’ll see five new cards next time. Sometimes that hand flushing is bad because you can play only one Action a turn (barring bonus Actions), which means that drawing two or more Actions puts dead weight in your hand.

After you play a few games, you learn how to build a deck that makes good use of the constant hand churning. Each hand becomes a mini-puzzle: What do I want to play first? What do I want to discard or transform if I have the opportunity? Which card(s) do I want to buy, and is it possible to do so? You build your deck throughout the game, giving you the opportunity to tweak it turn by turn. Not drawing enough Treasure? Buy more! Don’t have enough cards to work with on a turn? Buy Kingdom cards that give you more cards when you play them! Too many Action cards to play at once? Buy Kingdom cards that let you play additional Actions! Drawing too many Victory cards, giving you dead cards in hand? Find ways to shuffle them away or transform them into something else!

When the Province cards run out or any three piles of cards are exhausted, the game ends. At that point players tally all the Victory cards in their deck to see who has the most points.
Game review, by W. Eric Martin

Version played: Prototype
Times played: 100+

As a former Magic player, I love the combo-licious appeal of Dominion. Not only are you looking at each hand to see what to make of it, but just as you make control, aggressive or combo decks in Magic, you can create a deck in Dominion that has a particular playing style. For the first few games, you’ll be buying willy-nilly, trying things out to see what happens when you draw card X, Y or Z, but with experience you get a sense for which cards work well together, which cards to buy when, what percentage of your deck should be Treasure and which kinds, when to transition into buying Victory cards, and so on. Cards that initially seem stupid, weak or useless become must buys in later games once you realize how powerful they can be in the right circumstances – a term which is shorthand for you being on the wrong end of a thrashing.

Admittedly the decisions are never hard; you’re not going to stew for minutes trying to decide which Action card should be played first or which Kingdom card to buy. (At least it shouldn’t take minutes, but in a few games I’ve wanted to give certain players a kick in the shins to hustle them along.) With experienced players, we completed four-player games in 15-20 minutes – then we typically swapped one or two Kingdom cards and went at it again. The joy of the game comes from trying a strategy and seeing whether it works. Even when you don’t win, you’ve built a little kingdom of cards all your own and put it to use to increase your holdings.

With each player building her own deck, the game does have a solitaire feel to it, and if you’ve ever complained about multi-player solitaire in a game, then you’re likely to do so when talking about Dominion, especially when learning the game on the suggested set of ten Kingdom cards. Notes Vaccarino, “Those cards are light on interaction in order to speed up that first game. Maybe that was the wrong move, I dunno, but that’s how it is. So after one game you may think there’s not so much interaction, but you will quickly find out otherwise.”

Depending on the Kingdom cards that you use, the game will have more or less direct interaction. Some cards let you play in your own sandbox, seeing who can build the best structure, while others allow you to mess with players’ hands and decks. Even including only one Attack card – a card that appears in ten copies, mind you – among the array of Kingdom cards can give the game a completely different feel. Once you start attacking someone’s Treasure, for example, they’re likely to shift their strategy to try to make themselves immune to such attacks in future turns. “Players do better when they take into account what the other players are doing,” says Vaccarino. “If someone buys Witch, for example, I will warp my deck to be better against it. A beginning player might think the only option is Moat, which blatantly stops attacks, but actually about half of the Kingdom cards do something helpful vs. Witch.”

One element of interaction that was deliberately excluded was politics, due to Vaccarino’s taste in games. “I don’t like ganging up on the leader or kingmaking or whining about who’s winning and so on, so Dominion doesn’t have cards that let you pick a player to hose; the cards that hose other players hose all of the other players. You might pick to buy one card thinking of a particular player that it especially hurts, but that’s much less painful than full-on politics in my book.”

“I know this issue isn’t going away,” adds Vaccarino, “as a bunch of people have brought up this multiplayer solitaire business. The tentative first expansion has some meaner attacks, and maybe in the future I will up the number of interactive cards slightly. Ultimately though I think the game will stay about as interactive as it is, and I’m happy with that amount of interaction. If one of your friends is all, ‘Where’s the interaction?’ you should be able to crush them with attacks.”

Even without the Attack cards, though, Dominion has a racing element in that the stacks of Kingdom and Victory cards are limited. If you’re trying to carry out a particular strategy and one type of Action card runs out, you better have a Plan B to fall back on. That said, no single type of Action card dominates the game. Some cards seem better than others – with the particulars of which card varying depending on the ten being used – but the interaction between Actions and Treasures is what’s important. You need to taking relevant actions during both the Action and Buy phase to get your deck chugging along toward the finish line, a line that seems closer or farther away depending on how quickly players are emptying out the card stacks.

With more than a hundred playings in six months, I obviously like Dominion a lot. Not all of my opponents have been set on fire by the game, but those who have been want to play it several times in a row, just like me. Even those who are lukewarm about the game play admire the cleverness of its design; deck-building as a game unto itself is a cool idea, and one that in retrospect seems obvious. Kudos to Donald X. for creating this design. Hope you all like it as much as I do – I did make a crazy prediction, after all, so my cred is on the line!

Full disclosure: I was a playtester for Dominion and will receive a copy of the game in compensation. Rio Grande Games purchases advertising on Boardgame News, but Jay Tummelson has never made any comments or suggestions about what I cover or don’t cover on BGN. I’d be all over this game no matter who published it because it pushes my gaming buttons in all the right ways, as should be evident by the number of times I’ve played despite having 1,000+ other games at my disposal.

Posted by W. Eric Martin on Oct 17, 2008 at 01:30 AM in Previews,  Reviews,  Game Reviews / 1306

I put a comment in the comments section for it so let's have that too.

I wrote up big blocks of text in answer to questions from W. Eric, and he turned it into narration interspersed with quotes, and well as long as he’s having fun I don’t mind. In some places the exact meaning is blurred somewhat, but there’s only one thing that I feel really compelled to correct.

He says, about Spirit Warriors II: “A drawback to the game, though, was that it still consisted of 500 cards, which led to slow development work due to the low probability of ever seeing such a game in print.”

In fact I had no idea that having 500 cards would make your game less publishable. For all I knew it was the opposite - yeeha, lots of cards! And if I’d known that, it wouldn’t have changed much; I was not focused on getting anything published. If I had been I would have been working on making my older games more presentable, which is what I did when I actually had a meeting set up with Jay.

No, development was slow because, man, 500 unique cards, those take forever to make. They weren’t easy cards either - lots of them had stats for multiple monsters, and that stuff had to be churned through some vague math for making the game maybe work. It doesn’t help when for all you know you’ve blown it and after a couple plays you’ll have to go back and tweak hundreds of cards. Which happened twice with the first Spirit Warriors.

So I slogged away at the 500 cards over several weeks, eventually realized that the combat was too complicated, figured out a fix, wrote up some notes for a potential deckbuilding game based on that fix, then went back to churning out cards for Spirit Warriors II. Then, as the romantic genesis myth goes, one weekend I was desperate for a new game to play that Monday, so I whipped out Dominion.

Posted by Donald X. Vaccarino on Oct 18, 2008 at 06:24 PM | #
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