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Author Topic: The Secret History of the Dominion Cards  (Read 35134 times)

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The Secret History of the Dominion Cards
« on: June 20, 2011, 03:38:03 pm »

In an interview at BGN, I talked about the design of Dominion, but not so much about the individual cards themselves. W. Eric just didn't ask about them. I was just reminiscing about them a few days ago and thought hey, I could type this up. As it turns out, I was right. Here then are the stories of the individual cards in Dominion. I don't know if there's an audience for this story, but I have read a million of Mark Rosewater's Magic: The Gathering design articles, so who knows, maybe there are others like me. Only who are interested in Dominion now. Anyway, onward!

Adventurer: For a while the main set did not have an action costing 6. I thought it would be good if it did. At some point we decided to go with 25 Kingdom cards (it was 25, then 20, then 25 again), so there was space for a 6, and I went looking through the expansions for the most appropriate one - something interesting but not too weird that wasn't too tied to its expansion. I took Adventurer from the 7th expansion. I don't know how many expansions Dominion will actually get, all printed and everything, but my friends were insatiable, so I cranked out a lot of cards.

Bureaucrat: Okay there's a long story here.

For a long time the main set had an attack that read "trash the top card of each other player's deck." As related in the BGN interview, it had 3 big problems: 1) adds way too much randomness, 2) can result in everyone stuck with a 5-card deck, 3) is otherwise weak. When it left during development, I tried replacing it with an expansion card called Militia: "Each other player reveals their top card. If no-one revealed Copper, trash those cards. Otherwise, gain a Silver card." This fixed the weird-game-state problem of the previous card, and was less random, but still could make for some really unfun moments. Also it had a weird interaction with Moat, the way Moat worked at the time. It made you need to resolve the attack in slo-mo. Anyway it was no good. We quickly playtested a bunch of variations on Militia and the previous card, before I realized we could go with a discard-based attack instead, and that would make Valerie a lot happier - she hated the Militia variants.

The main set already had a discard-based attack. I had started with a 3rd expansion card, Bureaucracy: "+2 coins. Each other player puts a card from his hand on top of his deck." So it turns out there's a basic problem with discard-based attacks in Dominion. Consider "each other player discards a card." If that gets played once against you in a round, it tends to do nothing at all. Twice and it ranges from mildly annoying to annoying. Three times and it's devastating. It just nukes your turn. Now, you can get the effect three times by say having each opponent in a 4-player game play it once. You don't even need Villages and Throne Rooms. This effect naturally ranges from incredibly weak to incredibly broken.

There are solutions of course. My first solution was to go with "each other player discards down to 3 cards." That card, with +2 coins, made it into the set with the name Bureaucracy.

Now that I needed an attack to replace Militia, I took Bureaucracy a different direction. I kept the Silver-gaining of Militia, but had it go on top of your deck to make it more interesting, and went with a discard effect that only hit Victory cards, as another way to limit how devastating the discard can be. I used the "on top of your deck" part of the original Bureaucracy to make it more different from the card then called Bureaucracy. We already had art commissioned for a card called Militia, so this card was called Militia.

The original Bureaucracy had a flavor justification - putting a card back is like, you know, red tape. Bureaucracy. Slowing you down. So at this point the titles of the two cards were reversed. So we swapped them. Then, the other attacks were all guys, so Bureaucracy became Bureaucrat.

Cellar: The oldest version of this didn't give you +1 Action. It obviously needed it, got it early on, and survived unscathed since.

Chancellor: When Valerie got her copy of the game at Origins 2007, she also got a copy of the first expansion as I had it then. So when cards left the main set, she knew all about those expansion cards, and on one occasion nominated this card to be swapped into the main set. I think she was looking for another +coins card, to provide another anti-Thief option. I really like having the card in the main set, as it's simple but subtle. New players are always like, huh? Why would I want to do that?

Chapel: This started out "trash any number of cards" and went to the ever-so-slightly weaker "trash up to 4 cards." I tested a version with "trash up to 3 cards." It was horrible. Just, way slower than the current version, like you wouldn't believe.

Council Room: Originally the 4th expansion had a "non-attack player interaction" sub-theme. It was easily the best expansion, and it became clear that I should split that sucker up. The main set got this card.

Feast: At one point the 1st expansion had a "one-shot" theme. I eventually realized that that was a bad theme because some players don't like those cards. They don't like how the card doesn't stay in their deck, or something. I'm not too clear on it but I know there are haters out there. So I split that theme up, with some of the cards going into limbo. One-shots are different enough that I think they're worth doing sometimes, and well some people like them fine. But I might not even do one per set. The main set got this one as it's the least offensive; you do get to hold onto the card you fetch with it.

Festival: When the set went (back) up to 25 cards, it needed another Village-type card, and this was a simple one from the 6th expansion. It was originally called Circus. I think Dale suggested the name Festival. This is the only other name change that occurred during development (besides Bureaucrat / Militia). If I had it to do again, I might put a little more work into these names; a lot of them are fine - Thief steals treasures, Moat stops attacks, and while at first you figure, I guess the Thief can't swim, later you see the Moat art and realize it's not the kind of Moat that's swimmable - but some are odd - Feast is a big Workshop that only works once? See, you're talking shop at the feast. Names were just not an issue we looked at. Everything seemed fine because it had been called whatever for so long. It's the Raiders of the Lost Ark phenomenon. Raiders of the Lost Ark? Some thieves robbing a boat? But once you get used to it, it's Raiders, that movie. Anyway I have spent more time on expansion card names since.

Gardens: Originally the main set had a different special victory card. I swapped this in, taking it from the 6th expansion, because this one was less narrow - there are more "tables" (sets of 10 kingdom cards) that make Gardens a viable strategy. At one point Valerie put this on a list of cards she thought could leave the main set, but I defended it and she didn't fight it.

Laboratory: A very early card that looked like this for forever.

Library: When I nabbed Festival from the 6th expansion, I took Library with it, since to me they went together. Actually it was a 3-card package, but the other card did not make the grade. Library seemed like a fine card to have around, so why not. At one point it came under fire for having confusing text, and could conceivably have gotten booted. We fixed up the text and ended up deciding it wasn't too complicated after all.

Market: This started out with a mere "+1 Buy" on that first evening of Dominion, and gradually accumulated the rest of the +'s over a couple evenings. If I left it at that you might think the first version was cheaper than 5, but no, it was 5. Before playing that first game, I had no idea what card costs should be, and my guesses were not always in the ballpark. Drawing Market meant you had fewer cards in hand to actually spend on that buy, so it obviously needed some money to go with it; and then there was another card that gave you a free coin, and I merged them.

Militia: I already told the story of this one under Bureaucrat. If you skipped ahead to get to the Militia story, go back.

Mine: Of the 10 Actions in the first game ever of Dominion, this has changed the least. It always cost 5, and always let you trade Copper for Silver or Silver for Gold. The only difference is that now it phrases this as "gain a Treasure costing up to 3 more," as if someday there might be other treasures that this would also work with.

Moat: The very first Moat just stopped one attack and was discarded. That was pretty weak, so I gradually improved it. Also I felt like it was important that you be able to do something with Moat even if no attacks were on the table, for people who wanted to just deal out 10 random cards and play with them. When Valerie got her copy, the card either drew 2 cards or was discarded to stop an attack, but during the time between then and when development started, I changed it so you just revealed it to stop attacks - you could stop multiple attacks with it, and then still play it to draw cards on your turn. For a while Valerie or Dale thought this might be too good, and we tested a version you had to discard, but eventually the stronger version won out.

Moneylender: An old card that I don't think ever changed.

Remodel: Another very early card with no story.

Smithy: Another early card that never changed. It wasn't one of the first 10 cards though. At the beginning I was worried that drawing your whole deck would be bad. Soon I realized it was in fact fun.

Spy: I made this for the 4th expansion during development of the main set, and almost immediately stole it for the main set. It was just too perfect; it's an attack that doesn't feel like the other ones, it interacts with a bunch of things, it's hard to evaluate. It's "free" (it has +1 card, +1 action, so playing it doesn't use up your action and it doesn't take up space in your hand), and those cards are hot tickets.

Thief: This is the only card that Valerie and Dale changed (other than non-functional wording changes). Which is of course just the way I would have wanted things - I mean who wouldn't? They had no compulsion to make changes for the sake of changing things; they complained about a few weak/confusing cards that just left, and everything else but Thief ended up the way I made it. Anyway Thief originally revealed the top 2 cards, then put the untrashed ones back. Valerie didn't like how, if you got hit with Thief and your top 2 cards were non-Treasures, then subsequent Thieves would also get nothing. Also there was the issue of remembering the order to put the cards back. So they changed it from reveal to reveal-then-discard. I was initially skeptical but in the end I think it was a good change.

Throne Room: For most of its life this card cost 3. My feeling was that you didn't want to buy two on turns 1 and 2, and probably didn't want to buy one on either of those turns (except with the Feast combo). Later in the game it doesn't matter as much whether it costs 3 or 4. So why not 3? In general, if a card can be cheaper, I make it cheaper. I want the cards as cheap as possible without breaking the game, rather than as expensive as possible without going unplayed. So, I knew Throne Room was good, but it seemed like 3 was okay.

Well late in development there was a game where no-one fought me for the Throne Rooms and I had a turn where I chained 6 of them. "I play Throne Room. First I Throne Room a Throne Room; for that one first I Throne Room a Smithy, then a Throne Room; for that one first I Throne Room a Throne Room..." I had a big cloud of actions on the table (we use a binary tree in these ridiculous situations). It's not just powerful; it's messy. I thought, hmm, maybe this could stand being 4 after all. It makes it just a bit harder to get a million of them; you don't go, "Market, buy two Throne Rooms" nearly as often. There was some worry that now there weren't enough 3's, but we decided we could live with just having four. There's Silver at 3, so it's fine to sometimes deal out a random 10 and not get a 3.

Village: This got better and better during the very early days of the game. One of my friends always went for Village and could not win a game. So over the first few weeks I gradually improved it to its current level. It's cool to see people arguing about whether it's too good or not and well I guess to keep that interesting I should avoid commenting myself. *whistles*

Witch: In the very first game of Dominion, this cost 3 but didn't draw you cards. It quickly shot up to 5, then gained the penalty of "pay one coin." That's how much people hated Witch. It stayed like that until around when development started. When I started doing more testing of the main set cards (as opposed to expansions), it was obvious that Witch was weak. First it lost the penalty, then gained +1 Card, then +2 Cards. It costs 5; there is some tough competition there.

Woodcutter: At some point I wanted another +Buy card in the main set. I tried several things that were Woodcutter plus a small bonus, and the small bonuses kept being too wonky. Finally I went with the plain Woodcutter. Then I swapped it out for a more interesting +Buy card, but Valerie or Dale didn't like that one, so eventually we swapped Woodcutter back in. It's contributing to keeping complexity down in the main set.

In the beginning +1 Buy was written out - "You may buy an additional card this turn." When there was a second one of those cards, I changed it to "+1 Purchase," then "+1 Build," and at last "+1 Buy." +1 Action was also initially written out, but it never had any other name. During development we considered and rejected using icons instead. What do you do for your Action icon? Nothing good, is what I thought. And it's not like it actually simplifies anything. "Action" and "Buy" are text icons. Anyway for those of you who are wondering, why does a Woodcutter get you an extra Buy, that's why - I named that card when it was called "+1 Build," and never thought of changing it later.

Workshop: The very first version of this card was "+1 Action. -1 Buy. Gain a card costing up to 3." Hey, "-1 Buy," what's up with that? I was trying to design a card explicitly for a moneyless deck. It worked too - once in a while. Most games it was unplayable. Everyone hated it but me. Eventually I relented and dropped the -1 Buy. That version was still too narrow and well you know what it looks like now.

Oh hey, there are 7 more cards.

Estate, Duchy, Copper, Silver, Gold: These cards are unchanged from day one. You could argue that the actions got tweaked to fit the treasures. The treasure pile sizes changed to match different estimates for the total set size, and ended up generous on all counts. In development the issue of the names for these came up - is it simpler if it's Copper Mine rather than Copper? In the end you can see that Copper won out. It just makes it a lot easier to name action cards if the treasures are treasures rather than mines.

Province: As mentioned in the BGN article, we changed this from 5 VP to 6 VP during development, as part of the fix to the Duchy rush. The Duchy rush was, you buy nothing but Silver and Duchies. At the time the game ended when any Victory pile ran out. If one person went for the Duchy rush you could beat them, but if two people did, you had to join them. My friends found this strategy, but it didn't seem like a problem. It was a boring strategy, so the only reason to play it was if you thought it would win for you. It wouldn't though; it would win for someone at random, since we would all follow suit. You could make the game suck but that's it. So we never did it.

Well would you believe, being able to make the game suck is not so hot. Furthermore, if you're a new player, the Duchy rush may elevate your chance of winning from zero to even. So it was in fact a problem. An anonymous playtester realized this, Valerie and Dale raised the alarm, and in the end, Province changed from 5 VP to 6 VP and the end condition changed from "any empty victory pile" (the end condition we were using at the time, but not the original one, which was "any empty pile") to the one you know. We tried ideas that Valerie or Dale came up with, but in the end happened to go with something that I suggested (which is why I didn't count this when I mentioned Thief as the only card they changed). These two changes were easily the most important changes during development.

Curse: Originally this was a "Token" (you know, on the bottom line). There were both Curse and Confusion cards, and I wanted a name that didn't suggest a penalty, since who knows, maybe I would eventually make a non-penalty card like that. And I felt like maybe I would want to refer to these cards, so they needed a category. But with just Curse, and no need to refer to the cards, the name "Token" just looked weird. "Curse" was the easy out. It isn't a Victory card because that would cause some poor card interactions eventually.

Pre-development, you could get Curses from the trash. Also treasures. I forgot all about that when doing that BGN interview; this is another change Valerie and Dale made. They changed it to, once trashed, gone forever. My original thought was, I would have an infinite pile of Silvers if I could, but it's a physical game so what can you do. Getting them from the trash stretched out the supply just slightly. But it's simpler not to, nice to have those piles count towards the end condition, and man getting hit 10 times with Witch (the maximum if there's no Moat) is plenty.

The total number of Curses also changed. For a while there were 45. You could really get Cursed bad. Also you didn't always vary the pile size with the number of players. That's there of course to stop Witch from getting ridiculous with 2 players (or from being negligible with 4, if you fix it for 2).

And there you have it!
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