Why Dominion Works (Games)

In late 2008, Dominion introduced the concept of deck-building games. Almost 2 1/2 years later, you’d think that we would have some new games that build on that idea in exciting new ways. Surprisingly, though, we’ve seen only a series of knock-offs that miss the fundamental things that made Dominion so great. A few days ago, I found myself caught in yet another Dominion-vs.-Thunderstone discussion, so I think it’s time to explain once and for all what aspects made Dominion so successful.

First, a quick explanation: In a deck-building game like Dominion, each player starts out with a small deck of weak cards. On your turn, in addition to playing the cards in your hand, you can add new cards to your deck. When your personal draw pile runs out, shuffle up your discards to make a new draw pile, which now has your recently-acquired cards. At the game’s end, score cards in the decks determine the winner.

Deck-building games are not to be confused with constructible deck games like Magic: The Gathering, in which players buy their own sets of cards and put together a full deck in preparation for a game. Instead, deck-building games make the deck creation the meat of the game instead of the pre-game, and give every player a common pool to take from.

This basic structure is very general, and I’m not going to claim that a game is a failure unless it matches Dominion’s rules exactly. However, Dominion seems to have found an ideal mix of elements right from the start, which means that every “Dominion with a twist” game that followed has changed it for the worse.

The key is that, since the game’s basic element is gaining new cards, it needs to offer strategic depth by making it interesting to figure out which cards you need next. Other games fall into one of two traps: Either their strategy comes down to the simple “take the best card you can afford each turn”, or the same basic choices dominate every game, quickly becoming familiar. Dominion avoids the latter by having a wide variety of cards, only a few of which are available in a given game. More subtly, it avoids the first issue by letting you play one action every turn, and then play your money cards in order to buy something new. Crucially, you must then discard every card in your hand that you didn’t play, and re-draw a new hand for the next turn. This means that if you draw two action cards in the same turn, one of them is going to be discarded without doing anything. You only had five cards to work with at the start of your turn, so letting one or two of them go to waste is a big deal. Do that too often, and you’re going to end up way behind the person who managed to set up a more efficient mix for their deck.

Of course, many of Dominion’s action cards let you take another action afterwards. If your hand of five cards has four that give you another action followed by one “terminal action”, you’ll probably be pretty happy with your turn. However, since your cards are shuffled and drawn randomly, it’s almost impossible to get that exact mix. If you draw nothing but cards that give you more actions, then you’ll simply end up with a lot of actions you can’t use. Playing cards but being unable to use their benefit is as wasteful as not playing them at all. On the other extreme, if your only starting action card lets you draw additional cards, and the ones that it gives you are all actions, it will be too late to play any of them. Even if those cards would give you additional actions, you used your one action before you found them.

Thanks to the random shuffles, no one can get a perfect draw every time. But the strategy of the game involves looking at the various cards that are available (since the selection changes every time) and deciding which ones will combine best with each other. On some games, you should focus heavily on actions that chain together, while on others, you’ll take just a few key actions and spend the rest of your time buying money to increase your spending power. But you also need to decide whether to slowly buy the expensive cards, or take actions that increase your buys per turn, so you quickly stock up on the less expensive cards. You need to consider not only how they combine in your deck, but which scoring strategies are out there, and which cards will be least hindered by the attack cards that other players can buy. Again, it depends on the cards that are available in this particular game. The beauty is that the best card for you to buy may not be the most expensive one out there. It will depend on what else you are buying, and every player can come up with a different viable strategy for each mix of available cards.

It all comes down to the limited number of actions that you have by default. You are at risk of “wasted” cards if you don’t get the right balance in your hand.

Thunderstone tried to take Dominion’s basic elements and graft a more interesting monster-slaying theme onto it. However, in doing so, the action cards are now adventurers and their equipment. Since there’s no harm in having more than one person in your party, on each turn you simply play every card in your hand and count up their total value. You barely need to worry about having a card that will sit in your hand ineffectively. Sure, some cards are weaker than others, but if you just buy the most powerful card you can afford every turn, you won’t have to worry about that much. Where is the tension in that decision?

I’m simplifying things, of course. If you end up with more weapons than adventurers, then the weakest of those weapons will be discarded fruitlessly. Having a couple extra light-providing cards can help out, but too much light in one turn is useless. However, the principle is that you’ll play all or almost all of your cards every turn. You barely need to consider how your cards will interact with each other. If you’re not thinking about the way that your cards work together, then what is the point of deck-building?

Thunderstone isn’t the only game to make this mistake. Read the rules to the upcoming Eminent Domain, which has only five types of cards to choose from, and requires the players to buy a mix of all of them in order to win. Sid Meier’s Civilization also contains a “deck-building” mechanic that is nothing more than buying cards in three military categories. For the most part, you’ll want to focus on the category that you are strongest in, but you’ll also want a little bit of variety since there is a “rock-paper-scissors” relationship between the categories, and too much focus will make it easy for your opponents to exploit your deck’s weakness. In a battle, every card in your hand will be played without interacting with the others. I’m willing to give Civilization some slack, since deck-building is only a small part of the overall game, but the fact that this basic resource-collection is even thought of as “deck-building” shows how far away we’ve drifted from the principles that made Dominion succeed.

I’m hopeful that there will eventually be another deck-building game worth playing. Nightfall, for example, looks promising. I’m not sold on it – AEG’s battle-focused, theme-heavy games are usually very flawed. But at the very least, it is exploring some interesting variations on the typical deck-building game. All cards have color combinations, and in order to play multiple ones on a turn you must “chain” them in specific color orders. This is a new take on Dominion’s limited-action mechanic, and hopefully there will be a lot of strategy in trying to find combinations that let you play all your cards. Since you can chain off other people’s colors as well as your own, a good strategy will involve building a deck from colors that take advantage of your right-hand opponent while closing off the opportunities for your left-hand opponent.

Nightfall certainly isn’t just a Dominion clone. The idea of “chaining” on other peoples’ turns is completely new, but makes sense for the way actions are played. It changes several other things that are fundamental to the Dominion experience, as well: directed attacks are common, some cards are only available for a single player to take, and a catch-up mechanic compensates players who are falling behind on points. Whether it turns out to be a good game or not, it deserves credit for showing that there is more potential out there for the deck-building mechanic.

I’m not looking for another game that’s exactly like Dominion. Other games should offer unique experiences. I’m simply asking that deck-building games make sure that the actual deck-building feels like a part of the strategy. That seems like an obvious thing to ask for, and I hope that someday, when Thunderstone is long-forgotten, it will seem obvious to everyone else, too.

Update: It’s been a couple of years, so it’s probably time to mention that I never played Nightfall after all. I heard from a few people who did play it that the color-chaining idea didn’t lead to natural or thematic combos, and also that the game fundamentally came down to direct attacks against other players. If it looks like you’re winning, other players will start giving you Wounds, and before long it won’t matter how good your deck is. The winner will be the person who keeps quietest and flies below everyone’s radar. Direct attacks are fine in many games, but it sounds like it completely breaks the deck-building mechanism here.

Fortunately, better deck-building games have come out since. You can read my opinion as of late 2013 here.

  1. Just a question…how did Dominion introduce the concept of deck-building games? I thought games like Magic the Gathering already did that…

    No offense. 🙂

    P.S. You’re hot.

    • I’m distinguishing between “deck-building”, like Dominion, and “constructible deck”, like Magic. Both of them involve making a deck of cards to play with, but the mechanics are pretty different. In Magic, you put together a deck ahead of time, and then play the game to see how good it is. In a “deck-building” game, the creation of the deck is the game itself. Instead of playing a game with a completed deck, you don’t finish the deck until the game is over.

  1. June 6th, 2012

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