Looking Back at Dominion

I didn’t know if I could get it published, but if I could, my guess was, that at game stores there would be a shelf just for Dominion stuff. I did not anticipate that the shelf below it would be full of clones.

Now that the final Dominion expansion has shipped, it’s time for the post-mortems. Donald X. Vaccarino has posted his “secret history” (an updated version of something he wrote a while back) to Board Game Geek,  and it includes that wry comment on all the spin-offs that his game inspired.

I wrote my own complaint about the spin-offs two and a half years ago (unknowingly at the mid-point of Dominion’s life cycle). It’s continued to be a fairly popular article even now, so I definitely regret how quickly I dashed out that article. The basic point is still true, though: The quickest way to make a new deck-building game is to think of something to change about Dominion (usually the lack of monsters to fight) and then add it in. However, the people who do this seem to consistently miss the elegant design that makes Dominion work. In fact, the thing I found most interesting about Vaccarino’s article is how many of his discarded ideas seem to describe games that have come out since.

It had 500 unique cards, so just making a presentable prototype would be too much work, let alone balancing everything. And a game lasts four hours. So the audience would be somewhat narrow.

Vaccarino chose not to create Mage Knight years before Mage Knight was published.

Initially I thought there would be like a line of cards, and when you bought one we’d deal a replacement from a deck. That sounded bad though – too much of the game would rest on having a good card get turned over when it was your turn to go next.

Donald X. chose not to create Ascension years before Ascension was published.

While working on this game I realized that the math was too hard. You look at the first card in your hand. Deal 3 damage per level of bow skill. You look down at your Ranger. Bow level: 2. You multiply, that’s 6. Now remember that number and move on to the next card, a sword card for your Paladin. Figure out its total and add it and then move onto the next card. You’re looking back and forth and back and forth and remembering numbers.

Ok, that’s not exactly the same as Thunderstone’s math, but it’s the same fundamental problem. Donald X. recognized it from the start.

Things have changed since I wrote my older article. Though plenty of deck-builders still miss the point, we occasionally see ones that have an interesting variation on Dominion’s mechanics, and are able to modify the system to support it. We are even seeing some games that take deck-building in a completely different direction, proving that this mechanic can be a lot more than just clones of the first game. (To be fair, Mage Knight accomplishes this as well, despite my snark about it above. My complaints have more to do with the rest of the game, even though it implements deck-building well.)

For the most part, the future looks bright for deck-builders. I do have one major concern, though: Dominion would not be a popular game if it came out now. The twenty-five cards in the base set simply don’t provide much variety. It seemed like enough in 2008 because it was new to all of us, but now we need at least a few sets to keep the game varied and interesting. The economic reality is that releasing a box much bigger than Dominion wouldn’t work, though, so the new games still have to start off with just the basic components. That’s the main reason that Puzzle Strike isn’t getting the attention from me that it deserves, and it’s why my hopes about Trains are low despite the good buzz I’m hearing. Dominion got there first, and it pulled the ladder up after itself.

I hope that other “Dominion clones” can overcome this. If nothing else, Vaccarino has mentioned that he’d like to make separate stand-alone games someday that do things like monster-flghting right. I’d hate for him to be a victim of his past game’s success.

Despite that concern, though, I’m a lot happier with the state of deck-building games than I was in 2011. It took some time, but other designers seem to understand what makes this mechanic work. I was sad when I first heard that Dominion expansions had a planned completion date, but it feels appropriate now that the day is here. I still have a great game with a ton of variety to return to, and I’m excited to see what everyone comes up with next.

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