Posts Tagged ‘ Deck-building ’

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.

Dominion: Guilds (Game Review)

Dominion: Guilds box

Dominion: Guilds

After an amazing five years, the time of Dominion has ended. Designer Donald X. Vaccarino insists that Guilds is the last planned expansion. Whether or not that really remains true, the game will definitely feel different now that there are no longer new cards being added every six months.

This is a solid expansion, though it doesn’t feel as momentous as I’d like the final one to be. The original plan was originally to save Dark Ages until the end, and I think that would have been a good idea. Not only was it great, but it felt game-changing and added the most new cards of any Dominion game. Guilds, on the other hand, is one of the half-size expansions, and because the game’s variety comes from all the combinations of cards, these ones with twelve new card types feel like they have a quarter of the new material that the twenty-six-card expansions do.

This one is definitely good for expert players, though, which is appropriate for the last expansion. The two themes are Coin tokens, which you can save to spend as money in a future round, and cards that let you “overpay” when you buy them in return for a benefit. Previously, you had to spend money on the turn you earned it, and one of the trickiest things for new players to learn was that the best card for your deck wasn’t always the most expensive one. Now, players are also faced with the opposite question: Is the best card for your deck one that you should give up your savings for? If you have several coins saved up and multiple buys, this isn’t an easy question.

Dominion: Guilds Cards

The theme doesn’t feel very strong, since there have been cards featuring different professions in every set. As always, though, there are fun new cards. Soothsayer is a good twist on the classic Witch: It gives the owner a Gold and the other players an extra card draw, which helps alleviate the impact of all the Cursing that goes on in Witch games. And the Advisor is like the old Envoy promo card, but adding the balance and strategy that that card lacked. However, the best thing about Guilds is that it changes a fundamental part of the game, but it still feels natural and easy to teach to new players. This adds variety and new strategies, but it doesn’t feel like the game is any harder to learn. Strangely, this makes the expansion feel both refreshing and less essential.

This may not be one of the most memorable Dominion expansions, but it definitely continues the game’s winning streak. In a hobby filled with constant changes, it’s amazing that Dominion managed to remain one of my favorite games through all that time. Of course, it did that partly with those expansions that constantly added novelty. Guilds is a satisfying close to this era.

Grade: B

 

Deck-Building Game Reviews: Core Worlds, For the Crown, and Puzzle Strike

I talk about deck-building games fairly often, usually to complain that they copy Dominion while missing the point. There have been some clever twists, but only one real success so far. However, these days Dominion is a well-established part of the board gaming scene, and we’re seeing more and more innovation.

Here are reviews of a few other games I’ve been trying out. Admittedly, each one is at least a year old, so they prove that this innovation has been growing for a while. However, I’m heartened by both the successes and failures here. Even when these have problems, it’s not that they misunderstand the game they’re copying. I think that the most exciting times for the deck-building mechanic may be just ahead. Continue reading

Mage Knight (Game Review)

Mage Knight box

Mage Knight

I’ve explained before that I don’t generally like dungeon-crawler board games. Usually too in love with their cool setting to make the rules fun and fair, they are victims of the trade-offs between theme and mechanics. I had high hopes for Mage Knight, though. In games like Galaxy Trucker and Dungeon Lords, Vlaada Chvátil has shown that he can come up with innovative, fun ways to bring out a game’s theme. But while Mage Knight is well-designed in many ways, it just doesn’t work for me.

Each player is a morally ambiguous “Mage Knight” roaming the countryside: You kill the wandering monsters that threaten civilians, but you also sack towns and fortifications, and most scenarios require you to capture cities at the end. The board is a series of tiles which don’t offer a lot of variety from game to game, but do keep individual turns unpredictable as you explore the edges and reveal more tiles. These tiles, along with everything else in the game, are beautifully made: The oversized box is full of custom dice, hundreds of cards, a wide variety of different tokens for monsters and abilities, as well as a few painted figures.

Some of the beautiful, varied cards.

Some of the beautiful, varied cards.

Those cards are especially important. Instead of traditional stats and dice, your character’s abilities are determined mainly by a deck of cards. This mix of deck-building with role-playing is a concept that I’m starting to hear about frequently, but I doubt many games will do it as well. Mage Knight is one of the very few deck-builders with mechanics that fit the game, instead of just unsuccessfully cloning Dominion. In this case, each card has two possible abilities (with the stronger one generally powered by one of four Mana colors), and any card can be played to give a single point in one of the basic needs of a turn: Movement, Attack, Blocking, or Influence. This variety of options keeps your character’s abilities fairly balanced regardless of what you draw. Sure, you’ll sometimes find yourself with little movement on a turn, or lots of combat ability when you wanted to spend Influence peacefully in town, but it’s not nearly as arbitrary and random as other systems.

Not one deck-building element seems to be directly lifted from Dominion. Money and “Buys” are gone, and Mana powers cards when they are used. Players optionally keep or discard any unused cards at the end of their turn. And like some other games, wounds are represented by useless cards that can’t be discarded easily. The biggest innovation is in the pacing of the game: Each round ends once one player has gone through their deck, and then everyone shuffles for the next round. Decks generally grow slowly, as card Trashing is rare, and no cards (other than Wounds) are so bad that you would want to get rid of them just for the sake of deck efficiency.

With only six rounds in most games, and no guarantee that you’ll go through your full deck on a round, Mage Knight doesn’t offer a lot of time to build and modify your deck. However, you gain other improvements as well. With every level-up, your character either gains a skill (from a pool that grows throughout the game) or a slot to recruit an additional supporting unit. The units and skills offer almost as wide a variety of abilities as the cards do. Though it’s not pure deck-building, the combination of cards, skills, and units combine to make your character feel unique and powerful by the end.

Midway through a solo game. There are a LOT of components, and a multi-player game barely fits on a large table by the end.

Midway through a solo game. There are a LOT of components, and a multi-player game barely fits on a large table by the end.

So why did I say that this game disappointed me? Everything I’ve explained so far is true: This is beautifully produced and features creative, well-balanced game design. There are two huge problems, though.

The first is the complexity of the rules. Though the rulebooks are designed with Chvátil’s typically thorough, clear explanations and even provide an introductory scenario to teach it gradually, this game is complex. It took me hours just to prepare to teach that introductory scenario, which I don’t think has ever happened before. Every rule has a logical reason, but there still too many quibbling details to remember: Gaining Artifact cards works differently than other types, because you draw an extra and then give one back. When fighting multiple enemies, you must play cards to block them individually but can group them for attack card effects. Remember that any enemy you attack in a Keep gains the “Fortified” ability, and that after killing a rampaging monster you move up in the Reputation track! The introductory scenario doesn’t even include all the rules, including the many ways that player vs. player battles differ from normal combat.

A close-up of the same game a little later, once the city figures are out.

A close-up of the same game a little later, once the city figures are out.

Also, while the range of options offered by each card makes the game structure work, it also makes it long. Each turn is basically a puzzle, trying to figure out the optimal way to move to a new location and accomplish something there. Many cards can combine with others, and spending Mana on one might make you unable to afford another, so the possibilities are incredibly broad. Add to that the fact that your units and many skills can be used only once per round, so you have to decide what to spend this turn. And of course, you may have three or four possible targets close by, so if one doesn’t seem possible, you can consider another. It’s not uncommon to see someone spend five or ten minutes figuring out what to do on their turn, and the people I play with are normally very fast.

These two issues make a bad combination: We spent hours playing that teaching game, and if we wanted to keep playing it within the group, we’d need to do it again to bring other friends up to speed. Going through it once is somewhat interesting (if full of way too much downtime), but the fact that every new player needs hours of training is the real killer. I’ve only played it once with others, and since then have just played it solitaire. The solo game does a remarkable job of maintaining the experience (Chvátil’s design skills are impeccable), but because of that I can also say that the problems never quite go away: My games continue to take a very long time, and even though I’m not waiting on anyone else, the puzzle-after-puzzle feel makes the game seem slow and draining.

Mage Knight has a lot going for it. The production quality and rules are among the best of 2012, but none of my friends are interested in playing it. I can’t say I blame them; I’m very glad to have experienced this, but after a few solitaire sessions, I have no desire to try it again myself.

Grade: C

 

Dominion: Dark Ages (Game Review)

Dominion: Dark Ages box

Dominion: Dark Ages

After my lukewarm reception of the last couple Dominion expansions, I’m pleased to say that Dominion: Dark Ages makes the game feel truly exciting again. Its main themes (trashing and upgrading cards) are not new, but they provide plenty of territory to explore. There are a lot of clever abilities here, but even the cards that don’t seem original are consistently interesting, balanced, and have strong artwork. This are also a lot of combos, making this a great engine-building deck for experienced players.

Maybe the best part is the sheer quantity of gameplay that Dark Ages adds. The standalone Dominion sets have 500 cards, but half of those are used for the basic Treasure and Victory cards. The later “full-size” expansions had fewer cards to make room for mats and tokens. Dark Ages has no supporting bits like that, so it is the first to include a full 500 cards devoted to expanding the game. This means 35 Kingdom Cards, almost as many as a previous full-size and half-size expansion combined.

Rats and Graverobber cards

Two cards that do new things with the Trashing mechanism

Cards are a much more economical option for a game. Those 35 Kingdom Cards only account for about two-thirds of the cards included in the set, so the others can extend the gameplay in new ways. The lack of boards and counters doesn’t feel limiting at all. The Dark Ages theme is reinforced with Ruins cards (a deck-clogging type similar to Curses) and Shelters (new starting cards that give players more choices in the early moves). There are also several special types of cards which can only be gained by other specific cards. These feel like nothing that has come before.

A sub-theme seems to be a focus on cards with a cost between 3 and 6 coins, which form the “core” of most decks. It’s good to see certain abilities restricted to work only in this range, especially attack cards that otherwise would have had much more random effects on opponents’ decks. While for the most part, new Dominion cards stake out new territory without replacing old cards, this does seem to be a case where it specifically improves on some previous attack cards.

Hermit and Madman

A new type of upgrading: The Madman is a powerful one-shot card that can only be gained by trashing a Hermit.

It’s a little weird to consider the theme of the Dark Ages in this game, given that the trashing and upgrading abilities featured here actually help you make stronger decks. But no one would actually want to play a drawn-out game where everyone struggled through a representation of the collapse of civilization. The more important criticism is the one that has been present for the past few expansions: At this point, there are a lot of Dominion cards. With well over 200 types available and only 10 used in each game, you could play for a long time without missing any one set. Dark Ages is one of the best yet, but the game’s own success means that no expansion truly feels essential any more.

Yes, the biggest problem with this set is that Dominion is so consistently good that even excellent expansions stop being exciting. But it still ranks among the best, possibly second only to Dominion: Prosperity. It’s well worth buying.

Grade: A-

 

Friday (Game Review)

Friday box

Friday

As I said in my Origins re-cap, Friedemann Friese’s Friday is the first deck-building game since Dominion to truly work, and it does this by not trying to copy Dominion at all. Most notably, you don’t hold a hand of cards. After choosing a challenge to fight against, you draw a certain number and see what total strength they provide. Winning gives you that card in your hand – half of the card describes the challenge, while the other half has a fighting strength or special power to use later. If the drawn cards aren’t enough to win, you can either pay a health point to draw another, or you can give up, losing one health per point that you lost. But these losses are an important part of your strategy, because for each health lost in this way, you can trash one drawn card. With a theme based on Robinson Crusoe, you start the game very healthy, but weak. The goal is to get rid of the bad cards you start with and gain stronger ones, essentially turning into a tough survivalist who is just a few accidents away from death. Every time you go through your deck, a bad “aging” card gets shuffled in, adding another threat to stay on top of.

The middle of a game of Friday

The deck-building mechanic isn’t the only clever aspect, though. Friday is also a solitaire game. While some new games come with optional solitaire rules, this is the first modern one I’ve seen intended only for one player. As such, it’s a little difficult to judge. One friend I loaned it to pointed out that the various things you needed to keep track of felt too fiddly, and he’d rather use a computer if he’s playing solitaire. Personally, I thought the fiddliness was much easier to handle when I’m just counting points and special abilities in my head instead of justifying them to the table. Obviously, though, opinions about Friday will depend on factors different from multiplayer games.

I will say, though, that if you want a strategic solitaire game, this seems like the right approach. It’s inexpensive, can be packed in a purse or laptop bag, and plays in about thirty minutes. (If you lose, it may end more quickly.) On top of that, the four difficulty levels keep the game challenging but winnable for all players, as well as making sure that you experience the full arc of the gameplay in those early learning games.

The gameplay is streamlined but offers some worthwhile choices. Like a good deck-builder should, Friday works because its strategy involves more than just taking whatever you can. That 0-strength card that lets you draw two more for free is pretty good in the late game, but useless in the beginning when the cards it draws will probably also be 0s. Balancing the need for fighting strength with the cool powers that some cards have is a major tension, even more important than the balance between destroying bad cards and retaining health.

I don’t see this becoming a Dominion-style juggernaut. You play with the same cards every time, get the chance to put almost every card in your deck, and I haven’t found a better strategy than the one that I figured out early on. But there’s a good deal of replay potential within that strategy, and I can play Friday at times when other board games just aren’t an option. Friday is a good game regardless, but if I also give it credit for filling a new niche and doing deck-building right, then this is obviously a must-play.

Grade: A-

The 2011 Dominion Expansions(Game Review)

Both game boxes

Dominion: Cornucopia and Hinterlands

Cornucopia and Hinterlands, the sixth and seventh releases of Dominion, have finally found the series reaching a point of diminishing returns for me. They are still great additions to the base game, but I’m at the point where I had enough Dominion cards already that these were “nice to haves”, not vital purchases. The main reason I’m only now getting around to discussing these 2011 releases is that I mixed them in with so many other cards that it became difficult to pick them out for specific review. Of course, your mileage may vary. Some people reached this point a few expansions ago, and others are still discussing the next release with the same eagerness I was using back in the Prosperity days. It’s probably telling, though, that Rio Grande is finally slowing down their schedule to one expansion per year.

Even if it arrived too late to feel vital, Cornucopia still adds fascinating new twists to the game. It’s only a half-sized release, the same size as the unloved Alchemy expansion, but this one is as interesting as a full-sized one. It turns a central tenet of Dominion on its head: One of the first hard lessons for new players is that buying every cool card available will lead to an unpredictable, diluted deck. Good players build a strategy around only a few Kingdom cards, sometimes as few as one. About half the cards in Cornucopia, though, reward you for owning a variety of cards. Whether it’s points for the “differently named” cards in your deck, coins for the different ones you played, or bonus draws as a prize for having no duplicates in your hand, they take varied approaches towards encouraging a wide-ranging strategy. A couple other cards actually increase the number of “named cards” available in a single game: The Young Witch is an attack that can be blocked by an extra “Bane” card in the supply (which is any random 2- or 3-cost Kingdom card), and the Tournament comes with five distinct “Prize” cards for players to win.

Cards from Dominion: Cornucopia

This turns out to work very well. Though varied decks are almost always weakened, they aren’t completely crippled. A minor boost in return for the variety can be enough to make it worthwhile. This means that a strategic approach that had almost always been weak in the past is now sometimes good and sometimes bad. This is exactly what makes Dominion such a great game: The new expansions neither fade into obscurity nor completely overpower the old cards. Instead, they open up new strategic avenues that hadn’t been considered in the past, while leaving the old ones available. It’s only the timing that keeps me from proclaiming Cornucopia to be a vital expansion; As it is, it still makes the game a richer experience.

Hinterlands, on the other hand, didn’t have that effect on me. This expansion’s theme is cards that have an effect as soon as you Buy or Gain them. While not completely new, it’s still a relatively unexplored area of the game that deserves more attention. However, one-time effects rarely feel as game-changing as abilities that can be used repeatedly, such as Cornucopia’s. Further, expanding this area of the game adds to the complexity of the rules. Do you understand the timing difference between “Buying” and “Gaining” a card? How does an ability that triggers “when you would gain another card” interact with the on-Gain effect of the card you would have gained? Don’t worry, the rulebook does explain these (with the typical thoroughness that other game publishers should learn from), but this is definitely a signal that Dominion is moving in a more complex, “experts-only,” direction. I don’t mind that in theory, but I wish the release that did this would feel at least as significant as the ones that came before.

Dominion: Hinterlands cards

That said, both of these are solid expansions to my favorite game. I can play this nearly one hundred times per year, and I’m still frequently surprised by how different one set-up can be from the next. Cornucopia only offered a taste of the paradigm-shaking changes of the early expansions, and Hinterlands mixed right in without any surprise, but they maintain the current level of quality and are the reason this game will still feel varied to me a year from now. If I sound a little cynical, it’s because I’ve reached the point where I understand why some people have Dominion fatigue. I still say these games are worth buying, though, and I’m confident that I’ll be standing in line for the next one.

Dominion: Cornucopia: B+

Dominion: Hinterlands: B-