Posts Tagged ‘ Donald X. Vaccarino ’

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


Gauntlet of Fools (Game Review)

Gauntlet of Fools box cover

Gauntlet of Fools

Though I love the theme, most dungeon-crawling games are disappointing. The setting seems to invite not only randomness, but “screw you” cards that swing the game uncontrollably and special events that interact with each other in game-breaking ways. Given that, it’s a relief to say that Gauntlet of Fools is a fun game. Of course, there’s still a heavy amount of chance, but it feels appropriate to the theme without any of the pitfalls typical to dungeon-crawlers. That doesn’t mean it’s completely satisfying, though; Among other things, this is designed to be a 15-minute filler, so it won’t scratch that itch for an involved evening of monster-slaying.

The game is straightforward: Players each choose a Hero, and then they fight monsters from a deck of Encounters. Eventually, everyone will die, and whoever ends with the most gold wins! The key of the game, and the only real player interaction, is during the initial selection. Each Hero is paired with a random Weapon, and may receive additional “Boasts” that weaken it further. The Boasts are basically a thematic auction: If you want to use a Hero someone else has already claimed, you can announce “I can have the Barbarian run the gauntlet Blindfolded!” (That means that you’ll earn less gold each time you kill a monster and dodge their attack.) To take the Hero back from you, another player would have to add another Boast, such as Hungover (a serious attack and defense penalty that lasts until the Hero manages to kill their first monster). The first Encounter is revealed only once everyone feels that their opponents’ Heros have been weakened too much to be worth stealing.

The Armorer can improve his defense as he kills monsters, and he’ll need that with his penalty for Hopping on One Leg! The Bow has two ability tokens that let him dodge monsters, which will be perfect when his defense is low at the start.

The fun of Gauntlet of Fools comes from Donald X. Vaccarino’s design approach. The basic system for encounters is very simple, but it allows for a wide variety of ways for the Heros, Weapons, Boasts, and Encounters to interact with each other. It’s quick, clever, and manages to feel reasonably different from game to game. The dice rolls and shuffled deck of cards may do a lot to drive the game, but it also feels like you’re experiencing unique twists each time due to the simple yet varied ways cards can interact. (“The Giant Spider poisoned everyone, but my Priest’s healing ability made all the difference.” “I never should have said my Avenger could run the gauntlet without breakfast! He died first, and his ability only works after others have died.”)

There are a wide variety of monsters. The Armorer is hoping for easy opponents like the Gopher, so he can raise his defense quickly. But the Slime Monster, which reduces the number of dice the Hero’s Weapon has, could keep the Armorer from ever getting the kills he needs.

That randomness still makes it feel arbitrary sometimes. There are real strategic choices in deciding what combination of Hero and Boasts will work best, and it will take a few games to figure this out. However, the “right” choice for a game won’t become apparent until the top cards in the Encounter deck are revealed. The Priest may be the best choice if a Spider is about to poison everyone, but you won’t find that out until after the auction is done. This works, but because it only aims to be a quick and silly game. The theme and art are fun, and the game unfolds without any of the painful events that derail other dungeon-crawlers. Make your choices, play up the theme of Boasting, and then take a few minutes to see who guessed right.

Grade: B


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-


Kingdom Builder: Nomads (Game Review)

Kingdom Builder: Nomads box

Kingdom Builder: Nomads

Donald X. Vaccarino’s Kingdom Builder is a light but decent game, whose main draw lies in the promise of variety that later additions will offer. Kingdom Builder: Nomads therefore has a much larger responsibility than most game expansions do. The results are inconclusive; Nomads offers a good variety of new features, but it doesn’t seem to open up the Kingdom Builder system in the way that I’d hoped.

Nomads has four boards, each with a new building on it. Since each game uses four random boards, this adds to the variety of combinations available. These also put more effort into the mountain and water layout, making it much more interesting to plan around impassable terrain. The abilities of the new buildings vary. The Quarry, which lets you add “Stone” to block off tiles on the map, is a fun ability. The Caravan, on the other hand, is surprisingly confusing. While it plays a similar role to the Stables of the original game, it slows down turns and even causes good characters to make occasional mistakes.

Instead of Castle spaces, these boards include the “Nomad” spaces that give the game its name. Each of these holds a single tile that grants an ability slightly more powerful than the standard buildings. However, the tiles are used a single time and then discarded from the game. This is a great addition, since there are now more items to go for on the board, and new considerations about which ones will be the most valuable for the game.

The heart of Kingdom Builder is really the fact that the scoring changes completely from game to game. (Imagine playing a Chess variant where one game is a race to move your Pawns the furthest, the next is based around controlling specific spaces on the board, and so on. That will give you an idea of the variety of strategies that different sessions of Kingdom Builder offer.) Here, the expansion also has a good twist. Three new possible scoring conditions are added which award points for actions during the game instead of at the end. They are well balanced, and offer interesting new choices.

The only bad addition in the Nomads expansion is, fortunately, completely optional: Pieces for a fifth player may be welcomed by some, but I found the game to have too much downtime this way. Kingdom Builder is a fast-playing filler, and I don’t want to wait for four people to make moves between each of my turns.

Early in a Nomads game, with Quarries and Nomad tiles in use (plus the new red player pieces)

So if Nomads fleshes out the game in multiple ways, why am I somewhat disappointed? Well, part of it is the price. After adding a $35 MSRP expansion to a $60 MSRP base, I still feel like I have a light game that offers direct comparisons to Dominion but doesn’t have anywhere near the variety. Queen Games offers high-quality production along with its high prices, but that just makes me frustrated that the backs of the cards and boards don’t match the original. Apparently I have the American version of Kingdom Builder and the International version of Nomads, so everything has different backs. It can be worked around, but it feels shoddy given the price.

More importantly, though, is the nagging impression that Kingdom Builder is already running out of steam instead of promising new ideas yet to come. In a behind-the-scenes look at the game, Vaccarino flat-out admits that the number of scoring cards we’ve seen so far has been limited not by what Queen could afford to print for the game, but by what he could actually think of that played well. Having exhausted the basic possibilities in the first set, he now covered in-game scoring for Nomads. But what’s next? Will the next expansion need to add entirely new concepts just to justify three more scoring cards? This game already had to replace some existing score cards so that references to “Castle spaces” now say “Castle or Nomad spaces”, and it can be confusing for players to notice the distinction between them on the boards. It seems like the new ideas will increase complexity quickly.

If you like Kingdom Builder, Nomads has several clever additions that will double the game’s lifetime for you. It still dampens my hopes about the future of the game, though. At this point, I’m not sure if I’ll stick with it through the next expansion or not.

Grade: B-

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-


Kingdom Builder (Game Review)

Kingdom Builder box

Kingdom Builder

Though Kingdom Builder is very different from Dominion, Donald X. Vaccarino’s previous game, it’s fair to say that they come from the same design approach. Both are based on rules so simple that it hardly seems like they could contain a worthwhile game, but include a variety of items that all interact with the rules in different ways. The player’s mission is to find the best use of the offered items, which is tricky because each game only contains a few of them. The vast differences in strategy when different combinations of items are available is what gives the game its depth and replayability.

The similarities end there, though. Dominion was built from elements so elegant that it’s hard to remember how original they were at the time: deck-building games, and, less obviously, systems of “undirected attacks”, came from Vaccarino’s mind. Kingdom Builder, on the other hand, starts with an element already exhaustively covered by Eurogames: placing cubes on the spaces of a map, which are defined by their terrain and possibly by neighboring special spaces. From there, he applied Dominion-style elements to provide different powers (based on the unique spaces that are included in the modular map) and scoring rules.

Kingdom builder in playThis isn’t a Dominion clone. Kingdom Builder feels less like a Dominion knock-off than deck-builders such as Ascension and Thunderstone. Just as two very different Reiner Knizia games can both be recognized as having common elements, these two Vaccarino games share a similar approach. They deserve to be judged on their own merits, though.

So, looking at its merits, different Kingdom Builder games do feel fairly different from each other. The presence of Stables, for example, which will let you jump one already-placed cube two spaces every turn drastically alters the strategy when it appears (the normal rules are strict about forcing you to play adjacent to your other pieces on the board, so the ability to move beyond that is huge), and scoring points based on spreading your pieces evenly around the quadrants of the board is very different from scoring based on majorities in each quadrant. Games last about 20 minutes, and the ideal strategies vary each time. While Kingdom Builder doesn’t feel like a completely unique game, it doesn’t quite feel like any other, either.

However, the game has some frustrating elements. For one thing, the terrain type you may play on is chosen by a card draw each round. While your “special” moves are generally not affected by that, it randomizes a major element of the gameplay. Also, this reverses the pattern of most games, in which players build up an engine and find themselves making their most powerful or point-gaining actions near the end. Instead, Kingdom Builder is usually won in the first few rounds, when players race to choose special powers and aren’t yet limited by having pieces on the board they must play adjacent to. If the game weren’t so short, either of these elements would be fatal to it. Fortunately, it’s the perfect length for its depth. Victories and good play still feel satisfying, but losses that were outside your control aren’t painful.

Pleasant but ephemeral, Kingdom Builder is a good game to own, but also not one that anyone should feel bad about skipping. It’s real worth will only be judged once the inevitable expansions are released. In this respect, Dominion comparisons are necessary again, because that game felt drastically different once a few expansions had opened up its possibilities. I’m unsure what to expect here. The potential of “place cubes on the terrain your card shows” doesn’t seem as broad as that of Dominion’s deck-building system, but Vaccarino has definitely earned the chance to prove himself. The only thing I can say for sure now is that this initial release of Kingdom Builder offers less variety than the initial release of Dominion did. With four of eight special buildings, and three of ten scoring rules, used every time, elements seem to repeat more often. No Kingdom Builder item yet changes the game as much as the most notable Dominion cards, and the most fundamental abilities (such as “play on an extra space of a given terrain”) feel less distinct than Dominion’s basic cards (such as “+2 cards, +1 action” versus “+1 card, +2 actions). My best guess is that Kingdom Builder will continue to be fun, but never essential.

Grade: B-

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.

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