Eleven Game Changers: Dominion

This is the ninth edition of my Eleven Game Changers series, where I’ve been looking specifically at games that sparked some kind of huge change in the industry at large. So far, we’ve covered:

  1. Acquire (1964)
  2. Dungeons & Dragons (1974)
  3. Cosmic Encounter (1977)
  4. Civilization (1980)
  5. Magic: The Gathering (1993)
  6. The Settlers of Catan (1995)
  7. Kingsburg (2007)
  8. Pandemic (2008)

This month, we’re going to look at the game that basically invented deck-building as a genre. That game, of course, was…

image by BGG user monteslu

Dominion was published by Rio Grande Games in 2008, and was the first game designed by Donald X. Vaccarino. It’s a 2-4 player game where players are land owners trying to build their respective dominions. The theme isn’t much, but the game is notable for being the first one to incorporate deck-building into a full game, and the game that established deck-building as an in-game mechanism.

Deck-building has been around for a while. It has its roots in Collectible Card Games like Magic: The Gathering, where players acquire a bunch of cards and organize them into a deck before they actually play with them. CCGs often have very strict rules for how you can build a deck – how many cards you can have, how many copies of a single card you can have, how many card types you can have, and so on.

According to The Secret History of Dominion, Vaccarino came up with the idea for Dominion in 2006 when a game he was working on was proving to be much too difficult. The  idea was to take the concept of deck-building and make it into an entire game. After a lot of success playtesting, he showed the game to Jay Tummelson of Rio Grande Games, who decided to take a look at it. The game was further developed, and officially released at Spiel in 2008.

The game was an instant success, rocketing up the BGG charts to #6 by January of 2009. It even won the Spiel des Jahres in 2009, beating out other games like Pandemic. Its first expansion, Intrigue, was released at Origins 2009, and its second, Seaside, came out at Spiel 2009. After that, we got Alchemy and Prosperity in 2010; Cornucopia and Hinterlands in 2011; Dark Ages in 2012; and Guilds in 2013. And with Guilds, Dominion was complete. There were no more expansions coming.

Which is what we were told, and it turned out to be a lie. Adventures came out in 2015, Empires in 2016, Nocturne in 2017, and Renaissance in 2018. Plus, a second edition of the original Dominion and Intrigue came out in 2016. So who knows how much more we’ll see going forward.

Dominion comes with 500 cards. This includes currency (Copper, Silver, Gold), Victory Points (Estates, Duchies, Provinces), and ten copies of each of 25 Kingdom Cards (well, there are 12 of the Gardens). At the start of each game, you choose ten Kingdom cards to include. This can be done randomly, or through a predetermined set up. Each player gets a starting deck of 7 Coppers (worth 1 money each) and 3 Estates (worth 1 victory point each). Shuffle that up, and draw five cards as your starting hand.

Your turn is best described as ABC: Action, Buy, Clean up. For Action, you play a card and take the action indicated – this is typically draw another card, take more actions, gain more buys, or gain more money for this turn’s buys. There aren’t any actions in your hand at the start, so you will have to use your Buy action to get the Kingdom cards that will give them to you. For this, reveal any money from your hand and buy something costs up to the amount you have. You can typically only buy card, but previously paid actions could allow you to buy more. In the Clean Up phase, you discard all cards in your hand, as well as all cards you played and cards you acquired, then draw a new hand of five. If you don’t have enough cards in your deck, shuffle the discards and keep drawing.

The main goal of the game is to get Victory Points. In the base game, VP cards that you purchase don’t do anything else. So when they show up in your hand, they’re pretty much just dead weight. So you don’t want to buy too many too quickly, but you also don’t want to let other people get them all before you get a chance. The game ends immediately when three different stacks of cards have been emptied, or when the Provinces (which are the highest scoring cards) all disappear. The player who has the highest score wins.

image by BGG user Filippos

The furor when this game came out was kind of astounding. I had only been in the hobby for a year, and I didn’t know exactly how rare it was for something this revolutionarily new to come about was. As mentioned, Donald X. did not invent deck-building, but he was the first to create an entire game around it, and people were spellbound. The variety in the base box was amazing, and the new expansions kept adding more and more content, including new mechanisms (like cards that can stay in play between turns, as introduced in Seaside). It didn’t take long before other games started appearing – games like Arctic Scavengers and Thunderstone took the game format and tried to add more of a theme. Then Ascension came along and changed the format so that there was a random row of cards to draft from. Other games changed the presentation material – Puzzle Strike changed it to chips, Quarriors changed it to dice.

Eventually, deck-building evolved into a mechanism in the designer’s toolkit that could be used as a part of the whole. Games like Mage Knight: The Board Game, Lewis & Clark, and Great Western Trail are not deck-building games, but all use deck-building as an element. The mechanism has proved to be very versatile, and embraced within the Euro and American-style gaming communities.

And it all goes back to Dominion. Critics complain that the game is multi-player solitaire (it totally is not), and that the lack of theme makes the game less enjoyable than it should be. But the game has endured, and remains (I think) the best pure deck-builder on the market. Dominion was definitely a Game Changer.

Only two more of these to go – find out what the next one is in October, and see how the whole series wraps up in November. But between now and then, there’s plenty more content coming, including the Boards and Bees Ninth Anniversary Celebration! Thanks for reading!

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