Eminent Domain was one of the many deckbuilding games that was released in 2011. However, it really stood out in the field, as it was one of just two games that totally innovated how deckbuilding worked (the other being dicebuilder, Quarriors).
All of the deckbuilder games to date have treated deckbuilding as a genre of games — that is, they all use deckbuilding as the sole focus of a game. Beyond that, they tend to use many of the core ideas from the first deckbuilder, Dominion, including buys, draws, actions, and money. Eminent Domain is the first game that I’ve seen that steps widely away from those concepts, by instead treating deckbuilding as a mechanic. Sure, you find deckbuilding concepts in Eminent Domain, but they’re not the core of the game, which has just as strong of a focus on role selection, and which even wanders into 4X territory (well, maybe 3X: eXplore, eXpand, and eXploit).
In Eminent Domain you’re generally trying to find planets (through Survey), take them over (through Colonize or Warfare), and then use those planets to either create and sell resources (through Production and Trade) or else to build up your technology (through Research). And, that’s the first place in which Eminent Domain deviates from standard deckbuilders: the majority of your deck will consist of just those six cards. You don’t even lay out a special and differing tableau: every game is the same.
Mechanically, you start each round by playing a card from your hand for its power, which feels a lot like a typical deckbuilding play. But then you “take a role”, which means that you take a card from the (standardized) tableau in the center of the table to use its effect. There’s no need to have the card in your hand! Instead, you’re taking an action that you’d typically find in a game like Puerto Rico — you’re selecting a common role from the middle of the table. (Afterward, things again move over to the deckbuilder side of things, as you can boost your role — making it more powerful — by playing additional copies of the same card from your hand.)
When you select a role, your opponents can choose to “follow” by playing the same type of cards from their hands. However, sometimes your opponents follow-up actions are less powerful than your own, which is another nod toward role-selection mechanics. These very interactive player turns are almost unique in the deckbuilding world, with Nightfall being the only game I’ve aware of that similarly allows other players to play cards based on what you did.
If I had to guess, I’d say Eminent Domain was at least as influenced by the role-selection game Glory to Rome as by anything in the deckbuilding world.
For additional information on how Eminent Domain works, you should read my review of the game.
Eminent Domain isn’t just unique & innovative; it’s also a good deckbuilding game. Personally, I like my deckbuilding games to be fast and to keep me constantly involved. Eminent Domain does these things, and thus it’s probably my third most played deckbuilding game (following Dominion and Ascension).
Here’s specific innovations that I think are quite good:
A New Direction for Design. Eminent Domain proves that you can make a game that involves deckbuilding but that doesn’t have all the standard tropes, such as: a changing tableau of cards; the ability to purchase them for a cost; the ability to play some cards for actions; etc. Instead, you can make deckbuilding as big or as small a part of a game as you want. It’s just another tool in the toolkit. Generally, I expect the fad of deckbuilding games to peak soon. As it declines, I hope designers will remember that they can use the mechanic elsewhere.
Brilliant Use of Deckbuilding as an Output. What may not be obvious from my earlier description is that in Eminent Domain you can build a deck as a side-effect, rather than having deckbuilding be your prime action. For example, I might really want to Survey as a role, to discover a new planet. Taking the role and thus getting a new planet is the main purpose of my turn. However, as a side effect, I get a Survey card added to my deck. This could be desired (because it makes it easier for me to follow in later turns when someone else is Surveying), but it also could muddy my deck. In fact it’s common to have situations in Eminent Domain where taking the best action and building the best deck are in direct conflict with each other. This makes the tactics and strategy of the game alike more interesting.
Players More Constantly Involved. The vast majority of deckbuilding games have players take their turns one at a time, with players just watching their opponents go. With the exception of occasional attacks, interactivity is quite low. Eminent Domain instead has players not only paying attention at all times, but also making meaningful decisions as they determine whether to follow each player’s action or instead dissent.
(Nightfall did something similar, but I fell like Eminent Domain was able to polish up the mechanic better, as you rarely run out of cards just from following in Eminent Domain, and that was often a real possibility in Nightfall.)
Additional Uses for Cards. Some deckbuilding games have kept cards permanently out on the table — though it’s pretty rare — but there’s been little attempt to make other uses of cards in deckbuilding games. Eminent Domain was able to do so, I think, because of its general breaking away from deckbuilding conventions. More specifically, Eminent Domain has a large deck of planet cards which you’ll draw from over the course of the game (as you Survey) which are nothing like the action cards that make up most of the game.
Can Keep Cards. Almost every deckbuilding game uses the same basic card ecology as Dominion: after you finish a turn, you discard all of your remaining cards, then draw back to a full hand. Eminent Domain instead makes a small change that I find pretty clever: it allows you to discard what you want at the end of a round, then lets you draw back up to a full hand size. This could undercut some of the core strengths of deckbuilding, as you can get by with a worse deck by careful management of your hand from round to round — but it also allows for a new strategic element of card management.
Card Draws Are a Widely Used Resource. From that start, deckbuilding games have understood card draws to be a resource. That’s why they’re a regular element of many card powers. However, Eminent Domain goes further than most by making this resource available in a variety of places — not just as powers on cards. For example, whenever you don’t follow the role of a player, you instead draw a card for dissenting. Your hand size can also be increased permanently by certain planets (effectively giving you another draw every turn).
I don’t find a lot to dislike in Eminent Domain, but here are a few issues:
Play is More Limited. Because you only have six types of cards, and because you don’t choose different tableaus for different games, Eminent Domain is innately more limited in its replayability than a traditional deckbuilder. You can vary your decks a little through technology (which adds more varied cards to your deck that still have some of the standard six powers), but they’re never more than a small percentage of what you have. Still, that hasn’t stopped me logging 9 pages of Eminent Domain since I first played it last year (compared to 14 total Ascension plays and 94 total Dominion plays).
Follow the Leader. As with many role-selection games, you do best when you can take advantage of the roles other players will be taking. This means you often need to mimic the deck construction of other players — to some extent. For example, if everyone is getting on the Warfare bandwagon, you want to have enough cards to do so too, while if no one is doing Production and Trade, you don’t want to be the only person trying to deal in resources. This all can decrease the feel of following your own strategy.
Some Questions of Balance. Generally, I’ve found that taking over planets and researching technology tend to net the most points, while production and trading don’t seem to do well. There’s certainly an element of group think here, but after 9 plays I’d be pretty resistant to getting heavily into goods unless lots of other people were too.
Silly Name. I dunno what the government taking away property from private citizens has to do with this 4X-ish deckbuilder-ish game. I sometimes think of it as Manifest Destiny, which I think would have been a much better name.
(I’ll also note that at least the first two of these issues are solely results of the decision to release Eminent Domain as a hybrid deckbuilder/role-selection game. In other words, they’re implicit to the game and thus not exactly problems, but instead things you should be aware of.)
The first time I played Eminent Domain, I thought “that’s not going to be very replayable”, comparing it to games like Dominion. Almost a year later, Eminent Domain is edging into my top-50-games of all time, playwise, and I realize that I was judging it by an unfair criteria. Not every game has to be as replayable as Dominion. I only thought that Eminent Domain should be because it uses similar mechanics. However, what it’s actually doing is applying those mechanics to whole other dominions of gaming.
I don’t know why no one else has done the same, almost a year later.
Generally, I think that Eminent Domain will appeal to people who like fast-playing euros, especially those fond of role-selection games like Puerto Rico, San Juan, Race for the Galaxy and (especially) Glory to Rome.