Dissecting Dominion, Part One: The Original Game

DominionBy now I’ve written a pretty extensive series of articles on deckbuilding games. In doing so I’ve always compared the games to Dominion — but I’ve never rally looked closely at the mechanics of Dominion on their own.

So this week — partially in honor of the 73rd Dominion supplement, Dark Ages — I’m going to consider Dominion as it was presented in the original release, talk about its mechanics, and also give my opinions on how central those mechanics are to the deckbuilding genre as a whole.

The Real Basics

A Deck of Cards: Since Dominion is a (the) deckbuilding game, you need to start off with a deck of cards. Or, to be more precise, a personal deck of cards. I think this has to be one of the core definitions of deckbuilding in general, because without it … well you’d have something-else-building games.

The idea that all players start the game with the same decks is, however, a basic idea from Dominion that doesn’t have to be the case in all deckbuilding games (but usually is).

A Hand of Cards: You start out each turn of Dominion with a small number of cards in your hand — typically, 5. Again, I think the idea of  having a hand of cards is crucial to the definition of deckbuilding, because buying new cards, placing them into your deck, then having them reappear in a randomized way is pretty much the heart of the genre. Certainly, other games allow the occasional card to be left out after it’s played (Dominion: Seaside) or even to enter play already out (Eminent Domain), but those are pretty small variants of the main idea.

I will say that I’m pretty surprised that most games have stuck with hand sizes of either 5 or 6. It seems to me like there’s more opportunity for variety here, but the only notable change that we’ve seen is that games with higher requirements for cards working together have typically allowed a one larger handsize (e.g., 6). The one exception I’m aware of is Pergamemnon which has a hand size of 3.

Buying the Cards

Sets of Cards Available for Purchase: In Dominion you always have 10 sets of “special” cards available for purchase, plus at least 3 sets of victory points and 3 sets of currency. This strikes me as a pretty basic rule, sure, but I think it’s a pretty specific way to support the deckbuilding genre. It’s certainly not required and I’m somewhat surprised that early on so many games exactly mimicked it (Resident EvilPenny Arcadeeven Quarriors).

The most obvious variant is to make some sets of cards only available to certain players (Nightfall). However, you can also go much further afield, say by having cards totally randomized rather than being available in sets (Ascension).

Available Card Sets Are Randomized: In the modern day, the sets of cards that are available for purchase in Dominion are randomized, but this clearly wasn’t the original intent — as the “randomizer” cards were originally meant to be “placeholders”, showing when a set of cards was gone. Nonetheless, the idea is pretty ingrained in modern Dominion play; I even know some people who refuse to use the pre-configured configurations of kingdoms suggested in each set of rules. Which I think is kind of a pity, as pre-selected kingdoms can offer better interactions and can even suggest “scenarios” for play.

Cards Are Purchased: Even the fact that you have to purchase cards for some set price is a preconception from Dominion that doesn’t have to be the case in other deckbuilders — despite the fact that almost every deckbuilder has gone this way. A Few Acres of Snow is a rare exception that lets you win cards by taking over locations. I’m surprised more folks haven’t considered other ways to gain cards or even offered costless card “purchases” (e.g., you could easily just say “take one card and add it to your deck each turn”).

Playing the Cards

Cards Are Fully Discarded Each Turn: At the end of each turn of Dominion, you toss out your hand of cards and draw a new one. This certainly feels like it goes to the core idea of deckbuilding to me, because it’s about making the randomness of the deck work for you within the confines of a smaller hand of cards.

However, other games have clearly proven that this isn’t actually a requirement. You can instead add ways to refine your hand, like selective discarding (Eminent Domain) or selective storage (A Few Acres of Snow) without breaking the core conceits of the deckbuilding genre. Heck, you can even make it harder to manage hands, say by making discarding cards into a cost (A Few Acres of Snow) if you want to push things in the opposite direction.

Not Even Close to Core Mechanics

I was somewhat surprised by how some of the early deckbuilders considered ideas like “one buy”, “one action”, and even “one currency” to be core mechanics of the deckbuilder genre. That’s what makes a game like Tanto Cuore look like such a pale reflection of Dominion: they got confused about what was core to the deckbuilding genre and what was specific to Dominion and just copied it all.

And I might have gotten confused in this article; if there’s anything that you think isn’t actually core to deckbuilding or anything that I altogether missed I’d love to hear about it.

I’m going to to have one or two more articles about Dominion in the future, looking at how the different supplements have really  expanded the gameplay, but in upcoming weeks I first expect to offer some more discussion of Alea of a look at yet-another deckbuilding game.


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11 thoughts on “Dissecting Dominion, Part One: The Original Game

  1. Mage Knight gives you cards when you level up or when you conquer certain structures. Buying is an option but you can play a game without ever buying a card.
    Eminent Domain gives you a card every turn and you can buy technology cards with the tech ability.
    I just wanted to point out that there are more games out there that don’t incorporate buying cards as a core mechanic.

    Furthermore great review, i’m looking forward to the next articles.

  2. Gah! WordPress lost my comments, I’ll try to summarize:

    1) I much prefer a set group of 10 or so cards to purchase throughout the game rather than randomly appearing cards to purchase (Ascension.) The former lets me plan long-term strategy while the latter allows only tactical decisions… I play deckbuilders in part to enjoy how my cards interact and a more random process limits how often and how well I can get my cards to interact.

    2) You failed to mention deck size (could be coming later…) Some games start with fewer or more cards in a deck and certain games tend towards very large (or small) decks by the end of the game as well…. Nightfall starts with the standard 12 cards or so, but since they are removed from the deck after playing it is essentially a very small starting deck. (I’ve played in multiplayer games where I’ve run out of cards so fast I barely had a full hand to draw…) In games like Mage Knight: The Board Game, players start with 10 or so cards, but only gain them extremely slowly so that by the end players will often still have very small decks. Contrast this with Eminent Domain where players will typically end up with a much larger deck at the end of the game (unless a slim-deck strategy is heavily pursued…)

    • Initial deck size is certainly a good addition. It seems to have become almost gospel that you should have two turns worth of cards at the start of the game.

      Ending deck size does seem like an interesting measure of how a game plays …

  3. Of all the deck-builders out there, I find Nightfall to be the one standing out with the most elegant mechanics: the private archives, the way starter minions exile themselves, the chaining which reduces downtime between player turns, and keeps you active every step of the game.

    Great overview, looking forward for more!

    • Nightfall’s big hindrance is it’s direct player conflict which causes it to lapse into a kingmaking game with more than 2 players. Unfortunately, I feel the game runs much better with 3 or 4 players… thus it is only for those willing to accept the “kingmaking” danger/aspect of the game.

      Otherwise, I have to agree with the elegance of it. (Although I think Dominion still has a lot of that going for it, and nearly any deckbuilder I’ve seen that tries to copy the Dominion elegance/simplicity “with a twist” would have been better off without the “twist”…)

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  6. This is an outstanding article. Well done!

    I think another fundamental characteristic of deck-building games is that they are essentially positive feedback systems. The output of the deck amplifies the subsequent output of the deck as the deck gets cycled. I wrote an article on feedback loops and game design if you want more detail: http://hyperbolegames.com/tag/game-loop/

    My own game, Salmon Run, utilizes deck-building in a unique way. Being a racing game, you don’t purchase cards but instead add (or remove) cards by moving to special spaces. The deck-building is therefore path-dependent. Also cards not used in your hand are kept for the next turn. Available card sets are randomized by which modular boards are used.

    I look forward to your next article.

  7. The base set of Tanto Cuore is basically Dominion 1.5 with maids. It only gets the 0.5 attachment due to the chambermaiding mechanic, which was new at the time, and the addition of unique cards (private maids). The base set selection of cards is a bit small compared to base Dominion, though. The later additions (Expanding the House and Romantic Vacation) do add a bit, however, with more basic maid cards and the addition of buildings and reminiscences – the latter being VP cards with a one-time super-ability that can only be purchased by discarding cards of the correct costs instead of using “love” (currency). That one mechanic mades a difference as your early game maids that have become useless can become useful again. Base Tanto is more or less just a straight knockoff of Dominion with one or two tweaks, but the expansions change it up a bit.

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