By 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 Evil, Penny Arcade, even 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.