Dominion: Crack rock in card form

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NATE WARREN
  • Nate Warren

I cannot imagine the circumstances under which I would tire of Dominion, the deck-building game that Donald X. Vaccarino debuted in 2008. There have been a ton of games since that used the new dynamic Vaccarino created to take deck-building in different directions, but I haven’t tried a single one of them because — even after four years — it’s satisfying and varied enough that I’m not inclined to look for further innovations.

“Crack rock in card form” is how I described it to some Fourth of July guests who I coaxed to the table late in the night. It was no hollow analogy. One of the guys I taught it to bought the base set and, like, three expansions the next day.

Dominion takes place in a medieval setting, but that means almost nothing to gameplay. You could just as well be getting cards with pictures of ice cream stands or nuclear warheads on them. The real juice is in the mechanics: Up to four players start with a few copper coins and beginning properties, then start dealing themselves hands from their modest starting decks. In the middle of the table is a set of 10 varying action cards, money and properties you can add to your deck. You buy cards that you think will keep your growing deck efficiently cycling and gaining wealth by the time the game ends — when any of the three piles of cards in the middle are exhausted.

Hardcore Dominion players talk about “engines”: combinations of cards whose synergy is used to blow out your opponents. You can go for lean deck strategies, attack strategies or big money strategies, but you can’t ever quite do it the same way twice because the supply of cards, each of which does something completely different, can be changed out every game.

There are 25 action cards with your base set — buy just one of the many expansions and you suddenly have thousands of possible game setups and strategies to try. We have the base set, plus the Intrigue and Prosperity expansions; we use a randomizer to draw action cards from each box to make a set, then it’s a race to see who can build a winning deck more efficiently, taking into account the unique interactions of the available cards.

The actions you take on your turn are wildly simple: Take any actions in your current hand, make a purchase with whatever gold is left, then scoop your used cards into your discard pile. As you run out of your draw pile, your discard pile gets folded in and you get to start seeing how well or poorly the new cards you bought synch with the ones you had before.

You need the highest count of green victory cards to win the game, but if you buy them early, you’re a sucker, because you’ll stall your hand out. The victory cards don’t do anything, so you’ve got to pick the right combination of action and gold cards to give yourself a strong deck when the “greening” starts. Greening is when people decide their hands are strong enough to absorb the victory cards and there's a frenzied rush to snatch them up.

The mechanics of Dominon are simple, but the strategy can get very deep. But, more than that, it’s a beautiful game to play. After you get the hang of basic strategy, you’ll know the rhythm of buying, discarding and reshuffling, and then the delight or disgust as your deck either stalls out or starts to build momentum and efficiency. You can feel the momentum like a force in the room, like a song to which only you can hear the notes. You’re constantly getting. Your deck is constantly changing. And when the game ends, you can test each other with the same supply or try a completely different combination of cards.

My name is Nate. I’m a Dominion addict, and will remain so for the foreseeable future.

Nate Warren is a Colorado Springs-based copywriter who offers both the veteran gamer and the uninitiated a local window into the burgeoning and wildly creative world of hobby and designer board games enjoyed by fanatics and connoisseurs — around the corner and and across the globe.

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