Good God. Join me as we plough into uncharted waters – the third installment of a series of themed posts.
There are a bunch of games in this list that make me laugh. There are games with evocatative themes that fire the imagination. There are some games with gorgeous art and wonderful components that are just beautiful things in and of themselves.
Dominion cares not for these things.
Dominion’s pretty po-faced. Nominally you’re a noble trying to expand your fief faster than your neighbours can expand theirs but in practical terms it’s basically got no theme at all. It’s just a bunch of cards and tokens whose illustrations swing wildly between really rather nice and eye-shatteringly hideous. It’s probably one of my five favourite games that I own.
Part of the reason I think so highly of Dominion is that the game is sheer elegance in its diabolic simplicity. Each player starts the game with a deck of seven “Copper” cards, which are used for nothing other than buying new cards, and three “Estates” which give a single victory point apiece. Each turn you’re allowed to play any one action card that you’ve bought from a selection of ten that are available. You can then buy one card with a combination of whatever money the action card might have given you plus any money cards in your hand. That done, you take any cards you’ve bought, plus any cards you’ve played and any cards left in your hand and discard them, drawing five new cards from the deck. If you don’t have enough cards left in your deck to draw five, you draw what you can then reshuffle your discards to form a new deck. This continues until all the availalble 6-victory-point Province cards have been bought or else any three supply piles of cards are empty, at which point the game ends and whoever’s got the most victory points in their deck wins. That’s it. You now know everything you need to sit down and play Dominion. That’s the whole game.
Well OK, it’s kind of the game. The proverbial’s in the details and so forth.
The action cards that I breezed over are kind of where the game lives. Each game starts by laying out ten piles of ten identical cards from a possible selection of anywhere between thirty different piles (if you’ve only got the Dominion base set) and about 150 different piles (if you’ve bought all the expansions and are thus forced to store Dominion in something roughly the size of a coffin). So there are roughly SEVEN SQUILLION possible combinations of 10 supply card piles that could be available at the start of a game, meaning that to all intents and purposes you never need to play the same game of Dominion twice. Assessing the available cards and working out how best to synergise your deck is the bulk of Dominion’s challenge. Are you going to grab Villages (which let you play extra action cards) and Smithies (which draw more cards into you hand) to construct something that will eventually let you draw your entire deck every turn but will take a while to get running? Are you going to buy attack cards which screw with your opponent’s hand or insert unwanted cards into his deck? Are you going to get trashers to clear the dreck out of your deck and leave it purring like a rectangular cardstock Ferrari? Are you going to nick that great combo that one of your opponents has just played? Assessing the available cards, sussing out a strategy and then working out on the fly how it needs to change in reaction to what the rest of the table is up to is just such a satisfying intellectual challenge that I’m yet to tire of it despite umpty-thrumpty kajillion online games.
But there’s more! To win the game you need victory points. To get victory points, you (mostly) need to buy victory cards. But those victory cards don’t (usually) do anything for you. They’re just ballast, clogging your hand and weighing down your deck. So you have to perfectly judge the right moment to stop improving your deck with more money and/or actions and start getting the points you actually need to win. Go too soon and the victory cards will gum up the works of the sleek, beautiful economic engine you’ve built until the whole deck grinds to a shuddering halt and the tortoises around the rest of the table come trudging past your exhausted hare. Go too late and the game might be over before you can make your deck’s superior efficiency count. It’s such a brilliant bit of design and it turns Dominion from being a game where you’re purely concerned with optimising your own play into one where you have to be watching exactly what your opponents are up to so that you’re ready to react if and when the endgame starts unexpectedly.
Dominion is one of the few games that I love on an almost purely cerebral level. It’s more austere and detached than most games that really speak to me, but it’s so elegant and smart that that’s a feature not a bug. I don’t get it to the table as much as I’d like because though Dominion can play up to 6 every player past the third kind of detracts from the game, plus at least one of my regular group really doesn’t care for it. But Dominion is in the very small group of games that I would literally play at any time with anyone, and just writing this post has given me a hankering to fire up the iPad for a quick chukka or two.