Critical Play: Dominion or Dominance?

Designer: Donald X. Vaccarino

Publisher: Rio Grande Games

Platforms: Board Game, Online (Web)

Audience: All ages, though 13+ recommended because of some game mechanic complexity. People who like games involving deck-building and resource management that have less social or adversarial interactions.

Dominion is a deck-building game in which players are trying to earn cards worth victory points. Every player starts out with the same deck, generally seven money cards and three victory point cards. Each turn, they draw five cards and can play an action card and buy a card from the market; a common pool of action, victory, and money cards. Action cards enable a player to do a variety of things, which include drawing more cards from their deck, getting more money to spend that turn, and playing more action cards.

The game uses the transitive relationship between the cost of buying a card and its value or effects as a means of balance. Cards that enable more actions or draw cost more to purchase from the market. Additionally, players need to buy victory cards to win the game, but those victory cards mostly do not have any other use, action, money, or otherwise, so they dilute the strength of a deck. Though this does create a catch-up mechanic that results in players with fewer victory cards to have better hands, the fun in this game generally falls prey to dominant strategy. The market and its variety of action card choices appears to give off the sense of “fruitiness” in the form of a multitude of possible strategies and deck compositions; however, there is usually an optimal approach to which cards one should purchase and in what order. The aesthetic of challenge or discovery are created by this dynamic, but this only lasts until the mid-game, at which point the best strategy becomes apparent, and the player who discovered it is basically playing on auto-pilot until the game concludes and they win.

The problem in this game is that death doesn’t come soon enough for the other “sub-optimal” players. The winning player has made great decisions and calculations that have led to their victory, but a non-trivial amount of the game for the others is spent playing copy-cat with the leading player’s deck until the game is over. Once the best strategy emerges, it’s generally too late for other players to catch up. One possible improvement is to reduce the amount of each action card available in the market, and increase the number of unique action cards. The limit on the number cards that contribute to a dominant strategy will reduce its effectiveness, making others more viable, and the addition of different actions will enable more strategies to emerge.

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