Review: Dominion: Intrigue

Dominion is a widely popular “deckbuilding” card game, so named because the fundamental game mechanic is choosing cards to put into your deck and then playing them. It captures a taste of the deckbuilding of “trading card games” (TCGs) or “collectible card games” (CCGs) such as Magic: The Gathering while being self-contained in a single box, playable in 30 minutes flat, and affordable without a second mortgage. (Dominion involves no booster packs or anything of the sort; it’s a self-contained box game albeit with expansions available.)

The premise is simple: in each game of Dominion, there are 10 (randomized) actions available to put into your deck, three kinds of “treasure” (used for buying other cards), and three kinds of victory point cards (which are the only cards that matter when figuring out who won the game at the end, but until the end of the game they are dead weight in your deck). On your turn, you can play one action card and then spend treasure cards to buy one new card. As the game progresses, your deck becomes larger with (hopefully) better cards and you are able to buy more expensive actions, treasure, or victory cards.

I’ve played Dominion probably a couple dozen times, but it was only just recently that I discovered I’ve been playing it wrong all along. My wife and I would usually buy a bunch of actions, trying to get synergy between them and neat combos. Sometimes my wife would cycle through practically her whole deck, drawing cards and getting more actions and chaining things together. Then recently we had some friends over to play Dominion and one of them, ostensibly because she couldn’t choose from all the many actions available, bought nothing but treasure and then bought the expensive “Province” victory cards which gain the most points whenever she could afford it. In this way, she utterly destroyed the rest of us – the game wasn’t even close.

After that startling experience, I wondered if it was just a freak occurrence or if there was something to this strategy so I decided to try it out against my wife. I even told her ahead of time exactly what I was going to do so that she could effectively counter it. So for four games straight, I bought nothing but treasure (and maybe one action card), bought a Province whenever I could afford it, and won handily every single time. These massacres took maybe 15 to 20 minutes compared to our 45-minute average before the epiphany.

At that point we both wondered whether there was something broken about the game, and I went hunting for tips online. That’s when I discovered that apparently only noobs play Dominion the way we previously did. Supposedly there are three stages to Dominion players:

  1. Look at all the shiny action cards! Buy them all!
  2. Wait…buying nothing but money, provinces, and the occasional duchy always beats the action cards! (Also known as “big money” strategy.)
  3. “Big money” plus one good action card beats “big money”!

We never progressed beyond stage 1, and Dominion was certainly not on my list of favorite games. I was always willing to play it, but I’d virtually never suggest it because games just dragged on – I thought the 30 minute playing time on the box was a joke (like most playtime estimates on board game boxes).

I was afraid that “big money” might ruin Dominion for us, but I actually like the game better now. Shiny-action mode simply takes too long to play and the game outstays its welcome. Big money is snappy and makes you think hard about which actions you’re going to add, also reacting tightly to what your opponent does. I almost wish the rulebook would include guidance, something along the lines of “hey, I know all these actions look great and fun and all, but really you should completely ignore them and just buy money and provinces until you know what you’re doing. Trust me.”

Dominion: Intrigue is a standalone expansion which you can play with the base game or by itself. I like Intrigue better than the original because it has more interesting possibilities for player interaction, but with that said, I haven’t yet replayed the original since having the big money epiphany.

All flavors of Dominion remain in good standing among our household.

Verdict: Thumbs up!

The 10×10 Hardcore Challenge

On January 2d of this year I committed myself (and, incidentally, those who are unfortunate enough to play board games with me) to a “10×10 hardcore challenge”. This was an idea I saw on BoardGameGeek, and as our gaming had waned somewhat, I thought it would be a good way to motivate us to make it more of a priority again. This proved true, and I successfully completed the challenge last Saturday on November 19th.

As a side note, gaming is like many other enjoyable things in that the more you do it, the more you want to do it. Once you are in the habit of doing a thing, it becomes much easier to continue doing it. There are likely useful life lessons to be drawn from this, but I will refrain from doing so here.

The games we played were:

One of the interesting things arising from the challenge is that prior to this, we would rarely play a game more than a few times in a row. Nothing about the challenge technically compelled us to play the same game all in a row, but in several cases (notably Wiz-War, Eclipse, XCOM, and Quantum) we did just that (over the course of weeks/months). This had the effect of revealing strategies in gameplay or even virtues of the game which would not otherwise have been apparent. In particular, I was not originally a fan of Quantum, but I recognized it had enough merit to make it worth trying out. It wasn’t until the sixth or seventh play that I discovered some additional strategic depth beyond that which was immediately apparent (to me, at least). I don’t think this means I’ll be inclined to give every game almost a dozen plays before passing judgement, but I certainly will be more open to diving into repeated plays of a game rather than sampling one of everything from the game closet buffet.

As the challenge progressed, we discussed whether each game was good enough to remain in the collection. A couple of games we had never (or hardly) played before the challenge – XCOM and Mage Knight. Quantum also only had a couple of plays before the challenge. Some I feared might fall apart after repeated play – such as Kingdom Builder.

Ultimately, only one board game definitely got booted from the collection following the challenge, and although I was firm enough in my resolve that I didn’t need any confirmation from my gaming colleagues, I think the decision was unanimous. But rather than simply spoil the surprise right here, I decided to take the effort to write a review of each of these games individually. Look for them in the coming posts!

As for whether I’ll do another challenge – I doubt it. Or at least, I won’t do another hardcore challenge where I pick all the games of the year ahead of time. I still think there’s some value to picking a game and saying “we’re going to commit to playing this X number of times unless we end up completely hating it”. Some games take some time to shine, and you may be surprised at the depth (or occasionally lack of depth) you discover if you play a game repeatedly within a short period of time.