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!

Links in the preceding entry, if any, may include referral codes. These generally have the effect of tossing a few coins into my purse if you purchase something after clicking the link. If you find this practice to be a morally reprehensible case of corporate shillery (and I don't blame you if you do), or if you otherwise find the idea of supporting my blogging efforts to be distasteful (a similarly reasonable stance), then I cordially invite you to refrain from clicking any such links.